26 Nov The Polyamorous Principle of Compersion
Compersion is the warm, enjoyable, and downright pleasurable feelings that we experience when our partners’ are cultivating good feelings with or from other people. The principal of compersion originates within consensual non-monogamous relationships (e.g., polyamory, swinging, open relationships, etc.). If we are thinking in binaries, compersion opposes jealousy and monogamous ideologies that are rooted in possessing, or “mate-guarding,” our partner’s affection for ourselves.
If one partner is experiencing jealousy in their relationship, we might describe them as being in pain from the perceived threat of their significant other receiving care from or giving attention to another person. With jealousy, there is a sense of entitlement over a partner (i.e., feeling that we are owed our partner’s attention) and a fear of loss due to comparing ourselves to another. Anthropologists suggest that jealousy may be present in all cultures, but that it varies in the amount and intensity across communities and seems to be most prevalent among cultures where there is strong or aggressive masculine pride, or patriarchal standards (Peluso, 2008).
Jealousy is most often known for leading to losses in affection, self-esteem and mistrust, as well as feelings of insecurity, anxiety, and rejection. For instance, in a recent study (Mogilski et al., 2019), the researchers found that when monogamous participants considered their partner as being involved with another person, they reported greater emotional distress than those who were consensually non-monogamous. Jealousy can create tones of possessiveness, aggression, and manipulation in a relationship and subjects all those involved to stress, and in more extreme cases, depression, abuse, suicide, and/or homicide (Harmon-Jones et al., 2009). So it’s no wonder that jealousy is one of the most common reasons that romantic and intimate relationships dissolve!
Some researchers suggest however, that there are benefits to milder forms of jealousy (Rathus, Nevid, Fichner-Rathus, McKay, 2015). From this perspective, jealousy may serve as a way to show how much we care for our partners. But we have to consider to what extent this might be. Are you feeling occasional self-doubts or are you feeling consumed by your fears and overly dependent on your partners?
None of this is to say that we should try our best to avoid jealousy or hide our experiences of jealousy from our partners. It’s quite the opposite. Consider instead that milder forms of jealousy may be a signal of care when we are feeling challenged with openly communicating the emotions we are experiencing in our romantic and intimate relationships. Rather than falling into the pits of jealousy, or supressing it completely, what if instead it could be tamed?
Enter compersion. Unfortunately, limited research exists on compersion, especially in comparison to jealousy. From what we do know, compersion is sensitive and empathetic to other people faring well or experiencing joy, and as a reflection of this, we feel positively of the situation too. Compersion is not the masochistic pleasure (i.e., enjoyment from emotions that are construed or socially constructed as “bad”), pride, or vicarious enjoyment. Rather, it requires learning to appreciate others’ as they flourish.
In order to tame jealousy, we must understand the more deeply rooted issues and unpack our underlying concerns, which are often related to the fact that we enjoy affection and we care about ourselves. Jealousy is a response to vulnerability, as other people shape how we engage and feel connected in our communities. Perhaps our attachments to those we view as sources of security, feel susceptible to instability. When we are attached to another person, we feel a great sense of pleasure and dependency. However, dependency can feel like a great risk, as it comes with the potential for harm and abandonment, as well as losses in terms of support, pleasurable companionship and connections, or our relational identity. Ultimately, dependency can feel as though it is destabilizing our self-concepts (i.e., our beliefs of ourselves and others).
Overcoming jealousy then, requires reflection and nurturance. We must reflect on social constructions of romantic ideals, like commitment, exclusivity, and competitive mating, and consider whether we would like to endorse these perspectives in our own relationships. This kind of reflection requires us to interrogate notions of power, social structures, identities and norms and to consider notions of consent and autonomy (i.e., the ability to make decisions for ourselves). We must too contemplate the ways in which we would like to communicate with our partners, and whether this consists of transparency, openness, accountability, and empathetic understanding for each other. Further, we should also reflect on our own expectations and boundaries. Ask yourself:
What do you want from a romantic relationship and why?
Are you bound to social standards or are you driven by your own personal desires?
Are you feeling too dependent on your partner?
Are you feeling insecure, and if so, what might be triggering these feelings and how could they be managed?
What affirmation are you looking for from your partner?
By doing this, you can begin to tame some of jealousy’s worst manifestations by slowly exposing yourself to new ideas and affirmations. Jealousy is fear-based, and therefore, thrives in silence and isolation. Try communicating these fears with others, practicing positive affirmations (e.g., “It’s okay to feel jealous”), and expressing love.
Written by: Jess Boulé, Pronouns: they, them, theirs / she, her, hers
Jess is our office strategist at Bliss Counselling. Jess is a Master’s graduate from the University of Guelph. During their degree, they focused on aging and end-of-life, communication, human sexuality, LGBTQI2S+ health, inclusive practice and policies, knowledge mobilization strategies, research methods, and program evaluation.