How to Wrap Your Head Around Compersion and Its Potentially Supercharged Effects
Male sexual jealousy is a fact of life, and frankly, hard to avoid. It’s the fistfight at the bar, the plot of the movie you’re watching, the guy in court for stalking his ex, the love song that touts possessiveness as romantic.
But it’s worth considering for a moment what things would be like if men weren’t, as a whole, intensely jealous.
What would our relationships, our flirtations or our love look like if men didn’t feel compelled to fight off other men? If seeing someone approach your wife, your girlfriend, your partner, your date or your crush didn’t lead to a triggering of your fight-or-flight reflex?
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It may come as a shock, but there’s actually a term for what that might look like. It’s called “compersion,” and it was coined during the late 20th century by French anthropologists to define a feeling of happiness that people can feel when seeing their partner getting sexual or romantic attention from others.
1. What Is Compersion?
“Compersion is both a complex and very simple thing,” says Kayla Lords, sexpert for JackandJillAdult.com. “In the most basic terms, it means being happy for your partner because they’re happy — specifically when they’re happy in another relationship or while spending time with another person. It’s a term most commonly used in polyamorous or ethically non-monogamous relationships.”
Yes, not only is it possible to be supportive of the person you love getting together with someone else, there’s a word for it, too.
While men often grow up being taught a version of love that’s based on possessiveness and control, the truth is that no romantic or sexual partner can give another person every single thing they need. You can’t be someone’s husband, best friend, chauffeur, cook, masseur, personal assistant, roommate, co-parent, interior designer, nurse, and so on; we have different people in our lives in part as an acknowledgement that no one person can be everything to someone else.
The same way you need friends you can talk with about non-relationship things, and family you can reminisce about the past with, your partner needs a variety of different things from different people. Rather than being weak, it’s healthy to acknowledge that you can’t always fulfill all of those needs — even those that are sexual or romantic.
In essence, compersion is the sexualized version of being thrilled when your significant other tells you about something good happening to them (think in a similar fashion to something like promotion at work, or simply having a nice night catching up with an old friend).
2. The Relationship Between Compersion and Polyamory
Consciousness of compersion is on the rise, and one of the main reasons for that is the normalizating and mainstreaming of polyamorous relationships over the past decade or so.
Without compersion, polyamory wouldn’t just be difficult — it would be deeply painful; every date or sexual encounter that your partner engages in would feel no different than cheating.
But being able to feel positively about your partner getting happiness from others is a huge step towards the kind of non-possessive love that genuine self-confidence can engender in a romantic or sexual context.
“Many people are able to feel compersion,” says Lords. “Specifically those who are comfortable and secure in their open or poly relationships. This could be people who’s relationship includes swinging, getting cucked or poly relationships where someone has a romantic and/or sexual relationship with multiple people.”
The core of this is the notion that your partner’s happiness isn’t something to fear just because it’s not directly linked to you.
It’s worth considering, for instance, how many otherwise functional relationships end because one partner needs something the other can’t give them, and rather than open things up, one or both people decide to break up. If your reaction to your partner kissing someone else and then coming back to you is one of anger or fear, that’s logical.
But if you can recognize (and feel comfortable with the idea) that you can give your partner something other people can’t, even if you can’t give them everything they need, an arrangement can be easily made that benefits both of you without pulling the plug on everything you’ve worked to build together.
3. The Relationship Between Compersion and Jealousy
If you still think compersion might be an idiotic concept, well, that might be a sign that you struggle with jealousy issues. That’s not intended as a slight, though, but rather as an acknowledgement that societal ideas about love and sex come pre-packaged with significant amounts of jealousy-based preconceptions.
Growing up, people of all genders tend to understand that love is wrapped up in possessiveness long before they ever actually feel romantic love. Being able to experience anything else is a bit of a miracle, so those who don’t shouldn’t beat themselves up about it.
“Compersion is most often not experienced by people who feel insecure in their relationships or for whom open or poly relationships aren’t a good fit,” says Lords. “Some people are fully monogamous and would feel hurt if their partner had a sexual or romantic relationship with someone else.”
That being said, there’s a middle ground when it comes to jealousy and compersion — a comfort with your partner’s potential attractiveness that’s rooted in your own self-confidence.
If you don’t believe that, watch the famed rapper-turned-actor Ice T discuss the way jealousy is a non-factor in his relationship with his wife, Coco Austin:
— Jenn Takahashi (@jenntakahashi) December 12, 2018
His model, that not being jealous is the more impressive, manly response to other men paying attention to your partner, is an interesting take on male jealousy that often gets left out of the narrative.
“Jealousy is often an indication of insecurity in a relationship — sometimes we don’t feel ‘good enough,’” says Jor-El Caraballo, a relationship therapist and co-creator of Viva Wellness. “If you let jealousy run your relationship, it’s likely it will only exacerbate those feelings of insecurity, chipping away at your self-esteem even more over time. This can make the jealousy worsen over time as well as your own confidence in your ability to be a balanced partner.”
Compersion, then, is the opposite — adding to the health of your relationship rather than chipping away at it; supporting your partner’s happiness on its own terms rather than prioritizing your wants to the exclusion of all else.
4. Can You Teach Yourself Compersion?
If you’re like most guys, you probably don’t feel much in the way of compersion right now, and the idea of ever feeling it might feel like an unlikely prospect. But it raises the question: Is a tendency to feel compersion innate, or is it possible to develop it over time?
“I don’t think you can teach yourself compersion, but you can grow into it,” says Lords. “If it’s not something that comes easily, it may simply require more time to trust the relationship you’re in and your partner, as well as the time it takes to learn that someone can love or like more than one person without it being a reflection on you as their partner.”
In that sense, the best thing you can do for yourself is to simply focus on the health of your relationship. What is it about your relationship with your partner, or your relationship with yourself, that leads you to feel jealous? Are there things you’re not saying, out of fear or insecurity? Is there something you or your partner could be doing to help foster an atmosphere of trust and confidence in the relationship?
Those might be questions that are easier to answer with the help of a professional, but regardless of whether you ever make it as far as feeling compersion, being able to lessen your sense of jealousy will only improve your relationship (or future relationships) going forward.
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