What Is Compersion?

c. scott brown compersion

1149 words  |  7 minute read

When I tell men about my non-monogamous relationships they usually all say, “Woah, that’s awesome!” immediately. Then they usually ask a clarifying question, just to make sure they heard me right: “So you have a girlfriend and she’s cool with you banging other chicks? And you have threesomes? And you go to sex parties?” And I say yes, yes, and yes. Then they smile and think to themselves about how awesome that is, and then their face goes white. “But…does that also mean that she has sex with other dudes?” I of course say, “Yes. After all, that’s only fair.” Then all the excitement of the thought of it drains from them and they say, “No way man, I couldn’t do that.”

I don’t want you to think that’s how the conversation goes with all men but it certainly goes that way with most of them. They are so pumped on it until they find out that if they were to try it they would have to support their girlfriends having sex with other men, and how could they ever do that? Their jealousy is way too potent of a force to enable them to be OK with their girlfriend having outside sexual experiences much less actually be happy about it. That concept, the idea of supporting your partner(s) in their other relationships within a non-monogamous structure, is called “compersion”. What is compersion? Here’s the definition:

Compersion: an empathetic state of happiness and joy experienced when another individual experiences happiness and joy

You can have compersion for your children, for your friends, for your family, for your co-workers, for anyone, really. Anytime you are genuinely happy and supportive of someone else being happy and successful, even when you have zero or possibly even negative benefit from that happiness, you are showing them compersion. However, the interesting thing about the word compersion is where it came from: it was completely invented by the polyamorous community. Even now as I’m typing this out in Microsoft Word, there is a red squiggly line underneath compersion every time I write it, the software’s way of telling me that it’s a word spell-check doesn’t recognize. Isn’t that interesting? Until the polyamorous community came along there was no simple word to describe the idea of being happy for other people when they are happy. There’s a word for the opposite of that, though: jealousy. Compersion is the opposite of jealousy.

The story goes that a polyamorous commune in San Francisco during the 70’s was one of the first large groups of people to embrace the concept of polyfidelity and start actually examining it as a realistic way of doing things. They broke a lot of new ground for non-monogamy and coined a lot of different terms, and the word “compersion” was one of them (“compersive” is the verb tense, i.e. “Please be compersive towards my life”). I find it to be completely fascinating that it’s been less than 50 years since a word was created in the English language for the opposite of jealousy, a word that’s been around for thousands of years. It’s just further proof that humanity is much more concerned with being jealous of everything around them than being compersive.

I don’t find it hard at all to be compersive towards my partners when it comes to their outside relationships. I want to see them be happy, and if having sex with someone else is going to make them happy in any way, then I support that. Even if I was jealous of them in some way or felt threatened by their outside sexual experiences I would simply look in the mirror and stop myself from feeling that way because being compersive towards them is the right thing to do. Non-monogamy may not be your thing but I think we can all agree that the support of the people we love doing the things that make them happy is fundamentally the right thing for all of us to do all the time, even when it comes to things that don’t make us comfortable.

But I’m not trying to belittle the difficulty compersion presents. Jealousy is a learned trait, one that is taught from a very early age in many different ways all around us, and unlearning is not easy. There’s no doubt that it’s something you must do a degree of work to achieve, but why in the world wouldn’t you want to make it happen? After all, how close can you really be with your partners/friends/family members/etc. if you can’t be genuinely happy for them when they achieve happiness?

Take this simple example: a girl gets upset when her boyfriend goes out with his friends for “guys’ nite”. It happens once every two weeks and he’s out super late and comes home tired and kind of drunk and passes out on the couch. He doesn’t have a drinking problem, he is attentive to her needs at all other times, there’s always a designated driver, and he never strays from the relationship in any way while he’s out. He just likes going out and getting rowdy with his boys once in a while. If she lets it be known loud and clear that this small thing that makes him very happy makes her upset and she doesn’t support it at all, how close and secure can either of them really feel with each other? He’ll feel like she doesn’t understand or support his desires and she’ll feel that he doesn’t understand her emotional needs. But if she was not only OK with guys’ nite but actually encouraged him to go out with his friends once every two weeks, possibly even going above and beyond by setting up the couch with a blanket for him and bringing him black coffee in the morning after without a hint of animosity, imagine how that would make him feel. Imagine how loved and supported and understood he would know he is. Imagine how good it would feel for the girlfriend to know how happy he is and how by simply supporting him she is a part of that happiness. And imagine how inclined he is going to be to support her in something that he might not otherwise, such as a girls’ nite or a bachelorette party or an expensive beauty routine or a vacation by herself or whatever. Compersion, even outside the non-monogamous structure, is the key to closeness with your partner.

Successful non-monogamous partners are not “OK” about the relationship structure. They don’t “tolerate” it. They love it. They support it wholeheartedly and want to do whatever they can (within limits, obviously) to make sure their partner gets what they want with the knowledge that they are going to do the same for them. It’s just that instead of “guys’ nite” it’s “have sex with another person”. That’s all it is, it’s that simple.

C. Scott Brown

I'm a freelance writer specializing in sex, relationships, politics, and social commentary. Visit me at https://cscottbrown.net/

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