Why “Compersion” Should Not Be The Base Value Of Polyamory

“Compersion” is, basically, “I’m happy whenever my lover is happy.” If your partner’s out humping waterbuffalo, as long as he’s thrilled, so are you. It’s a nice state to be in, if you can manage it.

The problem is that people who experience this “compersion” hootenanny often use it as a sledgehammer to bash people who aren’t made entirely of cotton-candy good feelings. “If you don’t experience mirrored rapture at everything your lover does,” they cry, “Then you’re not really poly, are you? Because poly is about compersion!”

No. Polyamory is about trust.

You don’t always feel good about trust.

Look, when my daughter drove my car for the first time, I wasn’t thinking, “What glorious heavenly beauty that she’s finally gotten her driver’s license! I’m so thrilled for her new life!” No, I thought, Did she put her seatbelt on? That’s $13,000 of car I can’t afford to replace, I hope she doesn’t crash it. Oh God, the kid’s driving a three-ton hunk of metal at deadly speeds, please don’t let her kill anyone. Or herself.

Now, that flurry of prayers didn’t mean I didn’t want my daughter to ever drive. Far from it. She needed to learn how to drive. This experience was going to make her stronger, more independent, someone fully engaged with the world. I fully supported it, I encouraged it, and in fact I’d paid cash and time to ensure this moment happened….

…but I didn’t feel good about it. Well, a little. Enough to do it. But not an unalloyed good, the kind of warm ducky fuzzies one should feel according to the compersionists.

I look at compersion as a nice-to-have, a goal you should strive towards if you can do it. But “compersion” is often used as a club to smack people down for having feelings, and too many people have feelings of jealousy or fear or concern or even outrage to just dismiss them wholesale.

If all you ever feel when your lover’s off smooching someone else is happiness? That’s awesome! I envy you! I, however, often feel happiness mixed with fear that I’ll be replaced, and jealousy that New Guy can do things for her that I can’t (or else why would she be dating a carbon copy of me?), and it’s difficult enough to get past those feelings without the extra layer of “Oh, I must be bad at this if I have doubts.”

And sometimes those fears signal actual problems. I’ve had cases when a lover spending all her time with New Guy meant, in fact, that she was losing interest in me. And while in theory, I should be equitable enough to go, “Well, I’m happy whenever she’s happy,” in practice part of my happiness is tragically based on continuing to get to spend time with her.

Sometimes those fears let me see problems in time to fix them.

I trust my partners. And I try to keep my silly fears to a minimum. Just like I explained to my daughter that driving a car was a great responsibility, and could kill her and others… but when she pulled out of the driveway I plastered a smile on, because this was what she actually needed, and I trusted her enough that this would work out all right.

As it turned out, it did. The fact that I didn’t let my fears shackle her was a noble thing. Arguably more noble, in fact, because I had to fight past some concerns to place her needs above my qualms.

Eventually, I got happy when she drove. And she hasn’t wrecked the car yet, God willing.

15 Comments

  1. Sasha Twyst
    Apr 1, 2014

    I think your definition of “compersion” is flawed. I’ve never taken the concept to mean either blind faith or a sublimation of my happiness so that it is entirely contingent on another person’s happiness. Rather, I see it as being happy that someone else is happy, even if I’m not the immediate cause of that happiness.

    I agree with you, however, on how emotions coming to the forefront can indicate greater issues and that they are not to be ignored or stuffed down. I think you feel them, acknowledge them and then let them pass, but you don’t ignore them.

    Anyone saying “Well, you’re not poly if you don’t meet X critera that I personally find important” is likely full of it, but if you never take pleasure in your partner(s) happiness, whether or not you’re directly responsible for it, it seems that’s an uncomfortable situation at best and destructive at worst. I can understand the nagging questions, but one of the things I personally like about being poly is being able to share in the afterglow, so to speak. On the other side of things, I like being able to share my own happiness with my partner. I could see a situation where someone was okay with me seeing outside interests but didn’t want to hear about or be party to it, but that’s not the version of poly I’d be comfortable being involved with, though I’m sure some would.

  2. Cass
    Apr 1, 2014

    Wow, thanks for a great read. My husband and I were just having a conversation about this last night. I certainly feel less scared than I used to, but it’s still there and there are still things that don’t make me feel good (like hearing them have sex in the other room). So I do what I can to minimize my exposure to that, and they do what they can to avoid putting me in that situation and we talk…a lot. And it helps, but I have struggled with feeling bad at poly because of my feelings. Your relating it to your daughter driving made so much sense. Thanks!

  3. no
    Apr 1, 2014

    You can’t MAKE yourself feel compersion. I want to be happy for my lovers’ other experiences, and that’s why I seek out those feelings, but I don’t expect that I can force them. That would be “doing it wrong”.

    If you want to try to feel compersive, the key seems to be the kind of openness between lovers that tell each other everything and really care about their lovers’ feelings. I personally can’t have compersion with fear, and the best way to defeat my fear is knowledge. Knowing for certain that my lover cares enough about me to tell me what’s going on, how they’re feeling, and check in on how I’m feeling, leaves me open to feeling lots of good things about our relationship and their other relationships, and that usually means compersion.

    I’m sorry to hear that you have had bad experiences with poly relationships, but there is no being poly without risks. At the very least, you can try to learn from the mistakes and reduce those risks. Some of us try to do that by staying on top of how compersive our partners are feeling and basing our decisions on that. Please don’t put down our efforts or our solutions just because you have different methods.

    • TheFerrett
      Apr 2, 2014

      “I’m sorry to hear that you have had bad experiences with poly relationships, but there is no being poly without risks. ”

      See, and that’s part of your problem.

      You can’t say “Please don’t put down our efforts or our solutions” when you automatically jump to the conclusion that “I’m not perfectly happy about this” means “I have bad experiences.”

      I have great experiences with poly relationships. I also have concerns and jealousies. And your being unable to draw that distinction is part of the problem.

      I have no issue when you use compersion as your personal methodology to fix your relationship. But when you start using that lack of fear globally, as you do here, to indicate that anyone who has fear must be in trouble, then you fuck up.

      Sad you didn’t use your real email address so you’ll likely never see this, but I’ll leave this in case anyone else is similarly inclined.

  4. Julian Arancia
    Apr 1, 2014

    This is a very thoughtful post, I appreciate it.

    In particular, I appreciate the point you make about how it’s OK to feel what we feel while also being important to own that and work it ourselves without letting it necessarily spill over to our partner(s).

    There are some challenges that we must face alone. And you’ve outlined one of the chief ones.

  5. SeattlePolyChick
    Apr 1, 2014

    Holy crap, and thank you. I loved the analogy of your daughter driving and thought it was a rather good one. Having a person I love start dating or falling for a new person is scary and does have risk. I have lost relationships this way, and it’s idiotic to act like it doesn’t happen or to swear I’ll be peachy if they leave me as long as they are happy. Um.. No. I might eventually be happy they are happy but honestly I like being happy and loved too and I don’t like losing people I love. I do get compressive sometimes, and those are certainly my favourite times, but I also work hard to handle my less compressive feelings and to react with love and support. I like good communication and lots of affection and when it’s really bad I like running my ass off or cleaning, baking, painting or commiserating with friends. I hope I get more and more graceful at this, but I’m sick and tired and done with trying to get perfect. I had a friend who used to say “guilt is a useless emotion. I don’t give it or take it. If you try to hand it to me, I’ll watch it fall on the floor. I change, but I don’t feel guilty”.

  6. Icewraith
    Apr 1, 2014

    Thank you for this. As a mono husband, this explains how I feel when I hear polys endorse compersion.

  7. Allena
    Apr 2, 2014

    Thank You! Great article. I’ve been poly for over 40 years and I love it when I feel compersion and there are many times I don’t. I never beat myself up for it. It’s simply an emotion and we don’t have control over our emotions. The emotions come up when they come up. I love the feeling and wish it would come up more often, but I don’t fret it when I’m not feeling compersive.

    Thanks!

  8. Sage
    Apr 3, 2014

    I’ll be blunt. This post sounds whiny to me, and really just about trying to use adult language to articulate what is really just a person crying out that, since they cannot get past their own insecurities, then they’re just going to blame the people claiming there are any for pointing that out, because hey, it must be a personal attack out of ignorance, and you just gotta blame someone.

    Perhaps part of the reason you have so much anxiety about your relationships is because you’re looking to assign blame all the time. Then again, maybe blogging just comes that easy to you. It seems like a lot of work to me to draw out something pretty simplistic.

    On the specific topics of your post – I think polyamory is about compersion AND trust, and that you cannot have one without the other. They work in tandem with one-another.

    When it comes to helping your daughter to learn how to drive, the way you described it here led me to believe that you were so worried about her safety as well as your car that you didn’t have room left in you to be happy for her. Using this as an example for how you handle inner-conflict throughout your life, it’s safe to say that you spend more time worrying and less time being happy.

    Therefore, the solution isn’t to simply blame people that point out this reality because they pointed it out. Just because you have a problem hearing it doesn’t make it any less true, and it doesn’t mean the people pointing this out to you are trying to do so just to put you down, and/or are enlightened with some holy power of acceptance that you are incapable of coming to understand for yourself. You referred to this with phrases that come across to me as mocking; “cotton-candy good feelings”, “warm ducky fuzzies”. It’s not really like that for me – someone that has the ability to differentiate between myself and someone else’s connections with my partner.

    Those feelings, for me, come from a place of real understanding that if my partner felt the urge to not date me anymore as a result of dating someone else, then I not only want that to happen, but am THANKFUL that it did, because if someone wanted to leave me simply because of dating someone else, then perhaps they didn’t really love me – and/or, it was just time to move on because people change, which is fine, too. My approach to polyamory is not continuing to be from a place of mono-logic. I feel that giving a person total freedom to make the *choice* to be with me is what actually makes a relationship strong and validating.

    It also helps that I don’t need the love of someone else to love myself. That ensures that my partner(s) are not responsible for my inner happiness, and this creates a relationship that feels more genuine and solid to me than one that is precariously balanced on whether or not I feel “loved enough”. It doesn’t mean I don’t express wants and needs, but I express them from a place of confidence rather than fear.

    Compersion is not always used as a club, or a sledgehammer, or any other type of weapon. If someone does, however, then they’re assholes and so what. However, just because they might say something in a rude-sounding way doesn’t make the point itself any less true.

    I understand the universal law “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it that matters the most”, but at the same time, using that as a crutch to point fingers makes you just as bad as the people you’re complaining about, and is a waste of time that you could have otherwise spent working through this in more effective ways.

    If all you’re looking for throughout your life is whether or not you should be offended, then you’re always going to be offended, and you’re never going to have the ability to just “be happy”.

    Good luck on living a more worry-free life.

    • Andrew
      Oct 28, 2014

      I think what Ferret is getting at is that there are bonds formed between two (or more) people that love each other. When someone leaves someone else it hurts. A person will miss their ex-lover, and it hurts. There is even a selfish aspect that a person is not getting or giving the affection that they are use to, and that hurts. Yes, a part of that person may be glad that their ex is happy. But it still hurts.

      If a person doesn’t feel pain from the bonds being torn, then I will say they are something closer to a sociopath. Strong language? It’s just as strong as making a person feel like crap for missing someone and feeling left out, as if they are somehow less evolved.

      FWIW

  9. jessielou
    Apr 5, 2014

    Amen! As an “experienced” (lol) poly person I can only agree with you 100%. Compersion is exactly like Nirvana or Utopia or perfect meditative state… They are goals and not real places you can live in all day every day. Sure you can feel happy and squishy one day but become slightly rattled the next. It does not make you a bad person or less poly. Wherever I hear other poly people dolling compersion advice I just shrug. Yeah I feel it sometimes, and yes its mainly due to trust that has been built and solidified beforehand, but sometimes I don’t. Sometimes the new girl makes my stomach turn… Call it instinct, jealousy or just negative curiosity. Either way it isn’t compersion and it is t a mortal sin either.
    There is a beautiful definition of sex positive online but I don’t know how to add links. But i will say this, I try to use that definition to be lifestyle positive too. My poly is not your poly but your poly is ok…

  10. Scott Mauer
    Jun 11, 2014

    Thanks for the article. I’m capable of compersion when I don’t feel that the situation making my partner happy is somehow a threat to our relationship. Since new partners may fall into that category, it will take a while after the addition of someone new for me to be able to feel good about the good feelings they bring to my partner. I’m certainly capable of being happy by myself, but I’m *not* capable of being happy if an important relationship I have is threatened, no matter how many other stable relationships I have. I used to think that being so emotionally independent that losing a partner wouldn’t be an emotional catastrophe was a goal to work toward, but not any more. After studying attachment styles, I realized that my previous ability to not care as much about ending a relationship was because I was avoidantly attached, and kept my partners at a certain minimum distance. However, after having finally been on the receiving end of that dynamic, I can’t in good conscience treat my partners that way anymore. I’ve found that a secure mutual attachment with a partner who appreciates both the benefits and the restrictions that implies is the most satisfying form for me.

  11. PolyCouple
    Sep 7, 2014

    My partner and I have been married for 5 years and poly for life. While we have been polyamorous together things have been a bit difficult, running into issues here and there. After we changed our ‘rules’ to be simply just open communication and honesty things got a lot easier. Thanks for your posting, we love reading about other people in similar relationships and how to navigate the emotions behind everything.

  12. Luna
    Nov 10, 2014

    I wanted to ask permission to translate this article to Spanish and post it on a website for my local community with a link to the original post. I’m looking forward for your answer!

    • TheFerrett
      Nov 13, 2014

      I would be honored. Feel free to do so, if you haven’t already. Sorry about the delay.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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