Compersion Is Not Mandatory
Compersion is a word you probably won’t use or hear unless you’re polyamorous, or have a lot of polyamorous friends. I define it in this site’s glossary as “Happiness at the joy of one’s partner in another relationship; sometimes referred to as the opposite of jealousy.” The latter half of that? Causes a lot of people a lot of unnecessary guilt, and shame, and worry.
I don’t like separating compersion from positive empathy for one’s partner. I think it puts a lack of jealousy on a pedestal; it implies that constant or consistent compersion is a goal that all polyamorous people should be striving to meet; and it makes people feel like they can’t be good partners and good metamours unless they feel a lot of positive, joyous feelings around every good experience their partner is having with a metamour. To express my concern about it as clearly as possible: I don’t think it’s a bad thing if I only occasionally (or never) think my partner’s joy in his hobby of stage combat is really cute and fills me with second hand joy, so why would it be a bad thing if I only occasionally (or never) felt that about his joy with my metamours? I don’t actively feel bad about either thing; I just most often don’t feel much about it, and occasionally have a moment where I go “aww that’s cute,” that doesn’t really rise to the level of empathetic, secondhand joy.
So, the poly community’s obsession with compersion as a goal, as a be-all-end-all, and as ‘proof’ that you’re polyamorous enough and lacking in jealousy enough to ‘cut it’ in polyamorous relationships feels like a load of crap to me. If you are a generally empathetic person who feels a great deal of connection with your partners’ emotions, and therefore a great deal of joy in their joy with their other partners, that is wonderful for you - but you must have an equivalent level of discomfort when things aren’t going well for those relationships, because that empathy is never just positive, and that I do not envy. This is not to say that we shouldn’t have moments of positive empathy with our partners - in all our intimate relationships, whether with family, friends, or partners, we should have moments of sharing joys and sorrows with one another and feeling heard and understood - but there is no obligation that these moments for us and our partners be centered around relationships with our metamours.
I have never quite been clear on why compersion needed its own word, besides that someone felt that their particular internal happy wiggle for a partner going out on a date deserved a different phrase than the “I’m happy for them” you’d give a friend or relative having the same experience; or that thing I mentioned above - giving it a word to make there be something opposed to jealousy. We’ve talked before about how jealousy is a check engine light with a lot of concepts and feelings that might be behind it, so I don’t think there’s an easy opposite for jealousy, and second-hand happiness, or positive empathy, doesn’t even seem to be an opposite for some of the most common underlying problems causing the “jealousy” reaction. I suppose that calm, and security, opposing insecurity and anger, might put you in a better position to feel positive empathy, just as insecurity and anger set you up for that jealousy light to blink, but you don’t actually have to be particularly calm or secure to have a moment of “Oh, that’s great for you!” for someone you love.
As a person who believes we all need therapy, and who has spent many hours over the years trying to take apart personal insecurities, I can pretty firmly say that I am probably always going to be at least somewhat anxious and insecure, but am GREAT at sharing triumphs and struggles of work, personal growth, hobbies, and, occasionally, other relationships. I can feel a great deal of joy with my partners, but it’s very rarely directed at their other relationships, and that’s both OK, and hasn’t stopped me from being twelve and a half years into a streak of polyamorous relationships where I’ve had pretty much every possible relationship or lack thereof with my metamours. My level of compersion doesn’t neatly intersect with my level of friendship with a particular metamour. I was really good friends with one meta (who had introduced me to our shared partner), but pretty much never felt anything past neutral about their relationship. Other metas I’ve been friends with have given me the shiveriest full on happy wiggles of compersion possible - as have metas I only met once, but my partner would come back from dates whistling and with a spring in his step and it would make me smile. But, when I think back on it, I realize I’ve felt just about neutral, with only super rare compersive moments, about a majority of my metamours.
There are times where this puts me in the camp of “oh, well am I poly enough, then? Or does this mean I fall under some other term, because poly people feel compersion instead of jealousy?” And, since I’m having a clearheaded day today, I’m here to tell you that if you feel that way today, or tomorrow, or the next day, tell your brain weasels to get the hell out of the driver’s seat. Are you communicating your needs and listening to your partners when they tell you theirs? Are you figuring out what your needs are if you can’t quite tell yet, so that you can keep them in the loop as you figure it out? Do you think you have the capacity to love more than one person romantically at once, and do you have buy in from any and all partners on that concept? You get to use the term polyamorous, and not being overjoyed for your partner the day they have a good thing happen with their other partner doesn’t take that away from you. Having a jealous evening doesn’t take that away from you. Having a rough patch where all of it feels complicated and like too much work because you’ve never been intentional about figuring out needs before doesn’t take it away from you.
If having moments of compersion, dwelling on your own moments of compersion, or hearing that your partner is having them helps you navigate your polyamorous journey, that’s wonderful. But compersion is not mandatory, and the energy you spend worrying that it might be or that something is wrong with you is almost certainly better spent elsewhere.