We have words in English for when we become upset at someone else’s enjoyment (jealousy) and for when we delight in being better off than someone else (gloating) and even delighting in another’s misery (schadenfreude) … but what do we call it when somebody enjoys themself without you, AND you feel pleasure right along with them, even as the pleasurable experience does not include you? “Vicarious pleasure” doesn’t always cut it, does it?
Some people think of compersion as “the opposite of jealousy” because it can be just as emotionally charged! In the same way that jealousy can sometimes feel powerful and all-consuming, some people that experience compersion feel a similar sense of emotional rush, in a good way. This is quite different from simple vicarious pleasure!
Compersion is very often [though not exclusively] used to describe the euphoric feelings somebody gets while knowing about or thinking about their romantic/sexual partner experiencing love and/or pleasure with another person. I bet many of you who read this are thinking one of two things: “There’s no way I could ever feel this way” or “there’s no way most people could understand how this feels / that this feeling is possible.” Well, frankly, that’s because we don’t have a commonly-used word for this feeling! If we did, it would be a lot easier for people to get in touch with it.
Believe me, it exists – in the extreme, in fact. Take the “cuckold” lifestyle, for example, in which often one person (the “cuckold” or “cuckquean”) often delights in their partner getting a kind of pleasure that they themselves can’t give. Quite a few people do this; Google can help you find them, if you’re curious.
How can people be ok with this? Since society at large provides very little understanding of relationships beyond the monogamous norm, it’s a fair question to ask. What is important to distinguish here is that people aren’t forced to live their relationships this way – they choose to, and moreover, they enjoy it. These open relationships are secure enough not only to allow for intimate interaction with others, but also to appreciate them; such relationships must, by necessity, be true partnerships, in which both people act as a team and look out for each other like two copilots in the same airplane. Rather than driving the couple apart, the couple is strengthened by having experiences with other people – and the jealousy about the other’s pleasure can become a source of enjoyment and celebration that the other is experiencing pleasure.
Some people might feel that maintaining more than one intimate relationship is not their style. One relationship is complicated enough, people often say. And there’s often a good bit of truth to that, because when we enter monogamous relationships with other people, we are already in a non-monogamous relationship anyway, because we are loving ourselves at the same time as we love our partner. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work – you should always be loving yourself. But the overall point is that intimate love and sharing with more than one person is not impossible, even if it is difficult sometimes. Deep down, we all know this. The social norms brainwash us to think otherwise – which is why the word compersion is so little known.
But this business about loving yourself is really important, because it’s no good to let somebody enjoy themself at your expense. This is where compersion doesn’t work – when it just isn’t there. You can’t force these kinds of things, just the same way I can’t force myself to enjoy eating eggs if I don’t like eating eggs. If somebody isn’t enjoying something, there’s no shame in that; we all must know our limits, and those limits need to be respected no matter what.
However, so many relationships that I’ve seen – relationships that try to scrunch themselves into the box of normative, society-ordained monogamy – often run up against the reality that sometimes, no matter how much you love someone and they love you, it would be nice to have a little change of pace. Nina Hartley had an awesome bit of wisdom on this issue:
I think most people are wired to be monogamous for short periods at a time. The partner who is right for me at age twenty is not the partner who is necessarily right for me at age thirty, and so on. I think, from my experiences, that about 20 percent of people are truly monogamous. By that I mean, when they’re in love, the truly don’t want or need anybody else. For them, monogamy is not a strain at all. Twenty percent of people are polyamorous or swinger types. They’ll never be monogamous and don’t want to be. The remaining 60 percent of the population are stuck somewhere in the spectrum between happy monogamy and happy nonmonogamy. Some are monogamous because they have no other option. Some are because that’s the vow they took and they’re basically okay with it, and they don’t want to be cheaters or liars. Some are actively angry about it and pick fights. Some are unhappy with it and, while they don’t cheat, they do withdraw emotionally from their partners, giving themselves the worst of both worlds. Some are actively cheating but won’t leave the marriage. Some people would be happy at home if they just could get a little “strange” a few times a year and not have it be a big deal. They don’t want to lose all they’ve built with their mates but just want a taste of something different. (from page 141 of the book Sex, Sin, and Zen by Brad Warner)
For that 60 percent of us [in addition to a good chunk of the 20% of us that are polyamorous/swinger types], it would do us a huge amount of good to be able to accept, appreciate, and explore that side of us that could go beyond what we “should” feel. Often, our relationships become much stronger once we are able to get in touch with feelings like compersion through building better trust and communication along the way. Think of all the relationships that get ripped apart, just because somebody has a forbidden yearning – relationships that could simply undergo a bit of change and reworking, as relationships often do – or even end amicably if necessary, allowing people to grow and possibly even stay friends without so many of the emotional scars and repercussions that are too often a part of breakups.
I might also add that I’ve never met people that felt compersion and later regretted it. Feeling compersion in one situation does not protect you, of course, from feeling hurt or jealous in others – but if you are able to get to such a place where you are able to trust and feel safe enough to feel compersion, it’s an incredibly liberating jump! Folks in relationships of this sort remember how rewarding it can be to feel this way, and it often motivates them to do the relationship gruntwork necessary to get there: you know, the communication, the establishing of boundaries, the spending time figuring out how one feels [which can take time].
Nobody is saying this is a simple question: it isn’t – it’s very hard to feel compersion unless you have done or are willing to do significant work on yourself and with your partner(s) to build the trusting, nurturing context and security necessary for it. But those that get plagued either by repeated stabs of jealousy or desires to experience something outside the normal relationship model (or both!), might consider trying to tap into this “secret dimension.” It definitely beats wallowing in jealousy and passive-aggressive backbiting, that’s for sure.
Relationships will often be a lot of work; one might as well do good, forward-thinking, positive work that builds skills and habits that open up all the potential in their relationships – work that includes not hiding from the inconvenient things we think about and desire that don’t fit into our standard model of how things “should” be. Compersion cannot be automatically assumed to happen, just like any other feeling – but we should start talking about it and mentioning it a lot more, so that at least we have it on our minds, conveniently available when situations that ordinarily provoke jealousy arise. Why only have a word to describe the negative? If we can better describe how we want to feel, I think it’ll often be a good deal easier to get there!
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