Thursday, December 13, 2012
Polyamory 101: Compersion
I've started writing a number of Poly101 articles for the blog; you may have already read my 101 on Jealousy and Polyamory. In this article, I'll be trying to describe a complex emotion often expressed in Polyamory circles.
Compersion is a state of empathy for when your partner experiences joy and happiness.
A good example of when I might feel compersion is when I'm at a party, and I look over and see Polyfulcrum holding, snuggling, and kissing her boyfriend, and maybe somebody new. She's happy and elated. And her joy brings me happiness.
Compersion is hard to describe because it's almost the opposite of what we've been trained to feel in relationships. It's difficult to describe because we're programmed to think irrationally about these circumstances.
Okay, in the example I just gave, traditional thinking should give rise to an overtly emotional outburst. That's what you'd think anyway.
"What the Hell? My wife is snoggin' another fella? Well I'll -" ... you get the picture.
I'm supposed to be envious; angry at the guy; hurt from my wife's betrayal; seething with being backstabbed and in plain sight of me; pounding my chest and itching for a fight. I need to make a scene.
So why would I feel this way? Well, one, to preserve my masculinity; two, to claim rights to my property; three, to express my emotional state of fear and insecurity; four, to prove that I love my wife greater than the aggressor. Hey, we ain't nothin' but mammals. If left unchecked, that's my emotional and social programing. I'm supposed to do this.
As you can see, I believe there's an intellectual component to this problem. Compersion requires me to decouple the irrational response and readjust my programming. That's the intellectual exercise. It requires me to be in the moment, critically examine my feelings, and choose not to get angry, envious, or sad. This gets easier over time. It's not easy on the first couple of go-arounds. And even though I've been doing this for seven years, it can still be hard to put myself in that frame of reference of if I'm tired, needy, and insecure.
Compersion is probably intellectually easier to understand than emotionally one because I must feel the joy. I can certainly stifle what I'm feeling for a time and try to control it. Yet if I'm not really happy or joyous then I really can't say I'm compersive. At best, I'm tolerating. I'm hanging in there. Tolerating isn't compersion. And that's a learned skill.
For me, the emotional aspect of compersion didn't come immediately. I had to overcome a lot of base-level gut responses and trust my wife. I wasn't entitled to the exclusivity of her affection. And her exclusivity did not directly relate to our strengths as a couple. Eventually - maybe two years into my identifying as poly - I was able to look across that room at a party, see her happy, joyous, having sexual interactions with (many) others, and I felt happy. I didn't feel threatened or sick. I felt like she was in a moment of elation and I was happy for her.
These days, Polyfulcrum and I react to compersion in the course of our marriage and daily life. She can sit with her friends and lovers in a snuggle and I can feel immediately happy for her; I believe she feels the same when she sees me snuggle up to my partners and hold them close. Sometimes, she'll sit and hold both me and my girlfriend, and all of us feel compersion in the moment. Those are the best of times.
Compersion is complex only because it seems to contradict original social and emotional programming. Although the intellectual exercise is doable, take my advice: don't expect the emotional aspect to be immediately conquered and tamed. That'll take a lot of time on everyone's part. Be prepared to be working on those feelings for many months or years.