…or: “how can I feel compersion when he keeps dating total assholes?”
Polyamorous folks often celebrate and idealize the concept of compersion, which has been defined as the “opposite of jealousy.” Compersion can happen whether you’re in a hierarchical dynamic, or an anarchical poly dynamic. The shape and feel of compersion changes, depending on which of those dynamics you’re in, but the overall idea stays the same. I would go so far as to say that the poly subculture tends to imply that if you don’t feel compersion, you’re not a twu poly. Since poly folks have a bad habit of not understanding jealousy well (more on that in a later post), it’s not surprising that they have a bad habit of not understanding the “opposite of jealousy” well either. People tend to mistakenly assume that the capacity for compersion is a characteristic of individuals, rather than a characteristic of a complex interplay of relationships.
Let’s start with you. I’m not going to assume that you’re someone like me, who was born thinking monogamy was stupid, and who informed her first boyfriend when she was 17 that she didn’t think she could ever be monogamous. I’m going to assume that you’re what seems to be an average polyamorous person, who comes in two types: 1. The person who’s only had one or two very serious relationships in their whole life, and somewhere in their late 20’s/early 30’s decides after a lot of discussion to “open up” with their partner (I technically also fall into this category myself) or 2. Someone who was never very comfortable with monogamy, but had several serious relationships that were ostensibly monogamous, usually with very poor results and has decided to kind of give up on monogamy (either as a single or as part of an existing pair). People arrive at polyamory from lots of different directions, but these seem to be the most common.
So as an average poly person with sense, you approach this whole poly endeavor with a certain degree of nervousness. In particular, you worry that your partner won’t have enough time and energy for you once they have someone else, that they might be more attracted to the other person more than you, and that you’ll get jealous (if you’re genuinely worried about them leaving you for their other partners, then just don’t even try this poly thing until you feel more secure. It won’t go well for anyone). You do the thing that naïve poly people love to do (I did it myself), and reassure yourself by getting “veto power” over your partner’s other potential partners. You tell yourself that it’ll be okay, and that they won’t date anyone that you don’t like.
Except that it turns out not to be that easy. Your partner meets someone on okcupid, and you’re nervous about it. You tell them not to have sex until you’ve approved the relationship, but they want to know what counts as “sex.” The other person is new to this too and feels awkward about the restriction, but goes with it. Finally, the three of you arrange to meet, and you feel pressured to agree to let them have sex, and so you do—even though you (correctly) felt like you barely know the person, and are feeling super-insecure about where this new relationship might be headed.
But it turns out that the new person is super needy, kind of obnoxious, and no one that you’d ever want to hang out with normally. You keep trying to get along with them, but it really doesn’t work. Nothing about the relationship seems to make your partner really happy either; they come home stressed from almost every date, but they insist that the relationship is going great. And you wonder: what the hell ever happened to compersion? You feel no inkling of joy at the idea of your partner with this annoying, clingy person, and you’re genuinely irritated that they spend so much time together. And whenever you express concerns about the other relationship, your partner gently dismisses your concerns as symptoms of jealousy, and assures you that you have nothing to be jealous of. And your protests that you’re not jealous don’t sound very convincing to either of you… and both of you wonder if you’re “really poly.”
You keep reminding yourself that you’ve got that veto card in your back pocket if this ever really gets to be too much for you, but eventually you learn the hardest lesson of hierarchical polyamory: “veto power” is nothing more than a brutal ultimatum where you say to your partner, “them or me.” Those aren’t words that wise folks say after their partners are in love and in an established relationship. Veto power really only works at the very beginning of a new relationship, but if your partner really wants someone, they’ll probably just try to talk you into giving it a chance. It turns out that the heart of successful polyamory is being able to trust your partner enough to believe they’ll make good relationship choices in the first place.
It may sound like I’m voicing some sort of bitter personal experience here, but I’m not (knock on wood). I’m actually describing a pattern that I’ve seen over and over again among poly folks of my acquaintance (and that I feel I have inflicted on my poor dear husband a few times). Again and again, I hear people asking in hushed, and sometimes even skeptical or suspicious, tones: how does one manifest this elusive emotion known as compersion? Is its absence symptomatic of imminent poly demise?
The simple answer that people lose sight of over and over again is that compersion is a three-way street. It’s basically impossible for you to be happy about your partner’s new relationship if you think that relationship is crap. Also, you tend to end up feeling lessened because your partner is spending time with someone you perceive to be so inferior instead of spending time with you. The reality is that it’s really, really hard to experience compersion unless you feel comfortable with your partner’s partner and their relationship. If your partner seems unhappy and stressed about their relationship—and especially if that stress takes a toll on your relationship—it’s really fucking hard to feel happy about that relationship. It’s almost inevitable that you’ll end up feeling jealous over a partner’s bad relationship with someone else unless you view it in fairly condescending terms (“Well, they have to make their own mistakes.” “Well, at least they’re dating somebody.” “Well, I know I’m gone a lot, so they need company.” And my personal favorite: “Well, hopefully dating that crazy asshole will just make them appreciate me more.”).
In some ways, I think it’s easy to overstate the importance of compersion for successful poly dynamics. Generally speaking, cheerful tolerance of a partner’s other relationships is sufficient to maintain a happy poly existence. In my experience, cheerful tolerance rarely results in profoundly compersive feelings. Outside of my triadic experience, or some group sex experiences that I was actually present for, I can’t honestly recall ever feeling some strong sense of compersion. When they’re with people that I like who seem to be making them happy, I’m happy that my partners are happy. I have learned that the name for this general feeling of being happy at the happiness of others is mudita, and it’s a much better characterization of my experience of vicarious poly. There’s not a big difference for me between feeling happy about my husband being well fucked, or my feeling that he’s happy about being out to dinner with his friends. However, in general it feels more like the absence of jealousy, and I can’t really characterize it as a strong or even particularly meaningful emotion. I do think that compersion is essential for a successful triadic+ dynamic, however. In order to maintain a complex three+-person relationship, you’d damned well better be a lot more than merely cheerfully tolerating your partners’ relationships with each other.
At the same time, I don’t want to downplay the importance of constructing a cooperative poly dynamic. If you ever find yourself faced with the unlikely choice between the girlfriend you adore who your wife can barely tolerate, and the girlfriend you are quite attracted to who your wife gets along with great, pick girlfriend #2 every time. Compersion may not really be necessary for most poly dynamics, but it sure as hell makes them way easier. And if you’re wondering how you do that, the answer is simple but annoying: date people your partner(s) already like. And if you’re waiting for the answer to the question I posed at the start of this post–“how can I feel compersion when he keeps dating total assholes?”–the answer is: you can’t.
There’s nothing easy or automatic about compersion. Its absence should never be used as the litmus test for whether an individual is “really poly,” nor is it necessarily a sign that a relationship set is doomed. The appearance of compersion, on the other hand, is usually a good sign that everyone is doing well together, and that is undoubtedly our poly ideal. But I say: let’s settle for an absence of jealousy, and not try to demand its opposite to call our dizzyingly complex poly lives “successful.”
 For purposes of simplicity, let us forevermore refer to all such people who are “innately poly” and who usually depend upon variety in some degree for sexual satisfaction and interest as “polysexuals.” This helps distinguish them from folks who are “polyamorous”—people who, for whatever reason, seek multiple intimate relationships. Polysexuals are often polyamorous, but polyamorous folks are only sometimes polysexual; polysexuals tend to be extremely highly motivated to make some form of ethical non-monogamy work in their lives in a way that most polyamorous folks are not.
There’s something kind of tacky about admitting that you want to fuck your ex, isn’t there? Most of my friends’ relationships failed in part because the sex/chemistry was bad. Honestly, in some ways, I envy them that—it sounds easier. But I know I’m not the only person out there whose nipples traitorously harden remembering the earth-shattering sex they had with someone they. Just. Can’t. Get. Along. With.
It feels like some sort of curse. Statistically, humans tend to forget bad things over time. Experimental evidence has shown time and again how perversely cheerfully we remember the past. I would like this to be true of my erotic memories of my ex. I would like to be able to tell myself, “That is an idealization of the past. It wasn’t anywhere near as awesome as you remember it.” Unfortunately, as you may have observed, I have a habit of obsessively chronicling my life (and you never see the hundreds of my journal pages that never find their way to the internet). This meticulous writing tendency permits me the unenviable luxury—which I mostly scrupulously deny myself—of strolling back through my past and confirming that, no, it really was that good, dammit.To keep myself sane, I usually only permit myself to read about my past in a detached way—with even more detachment than I would read about a fictional character’s life, actually. I try to maintain more of the kind of attitude I would keep to if I was going to, say, edit a friend’s novel. And yet, even with that emotional detachment, I irrevocably find that my body aches with memory at a long string of really good nights… afternoons… mornings. Sigh. You get the idea.
It’s pretty telling that I originally started writing this a year ago. I waited that long to post this because I wanted to see if what I wrote was still true after not having slept with him for longer than we slept together. After all, the conventional wisdom is that you can’t hold on to an unfulfilled sexual desire for that long, especially if you’re constantly surrounded by a sexy human buffet. I feel like our culture assures us that the heat of that kind of desire can only persist in some sort of sexual desert (You’ll forget! You’ll get over it! You’ll move on!). It’s not like I wander through life in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction, looking back to my time with my ex-boyfriend as the only time I was sexually fulfilled. Quite the contrary, actually. Up until pretty recently, my life really was a splendid banquet of fuck. None of that makes the memories of what I had with my ex any less mouth wateringly sexy. It was just that good. I am sorry to say that the conventional wisdom proved to be bullshit on this one.
I expect this would be easier if he were a bad person, instead of being absurdly sweet and charming. If he actually broke my heart instead of just being jealous and judgmental and needy, I expect I could have convinced my body a long time ago that that awesome sex—sex we used to joke was “fictional sex” because it felt like sex described in an erotic novel—was fictitious, not merely fictional. But he didn’t really break my heart; he just bruised it to the point where even that goddess-damned sex wasn’t worth staying with him… Oh, but that was a hard call.
I never used to understand why people would keep sleeping with their exes, often over and over again. (And I still don’t understand why they do it with people who were cruel and hurtful). The problem is that for all that there is some overlap, sexual chemistry and relationship chemistry just really aren’t the same thing. One of the sayings in my tribe is “crazy smells good,” by which we mean that the kinds of people who will bring unwanted drama into your life are often exactly the kinds of people that you find most attractive. Sadly, realizing that the person is crazy is no real help for convincing your body that the sex isn’t amazing. And who wants to try to pretend to themselves that a night—and especially a long string of nights—that changed their life didn’t happen? That’s a lot to try to make yourself forget, and I know I don’t want to forget.
Is there a magic solution to this problem? I have a friend who has the same problem, and her solution was to limit herself to only sleeping with her sexy ex once a month. Those are the kinds of improbable solutions that poly people can sometimes indulge in, but fucked if I know what monogamous people do.
One of these days, I’m going to survey people and ask them how many have jerked off while thinking about an ex from more than 2 years ago. I suspect the number is much higher than that lie of conventional wisdom would tell us.
It is one of the most often misunderstood truisms of hierarchical polyamory that stable and highly functioning primary relationships are essential for successful (hierarchical) poly life. It’s not the truism itself that people misunderstand; it’s that most people misunderstand *why* you need a stable and highly functioning primary relationship for a successful hierarchical poly life.
For the rest of this post, I’m going to rely on a metaphor of architecture and houses. In this metaphor, hierarchical polyamory tends to involve building a house with someone (your primary), and then coming up with ways to incorporate other partners (a guest bedroom; four guest bedrooms; a cottage in the back; a shed in the back; a dungeon in the basement… you get the idea).
Fact: You need a firm foundation so the house doesn’t fall down
When most people think about the idea that you need a strong primary relationship for your poly life, they think that it’s only for this reason. And Goddess knows it’s important. Almost any relationship stress will threaten to compromise an unstable relationship–from the death of a loved one, to a sick pet, to having a baby, to losing a job, to a partner getting a lover. (By contrast, lots of things that could be stressful—such as having a baby or a partner getting a lover–can become a bonding mechanism for strong relationships). If the foundation isn’t firm, then any outside pressures threaten the stability of the house.
In my experience, people rarely say to themselves, “Well, yeah, we’ve got some serious problems in our relationship, but we’ll be fine being poly together.” Far more frequently, people say to themselves, “Well, sure, we’ve got some problems in our relationship, but everyone does. We’ll be fine being poly together.” It’s easy to underestimate how big those small problems can become as those niggling insecurities and lack of faith and trust can erode the things holding your house up. Sure, the plumbing doesn’t work during the day, the floors are uneven, there are mice in the walls, and there’s duct tape on half of the windows, but none of that’s going to make the house fall down, right? I mean, it’s cozy, and it’s home. But bring someone else into the house, and you end up seeing it with new eyes. Suddenly, those small problems can start to feel a lot bigger (probably bigger than they actually are) when compared to the shiny glow of New Relationship Energy with another partner. You end up seeing the house through a stranger’s eyes, and all those comfortable imperfections start looking a lot less homey. And just to make it even harder, the guest room has carpets over the uneven floors, frilly curtains to hide the duct tape on the windows, and a canopied bed so it’s easy to ignore the rest of the house… Which only makes the rest of the house feel more derelict by comparison.
And of course, none of that even begins to encompass what you’ve done to the house by trying to build on that guest room/cottage/shed, etc. Some houses accommodate the additions easily, and others find that the cracks in the foundation were spectacularly compromised by the building process alone. I could keep elaborating on this metaphor, but I think it’s relatively intuitive: if you want to keep your primary, you’d better have a pretty fucking solid relationship with them if you want to do poly with them. The things that matter most here are a sense of real relationship trust—the belief that your partner loves you, is good for you, that you’re good for them, and that they know all of these things too. Everyone has occasional doubts, but anything more than that is likely to start nibbling away at the foundation of your dear domicile.
Fact: You need a sizable well-built house to accommodate those new people
It’s easy to see how having boyfriends and girlfriends could further de-stabilize a rocky marriage. What most people miss is the major problem that your unstable primary relationship will jeopardize your OTHER relationships. Oh, it won’t happen overnight. It probably won’t happen for several months or possibly longer, depending on how serious those other relationships are. But given time, any guest who spends long enough in your house is going to step on a mouse in the middle of the night, get annoyed that the damned toilet doesn’t flush half the time, and try to open those duct-taped windows. Tolerance on the part of guests is, of course, essential. However, you will probably notice over time that it gets increasingly difficult to attract partners with high self-esteem to stay for long in your derelict domicile. The people who will stick around in your guest room are the people who (at least feel like they) don’t have anywhere else to go.
You and your primary are the ones who build the guest room, but if you don’t clean it (sometimes together) between relationships, it can accumulate an astounding amount of junk. People are used to talking about “relationship baggage” as an individual property, but in Poly World, the relevant baggage can accumulate between you and your primary, not just you. A series of annoying and possessive ex-boyfriends can make your husband incredibly mistrustful of the newest one, because he just looks like another one in a long string. And if your husband is still mad about Boyfriend #2 and you’re on #5, you’d probably better do some spring cleaning. Constantly tripping over the open suitcases from your exes isn’t going to endear you to your new significant others.
I recently astounded a long-term poly friend with the observation that he couldn’t expect his girlfriend to get along with his wife better than he did. I pointed out that as long as he and his wife were arguing (especially about things that tangentially or actually related to his girlfriend), the girlfriend was bound to end up accumulating irritations and resentments at one or both of them. But as long as she actually liked him, most of that resentment was likely to end up at the feet of his wife (probably unfairly), since the wife came across as the person interfering with their relationship. Moreover, the girlfriend lacked the background to fully contextualize the arguments, and didn’t get any make-up sex either. And I further pointed out that if his wife didn’t trust him, is it really likely that she’s going to trust his girlfriend? It’s possible, but unlikely, even if she likes her. Succinctly put: if you try to build serious, close relationships with other people, your primary relationship is bound to affect and impact those other relationships. It’s a transitive property of relationship tension: if things are tense between you and your primary, isn’t that likely to make your secondary feel tense about your primary, too? And then to make things tense with your secondary too?
Put the house in good repair before you invite guests into it. Otherwise, their stay isn’t going to be very comfortable, is it?
Some people try to circumvent this problem by having a metaphorical cottage or shed in the backyard for guests—by trying to compartmentalize their relationships and shield them from each other. In some sense, this strategy can be pretty successful (it’s the only way to have any hope of trying to sustain relationships with other people if your primary relationship isn’t so hot). But usually, it turns out that the cottage is missing a few walls, or alternatively, that it’s so damned cramped in there that no two people—no matter how claustrophilic—could possibly fit. After awhile, this strategy a. this starts to feel a lot like cheating (“I know he has a wife, but he almost never talks about her… It’s weird”) and b. it usually seriously curtails intimacy and trust (“hey, it’d be great to be fluid-bound with her, but I’ve only met her husband once and I have no idea how he’d feel about it. Also, I’m not even sure they still have sex…”). (For a more humorous take on this arrangement, see my friend’s tumblr)
Fact: You need to respect the threshold
When it comes to both real and metaphorical poly households, threshold maintenance is a helluva tricky affair. You and your primary build the guest room, but your primary has to leave you and your secondary to mostly decorate it yourselves. If you and your secondary have a really different decorating style than you and your wife, that can require some major adjusting. The biggest problems arise if people are criticizing the décor on either side, or trying to deliberately rearrange things on either side of the threshold. It’s especially hard because one of the things that makes for successful poly is if your relationship with your wife is distinctively different from your relationship with your girlfriend, but that’s exactly the thing that can make it hard for everyone to get along unless they are all very respectful of those differences.
For primaries, there’s such a fine line between making sure the guest room is tidy, and interfering with the decorating scheme. For secondaries, there’s such a fine line between politely requiring that the room remain decorated to your tastes, and making unreasonable demands. And no one should be doing things that could damage the integrity of the structure as a whole!
Fact: You are very unlikely to be able to build your house over your guest room
It is one of the great puzzles to me of poly architecture that I have never even heard of anyone building a primary relationship (even one that quickly failed) around a stable very serious secondary relationship without the secondary relationship promptly falling apart (and I’ve rarely even heard of people getting that far. Usually the secondary relationships were a disaster before the primary relationship appeared). I know a lot of people with very serious secondaries who really want primaries… and all of them have literally been looking for years. It feels like the poly equivalent of “always a bridesmaid, never a bride.”
But consider the construction process of hierarchical polyamory: you can imagine building a house over top of some pitiful shed in the backyard, but it’s pretty hard to imagine building your own house over the fancy guest quarters you have set up at someone else’s house. How do you have time and energy to build a house with a potential husban when you keep spending lots of time in your nice guest suite at your boyfriend’s house? There are a whole host of reasons why it’s hard to build a primary relationship over a preexisting sturdy secondary one. But perhaps the most salient of these is that your very hypothetical starter home with someone can look awfully pitiful compared to the comfy guest quarters you already have.
In conclusion, for better or for worse, hierarchical poly life is almost always a trickle-down affair. Successful hierarchical poly really has to start with a stable primary relationship (please, by all means, someone tell me how wrong I am, but I know of no examples), and the stability of that primary relationship is the groundwork for all the other relationships. Primaries come first, literally and figuratively, in hierarchical poly life, and all poly relationships have to be built with care. Of course, all relationships should come with a “Warning: Under Construction” sign, but I think we all know that some relationships have a lot more repairs and maintenance to do than others.
Build your nice, sturdy home. Then build your guest room(s). You and your guests will be very glad you did it in that order. Then make sure that everyone is committed to keeping it running well.