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Poly Architecture 201: Compersion Is a Threeway Street

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…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.

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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[1]. 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.

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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.”

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[1] 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.


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