One of my favourite words in the English language is compersion, both for how it sounds and what it means. For those not familiar with it, it describes the feeling of joy in an others happiness. Imagine the smile that comes to someones face when they hear a toddler laugh, and you have a pretty good understanding of compersion. If you have ever smiled at a baby you don’t know, simply because it is smiling at you, you have experienced it.
The word isn’t usually used in relation to children and babies however. It has grown in usage as non monogamous people looked for a way to describe how they felt about partners, and others they care about being happy with other people. A word was needed because of the host of “should’s” and “musts” that are regularly thrown at non monogomous people- you should be jealous, you must be unhappy, you should care more about those you love.
This last one can be incredibly hurtful for many. Unfortunately a certain narrative about what relationships should look like has been commodified and marketed to us as a society. This includes control and possesiveness as positive features, and is one of the reasons many struggle to identity coercive control and domestic abuse within relationships. There is of course a gendered element to this, men are still seen as the controller of, and gatekeeper to, their female partners sexuality. If a woman is poly her male partners are assumed to be inferior in masculinity. In a society where “cuck” has become the ultimate insult of the right men who do not assert this control as their right are deemed to be defective.
Against all of this stands the word compersion. Whilst if you are monogamous you may not share the idea of joy in your significant other being with another person, you have, probably experienced it. When your partner gets a promotion, wins an award, passes an exam, or any other test which matters to them, you may have felt compersion. Yes, there may be an element of self interest, a promotion means a better joint income, but in a healthy relationship there should be pleasure just of itself in their pleasure. In the same way we feel pain, when someone we care about is hurt or upset. It may not affect us in any other way, but the pain, or the pleasure is real.
It is this pain at someone we care about being upset, hurt or in other ways in a negative place which is the genuine opposite of compersion. Some argue the opposite of compersion is jealousy, but this is not the case. In fact setting these up as opposites is another way many non monogamous people feel they are doing non monogomy wrong. Again those shoulds and musts come tumbling out, causing great harm.
Some people get jealous, some do not. You are not a worse person if you do get jealous, however jealousy is your emotion, and not the fault of a partner. By the same token, a partner should not blame you for jealousy. Working on how you feel might help you, and your relationships, but it should never feel like something you are being made to do. Consensual non monogamy works best when there is clear and honest communication. It is very difficult to be honest if someone else is telling you your emotions are wrong.
Respecting boundaries around communication is also important however. Again ideas about some mythical perfect non monogamy seem to impact a lot, with shoulds and assumptions. Some people want to share details, including intimate ones. Other people are happy just to know that their partners and significant others are happy. Unfortunately a myth is quite strong that somehow if you are not happy hearing every intimate detail of a relationship you are not happy with non monogamy. This is simply not true, respecting the boundaries and limits of others is vital, in any sphere, including non monogamous relationships.
Some truths are universal, whatever your relationships look like being willing to listen, and to speak honestly might sometimes be hard, but it vital in maintaining a healthy relationship. Avoiding conversations which feel difficult might work as a short-term strategy, but so often they end up poisoning the people involved, as words unsaid become toxic. Sometimes relationship counselling, or individual counselling can help, but the first step is daring to risk being honest and vulnerable about how you feel.