Last fall I had dinner with someone who, up until that point, I had only known online. We swapped details and I noticed how her face lit up when she spoke of her partner. She was clearly madly in love and blissfully happy. A few minutes later, as she was talking about an upcoming trip to visit another partner, I felt an urge to ask how that worked in the context of her relationship. I fought this urge because as someone who was also in a non-monogamous relationship (my first), I felt like I should just "get it." She seemed to sense that I was wondering about it, though, because suddenly she changed gears. She started talking about the beginning of her relationship, when she and her partner had discussed what they needed and how he had told her "I want you to be happy and free."
When Your Partner Sleeps With Someone Else - And It Makes You Happy
"I want you to be happy and free."
Suddenly, I got it. That thing that makes non-monogamous relationships work - the thing that had been missing from the one I was in - and the answer to the age-old question, "how do you deal with jealousy?" The thing that my friend was describing is called compersion. (Read more about the benefits and challenges of polyamory in Open Relationships: Can Sex With Others Bring You Together?)
What the Heck Is Compersion?Did you know that there wasn’t a word in the English language that meant "the opposite of jealousy"? True story. So, the polyamorous community came up with one: compersion.
Compersion is what you are feeling when your partner’s happiness brings you happiness. Wictionary defines compersion as "The feeling of joy associated with seeing a loved one love another; contrasted with jealousy." Personally, I find that definition a bit limiting as compersion is, in theory, something one can experience in any relationship where jealously can also be experienced.
What Does It Look Like?Let me tell you a story of one sex educator and two trips:
Our friend, the sex educator, attends a conference. Her partner at the time claims to be comfortable with their open relationship status, although he accepts her trip only begrudgingly. She ends up spending most of the trip in her hotel room, on the phone with her partner while he screams and cries, voicing his fears about what she might do during the trip as she weeps in frustration. Upon her return, she feels compelled to hide the events of her trip from him. The details come out over time, however, leading her partner to feel like he can’t trust her.
Cut to six months later: Our sex educator friend is in a new relationship with a partner with whom she feels comfortable discussing everything with, a partner who wants her to be "happy and free." Again, she is attending a conference. Her partner drops her off at the airport with a hug, a kiss and the instructions, "Go have fun, and if you learn any cool, new sex stuff tell me about it when you get back." When she returns, she tells him up front about an encounter she had and he responds with a hug and tells her that he loves how considerate she is of his feelings when they deal with other partners.
That’s what it looks like. On Trip 2, our sex educator friend felt understood, trusted and supported - she felt like her partner loved her enough to want her to be happy and free. Consequently, she was sure to be completely honest with her partner and confirm that he was comfortable with her actions. Further, because she feels so valued and supported in her relationship she can, without jealousy, support her partner in the same way when it is he who has an experience outside their relationship. Compersion makes their relationship stronger and more mutually satisfying.
Can Compersion Work for You?Like I said earlier, compersion is something that can benefit any relationship in which you might also feel jealousy, which - people being what they are - is pretty much every relationship. My point is, compersion isn’t just something for non-monogamous people to think about. We can all value and support each other and experience joy in the face of one another’s happiness. I don’t claim that this is always easy. For a lot of us, jealousy comes naturally, but the rewards to be reaped, in terms of close bonds and mutual respect and support, are huge when you learn to be genuinely happy about the happiness of you partners, friends, family members and colleagues.
So, go forth and be happy about each other’s happiness, sexual or otherwise. I’ll be really happy for you when you do!
JoEllen is a writer, speaker, researcher and mental health advocate whose work explores the impact of depression on sex and relationships. Since 2012 she has written about sex, mental health, and how none of us are broken on her award-winning site The Redhead Bedhead.
JoEllen's book The Monster Under the Bed: Sex, Depression & The Conversation We Aren’t Having is now available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook.