Imagine you’re talking to a friend and they tell you that their partner has been flirting or cheating on them. Next, they tell you that instead of being angry, they are actually happy for them. Could you possibly understand your friend’s reaction? And could you ever imagine being in your friend’s shoes and reacting in a positive way to knowing that a partner had been playing away?
In reality, I think many people (and I include myself) would be outraged at the idea. The first thought many of us have is to dismiss a positive reaction to finding out a partner has flirted with others as something crazy and to deny flat out that we’d be so nonchalant about it.
But why is that? One of the sources I read when writing this article asks a valid question: how come we can be happy for our partner when they get a raise or achieve one of their goals, but we can’t do the same if they find happiness – however fleeting – with someone else? Food for thought, that’s for sure!
Well, it turns out that the reaction described in the opening paragraph has a name. It’s called compersion and there’s a lot to unpack about it.
The term compersion refers to a positive feeling that comes when knowing that a partner has been sexual or intimate with somebody else. But don’t look for it in the dictionary; it doesn't even exist there! Compersion is a term that is mostly used in polyamorous circles or among people who practise ethical non-monogamy. Compersion can be defined as “empathetic joy”, the opposite of jealousy, or being pleased about your partner’s happiness.
Compersion: could you ever feel joy for a cheating partner?
Of course, reacting with compersion wouldn't be something that would come naturally to people when finding out their partner had been engaging in out-of-relationship affairs. As someone with a background in anthropology, I’m used to the idea that many (if not most) of our behaviours are learned or socially conditioned. That means that they don’t always “make sense” or stand to reason if we examine them closely. So, could this also apply to the way we perceive flirting, being romantically involved with someone else, or infidelity?
To answer that question, we need to talk about jealousy and the way it has been socially constructed.
Why do people get jealous? From an evolutionary point of view, jealousy could be seen as a response that protects our mating relationships. In other words, if we didn’t have such a strong reaction to anything that endangers those relationships, we would be opening the doors to losing them.
Many thousands of years ago, this “mate guarding” behaviour could improve survival in a particular couple, in communities, and in societies at large. Today, jealousy is part of a social expectation that affects our private lives. That expectation (for the most part) is that our partners must be sexually and emotionally faithful and exclusive, and that anything outside that is doomed to signify an unhappy relationship.
In a way, jealousy is the alarm bell that goes inside us when we perceive that we could lose someone we care about. And while it’s good to have a built-in alarm process, it’s even better to put it to good use. By this I mean not just reacting to emotional alarms, but checking our “house” to see if there’s any valid reason for those alarms to go off.
“The term compersion refers to a positive feeling that comes when knowing that a partner has been sexual or intimate with somebody else.”
In the context we’re discussing, jealousy could alert us to the fact that something is actually wrong with a relationship. For example, it could warn us that our partner has become distant or that we don’t feel as secure as we used to. But jealousy could also be a false alarm that exaggerates harmless behaviour or feeds our insecurities. It takes time and a lot of internal questioning work to find out why exactly the jealousy alarm bell has been triggered.
Although society shows us to react with jealousy when a partner shows interest in someone else or is unfaithful, jealousy never does any good strengthening relationships – rather the opposite. Here’s where compersion could come into pay as a more constructive reaction.
To many people, compersion doesn’t come as a natural reaction. However, if you’ve decided you’d like to be open to exploring this feeling further, here’s a guide to ways you can build compersion with your partner.
Don’t expect deeply entrenched reactions to change overnight. Developing compersion is a process, which can start with cultivating more empathy, which some say is the basis for compersion.
It’s a misconception that not being jealous means you don’t care about the other person in your relationship. You can still care and feel closely connected to them if you develop compersion together. Be emotionally open and willing to discuss how you’re experiencing the process.
Talking to your partner is key when developing compersion shutterstock/Olena Yakobchuk
Even though it means being joyful about a partner's sexual exploits, compersion doesn’t mean accommodating things that hurt you or that you consider non-negotiable. In a healthy relationship, both parties should be able to openly express how certain things make them feel.
“Suppressing jealousy won’t make it go away. On the contrary, it can make you feel worse and less able to develop the empathy needed to feel compersion.”
In other words, it’s possible to negotiate your way to and through compersion. Sometimes, that means that you need to ask your partner to do or not do certain things in front of you. Sometimes, they may have the same request to make from you.
Psychologists have developed a compersion scale and found from the responses that they couldn’t describe it as a single reaction. For some people, compersion was the experience of positive feelings, for others it was sexual excitement. So, don’t feel pressured to experience compersion in the same way as others do – just find what’s right for you.
Trying to suppress this negative emotion won’t make it go away. On the contrary, it can make you feel worse and less able to develop the empathy needed to feel compersion. Don’t be afraid of the discomfort that jealousy can bring. Learning to process it can empower you.
Jealousy takes time to process to a point where it doesn’t harm us or our relationships. It’s important to acknowledge that jealousy often reveals fears or insecurities, so it’s more productive to share and discuss those fears with your partner than let them affect your mood or relationship.
Especially on those can that help counter the negative impact of jealousy. Gratitude is high in the list, as it’s considered one of the positive emotions that contribute the most to our overall well-being. Some of its benefits include better relationships with others, a more optimistic outlook on life and higher self esteem.
At first sight, it can seem that compersion is counter-intuitive and 'just wrong'. But seeing that it works for some couples, it could be useful to question why we think this way and how much of our perception is guided by social norms or expectations. If the thought intrigues you, you may consider alternative ways of dealing with those expectations. Building compersion doesn’t come easy or automatically, but if it makes sense for you and your partner, why not give it a try? •
Main image: shutterstock/astarot
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A social sciences graduate with a keen interest in languages, communication, and personal development strategies. Dee loves exercising, being out in nature, and discovering warm and sunny places where she can escape the winter.
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