As with any subculture that exists in opposition to the mainstream, polyamory is rife with gatekeepers and purists who insist there is only One Right Way to be poly. Read a book on non-monogamy or hang around enough poly Facebook groups and you will see the term “compersion” a lot.
Compersion, often explained as the opposite of jealousy, is the joy you experience “when a partner invests in and takes pleasure from another romantic or sexual relationship”. In poly circles, it is common to hear people speak about the compersion they feel when a partner goes on their first date with someone new, or comes home and gushes all about their date, or excitedly confides that they think they are falling in love.
I’ve been polyamorous for nearly four years and I’m pretty sure I have never experienced compersion.
The poly gatekeepers and purists will have you believe that you’re not doing non-monogamy right if you’re not elated by the thought of your loved one being in love with someone else. But for some people compersion may not be possible, and that doesn’t mean you’re doing polyamory wrong.
I had a fairly tumultuous childhood growing up, and while I did not want for love or attention, the precariousness of our situation — will the lights get turned off this week? are we going back to the food bank? where did mom go? — meant that I was almost always waiting for the other shoe to drop. In fact, my ability to anticipate the worst outcome and prepare for it was a survival skill.
Years of therapy later and I’ve learned that while this particular skill was once necessary, it no longer serves me. So I’m working to undo it. But that’s a very hard thing to do when you have an anxiety disorder informed by intense fears of abandonment.
So, for me at least, I think it’s hard to experience compersion because it’s hard to feel any kind of joy when your body and brain are in panic mode. What if my partner meets someone new and likes them better? What if their lack of attention to me these past couple days means they’re deeply unhappy with me or they’re too busy with a new love to give me the care and support I need? Will there be any love left for me if my partner is allowed to love as many people as they want???
Polyamory can be really difficult for folks with anxiety disorders. So why even bother?
Well, for one — I was just as anxious in my relationships when I was monogamous. Secondly, because non-monogamy forces me to work on my shit. I cannot be a good partner, cannot forge healthy relationships with my spouse and others, if I allow my anxiety to control how I behave in my relationships, or the expectations I put on others.
And I’ve truly made tons of progress towards being a more secure, less jealous partner.
So if you struggle with compersion, I promise you are not alone. You (or I) may never experience compersion. But there’s still hope you can mitigate the negative feelings you have when your partner is with someone else.
Through a combination of therapy and medication, I have slowly but surely become less and less anxious about my partners’ other relationships, especially in my primary partnership. One new medication in particular has helped a lot (Cymbalta — and this totally isn’t an endorsement, I know meds work differently for everyone). Just a few weeks into using it, my once-daily panic attacks had subsided. And then, an amazing thing happened:
My partner went up to LA to visit his long-term girlfriend and I experienced literally no anxiety, worry, or jealousy.
It was a huge moment for me. A couple visits later, I was even kinda excited for my partner, knowing he was going to have a good time with someone he cared about. And a visit or two after that, I took the day off work while he was gone to experience the joy of being alone and having the house to myself.
Gone were the pangs of jealousy, the tightness in my chest, the thought spiraling that I’d have to talk myself out of every single visit. I didn’t even have to remind myself that my partner loved me and would return soon — it was something I just knew.
I don’t have words to describe how freeing this experience has been. I wish everyone I know and love could experience this kind of anxiety-free existence in whatever aspects of their lives they need it most. And honestly? It’s possible that I may actually experience compersion someday.