Teach me how to feel compersion

Image by the amazing Stuart F Taylor

Compersion: the feeling you get when you see a person you love being really, incredibly happy with someone who isn’t you. It’s an awesome word, which I was introduced to by polyamorous friends. They explained to me that compersion is how they feel when a loved one is with (fucking, loving, hanging out with) someone else who makes them happy. It’s the opposite of jealousy, with which I’m much more familiar: the feeling I get when the person I love is fucking someone else and it makes me want to curl into a ball and weep until I shrivel and die.

Trying to feel compersion

I understand compersion, I think. At least, I have tried so fucking hard to understand it that I now have an idea of the shape of the feeling – what it’s supposed to look like when I hold it in my head. I understand which sensations it should fire in my brain. The contented warmth of knowing that someone you love is happy, and recognising that the happiness they get from fucking other people is not a replacement for happiness they get from you: it’s an addition.

My rational brain wholly ‘gets’ what compersion is meant to be. But it ‘gets’ it in the same way a scientist understands sonar: as graphs and charts and explanations, not the feeling that it is like to only ‘see’ with sound. So I marvel at people who do feel compersion, and I suck up details, greedy for the secret that can help me feel the same thing.

I want it. I am in training for it. If this were a film you’d slip in a compersion-learning montage, in which I mentally photoshop a bunch of pictures of threesomes I’m not present at, or my other half fucking someone else without me, and I try to force a genuine smile.

I would really like to be comfortable with my boyfriend fucking other people. I would like it in the same way I’d like not to hate spiders or my own body. As I’d like to be able to discard my anxiety like a shirt that no longer fits.

The hardest thing about being a sex blogger is the nagging feeling that I’m supposed to be really good at this stuff. I’ve read all the books, and I’ve pored over other people’s blogs where they write posts about how happy they are to hear that their partner had a brilliant fuck with someone else. I should be like them. I should do this thing. I should be happy to think about my other half fucking someone. I should welcome it, because he doesn’t belong to me.

I understand compersion, on exactly this level, I just cannot make myself feel it.

I don’t understand how. I catch glimpses of it sometimes, if we’re fucking people we know. I can see him being happy, and see them being happy, and get a glow of delight that this thing is causing joy.

But it is causing joy for me because we are doing it together. It’s an adventure. A journey we’re all going on, aided and abetted by wine and lube and really, seriously good friendship. So that’s not compersion, it’s just bog-standard happiness, of the kind I’d get if we did anything else side-by-side: built a great Lego spaceship or cycled together in the rain.

I love this group stuff, and I can extend it to include more people or different people but…  as soon as I remove myself from the scenario that familiar pang of jealousy shoots through my stomach, and I realise that again I’ve failed.

Monogamy isn’t everything

One of the most frustrating things about monogamy is the myth we’ve bought into that one person can fulfil all of our needs. He can no more fulfil all my needs than he could sprout wings and take flight: I need friends to go to the pub with, to hang out with, to talk to about him. Likewise he needs friends to do the things I can’t: play Overwatch on Xbox or talk shit about me when I’ve pissed him off. These are all important, necessary things. These are all needs I accept I can’t fulfil myself.

Yet when it comes to the need to fuck new and interesting people, I cannot see it. I want to see it. I want to be able to grok that the ‘new’ does not mean ‘better’ – it just means ‘new’. My rational brain understands it, but my heart does not. Because these people are not just better or newer or more interesting: they are necessarily not me.

I’ve talked briefly about compersion before on Twitter. When I asked how I could understand it better, a few people responded by asking – quite rightly – ‘why?’

Why do I need to feel this thing, if it seems so uncomfortable to me? Why force myself to enjoy something which right now fills me with dread? Someone implied that it was peer pressure – a pervasive ‘sex bloggers should shag everyone’ mentality that is patently false. Someone else suggested that maybe my other half was putting pressure on me because he wanted to get his end away. Neither of those things hits the mark. It’s not about them: it’s about me. It’s about the life I can imagine for myself – and my partner – if sexual jealousy was not just pared down but stripped away completely.

It’s me seeing my polyamorous friends being happy. Not feeling like I want to compete or that I have to keep up, but just… wanting it. Aching for it. That happy emotional confidence.

So I try and understand compersion: I feel the shape of it in my mind. And I try to hold it there as I picture him fucking other women. Having private jokes with them, or whispering secret filth that he learned from me or from porn. Marvelling at the new facial expressions this or that person makes when she comes. Learning techniques that he’ll bring home to me that will make my stomach churn with a mixture of lust and repulsion. I hold all that in my mind, and I try to make myself happy. I try to feel compersion.

I try, and I try, and I try.

And all that time spent trying is time that’s slipping away. Time that could be expended on doing hot things, not just thinking about them. Days and weeks and months that add up to a whole lifetime. A lifetime wasted, waiting for me to learn.

What if I just never ever learn?


  • Mrs Fever says:

    I like your “scuppered his lifelong dream” tag. :)

    I don’t really think compersion is something you can ‘learn’. It is, ultimately, a feeling. And some of us experience feelings that others do not. I don’t do rage, for example – I have no clue how and couldn’t learn if I tried (and I did try, because my brother had serious issues with it and I couldn’t understand; still don’t). Others don’t understand sadness.

    Some people don’t/can’t experience a specific emotion.

    It’s not bad or wrong, it has nothing to do with intelligence or maturity, it’s just human nature.

    Inversely, you can’t NOT feel some things. I can’t NOT feel a pang of hurt or a twinge of worry as a response to certain situations. It’s quite normal.

    Obviously I don’t know your poly friends, but I do know my own, and the whole “we never get jealous” thing is total bullshit. Poly people –
    even those who got the Compersion Gene – experience jealousy, they just (1) subvert it, or (2) turn it back on themselves and turn it into a couch session with their inner armchair psychoanalyst. {Number 2 might be slightly fecetious, but it ultimately takes jealousy and makes it an exercise in “all about me” that is introspective rather than attention-seeking.}

    Compersion is also NOT a Universally Applied Thing. Like, I can feel compersion for my spouse with one of his partners, but not another. It largely boils down to personality clashes and respecting limits. This may not seem obvious at the outset, at least it wasn’t obvious to ME, but when I really looked at the Why, I realized that Person One was a long-time friend who respected our parameters as a couple and that Person Two was constantly pushing for more than we agreed to and was not respectful of boundaries, even with small things like “5-8pm Thursdays is Our Time. We’re on a date. You can access him any other time on any other day, even during vampire hours. But not 5-8pm on Thursdays. Stop blowing up his fucking phone because I will treat you both like the children you’re behaving as and TAKE THE GODDAMN THING AWAY.”

    And really, I think you DO feel compersion. A form of it comes naturally for you, anyway. Because otherwise you’d hate it when he played videogames with his blokes or when he enjoyed any part of group sex.

    But doing things together, as a couple, sexually speaking, is different than flying solo. Whether it’s a threesome or foursome or moresome… It’s very clear who is doing what to/with whom. It’s visible, accessible, out in the open. You’re in the same room. Anyone can call a halt at any time, and conversations are heard/participated-in by all.

    There’s an element of control there that’s removed as soon as you’re off on your own. It becomes an exercise in communication and a huge test of trust. (And if one or both of you have a history of lying/cheating/hiding – I’ve read your book, so I get how that could be A Thing – it can constantly re-open old wounds every time he doesn’t tell you something or you forget to ask him something, etc.)

    A n y w a y

    That’s a very long way of saying, “Compersion isn’t for everybody.”

    And this is not advice, just a smattering of ideas based on my own experience: http://mrsfever.com/2015/09/25/adventures-in-non-monogamy/

  • H says:

    I always enjoy your tags but this Parks & Rec one has made me laugh out loud.

    But oh, how I relate to this post. How I long to one day also learn to feel compersion (and not compression, which my phone is desperately trying to auto correct to).

  • SweetTheSting says:

    Really eloquent post.

  • Rather no publicly say says:

    I tried. I failed. We broke up.

    It might interest you to know about prairie voles and montaine voles. Prairie voles are mongamous. They get really jealous if any other vole goes near their partner, and spend a lot of time with them. Montaine voles sleep around and don’t really care about who they do it with.

    They found that the main difference was that prairie voles had more vasopressin receptors in their brains. Turn those off and they stopped being monogamous. Turn them back on and they bond with their partners again.

    If you happen to have a brain which has those receptors then you’re going to feel the emotion. You may learn how to cope with it – but you’re still going to feel it. If you don’t have the receptors then you’re not going to feel the emotion, and you probably won’t understand the people who do.

    Don’t beat yourself up for feeling the way you feel.


    • Hazelthecrow says:

      That is really interesting. I hope in my lifetime they figure out how if its similar in humans. Id imagine we vary at birth in neurological set up along a spectrum from high to low capacity for compersion – complicated further by emotional baggage as we go along finding out…

  • SpaceCaptainSmith says:

    It sounds like people have already said this, but for what it’s worth: polyamory is not morally superior to monogamy. Being monogamous rather than polyamorous doesn’t make you a bad person. There’s nothing morally wrong about feeling jealousy.

    Some people are just naturally monogamous, others are naturally polyamorous, and someone who’s one trying to be the other is arguably unwise. It’s definitely wrong to force your partner into polyamory/monogamy if it’s not for them, even if you’re clear that’s not happening here.

    I kind of understand your plight, but I’m not sure it would be possible to make yourself feel compersion, any more than a straight person can make themselves gay. Maybe it’s better to just try to accept who you are, and try to achieve your own idea of happiness rather than someone else’s.

  • Alix Fox says:

    Great post, great comments. I’d like to suggest a new term: “compervert” – someone who can feel happy about their partner sexing other people, but only when they’re present to perv at the action and be a part of it themselves.

  • Lola says:

    I agree with Mrs. Fever. HH feels compersion for me and my beaus, but I don’t think I could “learn” to feel it for him. Luckily, we’re both happy that way.

  • Jul says:

    I…I just adore you and this blog so much, gotn. You have a way of talking about your anxieties and struggles that’s so goddamn honest and true without being one iota self-indulgent. We’re about the same age and I’ve had a lot of the same issues you have (once told my doctor that sex on antidepressants felt like getting poked in the ear with a finger, never mind actually coming; have always felt guilty and frustrated by my inability to feel compersion; etc, etc) so of course I relate, rather intensely. I know better than to feel alone with my problems, but hearing you talk about them reminds me that I’m in excellent company. I wonder if you’re so good at openness and vulnerability because you’ve had as much therapy as I have, or if it just comes naturally to you. Either way, it’s a marvelous quality. Thank you so much for your honesty.

  • Discrete reader says:

    I enjoy the blog and this is a wonderful topic. I have to disagree with the other replies. I believe (as I think you do) that ultimately we are responsible for our own thoughts and feelings, that they are on some level a choice we make. If you can find joy or happiness in other activities that your partner enjoys
    that may even include other people, then why not for sex?

  • Jo says:

    You don’t have to learn – shoulds are an enemy of joy. I’m polyamorous and feel jealousy; knowing your partners are with other people is fucking hard, even if you’re with other people too. For every time you’ve seen your poly friends in a blissful I-love-my-life-full-of-compersion state, they’ve probably experienced a dozen moments of insecurity and vulnerability and frustrated tears of GODWHYAMIDOINGTHIS?! I had a super emotional conversation with my partner about this very thing this morning; thinking about him having sex with other people doesn’t bother me, but I want to *know* about it beforehand if possible – because like you, I want to feel like we’re a team. I want it to feel normal, not like a Big Scary Thing We Have To Talk About. If you can look over at him boning someone else during group sex and smile, then… I think you *are* feeling compersion, not just happiness. Be kind to yourself… feeling guilty for having feelings that you can’t help feeling is more stressful than the original bad feelings!

  • Bee says:

    This is me. I fight so hard with myself over this and often end up hating myself for not feeling it.

    I can watch him with others and I love it but for him to go off on his own…nope! I just twist myself into a total mess over it.

    If you find out the secret can you pass it onto me please?!

  • Hazelthecrow says:

    Oh GOTN, you are fine how you are and your eloquence and honesty attracts a very wise bunch of commenters. I’m poly by nature and found that compersion came easily and naturally -UNTIL my trust was badly abused. Now its more difficult, and I mourn the bit of me that got damaged. I think for me it is very much about being able to know, deep down, that your partner is not replacing you and that both they and their other partner respect your relationship and care about noone getting hurt. It requires kindness, consideration and reassurance to come back the other way. Like Jo, I prefer to be in the loop, not find out after the fact, and I want to at least meet the other person and be reassured they bear me no ill will. I’ve lost two partners that at the end of the day just weren’t wired for polamory, and though it was awful both times its better this way. The worst thing each of them could have done to me was exactly what they did: pretend to be OK, pretend to accept me as I am, refused to communicate honestly and in the end, go about their own side-affairs in very destructive and unkind ways, and allow appalling behaviour from other partners. Perhaps because they couldn’t imagine my capacity for compersion, they couldn’t value it or treat it as the strange and delicate thing it is. Honesty about how they felt from the beginning would have saved an actual nervous breakdown.
    Being poly is hard and often terrifying.
    I don’t think compersion is as far away from the happiness you feel doing things together as you think. Comperving together like that…i can but dream. You have what sounds like fantastic relationship, and you are quite clearly already good enough. xx

  • Critter says:

    At the risk of sounding like a broken record, polyam and open relationships aren’t for everyone, and eveyone does those relationship models a little differently.

    You seem to enjoy swinging, and that’s cool! But it’s okay not to feel compersion. It’s ok to get jealous and to want boundaries in your relationships if you communicate that clearly. There are many good sex lives out there; you don’t have to rack up a high partner count to have one. It’s really, truly, actually ok not to be able to control your heart, because no one can leash that wild thing.

    And not being comfortable with her partner having other people without you does not make you less of a pervert, less sexually liberated, less of a sex blogger, less of a good partner, less anything. You’re a person who gets jealous in a particular situation, and that’s ok. In fact, for a wide definition of “particular situation”, that’s like 99% of the planet.

  • You sort of nail it when you refer to spiders. I have written an article about how the visceral reactions of jealousy share many common traits with phobias: rationally, we know spiders are harmless or planes don’t just fall from the sky but we’re scared to death nonetheless.
    My take on this, for everyone who needs to make the irrational manifestations of jealousy more bearable is to try the kinds of techniques that seem to give results against other phobias. https://lesfessesdelacremiere.wordpress.com/2017/02/22/et-si-la-jalousie-etait-parfois-un-genre-de-phobie/

  • Girl on the net says:

    Hey everyone – thank you so much for your thoughtful comments on this! It’s taken me ages to reply because I was away, and also because I wanted to think a bit on this and digest it all properly before I replied. Mrs Fever – your blog post is incredibly helpful reading, thank you! Audren, that’s a really interesting analogy re: phobias too!

    I totally get what lots of you are saying about poly just being *right* for some people but *wrong* for others – I definitely don’t think it’s a moral ideal, or that it’s something anyone should strive for if it’s making them miserable. I think my main issue is that I can totally envisage a future in which I am able to embrace a little more openness (if not actual full-on relationships with other people) and in that future I can picture myself being happy. I can see more opportunity. I can fall in love with the idea, and I kind of want to work at seeing if it is possible. It’s not that I think being open is better, just that I think if I can get over this jealousy hurdle it could well be better for me. It might not, but I want to try.

    I guess part of this comes from having had to train myself in certain ways to try and do things that challenge or upset me in other areas: anxiety, for instance. I’ve done lots of counselling that helps me understand why I feel the way I feel, and work with those feelings and/or try to find ways to overcome them or head them off at the pass. I’d like to try and push myself a little with compersion too, because if I can face some of the things I’m worried about and show my panicky/anxious/jealous self that my relationship and love is still secure, then perhaps I can start to feel compersion. But I totally get what many of you are saying: it might just not be possible and I shouldn’t beat myself up about it. I think I do still want to try though. Am kind of hoping I can give it a bit more of a push this year and we’ll see what comes of it. If it doesn’t work out, I know it isn’t the end of the world =)

  • Alice says:

    This is a really interesting post – thank you for writing it! I like a lot of the thoughts that people shared above, particularly that poly isn’t for everyone. It’s easy to say and massively hard to deal with if it turns out that poly *is* the right fit for your partner and isn’t for you, but that doesn’t change the fact that it isn’t something that suits everyone.

    Other than that, Discrete Reader said part of what I was coming here to say – starting to try and feel compersion around your partner having sex with other people is kind of like trying to learn how to play the piano by starting out with a 5-page piece by Beethoven. You may get there, but it’ll be pretty painful unless you’ve got a massive knack for it, or unless you’ve got a lot of experience already.

    If you can think about things your partner has done without you that were awesome for him, it can start giving your brain a bit of an ‘on-ramp’ to these kinds of feelings. Most often, these are probably going to be activities that he likes that you don’t (‘I’m so glad that you enjoyed eating every incredibly spicy thing at that food fair! I’m glad I’m here without the searing heartburn I would’ve gotten if I tried even one bite!’) But if you can think of other situations where you wish you’d been part of it but are still glad that he went, it can start to build out that part of your emotional landscape a bit.

    All of us have these moments in our relationships, but we often don’t think on them all that much. And at least in the US, I feel like there’s a fair expectation that Couples Do Everything Together that gets in the way of even thinking about nonsexual kinds of compersion.

    Also, as someone with anxiety, I think it’s def. worth spending time thinking about that piece of things. I know that a LOT of my negative feelings in the past have come from feeling insecure about what the situation will mean for me. Asking for a metric shitton of reassurance wasn’t fun, but it did help me to disentangle the fears I had about us from the uncertainty that comes with a partner doing something new without me.

    And the relationships where nonmonogamy was an option but not a requirement definitely helped me get to a more comfortable place around it all. Knowing that my partner would be OK with things *even if* I decided that I wasn’t going to find a comfortable path with polyamory meant that I felt a lot freer to poke around in the painful parts of my brain. Trying to navigate those areas with a blanket feeling of ‘and if I can’t handle this, then we’re going to break up/I’m going to be stifling them’ was a lot harder.

  • Shane says:

    I take a – a sort of middle position? – to some of the comments. I don’t think compersion-or-jealousy is necessarily innate, but that doesn’t mean it’s a choice or ‘something you should be doing’ either. I’m sure some come to it easy, some may never feel it. And we can choose to be open/poly/monogamous/whatever either way.

    I’ve found it relates a lot to how I’m feeling overall about that relationship and in the rest of my life. And (for me!) when I’m feeling jealous or grumpy there’s often other things to work on that make all the difference. Making sure I’ve connected with my partner. Sometimes just expressing how I’m feeling. Occasionally it means asking for reassurance. Sometimes it’s worse if they haven’t handled their chores or we need to discuss that bill we’ve both been avoiding. Making sure I’ve connected with other friends and my life is feeling good and full.

    I know that getting to feel compersion isn’t something I’ve worked directly on and I don’t think I *could* work directly on. It was really helpful to know that it was a thing and there wasn’t something wrong with me or with my love if I didn’t feel jealous.

  • Sam says:

    Compersion is lovely, but you don’t have to learn to feel it. You need to address the underlying jealousy, if you can. Think about what you DO feel when you imagine your partner with another woman; what is it? Break it down as small as you can; are you afraid of something? Losing him? Being less important? Not being able to get time with him when you need it? Someone else giving him better orgasms? Be prepared to go deep with yourself, and then to talk to him about your fears, your needs, and what each of you might be able to do to remove those. The problem isn’t that you don’t know how to be happy that he’s happy; it’s clear from what you wrote that you already know how to do that. The problem is the other feelings which are overwhelming that. Maybe you can get to the bottom of those, and reduce or remove some of them.

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