Compersion: What It Means And How It Ties Into Ethical Non-Monogamy

When we talk about relationships, many of us immediately think of the conventional type that's made up of two people. You know, monogamous. But monogamy has only been the norm for roughly one-thousand years, and we've been eating it up. Because of this, we've been conditioned to believe that sharing a partner is wrong, weird, greedy, and a whole boatload of other negative, misguided thoughts.

Of course, there's no one way to have a happy and fulfilling relationship, nor is there just one way to love. This is a good thing, because when we examine the history of marriage, it comes down to cis women being owned by cis men. It's similar to the outdated concept of "the one" — it's all about the controlling hands of the patriarchy.

Often, when the topic of ethical non-monogamy (ENM), open relationships, polyamory, or any other relationship that bucks convention comes up, the most common question is about jealousy. Why? Because of how deeply monogamy has been ingrained in us, as well as the notion that sharing partners is simply not done. For those so concerned with jealousy, there's a word you need to add to your vocabulary: compersion. Never heard of it? You're not alone. While a quick definition of compersion is sort of the opposite of jealousy, there's actually more to it than that.

What is compersion?

If you jump over to Merriam-Webster, you'll find that the word compersion isn't there. That's because it's a term that was created by San Francisco-based commune Kerista at some point between 1971 and 1991 before the group dissolved. The members were, for lack of a better word, hippies who engaged in nonmonogamous sex freely. Like any commune, Kerista had its own set of rules, including a list of what was forbidden: jealousy, preferential treatment, racism, hard drugs, and the word "love," per The San Francisco Examiner. In a community where jealousy wasn't allowed, a new concept was developed: compersion.

"[Compersion is] that joy that has nothing to do with your joy," relationship coach specializing in consensual non-monogamy Effy Blue told Mind Body Green. "It's sympathetic joy or unselfish joy, where you are joyful for the other person for things that have nothing to do with you. You're just happy for them because they're in a good place, because they are experiencing joy, and you can sort of look at it from the outside and feel the same experience."

Compersion is, in some ways, extreme empathy. You've not only put yourself in the shoes of someone else to understand them, but you feel the joy that they feel. If you haven't noticed, yes, "joy" and "joyfulness" is very much at the heart of compersion, which makes sense considering its hippy roots stem from the free love movement.

Compersion and ethical non-monogamy

With ENM relationships, compersion comes into play when one partner experiences unselfish joy from knowing their partner is being satisfied by someone else. Granted, it's not always about sex. Those who practice ENM find pleasure in the pleasure their partner is having with someone else — that could mean sex, cuddling, having an intimate conversation, or any other type of pleasurable moment or feeling. It's the ability to let your partner go both physically and emotionally so they can enjoy others while you enjoy the fact they're experiencing joy from scenarios that don't\ involve you. But not everyone who gives ethical non-monogamy a try is capable of compersion. Jealousy is, after all, a very human emotion, so you can't just roll into ENM assuming compersion will come naturally.

"Some people feel compersion easily and authentically, while others have to work a bit harder toward getting there," AASECT-certified sex therapist Jenni Skyler, Ph.D. told Cosmopolitan. "Compersion usually arises for people who have done a lot of deep inner work and don't feel the threat of abandonment, or who don't feel like they're unworthy or unlovable."

Yes, compersion might be mind-boggling for those whose ideas of relationships are steeped in monogamy, but understanding the concept breaks down stereotypes that those who have multiple partners are selfish or greedy when it's the exact opposite. When we understand what's behind ENM relationships, we can broaden our view of what relationships can look like. If monogamy is only one-thousand years old, which is nothing compared to how long humans have been inhabiting the planet, maybe going back to our non-monogamous roots is the way to go.