Relationship Tips

How Romantic Compersion—the ‘Opposite of Jealousy’—May Signal That Polyamory Could Work for You

Photo: Getty Images/Mireya Acierto
Widely understood to be the opposite of jealousy, the term compersion refers to a feeling of joy, fulfillment, or excitement when someone we care about experiences joy, fulfillment, or excitement themselves. And while anyone can experience compersion, if you're interested in exploring polyamory, being able to access compersion can serve as a green light, of sorts.

For polyamorous couples, compersion extends to joy felt when one's partner experiences joy with another lover. Polyamory resources can sometimes frame compersion as an aspirational emotion individuals must work toward feeling, but many folks are naturally inclined toward compersion, which can serve as indication that a polyamorous relationship structure could work well for you.

Some signs you might be experiencing romantic compersion in subtle ways already? Have you ever been on a date and felt a jolt of maybe-exciting, maybe-confusing energy when an attractive server starts playfully flirting with them in front of you? Perhaps your partner starts flirting back and you find yourself a little… turned on that they're obviously lit up by this interaction? Well, according to Megan Stubbs, EdD, sexologist and author of Playing Without a Partner, that's a classic, "sneaky way" sexual compersion might show up in an otherwise monogamous relationship.

Of course, this idea has platonic applications, too. North Carolina-based sexologist Tanya Bass, PhD, describes compersion as "a sheer delight" in someone else's delight, and she sees it bloom outside of romantic relationships all the time. "Think about the levels of excitement and connection you have with people throughout your life," she says. "If someone announces they're having a baby, and you know that's something they've been longing for, you really enjoy their enjoyment. It's almost like you get pleasure and fulfillment from their pleasure and their fulfillment." Maybe you've been struggling with fertility, or maybe you're actively repulsed by the idea of pregnancy. But the ability to share in a pregnant friend's happiness, alongside any other emotions, captures the same healthy dynamic as romantic compersion—especially when jealousy is also a factor.

In the context of a romantic framework, if you and a partner find yourselves energized by a certain exchange rather than riddled with jealousy, it's worth taking note of those feelings. In another scenario, you might not observe the flirtation firsthand, but find yourself feeling delighted and curious when your partner shyly admits the encounter to you. And if you're glad your partner had that experience and feel a positive urge to hear all the details, that, too, might indicate there's more to explore.

Keep in mind, jealousy and compersion aren't mutually exclusive

If you do experience romantic jealousy but are still interested in compersion, Dr. Bass contends you're hardly doomed. Much like a nostalgic moment can make us feel happy and sad at the same time, compersion and jealousy can coexist in a relationship, because though they're often framed as opposite, they're not mutually exclusive. And, in fact, research supports this.

"With compersion, there's an understanding that there are some things I can't fulfill and don't need to fulfill in my partner(s)." —Tanya Bass, PhD, sexologist

"I think they're related, but that doesn't mean 'the opposite of.' Jealousy typically arises when a person feels threatened," says Dr. Bass. "With compersion, there's an understanding that there are some things I can't fulfill and don't need to fulfill in my partner(s). I love that they can get that somewhere else and we can still have a very vibrant, healthy, strong, and satisfying relationship."

Of course, jealousy is a normal human emotion like any other, and there's nothing inherently wrong with feeling it. But if you've successfully untethered it from carrying any moral judgments, and it's still an unwanted emotion for you, then you might think of jealousy as a yellow flag, signaling "some relationship maintenance required," regardless of whether you're interested in exploring polyamory or already have.

Jealousy might point to an unmet need that's preventing you from feeling securely attached in your relationship. Maybe, suggests Dr. Stubbs, you feel intimidated or in danger of losing your partner. Maybe you're applying a scarcity-model framework to your relationship—that is, the idea that love is hard to come by and we must therefore cling to whatever relationship we've got, even if it ceases to be functional or fulfilling. Or, perhaps you feel that your partner's love is finite and whatever they're doling out elsewhere takes away from what they're dedicating to you.

"People sometimes think of polyamorous couples as being 'anything goes,' when in actuality, there's a lot of communication, a lot of boundaries, a lot of discussions going on," Dr. Stubbs says. "So I think the more we can be specific about our communication, the easier it is to experience compersion and also address when jealousy comes up." So, while being able to experience romantic compersion (happiness for your partner's happiness) might serve as a polyamory green light, jealous feelings aren't necessarily a red light, either.

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