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Guest post: The Psychology of Compersion by Allison Gamble

Posted in Guest Bloggers, and Polyamory

I’ve delayed my Ethical Slut Read-along because I’ve misplaced my copy of the book. Honey is going to loan me hers temporarily, but in the mean time here’s a fantastic guest post.

The read-along and my other writings here have touched on the topics of jealousy and its opposite, compersion. When Allison Gamble contacted me recently to offer her thoughts on the psychology of these complex emotions I was eager to accept.

Allison Gamble, guest blogger on Approximately 8,000 Words. Photo by Evil Erin / Emergency Brake.

I could hear their bed thumping against my wall, the whine of his climax, and a shudder of breath from her. My then-boyfriend looked at the wall behind us, scowling, angry at the loud sounds of sex. We were watching TV; it wasn’t as though the noise was interrupting brain surgery. “Can’t they be quiet?” he asked. I agreed, but really, I thought, “Good for them.”

That was my first experience with compersion – the feeling of happiness one feels when someone else is receiving pleasure, and in the context of polyamory, that means that when your partner feels good, you feel good, no matter who’s doing the touching. You don’t need a psychology degree to know that this emotion doesn’t come naturally for everyone. Whether polyamorous or monogamous, we are naturally inclined to be happy when our partner is happy. Yet when sexuality enters the equation, things fall out of balance.

The word compersion was coined by the Kerista Commune, a polyamorous commune in San Francisco that disbanded in the early nineties. It was derived from a French term, comperage, used in a 1943 anthropology text by Claude Levi Strauss to refer to the relationship between “brother-in-law” sexual sharing of wives in South American Indians.

Tristan Taormino, a sex-educator, has stated that, “Compersion is what you feel when you have reprogrammed your brain not to feel jealousy any more.  Jealousy is learnt behaviour, reinforced by everything from complex German opera to advertising.”

By exploring the roots of our difficult emotions like jealousy, we can begin to change how we react. Photo by Samat Jain.

We are socialized, in a monogamous culture, to believe that relationships should have a one-to-one ratio. When we’re learning how to be in relationships, we never learn how to take pleasure in our partner’s pleasure. We’re taught to be jealous, and it’s a hard emotion to shake. Jealousy is not a natural, biological reaction. It’s something we learn from watching our older siblings hoard their toys, and when we’re given a car with two seats in the front during The Game of Life. The snag is that people are not playthings to be hidden away for personal use.

Compersion is a far more natural emotion – think about the look on your partner’s face when they make new friends at work. When they open a gift they love? Many have compared the feeling of compersion to the feeling of watching their children at play. Doesn’t their happiness bring you joy? Why shouldn’t you be glad for their pleasure, even if it’s not at your hands?

Address the root of your jealousy – what are you  really feeling? Are you feeling upset that your partner is with someone else rather than spending time with you? Are you afraid that your position as the primary might be usurped? Maybe you’re feeling dissatisfied that you aren’t receiving sexual contact when you want it.

At the root of jealousy is an element of fear or dissatisfaction. Be open with your feelings with your partners; share your jealousy, and identify the cause of it. Then fix whatever needs to be fixed. If you want to have a designated date once a week, ask for it. If you want to get to know the new partner, then ask her out to coffee.

In a polyamorous relationship, compersion is a practical, and truthfully, a necessary emotion to experience in regards to your partner’s pleasure. You can’t expect to thrive in an open relationship when you’re heeding a sense of jealousy. After all, if you can’t be open and accepting about their pleasure, how can you expect them to be open and accepting of your pleasure?

Allison Gamble has been a curious student of psychology since high school. She brings her understanding of the mind to work in the weird world of internet marketing. She is a writer for PsychologyDegree.Net.

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