“So I was with this girl…” is probably not something people want to hear from their significant other. Yet, it’s been the start of many fulfilling conversations that I’ve had with various partners. I spent the first three years of college involved in non-monogamous and non-exclusive, but emotionally involved, relationships, generally seeking out polyamorous partners.
It started my freshman year when I was involved with two boys who I cared about and valued equally. The experience taught me a lot about what I wanted in my romantic life, but, more than that, it expanded my emotional responses. I began to find that, along with developing a feeling of deeper appreciation for both partners, I see and respond differently to jealousy surrounding their other partners. As time went on, I began to feel happy when someone I was seeing would come to me about another relationship they were in. We’d talk about their apprehensions or excitements with their other partners as casually and normally as you’d talk to your best friend.
This feeling is called “compersion.” It’s an emotion so new that it hasn’t even been added to the dictionary. In an article for Psychology Today, Dr. Elizabeth A. Sheff describes the emotion as “the flip side of jealousy, compersion, or the warm glow of happiness that comes when one’s lover is happy with one of their other lovers.” Essentially, it’s a second-hand happiness that one feels when their partner is happy with another relationship. It’s well known in the polyamorous and non-monogamous spheres, and has long been the key to keeping a balance, fighting off jealousy for those involved in multiple relationships.
In a world where we wait to watch girls fight on the Bachelor, it may seem impossible to control your jealousy when your partner is actually seeing someone else. However, relationship psychologist and Emerson professor Lindsey Beck argues that those in non-mongamous and polyamorous relationships might actually experience less tension and jealousy than those in monogamous relationships.
“We know that one of the most reliable triggers for jealousy is knowing that there might be other people in the environment who our partners might be attracted to or interested in,” Beck says. “But what also seems to heighten that jealousy is not having information on those other people, so having that sort of ambiguity and uncertainty seems to be something that can really drive us crazy.” Beck explains that in non-monogamous relationships, this ambiguity could actually be resolved. “For people who are in a consensually non-monogamous relationship, who know about their partner’s other partners—to an extent that they’re comfortable with—we actually might even be able to predict that they might feel lower levels of jealousy and stress…it removes that certain ambiguity trigger.”
Jacob Seitz, a journalism major at Emerson, who recently began an open relationship with his partner of two years, feels a little differently. “I think it’s hard not to be jealous,” Seitz says, but he adds that compersion has actually helped him manage those feelings when they come up with his girlfriend. “For me, as long as she’s having a good time and happy, then I’m happy for her.”
There are elements of compersion that can certainly be translated into monogamous relationships, helping to manage and understand jealousy when it does crop up. Beck explains that the easiest and most natural way to incorporate these feelings in monogamy is through a sister concept known as “capitalization,” which focuses on the benefits of verbally sharing positive experiences.
“The work on capitalization shows that it is sort of good for us personally, so when we share a positive event with someone we’re close to, it allows us to relive that event in the first place...and then also it actually allows our partners—or whoever it is, whether it’s a romantic partner, or a friend, or a family member—to show us that they value us, and they care for us, and they understand us,” Beck says.
By incorporating capitalization and prioritizing happiness towards a partner, even if you feel somewhat jealous or threatened, your relationship can gain a compersion-like feeling and benefit from a whole host of positive results as well. In particular, Beck says, “[Capitalization] has positive implications by boosting both romantic partners’ satisfaction, their happiness in the relationship, their commitment to one another, and also the stability of the relationship.”
Compersion itself can also somewhat be incorporated into monogamy through a more difficult development: coming to terms with your partner’s past relationships. Understanding that it is okay that other people have made your significant other happy can be very hard, but it is also an important step in accepting their history and the development of their character. Just as you look back on your own exes, your partner also had other people they cared for. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be concerned if your partner keeps bringing their ex up in conversations; however, if your partner is merely friends with an ex, try not to overthink it.
It’s important to remember that compersion isn’t something we’re socialized to feel; it’s something we have to learn on our own. Whether your relationship is monogamous or non-monogamous, managing jealousy in such a vulnerable and emotional way is not an easy feeling to obtain, but it is incredibly beneficial once you achieve it.
Photography by Dasha German and Stephanie Purifoy