I vividly remember the first time I felt it. My husband and I were in the backyard, lazing in the sun, sipping drinks as he described the previous evening. As he talked, his face looked brighter, his eyes clearer. In a flash of déjà vu, I remembered that same vibrant and enraptured look from 25 years earlier, when we first met. It was a sudden reemergence of his vitality that I hadn’t fully seen in our domestic nest for many years. But now, in his detailed (and scintillating) descriptions, that fire in his eyes was beaming.
“Baby,” I told him genuinely, “I am so happy for you!”
What brought on these feelings of joy in both of us? To be honest, he’d just had sex — with another woman. And, yep, I was stoked for him.
There’s actually a word for the joyful feeling that a polyamorous person has when his or her lover or spouse walks through the door after spending the afternoon making love to his or her new girlfriend or boyfriend: compersion. Compersion is such a novel concept that you won’t even find the word in the dictionary (unless you look in the Urban dictionary).
Feeling all warm and gooey because your spouse had a great time banging someone else is not something we’re socialized to feel. We can be thrilled for our partner if they get a raise or promotion or receive some kind of unexpected windfall, but why can’t we be happy for our partners who find joy in bed with someone else?
In that moment in the backyard when my husband was describing a spontaneous make out session, I felt slightly freakish that I was exuberantly happy for him. But it was at a point in our marriage when romance in the bedroom was at an all-time low. Between financial stressors, raising kids and working like crazy, there wasn’t a lot of fun to be had. Quite frankly, I was happy to see that my husband was still sexual. But it also felt scary. Not because it wasn’t a great way to love someone, but because of the anticipated judgment from the marriage police, those traditionalists descended from our Puritan ancestors who feel put on this earth to defend and enforce the status quo. These are people I run into at PTA meetings, school sporting events and at my suburban grocery store. They would resoundingly disapprove of my husband having a lover and would heap even more disapproval on me for being happy for him!
But this was the beginning of a new way of thinking for me — why did my husband and I have to maintain the status quo if it wasn’t working for us? Whose business was it if we wanted to be sexual with other people? And why wouldn’t we want to do something that was going to make our marriage work better? Most of our relationship worked, so why not fix the part that didn’t? Why couldn’t we discuss it honestly and be happy for each other?
Compersion fascinates me because it sanctions the idea of our partner deriving pleasure separate from us and from another source. In this way, compersion is antithetical to how we view relationships and expect to operate in them. We are raised to believe that when we are one half of a couple, we should derive all our happiness and pleasure from that single partner and only experience it together with that partner. Compersion challenges this ideology. It supports the idea that you are individual beings with perhaps divergent desires or needs. Having separate sexual and love experiences doesn’t mean your relationship is a failure; to the contrary, it can actually strengthen your connection.
In my research (which consists of Socratic-style questioning of hundreds of friends, acquaintances, coworkers, clients and strangers) I’ve seen how the whole relationship lockdown breeds an almost viral tendency to take the other person for granted, to have huge expectations and to deliver this all from a sense of duty and obligation — without even a thank-you! This stifling setup can prohibit the joyful feeling of compersion.
Can you pursue compersion in a monogamous relationship? Yes. It’s a quality that can help enliven any relationship. By giving it a go, you could open your heart to many happy and interesting possibilities.