Happy That Your Partner's Happy? Here's Everything You Need to Know About Compersion

·5-min read
Happy friends holding each other
Happy friends holding each other

If you've never heard the word "compersion" before, you're not alone. The term, which has origins in the polyamorous community, has been around since the late 1980s, but it can't be found in the dictionary. Compersion is an emotion, often thought of as the opposite of jealousy. It's feeling happiness for someone else's happiness - even when that happiness isn't related to you.

But since compersion isn't widely talked about, it's also not widely practiced. If you are someone who struggles with jealousy or who wants to learn more about what it means to feel compersion within your relationship, POPSUGAR spoke to a clinical psychologist and relationship expert to get to the root of what compersion really is.

The Relationship Between Compersion and Jealousy

Liz Powell, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and author of Building Open Relationships, told POPSUGAR that "compersion in its simplest form is happiness for someone else's happiness." In a polyamorous relationship, that might mean feeling happy for your partner knowing they're getting pleasure from another person they're seeing; in a monogamous relationship, it might mean accepting and supporting a partner who finds joy in something you can't personally relate to or understand.

Relatedly, Dr. Powell explained that "jealousy can be defined as 'you have something that I want, and I don't want you to have it. I want to have it instead.'" Though compersion is commonly thought of as the opposite of jealousy, Dr. Powell said the relationship between the terms is more nuanced. "I don't think that they're opposites in that feeling one precludes you from feeling the other," they explained. "I think it's more that, as with many emotions, we can see a mix of things at the same time."

Feeling more compersion in your life won't mean that you're never jealous, but compersion does add a new layer to work past the difficult and sometimes pervasive emotion of jealousy. "What practicing compersion and developing compersion as a skill can do for us is help us to find ways to get out of that initial brush of jealousy so that we can take a step back and see, 'Is this me being insecure?' 'Is this that there's something in this relationship that I need more of, or that I need differently?'" Dr. Powell said.

Practicing Compersion Is Like Practicing Gratitude

In order to become a more compersive person, you have to practice. "When you choose to practice compersion as a skill and as a practice, it's the same way that you would practice gratitude," Dr. Powell explained.

Practicing compersion is about interrupting your usual thought process, which may revert to jealousy or another negative emotion. "Compersion as a skill or compersion as a practice looks like acknowledging what you're feeling that may be challenging or hard, and then taking a breath and deciding to focus on other things," Dr. Powell said. Focus instead on what you can feel happiness about in a situation. Focus on how your partner feels and how their feelings make you feel.

Dr. Powell suggested that in these situations, you consider, "OK, these things that I'm feeling are valid that have to do with jealousy or fears or insecurities, but are there also things that I can notice that are benefits here that I can be happy about that don't erase or negate those more challenging things, but that are also present at the same time?"

Take time to explore your feelings in a journal, or talk about it with a friend. This isn't something you have to do on your own. "Something that I'll recommend for folks is having a compersion buddy, so someone you can contact who will help you celebrate the good things, especially if compersion is super challenging for you," Dr. Powell said. "If you have someone in your life who's really good at compersion that you can go to and say, 'I'm having trouble finding the compersion here,' who you can ask your questions to and talk through it, that can be really helpful."

You Don't Have to Feel 100% Compersive All the Time

Since compersion is a practice, it's also not something you should feel pressure to get right every single time. To Dr. Powell, compersion is "about moving out of this either-or, black-or-white kind of approach to emotionality . . . and instead finding a lot of nuance and gray."

It's OK if you fail to find the compersion in a situation, and it doesn't make you a bad person, either. Compersion is something to aspire to, but it's not possible all of the time.

"Jealousy is that really important 'check engine' light for us to tell us that something's happening that we need to pay attention to," Dr. Powell said. "So part of this compersion practice has to also be about making space for those challenging emotions and making space to actually pay attention to them. Listen to that and work through them rather than just shoving them aside or pretending they don't exist or telling them you don't want them there."

Whatever it is you're feeling, you shouldn't run away from it, but know that with some time and intention, you can also develop compersion as a "superpower," as Dr. Powell said.

"We have way more language for challenging emotions than we do for ones that feel positive to us," they said. Through being more intentional about compersion, we can better expand our vocabularies.

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