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 twenty-five 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, at the time, 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—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.
Sometimes people ask me if I get jealous. I absolutely do—I feel it all. But as Ester Perel, the author of “Mating in Captivity” has said “We need a productive conversation about infidelity.” This is my productive conversation. And it is just that—a conversation.
To me compersion is a lifestyle, it’s a way to love and to be loved. I want my beloved, spouse, mate, partner (you choose the word) to care profoundly about what makes me thrive, as I care profoundly about his happiness.
I would not call myself polyamorous or monogamous. I have no interest in labeling myself and trying to follow someone else rules –especially in the most intimate of chambers–my marriage. I am sexual and I want my relationship to be alive with vitality, and a vehicle of growth for both us of us.
There are times my marriage is open. There are times it is shut. There are times in my life that it was perfect to be polyamorous, there are times when I did not want to “share”.
But here’s the thing—in my “modern marriage” (for lack of a better phrase) I reserve the right to have choices. I want an ongoing open conversation with my spouse. I frequently turn to my man—when we are relaxing together, sipping martini’s at a crowded bar, lying in a meadow near our road bikes after an exhausting ride and I ask—“How’s it going for you? What do you need?” It’s a casual inquiry that happens about once a week. Because I want to know. Because love is a verb, and I want my actions to be responsive.
Sexual and erotic attractions are part of life—a good part. When you are married these attractions happen. My thinking –as a sex positive activist– is let’s not kill the eros in our life. Fighting the death of eros is an ongoing battle. Many forces threaten eros—bills, caring for kids, ambitious careers. I want an erotic charge in my marriage—sometimes that comes by way of another person. That’s normal. Let’s not pathologize these very natural eruptions of eroticism.
However, I get to have a conversation with my love about what we do with our sexual attractions. Sometimes it’s nothing at all—sometimes it’s “legalized cheating”. I purposefully use this absurd phrase occasionally—because “legalized cheating” seems to be the only way some people can wrap their minds around what I am doing. It’s as if they think that there are “the Marriage Rules” ordained by God and society. The thinking is—there is one way to do it. Any deviation of the rules– even if consensual– is “cheating”.
I am continually fascinated that the idea of “ethical non-monogamy” strikes such fear. Cheating is so much more digestible to many people. For some people monogamy is the only way to construct a relationship—and if we have “slips” or affairs at least we are still faithful to that supreme goal of monogamy.
But my intention in my marriage is so much broader. I want longevity—a fifty year golden anniversary sounds great. But only if we are still in love, if there is still a spark, a passion an excitement to connect. Having this open conversation keeps that spark.
Bottom line, I want choices and intelligent discourse. I don’t want to find out one day that my man has been stepping out for years and I was totally oblivious. If you want to have sex with someone else—let’s talk about it. I want to know. Knowledge is power and intelligence—I never want to sit in the dark—I want the illumination of fully knowing the man I love. Even if it sends my heart accelerating with some fear.