compersion

Last June, I came across the word compersion in a book about non-monogamous relationships. The book was Opening Up, by Tristan Taormino. It’s styled like a self-help book, but it’s more akin to a survey of the different kinds of non-monogamy (polygamy, polyamory, swinging, etc.), as well as some of the practical and emotional aspects of open relationships. The author doesn’t advocate for open relationships over strictly monogamous ones, but suggests that –given the difficulty many people have with long-term monogamy– people ought to know about the range of options available. Opening Up doesn’t dwell on the philosophical or moral implication of non-monogamy (the author assumes she has an open-minded audience), but she does make a persuasive ethical argument in the beginning of the book. After reviewing the statistics about divorce and cheating, she suggests that people in our society not only have unrealistic expectations about their own capacity to remain satisfied in monogamous relationship, but are frankly (and perhaps more damningly) uncreative in finding workable solutions. Because of the taboo on discussing open relationships, many rational, ethical solutions are never discussed or implemented. For many people, when they observe monogamous relationships break down after episodes of cheating, the conclusion is that sex/intimacy outside monogamy is the problem. Taormino suggests that the problem with cheating isn’t the sex itself, but, rather, the violation of trust. This feeling of having one’s trust violated is contingent on an expectation of monogamy, and insofar as the expectation of monogamy is eliminated in an open relationship, that feeling of violation is also eliminated. The upshot is that a broader conception of successful relationships that includes non-monogamy is ultimately salutary to healthy relationships.
So, I felt that summary would be useful before I introduced compersion. Compersion is a neologism, and is often defined as the opposite of jealousy. Whereas jealousy makes you feel negative when your partner experiences satisfaction with someone else, to feel compersion is to feel enjoyment when your partner experiences satisfaction with someone else. Just as one can feel jealousy outside the context of romantic/sexual relationships, compersion can also be applied to experiencing happiness when your co-workers, children, and friends succeed; more on this later, but for now I’m going to focus on romantic and sexual compersion. (Alarmingly, compersion is often confused with cuckoldry fetishes, because they both involve deriving satisfaction from seeing your partner take pleasure in someone else. However, they are very different. Whereas compersion is empathy that you feel toward your partner after rejecting strict-monogamous values, cuckoldry fetishes involve becoming sexually excited by a simulated violation of those values.)
Also, it is a myth that people in open relationships don’t feel jealousy; they do, but they can weigh their jealousy against their coexistent feelings of compersion. Taormino doesn’t mention it, but an analogy can be made to friendship. Sometimes you feel jealous of your friend’s other friends, but you weigh these feelings against your desire to see your friend happy and fulfilled. Perhaps its a stretch, but don’t friendships follow similar norms to open relationships except without the sex/romance? People are tolerant of the different ways people express their desire for friendship in a way they are not for romantic/sexual relationships. If someone wants to have a few close friends, lots of acquaintances, or one best friend and many auxiliary friends, these personal choices are decoupled from morality (although one can imagine in which some “friendship orientations” are stigmatized”). In fact, the only kind of friendship orientation that is stigmatized is the friendship equivalent of traditional monogamy: a friend who insists you spend time only with him, forbids you from having other friends, and begrudges you for even thinking about other friends. Perhaps someday the different flavors of open relationships will be as decoupled from morality as friendship is currently.
I can already tell that compersion, its history and its implications will be a fruitful source of future posts! Here are just a few outstanding thoughts on compersion that I’d like to share:
  • Compersion is a sparkling example of how merely having a word for something makes it more real. I can now recognize a whole category of (compersive) feelings that were always there in my mind, but for which I have heretofore had no language to describe them. There’s a fascinating essay on Edge.org by the psycholinguist Lera Boroditsky about the influence of language on how we perceive and parse the world. It’s titled, aptly, “How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think”, and I plan on dedicating an entire post to it fairly soon. It expands on what I regarded as the most interesting sections of Steven Pinker’s book, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, in which he reviews the psychological experiments that purport to show profound differences in perception between speakers of various languages. An analogy to the way in which the concept of compersion has shaped my experience might be found in the phenomenon of differential color perception between English and Russian speakers. Boroditsky writes:

“To test whether differences in color language lead to differences in color perception, we compared Russian and English speakers’ ability to discriminate shades of blue. In Russian there is no single word that covers all the colors that English speakers call “blue.” Russian makes an obligatory distinction between light blue (goluboy) and dark blue (siniy). Does this distinction mean that siniy blues look more different from goluboy blues to Russian speakers? Indeed, the data say yes. Russian speakers are quicker to distinguish two shades of blue that are called by the different names in Russian (i.e., one being siniy and the other being goluboy) than if the two fall into the same category.”

I strongly suspect that knowledge of the word compersion will promote the kind of non-jealous, generous and deliberative thinking that most of us would consider normative. I would be thrilled to see an effort by social psychologists to investigate the prosocial effect of compersion.

  • Not only is compersion a helpful concept, but the word itself is practically tailor-made for my thinking style. Contrast it with the terms frubbles and frubbly, which, according to Wikipedia, are synonyms for compersion. I like formal words and I don’t like most slang. The same goes for my thinking. It’s for this reason that I doubt I would have latched onto this concept so readily if frubbles were the only term out there. I suppose I am kind of an Anti-Orwell in that I am a Latinate-word chauvinist. With its prefix and suffix, compersion sounds like it could be a real, technical word with a distinguished pedigree (and perhaps someday it will be), and thus I don’t feel embarrassed to think in terms of it.
  • Compersion sounds like compassion, which has a uniformly positive connotation. I think that association alone makes compersion rhetorically powerful in debates about the acceptability of nonmonogamy. This might seem irrelevant, but perhaps it might explain part of why the concept has been so memorable to me.
  • In practice, compersion is a mental tool that helps you empathize with certain people in certain situations. When I refer to empathy here, I mean it in the sense of “meaningfully connecting to someone else by imagining yourself in their situation”. Since the concept of compersion integrated itself into my mental life, I’ve realized something important about empathy (for me, anyway): empathy is really really hard. More specifically, motivated empathy is hard. There’s a visceral kind of empathy that most people feel when they see someone stub their toe or cut themselves with a paring knife, where you literally cannot help but feel some analog of their pain. But there are a lot of situations (for me, anyway), where on some level I know I ought to feel empathy, but I don’t because to do so would require mental exertion and to overcome that mental exertion would require motivation. A good example of a situation where I know I ought to feel empathetic is when I read a newspaper article about the followers of Harold Camping (the guy who predicted the end of the world on October 12, 2011) who sold their homes and all their belongings in anticipation of an apocalypse that never came, and are now penniless and humiliated. My initial reaction was non-empathetic: these people are credulous fools, and deserve to suffer and be ridiculed. And yet, part of me knew what the more rational, constructive, and empathetic reaction should have been: these people were fooled; if I were in their situation, I probably would’ve made the same decisions. Since I would expect sympathy from others if I were in their situation, I will extend my sympathy to these people and withhold ridicule. In this example, it is my understanding of the psychology of belief (and my belief in the non-existence of free will) that allows me to empathize with religious people for whom my instinctive reaction was disdain. Similarly, my understanding of the unrealistic expectations of monogamy and the concept of compersion help me to empathize with romantic partners. Indeed, the concept of compersion has even helped me retroactively empathize with people in my past, mainly girls who I had crushes on but resented because they were already partnered. :D&~
  • Oh yeah. Like all emotions, compersion needs an emoticon. Seeing that there was none, I heroically stepped in to make this: :D&*~. (It’s you feeding your partner a pretzel to assure them that you are happy to see that they are happy… Yeah, I’ll keep working on the emoticon.)
  • Like I mentioned earlier in this post, compersion isn’t just relevant to romantic/sexual relationships. It’s also applicable to feeling happy to see your friends, children, colleagues, and pets succeed. I have often felt jealous of my peers, and I think that my lack of vocabulary for describing my delight in their qualities and achievements made it difficult to be rational. Perhaps I’m in the minority in believing this (and do please tell me your thoughts), but I think that sometimes jealousy is a rational and salutary emotion. It can spur you to identify things about yourself that you ought to improve, and sometimes it jealousy can discourage you from investing time and resources into competing with people who are insurmountably better than you at something or another.
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