Compersion: The Only Way Out is To Dive In
One of the things pilots learn about flying is that many of the principals associated with flying go contrary to what would be common sense on four wheels. On wings, it’s safer to be high rather than close to the ground, and it’s safer to go fast than to go slow. Certain things that you must do as a pilot will violate every instinct in your body — such as when your airplane stalls, you need to point it directly at the ground to pick up speed and resume flying.
When we find ourselves in an “in love” situation, you could say that we trade in our wheels for wings. This new environment requires that we adapt to new logic. It is not always easy to keep an intimate relationship aloft, and one of the most disturbing things that can threaten staying aloft is the feeling of jealousy.
Compersion is about embracing and enjoying the fact that someone we love can find sexual pleasure, or even have feelings, with someone else. Becoming comfortable with compersion is akin to pointing the nose of an airplane down when you go into a stall created by jealousy. It takes courage to do this in any event, but it can often be the best way, if not the only way, to keep from crashing and preserve one’s sanity and the relationship.
Looked at another way, compersion is the full appreciation of another person’s pleasure and indeed their existence — something many relationships could use a lot more of. If we could indeed get there, this would be an excellent resolution for jealousy and other problems. Our relationships would be more interesting, more compassionate and best of all, make room for who we really are while allowing our partner to be whom they really are.
More than being a protective measure, compersion is a daring and courageous way to explore the emotional dynamics of pleasure and human interaction, as well as a way to work through problems created by attachment and guilt. It’s a way to take a constructive approach to shame, embarrassment, or a sense of potential loss. For people who are considering opening up to their relationship to other partners, compersion makes the process safe and sane, and ultimately enhances the relationship.
It does not happen at once. Compersion takes practice and dedication, though like many things there are breakthroughs along the way; quantum leaps that take us from one dimension of feeling and self-awareness to another. It helps to think of compersion as a process rather than an emotion. It is a way of living, of perceiving the world, and of conceiving of who you and your partner are. It is a way of loving and respecting people as independent from you, something that’s extremely challenging in a culture that extols the virtues of selfishness, possessiveness, control, and narcissism. Compersion is a way of creating closeness where there might instinctively be division.
Our Environment of Competition and Abandonment
While we’re considering the subject of relationships, and jealousy in particular, we need to remember that in our society, the ideas we are given about love are competitive. Only one person is going to “get” you; for any individual, the chances are six billion to one. There seems to be not enough of anything for all of us, so we have to compete; we have to be Number One.
Most of our ideas about life and love are based on scarcity and possession. Even on a planet where you have billions of people without partners, many of them can’t find a date on a Friday night. Have you ever considered how twisted that is? Such as when you’re home alone and horny and want some company, and you realize there must be millions of people in this same condition? On a planet with so many people, you would think there would be nothing easier to find than other people. On a planet where so many people want sex, you would think there would be plenty of it. Yet even in this state of total abundance, we manage to turn it around and live in the midst of a horrid shortage. (No matter what people may have, or need, unless they’re willing to give and receive — generally in that order — there is no interaction or exchange possible. That is part of the problem.)
In the desert of life, we tend to fear two things. What we fear most is abandonment. Even if that one special person has found us, or vice versa, the big fear is that we will lose them; that they will find someone else. Often, even when we find love, we live with a sense of incredible frailty, sensitivity and imminent doom. This is usually based on the fear of not being good enough; indeed, at times on a total absence of self-esteem. Loss of self-esteem can lead to jealousy in short order.
The second thing we fear is being too close to others, and having our true selves and secrets exposed. A great many people don’t like who they are inside, and are terrified about the prospect of exposing this to others. Many people survive by making up a fake character, and if someone gets close to us, we may fear that they’ll figure out we’re empty and thus undeserving of love.
So, our relationships and desire to relate to one another are based on need created by being alone, and the rules are set by the fear of abandonment and the fear of uber-intimacy. This is different than it might be, were we surrounded and taught a philosophy of sharing, emotional abundance and self-acceptance.
An Alternative Theory of Jealousy
Before I offer a more detailed description and brief history of the idea of compersion, let’s first visit an alternative theory of jealousy.
Some feel that jealousy is about potential loss, or the desire to be preferred, or a sense of competition because we all want the best, or it is a kind of extreme envy, where you want what someone else has. These are superficial issues that conceal the true spiritual matter beneath jealousy — and if we stay on the surface, we miss the benefit we can get from encountering the deeper levels directly. Jealousy will haunt us and never become a teacher or ally. It can only be faced down and dealt with in order to overcome it.
Jealousy is actually the eruption of attachment, usually when a relationship is threatened by an outsider. The threat is a problem because of how closely we identify with our relationships as a major source of self-worth.
We often cling to one another due to the inherently transient nature of relationships, and sometimes out of material survival. Obsessive clinging is a struggle with a deeper issue — we live in a constantly shifting, often hostile, world, where we often seem to have no solid ground to stand on. We struggle with trust, and the uncertainty of future. Jealousy evokes some or all of these conditions, manifesting itself as something that feels as ominous as the hand of death.
However, there is another factor involved – the ironic association of pleasure. Imagine a situation where you suspect (fear) your partner is having a sexual experience with someone else. The jolt of panic or intense anxiety that comes with this perception has a unique side affect. Even though we might feel panic, fear and even anger toward our partner, there is also passion involved. Beneath those painful feelings there is an undercurrent of erotic energy – invoking a sense of passion, which is a form of pleasure.
If one can push aside the initial fear and feelings of jealousy they are often surprised to discover a sense of arousal. Human psychology offers many theories for this, including sexual competition, etc. Regardless, it’s important to recognize the existence of arousal, and to be able to use it dislodge and replace the destructive feelings of jealousy and fear.
Indeed, this can be a smart survival technique. Rather than fighting the pain, focusing on conflict and endangering the relationship one should instead embrace the more pleasurable sense of arousal. In other words, the only way out is to dive in headfirst.
I can say that I’ve been able to do this with my own marriage. Upon a realization that she had likely been with another I dove straight into the feelings. Rather than focusing on the pain and negative feelings, I recognized how erotic it felt to imagine her being sexual.
I let those visions play out, over and over until I had made friends with them. At first my jealousy continued to circle. But in the ever-creeping flames of jealousy, my pain seemed to gradually burn up. Soon I found it much easier and pleasurable to focus on the arousal aspect. As a result I found myself accepting her needs, and the love I felt for her grew stronger. In truth, I was becoming a different more mature and more accepting person.
Later in our relationship she met another woman, and the two of them started a sexual relationship that eventually involved feelings that bordered on love. Their sex was passionate, beautiful, and incredible to behold — and many times, it excluded me. I had choices: I could freak out, panic and feel abandoned, or I could expand my awareness and embrace what they shared.
At first I lived with the dual feelings; the pain of being excluded, and the exquisite enjoyment from being a participant and witness to the pleasure they shared together. Through this process I learned of compersion.
Once many people get over the initial shock of their partner being with another, if they would they search their true feelings they would likely find the idea of their partner having sex to be erotic. But it’s definitely a form of pleasure that contradicts everything we’re taught about relationships, and especially marriage. So many people do not give any consideration to the possibility of pleasure. They immediately turn to jealousy, giving it free reign to spread all of its destructiveness.
To overcome this, and turn to the pleasure side, it’s critical to recognize that complete acceptance, and indeed SURRENDER, is the first step. In truth, you cannot do anything about how other people feel or what they want. We cannot control others, even our own spouses. We can futilely try to gain control over others and the situation, or we can let go and surrender to the situation controlled by another. Letting go is intensely frightening. Yet it can ultimately lead to equally intense pleasure. For as much as we cling and struggle to control everyone and everything around us, what we need the most is to let go.
Like flying, we must do something that seems counterintuitive. In the middle of the fear, pain and sense of possible loss associated jealous feelings, the act of “Letting Go” feels much like pointing the nose of an airplane directly at the ground — it violates common sense, and goes contrary to what we feel we should to do. After all, society tells us that there is no way you’re supposed to be turned on by your spouse having sex with someone else, or aroused by the knowledge that they’re wrapped in someone else’s arms. Others would consider it masochistic. It’s not socially acceptable. If you described such feelings to anyone else they might think you had lost your mind.
However, you may have actually found your mind. The point is simple: to be free you must let go and be accepting. Remember, that’s not socially acceptable. Human beings often come to love the bonds that chain them; the rooms that imprison them. Some even love the drama of jealousy, its intensity, its pain. But they do so without going underneath to see what’s there and why they feel the way the do.
Attachment provides a sense of belonging. There are people who don’t feel loved unless their partner gets jealous. There are people who don’t feel loved unless their partner experiences guilt for having any pleasure that doesn’t involve them. The logic of monogamous guilt is, “He will be mad at me if I do something that feels good and I don’t feel guilty.” After a while this becomes a serious block to real love. Control, which is often exercised through guilt, is a direct obstacle to the space that love needs to be itself. Compersion undoes that. It allows what exists to be itself, without the control society demands that we place on one another in a marriage.
Compersion: The Word and the Concept
THE WORD, and more importantly the idea of, compersion was first introduced in the polygamous community. Among the many discoveries made in this community was that there were times when it was profoundly erotic to experience your partner loving or sharing pleasure with someone else. They believed it was important to have a word for this emotion, so people could talk about it more easily and even realize it was possible to feel this way. They called it compersion.
Compersion is much like compassion, but the origin, the core of the idea, is specifically sexual. You could say it’s about recognizing what someone feels and embracing that. But I think that (like jealousy) it is closer to the existential level and can be a constructive intellectual building block for personal growth. Per means one or individual, so compersion is embracing the whole person and their experiences. This is supposed to be what love is about. Unfortunately, once guilt and jealousy get into the picture, who a person is as an individual ends up being eclipsed by who we want them to be or force them to be, through many forms of control.
If you follow the compersion experience, you will notice that it leads to a complete reversal of how we are supposed to experience life; it goes contrary to many of societies values of possession, control and monogamous commitment that characterize our relationships, especially marriage.
Compersion requires the complete acknowledgement AND acceptance of who your partner really is, in their entirety, and separate and apart from you. It entails all they may feel, desire, need, experience; their fears and repulsions and conflicts are all included. It’s holistic awareness of their individuality.
Many traditional relationships have nothing to do with this elusive concept of who a person really is. Even in more enlightened relationships, some can do this in certain aspects of life, except for sexual. Embracing and allowing a spouse complete freedom in the full spectrum of their erotic reality presents a specific challenge, because it has the real potential to relegate us to an empty place where we are no longer needed.
Embracing your partner and all their needs and giving them the freedom to express those needs, while acknowledging the risk of losing them, is necessary to let go. It is also entirely necessary in order to find a sense of fulfillment of real and true love. To do this we must acknowledge that the relationship can cease to exist, and be comfortable with the idea of being alone with only oneself. One must find themselves in that potentially empty space, and deal with the thought of being alone. Doing so can help one find a sense of self-awareness and personal confidence that they can not only survive but also thrive in such a temporary vacuum. Indeed it can make one better appreciate the relationship itself.
To offer another person your compersion is to offer them and yourself the autonomy necessary for each of us to be ourselves and for love to be itself. It is the living expression that only truth is erotic.
We might wonder, why bother with all of this? Why not just have a typical monogamous relationship? Well, that works in theory. When we look closer at a human psyche, we discover that people are more complex than they are monogamous. Monogamy is constructed to suit societal goals, largely perpetuated by denying en masse what we really feel and need as human beings. We are taught to live within these structured arrangements, and to preserve the sanctity of the relationship above self, foregoing needs of the individual. Even in the most honest relationships most couples tend to avoid or deny anything or any situation that could potentially threaten the relationship. This often ends up creating personal, and sometimes sexual, frustrations that manifest themselves in destructive ways.
For example everyone, including married people, have erotic fantasies when they masturbate. Those fantasies often include people other than their spouse. Usually the way we deal with this is to ignore it. We retire to a private space within ourselves and hide part of ourselves there, away from our partner. We presume our partner will feel threatened, not understand, or criticize what we’re thinking.
Yet, as it works out, that “private” space is usually the exact space that we need to share with our partners in order to have any sense of deep, true intellectual intimacy in a relationship. Within that region there are sure to be things that might be perceived to “threaten” the relationship; however, these are the very things that we need most to share. This is an example where compersion is a useful skill – allowing and encouraging a person to be who they truly are.
Few people love just one person. Many times, monogamous people have strong erotic feelings for others — feelings they may feel guilty about. Opposite sex friends can be viewed as potential threats. After all, such friendships risk an emotional connection, and the relationship might turn sexual. So each partner may feel or convey some sense of guilt upon the other partner, short circuiting any possible connection. But doing so denies one or both partners from a potentially rewarding relationship. The guilt becomes the means by which people control one another. Compersion is the solution to such a situation, and end such toxic methods of controlling one another.
Once you learn to enjoy compersion as a base emotion and not just a concept, life gets much easier and fulfilling. You can give yourself more space to feel, give your partner more freedom and space to explore themselves and others, and their happiness will spill over into your life. You can learn to find happiness through the happiness of another. Love is truly deeper once you remove the competition and guilt.
Without jealousy and guilt, whatever you feel is okay.
After a while, what you need will become okay.
Then, what you do will be okay.
It will all become guiltless and healthier.
From the Idea to the Reality
Compersion may seem like a great idea — but understanding the reality of it eludes many people. (This is how I now feel about monogamy.) Compersion is intellectual at first; ultimately it becomes emotional. It requires bravery because it involves letting go. It’s not possible to partially experience compersion — you need to go all the way into it in order to actually feel it.
Compersion is brave for many reasons. It involves complete surrender of instinctual responses. It relinquishes possessiveness and control, trusting solely in love to preserve and support the relationship. It may involve sexual interaction with others of the same sex. If you’re a man and you want to experience compersion, you have to get used to the fact that there may be another man in the room. The same could be said in reverse for women.
Compersion is also brave because one of the precursors of exploring compersion is consciously honoring the loyalty and friendship underneath the love-affair level of a relationship. It is gaining an honest understanding of why someone has you in his or her life at all. Unfortunately, that quality is very often lacking in modern relationships. You may not feel your relationship is strong enough to withstand the truth. But if this is true, then you may need to reconsider where you are and whom you are with.
As for how to learn compersion, in my relationship we started by sharing masturbation and fantasy with each other. This may seem like a baby step compared to having other people involved, but most of the deeper growth work can be, and SHOULD, be done one-on-one starting long before the inclusion of others. You do it by being extremely honest and then directing that honesty to one another, while witnessing one another masturbate or masturbating together.
After a while, when you’re both ready, then you can bring in other people. If there already is someone else, most of these ideas still apply. Indeed, sharing fantasy and masturbating should continue constantly, even as your partner continues to see another or others. It promotes communication and uses the external relationship to strengthen the marriage.
Compersion starts with telling the truth to your partner about all things erotic. This may be difficult at first, but it gets easier as you practice and build confidence. In this process, you may notice that one person or the other is more open to the idea of their partner’s extracurricular fantasies, history or activities. Work in that direction first; at first it’s important to take the path of least resistance. Let the partner who is more comfortable sharing do the majority of the work and the talking.
You need to begin with an agreement of total amnesty. Whatever comes up in these exercises is allowed. Whatever comes out will not be held against the other. Neither must abuse their partner’s honesty. You agree to support, discuss and share whatever your partner may feel. But mostly you grant yourself and one another the freedom to feel it and express it honestly. This is a lot of the process; as you will discover, much of compersion involves letting go of your own guilt about pleasure. Total honesty creates another level of personal freedom.
Each partner should feel free and be willing to share what they want, what they think about, and what they may have done — including the details. Each should be equally free to question and answer questions, embellish as they wish, and indulge in the pleasure of the exercise every bit as much as the fantasies themselves. Note this is guilt free pleasure. Much of compersion involves letting go of monogamous guilt.
If one partner describes a fantasy of having sex with an entire wrestling team, they should feel free (and eventually eager) to share that. The other partner should have an equally enjoyable time hearing about it and giving their partner a way to express themselves.
Each is likely to get aroused. However, rather than having sex it is best to masturbate to each other’s fantasies. I highly suggest that you don’t have sex. Rather, the idea is to keep some sense of separation, aware of the independence of your different fantasies and experiences, while appreciating each other as separate people.
If one partner reacts with any level of discomfort or gets jealous hearing what the other partner wants, this is the time to address and discuss such feelings. Go slowly, go gently, and feel for the opening. Each should know that it’s safe to share every feeling.
When dealing with jealousy or emotional resistance in any form, let the fear have a voice. Let the fear speak up, and don’t moralize it out of existence — it will be more cooperative if it knows you’re listening. Be aware that it is fear. This is an opportunity for the other partner to be reassuring. If someone goes into a jealous panic, you are getting a look at the real dynamics that underlie your relationship. Make sure you see them for what they are and deal with them before moving forward.
After a while, and with some practice, you may find that the energy can flow in both directions. But don’t push each other too fast. Keep taking the path of least resistance. Notice your own inner resistance. If your spouse wants to have sex and this threatens you, notice the feeling of the jealousy, give it a voice, and question whether you really need to feel that way. Then go a shade deeper. Note, this is about going deeper; it won’t work if you or your partner loves being superficial. Go deep within yourself and your relationship.
Pay close attention to what you go through. If, for example, you feel inadequate or excluded when your partner is describing a desire that does not involve you, notice that. Share it. Do NOT ignore it or hide it. DO NOT keep quiet about the truth in order to avoid it, and DO NOT refrain from sharing the truth to protect an ego. Egos must be set aside in order for the relationship to thrive.
In summary, I am proposing that partners get off to one another’s fantasies and desires. I suggest that you be very, very open about this — and that you spend a lot of time masturbating together. Not some time, but a LOT of time — like half of all the sex you have, or more.
Compersion is an emotional skill set, and the way you begin to learn it is to expand your idea of masturbation to a joint effort, including every level — fantasy, desire, the past, all of it. This has more than a mental effect; I believe the real effect is neurological. Compersion is a space you hold open in your heart and mind, and the easiest way to do that is by psychically and emotionally embracing your partner’s self-given pleasure. Purge the need to control them, and embrace the pleasure of setting them free.
Compersion can lead to more than you thought sex could ever be. Admitting your whole erotic truth in the presence of your partner is extremely liberating; and it’s a very big step for most. It’s easier to give all than you may think. Once the truth is out, and once both partners feel safe being who they really are, a new depth of love will take over. It will make your sex better, and help you love your partner more. Most of all you actually get to be yourself, and let your partner be who they are. This is the true reward.
Work to maintain your compersion-based relationship. With the help of email, you can keep the energy of these discussions going around the clock, taking them any number of places. After a while, you might start to wonder how you could have ever been jealous in the first place. In time you will find that anything that turns your partner on will turn you on. Once you get to this space, then you can try anything and everything together.
Having other partners is tricky for many reasons, but if you reach this depth of communication, you have several key skills that make it possible — the first one being honest about how you feel. The big step is living with your partner’s sexual truths — not the physical sex. Imagine them having sex. After all, this is what we do anyway when we read or look at erotica — we are getting pleasure from the pleasure of others.
Declare your bed a free zone for erotic honesty. Weave a partnership of honesty around what you both need and build upon it.
Very few people can go through life satisfied with one sexual relationship at a time. Trying to do so conflicts with our natural instincts, and leads to sexual tensions. We can ease that sexual tension in a marriage by appreciating one another as independent, erotic beings. We need to recognize that everyone has an erotic realty that likely includes thoughts of others, or even a need for others, outside of the relationship. We should strive to embrace and even love that reality until we cannot help but enjoy it.
Compersion is about appreciating, recognizing, feeling, witnessing and loving — all from a slight distance. It is also about respecting everyone’s autonomy of feeling and their independence of expression if they choose to explore those feelings. It removes the pain of isolation and leads to deeply nourishing emotional and erotic experiences.