Can you learn compersion?

I really enjoyed reading “Thirteen things I wish I’d learned before choosing non-monogamy.” I’ll start by saying I’ve started exploring my sexuality and what makes me happy just this June. So, I’m still learning. My original intent was not related to non-monogamous relationships at all. It just so happened that in my own explorations I met someone that is poly[am].
This person is amazing in so many ways. He communicates, he’s sensual, he’s understanding, he’s knowledgeable, he’s a giver and very open and not afraid to discuss anything. And there’s a great connection that was instantaneous when we first met, though I had no intentions of getting involved past our first meeting. But he’d mentioned he’d enjoyed our times together and would like to continue being intimate with me and getting to know each other, as long as it was ok with me. I couldn’t say no, it felt great to be with him, if only once a month for short periods. But from the beginning he’d said he doesn’t have the bandwidth for more than what he already was giving me.
That he already has partners and that when he partners with someone he invests time and much more emotional energy than what he can give currently. He works a lot too, so he wanted to be clear in any expectations as he doesn’t like to cause people pain. So, even with all this, I thought it’s better to have what I can of him in my life than not at all. Which I still would like, but it’s not easy.
I struggle so much with issues, like issues with self worth stemming from things in my past. That I’m learning I need to face as it’s stunted me in opening up in any of my relationships (platonic or romantic). But then there are the insecurities that stem from knowing I’m not a partner and can’t be one. And all that I read says that these insecurities can be worked on with your partner. But what if you’re not a partner?
How can you work on these insecurities when you’re not something more? When it’s supposed to just be casual and fun? It’s hard when this (whatever it is) is helping me grow in so many other ways and actually makes me happy most times. But it can hurt and be lonely sometimes. I become afraid to go to events where his other partners will be, where I’d have to look at what being his partner would be like but can’t have. That allow for the insecurities to set in without an outlet since I’m not partnered. How do you learn compersion in this scenario?

First and foremost, personally, I absolutely despise “compersion”.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit strong. But I deeply resent the term. Mostly because of letters like yours. It’s not your fault at all, but you’ve fallen exactly into the trap that the term “compersion” creates. For as much as people say “There’s no one right way to do polyamory”, that’s just not what the term “compersion” creates. I wrote a bit in the article you referenced about how it’s not compulsory — and I think that you should really take that on.

You don’t learn compersion. You just feel it or you don’t. And there isn’t anything wrong with not feeling it. And likewise, compersion is not an inoculation for jealousy. You can be both jealous but also happy your partner has found someone they like at the same time. You’re making a lot of the assumptions that I hoped to challenge in my article but let me expand on some of those and why you need to reframe your perspective, specifically referring to these topics.

  • What stops people from opening up
  • Insecurity or insufficiency
  • What makes a partner

What stops people from opening up

In your letter, you said that your insecurities and lack of self worth has “stunted” you from opening up. I definitely do think that someone’s lack of self worth and insecurities can make them afraid to open up to others, but what I want to avoid is you assuming that polyamory or open relationships are somehow going to help this. Polyamory isn’t a therapy program and it isn’t necessarily going to encourage you to be more open. In fact, if you’re insecure and scared, it’s going to be harder to operate in a different relationship style which lacks the cultural script that monogamy often provides people.

I mentioned in the article you referenced that people often mistake being insecure for self-hate and I do think you’re making that mistake here. Someone who believes themselves to be all around worthy can still have moments of insecurity. You’re setting yourself up here for failure by assuming there is some self-worth pinnacle you’re going to reach and that you won’t struggle with periods of insecurity your whole life. I think even the most well adjusted person would still struggle with insecurity — especially when faced with trying something new.

Even if you were to decide this was too hard, you might still be faced with these issues and I think the best way to actually address them is to not set yourself up for believing that this is your obstacle particularly in getting what you want from this person. He’s being quite honest with you about his ability and resources, which is good, but you’re making the mistake of believing that solving your insecurity will change his mind or somehow make you okay with having less, which brings me to the next issue here.

Insecurity or insufficiency

Someone who has a large amount of self worth will feel insecure or not happy with a relationship that doesn’t meet their needs. Sometimes there is both a problem with personal insecurity and not getting what you need in a relationship and that’s where it’s tricky. Not every bad feeling is a reflection of a personal problem that you need to address in polyamory. Sometimes you feel bad because you’re not getting what you need in a relationship and I’m wondering if that’s what’s going on here.

So many people who try polyamory assume every single negative thing they feel is either jealousy or a personal problem. You said it yourself. There are insecurities that stem from you just not being a full partner in that sense and that isn’t an insecurity that can be solved if what it is is actually an insufficiency in the relationship.

And this would be true if you were in, for example, a monogamous relationship with someone who had a time intense demanding career and you needed more attention than they could give you. You would probably also begin to feel insecure — but not as insecure because you don’t have the immediate thought process of assuming you’re not as good as a specific other person or the insecurity you felt wouldn’t feel the same because it would be over a career, not other people.

I don’t think your insecurity is an outlet for anything. I think it’s a very real and understandable feeling to have when you, especially being monogamous are used to the feelings you’re having with this person being coupled with more than what he’s able to give you. Many people, especially who only have relationships where they either don’t have a primary or domestic partner (and want one) but have partners who do have those things feel a gap in their lives for a short period of time. It’s not really a personal fault. It’s normal to feel. But some of this can be solved by understanding what he means specifically in terms of his boundaries.

What makes a partner

Some people have very clear definitions of what makes someone a partner. Other people, not so much. And personal definitions of what makes a partner can wildly vary. My domestic partner has people in their life who, if they were in my life in the exact same way, I would consider a “partner” but my partner doesn’t consider them “partners”.

Because we don’t really have a diverse set of terminologies for the different types of relationships we can have with people, we’re stuck with one group of words (partner, girlfriend, boyfriend, lover, etc.) that can all really mean very different things to very different people, especially to those of us who have no interest in formal marriage.

So what you need to understand is what he means by “bandwidth”. It sounds like what he’s afraid of is that you, by virtue of trying out non-monogamy for the first time and not having any other partners, may want to lean on him for emotional support that he can’t provide because he already provides that to other people.

What he was trying to do was manage those expectations with you and he did it, I think, in as clear of a way as he could. We can set physical boundaries quite easily in terms of the number of times we may think we can visit, but it’s really hard to grok what ‘emotional energy’ really means until it’s not being given or we’re giving too much of it.

With the way your partner has behaved and understanding that you’re new to polyamory, I think he’s going to understand as well that you might be confused by new situations. He doesn’t sound like the kind of person who wrongfully expects you to be happy all of the time, especially if you’re not getting as much as you’d like from him and you want more.

That’s going to hurt but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re doing something wrong or that you should stop seeing him. He’s not going to be able to solve that hurt and working on your insecurities won’t solve that hurt. That might be something you need to consider solving by seeking other partners for yourself.

Otherwise, you can ask to talk to him about your fears around seeing his other partners. Because I doubt necessarily that he treats you physically different from his other partners. He probably is the same amount of loving towards you as he is towards his other partners. It’s just that if you need to rely on him, he can’t commit to that.

But it’s not to say he feels less for you or that he would be less loving with you than other people. In general, I think if you feel it would cause you upset and you don’t have to go to events with his other partners, than don’t put yourself through some emotional decathlon just to prove a point. Avoid unnecessary pain and drama where it need not ought to be caused.

Because I do think that it will remind you, even if he doesn’t treat you different, of what you can’t have. And ultimately this is where you need to figure out what makes a partner for you. Is this relationship meeting all of your needs? It doesn’t sound like it, even as wonderful as it is. Some people can operate in relationships like these because they need or want a lot of alone time. It doesn’t sound like that’s the case for you. So you need to decide if you’re going to seek other partners to address what’s missing or if you can’t or don’t want to do that — in which case, you’re going to have to accept the level he can commit to you and decide if the moments of loneliness and pain are worth the ultimate benefit he brings to your life.

In summary

If it’s accessible for you, I definitely would advise a polyamory friendly therapist to talk this through with because every relationship involves compromise and no relationship is without some type of difficulty. It may be that there is something in staying with this, even if it’s not 100% what you need right now. Because having 40% of what you need right now is better than 0% in some ways. A therapist would be able to talk you through that.

Overall, though, I think you need to stop setting yourself up for failure by assuming this is a personal problem and not a fundamental lack of satisfaction you may have with this level of commitment. You need to figure out if you’re willing and able to date others and what a “partner” is specifically to you so you can have a better understanding of the ways this relationship doesn’t meet those needs.

Give yourself permission to feel sadness, fear and insecurity without assuming there is something wrong with you that you need to fix.

I hope this helps and good luck!

Subscribe to Non-Monogamy Help

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.