Episode 115: Compersion Required

Is it unethical or wrong to not want to date someone who doesn’t feel compersion?

Is it unethical or wrong to not want to date someone who doesn’t feel compersion?

That’s what’s on this week’s episode of Non-Monogamy Help.

Discussion Topic: Can you think of a need you have that applies to all relationships?

Listen to Episode 115 here on or on Anchor. Visit the Anchor website to find where else the podcast is distributed or use this handy RSS link.

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Thank you to Chris Albery-Jones at albery-jones.com for the theme music and a big thanks for the podcast art to Dom Duong at domduong.com.

Podcast transcript

Would it be discriminatory or unethical, if one of your needs is that the other person feels compersion? As in, totally accepting people who don't have it, as valid polyamorous people, but not being particularly comfortable dating them and thus choosing not to.


So first to define — in case people who are listening to this don't know what “compersion” is. Compersion is a concept that — not sure who was the original attributor of it — I think I have that in my book as a definition but I can't remember it off the top my head now.

But basically, “compersion” is supposed to be the “opposite” of jealousy. It is when your partner is with somebody, or you hear that they're with somebody or they're having kind of success on a date or whatnot, you feel happy for them, instead of feeling unhappy for them.

And I talk a lot about compersion because I feel like there is this expectation that you should feel compersion and that even though people say there's no one right way to do polyamory, there is this sort of subtle hint within the definition of compersion, which I'm not saying that the person who invented it meant but I feel like there's just this kind of subtle hierarchy implied right?

Like, the ideal is for you to feel overjoyed and happy when you're partners with someone else. And not only do I think it's unrealistic to expect this of everyone because people are going to feel scared and this is quite normal, especially when you grew up in a mono-centric society that tells you that monogamy is kind of the only choice, that open relationships don't work.

It's very understandable for you to feel a lot of anxiety and fear when your partner does finally, you know, especially if you began as a monogamous person, in a monogamous relationship and you open up.

It's very understandable for you to have that fear. And I think putting the added pressure on that to feel compersion makes the situation a lot worse. But I also think that some people just don't feel it. In my experience, it's not necessarily that I felt jealous, but I didn't have any feelings and I felt like again, this is a great situation to compare to friendships.

There are people who want to hear all the details of their friends sort of dating lives. There are people who feel extreme amounts of joy when their friend you know finds a new date or has a great date and like there's some people feel like “Oh, that's good. That's nice to hear”. But you don't necessarily feel any strong, compelling emotion either way or you just feel quite neutral about it like you know, yeah.

Obviously glad to hear that your friend’s having a good time, but it's not like you're overflowing with joy. You're just like, “Yeah, it's nice”. Nice to hear in the same way that if your friend said they had an awesome sandwich, you'd be like, “Yeah, that's nice to hear”.

You don't have any strong emotions either way. And so I do feel like the expectation that you should feel compersion and that it should be this like, “Oh my god, I'm so happy for you!”. I feel like that often sets up people who just don't feel very strongly either way to feel like there's something wrong with them.

To feel like they are jealous if they don't feel compersion. So I have a lot to say about compersion. And I have a lot of— I personally try very hard to normalise not only not feeling compersion, but having no feeling whatsoever and that being fine and that being okay and that not being a sign that you're secretly not polyamorous or a sign that you're secretly jealous.

Sometimes you just don't have any strong feelings either way, and that's absolutely okay. I think when it comes to this question— I think that first of all, I wouldn't worry right off the bat about like “discriminatory or unethical” because… and it's not to say that people can’t be discriminatory or unethical. I just feel like putting that— in a way like the same way that I feel like compersion adds a layer of added unnecessary difficulty to the equation.

I think that trying to create the scenario where it's about being a “good person” creates an added unnecessary level of difficulties in a situation that doesn't need to be added. I think the first thing that you should do is really explore the reasoning behind this need. So why do you have this need? What is that about? Is this about a secret type of reassurance?

Because part of me wonders if like wanting so badly to have a partner to feel compersion and choosing not to date people who's admit that they don't feel compersion or maybe don't feel it or don't show it to you— Is this actually about a need that you have, when it comes to you know — because I think a need is sometimes like wanting someone to communicate clearly or my need for reciprocity.

This isn't about fear. This isn't about trying to avoid something. This is about, “I need for there to be reciprocity, because that's what I want in a relationship”. This is an active choice, which is about the desire to have something. And my worry is that this is less of a need and more of a rule and it's made out of out of a desire to avoid something.

And I think that the desire here is that when you date somebody who has compersion, there's a back sort of log in your mind that saying that, “Oh, they feel compersion. They are a safer partner, they are less likely to leave me. They're less likely to cause trouble. They're less likely to have bad reactions”. Right?

And I feel like this isn't really about seeking relationships that you want. This isn't really about going for connections that are strong.

This isn't about somebody's communication style. This isn't about somebody's willingness to support you because someone can feel an extreme amount of upset, anxiety, jealousy, all of these things and still be very willing to support you and still be very willing to give you assurance.

So the idea that somebody's feeling compersion is I feel like the idea hiding behind this need is that people who feel compersion are safer, because in the end, this is about avoiding pain.

This is about “I don't want to end up in a situation where I'm hurt”. Maybe there's a bit of avoidance as well of trying not to be in difficult situations, which is somewhat understandable.

But there's an element here of kind of self protection and therefore almost self sabotage because you're like, “Well, I don't want to be in situations where I might have to deal with someone's tricky emotions. So I'd much rather be in situations that are easier for me, and they're just happy for me to be with other people”.

So it's not really about seeking out a relationship that actually is fulfilling to you. It's about avoiding situations that you think are going to cause trouble for you. And to a certain extent, I understand it, I'm not saying that that's a bad thing.

But actually, when it comes down to it, if you decide to make this decision, what you're really doing is preventing yourself from connections that are actually really valuable and are actually really wonderful.

Because if we think about it, a lot of people are going about relationships in a way that is about avoiding pain rather than about increasing connection with somebody. Sometimes people choose polyamory because they don't want to break up with somebody sometimes people end up in situations that they don't like— because they're not willing to admit their own, you know, their own needs.

And I think that when you kind of do that, it seems like you're doing it for the sake of the other person. But actually it's self limiting. It's self sabotage. It's you stifling your own wants and needs.

You stifling things in order to protect yourself and the more you protect yourself sometimes and the less risk that you're willing to take— even though that seems safer. It's not actually safer. So I feel like you know, maybe consider you're limiting yourself because of your own fears.

And the irony here for me is that, you know, people want to avoid— people will be in polyamory and sort of say, well the monogamous kind of expectations that society pushes — which not all monogamous people necessarily agree with.

But this idea for example, that a relationship is only successful if somebody in that relationship doesn't get make it out alive, as Dan Savage says, which I really agree with, like that concept should be the thing that if anything from a lot of like mono-centric ideas that you want to fight against, right?

This idea that a relationship is only successful if it lasts for a very long time. A relationship is only worthy if it lasts for a very long time. Understandably, a lot of us want to have relationships that lasts for long, a long time. And we're not necessarily wanting to have short term relationships, but at the same time I do think that this concept is actually one of the things that makes it so hard for people to break up.

It's one of the things that creates so much shame around breaking up. It's one of the things that creates so much shame around divorce, around all this types of stuff that I don't actually agree with creating that shame. I think that relationships can last for two weeks and still be incredibly important.

Relationships— you can still get things out of relationships, just because they didn't last until you or your partner died doesn't mean that that relationship isn't important and doesn't mean that it wasn't “worth it”.

So I really feel like people carry that into polyamory all the time. People carry that judgment. Ironically, if someone isn't with a polyamorous partner for a long time or you know— I don't think they're intending to be judgmental.

But there is the sort of concept within that I feel like is lying behind this need that is that ideally you want to be with someone for a very long time. Ideally, you don't want to have any conflict.

Ideally, you want to have this sort of somewhat unrealistic perspective on how a relationship should be and it's created out of like fear of loss, which is understandable, but actually, you can have connections with people who maybe have intense feelings about you being with other people that are still stable, that are still very good for you. So maybe you making this rule out of fear — not really out of what you desire, because I don't again, like I kind of would disagree that this is a need.

I feel like this is a rule which you are making out of fear. And I think you should consider whether or not that's actually limiting yourself because it won't save you.

Like monogamy — the rule of monogamy— only dating people who want to only be with one person doesn't prevent monogamous people from being broken up with. It doesn't prevent people from falling out of love with their monogamous partners and falling in love with someone else.

It doesn't prevent people from losing their partners to natural disasters, to diseases to anything else. Like none of that. Does making this rule prevent anything from from happening?

Like is this rule actually going to prevent that? This rule isn't going to prevent you from ending up in a situation with someone who is maybe more unstable. Just because they feel compersion doesn't mean that they are a stable person if that's what you're worried about.

Just because they feel compersion doesn't mean that they're more trustworthy. Just because they feel compersion doesn't mean that they aren't going to experience jealousy. So this isn't really about a need.

This is about trying to prevent loss and this is also not going to prevent that loss. Because at the end of the day, you can meet someone who is super— like feels so much compersion, never feels any jealousy and they could still fall out of love with you.

They could still end up breaking up with you. They could still end up betraying you. None of that is going to prevent those things from happening.

And rather than sitting and trying to control these situations, it actually is much better if you accept the fact and I've talked a little bit about this in my 101 article which you can find at nonmonogamyhelp.com/101. And in my 102 article which you can find in the same place nonmonogamyhelp.com/102.

And in my book, The Anxious Person’s Guide to Non-Monogamy, I talk a little bit about the need to let go of this because sometimes a lot of the rules we create and a lot of the things we want in relationships come from a desire to control all the aspects of that and from a desire to want to prevent something from happening and quite often — and I'm not saying all rules are always bad and I really hate it when people are like “Rules are bad always bad, always evil, manipulative, bad!” No.

I think different situations call for different types of agreements. But I think that you need to ask yourself if any rule you put forward is actually going to prevent the thing it's designed to prevent.

For example, a lot of people when they open their relationships, make the rule that they won't fall in love with anyone but their partner that they can’t actually prevent that. They can’t actually control that and the rule is not going to suddenly control that.

Just like the rule of two people who agree to be monogamous together doesn't prevent them from falling out of love with their partner or falling in love with anyone else.

So yeah, I would say that examining the reasoning behind this need— is it a need or is it actually a rule that you're putting forward designed to protect yourself from something that it can't protect you from? And is it actually limiting you in terms of your partner choice?

Because you're making massive assumptions about what compersion means about someone's general emotional state or their general ability to navigate polyamory and can you open your mind a little bit? It's less about — again, I wouldn't worry about like the discriminatory and unethical things not because again, like I'm not saying you can't be discriminatory or unethical.

Everyone can and a lot of people do make unethical choices. However, I feel like adding the morality aspect on top of it is overcomplicating the situation more than it needs to be.

I feel like we have certain needs and certain attractions and certain interests and I do feel like we should unpack those, but I don't feel like creating a scenario where someone is “unethical” and creating that judgmental, puritanical, intense type of culture around this, I don't think actually leads people to making more ethical decisions.

I actually think it makes people more anxious about the decisions they make in an unnecessary way. So yeah, unpack some of your needs and and look at this, but don't beat yourself over the head with a moral club for it because that isn't going to lead you to any better place, in my opinion.

Like if, if beating people over the head with moral judgment and you know, all of that really worked, then there are a lot of societies where people are intensely judgmental about morals and ethics that don't really tend to have positive solutions, right?

Growing up coming from the South, at least I know very much in states where they like don't have sex education because they think it's immoral. They have higher rates of teenage pregnancy. So let's just really think about — and I know that sometimes when we're applying our own lens about discrimination and things being ethical whatnot, we tend to kind of forget that one can be quite fundamentalist and quite intense.

And think that you know, the right thing and think that, “Oh, I'm not the same because I'm not like those religious nuts”, but actually, if you approach things in such a type of basically fundamentalist way, you are also fundamentalist.

So maybe let's not have this kind of intense moral judgment when you're trying to just unpack things with yourself. Be kind to yourself, and don't add a layer of unnecessary judgment on top of the situation which isn't going to lead you into any better of a solution.

So yeah, that was why I wanted to record this question instead of answering it on Instagram because not only do I find Instagram impossible to type on without accidentally hitting enter the middle of one of my paragraphs (Please fix your stupid UI, Instagram) but also this is a complicated answer for a complicated question. So I wanted to do it on the podcast. So yeah, I hope that helps and good luck.

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