Psychologist Bram Buunk studied the fascinating emotion we call jealousy over the course of four decades. The focus and the critical questions of his research changed over the years, adapting to acquired knowledge, shifting attitudes, and evolving societal norms surrounding sexuality, monogamy, and non-exclusive relationships.
In a recent presentation hosted by the Program for the Study of LGBT Health in New York, Dr. Buunk shared findings from his examination of sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity differences in response to potential infidelity.
During the open discussion that followed his lecture, I asked whether gay men in open relationships experience jealousy differently than their monogamous counterparts. Dr. Buunk, who studied jealousy in open heterosexual marriages since the early eighties, explained that there is little data on jealousy in non-monogamous gay couples. That's when someone mentioned a word unfamiliar to most people in the audience: compersion.
Compersion is a neologism coined to describe positive feelings in response to one's partner sexual or romantic experience with another person.
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?
Compersion differs from candaulism, the practice in which someone exposes their partner to other people for their voyeuristic pleasure. Compersion doesn't entail specific activities. It describes positive emotional reactions in response to fulfilling connections between an individual's partner and a person outside of the relationship.
More widely, the term refers to joy experienced by some people when their significant other has an uplifting, pleasurable relation, sexual or otherwise, with another person.
Compersion is the opposite of jealousy.
The polyfidelity-practicing Keristan Commune in San Francisco started using the term around 1985. Its etymology is quite unconventional. Apparently, the word does not have an ancient history or traditional roots. Instead, members of the Keristan Commune invented it using an alphabet board, a variant of the Ouija board.
According to others, the term derives from the French "comperage" introduced by anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss to describe relationships that included sexual sharing of wives among South American tribes.
Regardless of its origin, the word compersion, currently still unknown to most people, seems to describe the experience of some men and women in non-monogamous relationships appropriately; feelings most people aren't socialized to sense or acknowledge.
As Dr. Meg John Barker puts it in the title of the article appeared on Sexualities, in a culture of compulsory monogamy,
there aren't words for what we do or how we feel so we have to make them up.
We know little about compersion.
Social Psychologists at the University of Hawai'i and Hawai's Pacific University recently found that high levels of emotional jealousy make people in traditional monogamous relationships happier. In contrast, in the same study, compersion was a predictor of satisfaction in non-traditional couples.
As we learn more about compersion and its nuances, and as we wrap our minds around its meanings, it is important to point out that, as Sociologist Elizabeth Sheff warns, compersion has to be innate and authentic to be meaningful.
Perhaps compersion, like jealousy, represent the kind of human emotional journey that, defined by contradictory real-life experiences, will remain controversial.
What do you think?