How to cultivate compersion

Compersion is the joy you experience in seeing another’s joy, often used in polyamory to explain the happy feelings you get from seeing a partner experiencing love with their other partners.  Not every polya person feels compersion, but it seems to be a goal many strive for.  It is completely normal for polyamorous, relationship anarchist, and other non-monogamous folks to struggle with jealousy, and feel hard feelings or even indifference at seeing or hearing about their partner’s happiness with other people.  What sets non-mogogamous relationships apart from monogamous ones, is instead of jealousy being seen as a testament to how much you love someone, it is viewed as a normal emotional response, but one you don’t use as an excuse for poor behavior, and one you work through in a hopefully healthy way.  A lot of non-monogamous folks aim to feel compersion, they strive for a goal of not only working through jealousy or any other hard feelings at their partner being with others, but getting a positive rush of feelings instead.  I have learned to absolutely love compersion over the years, it is an amazing heady rush of joy, and feels gratifying knowing you are feeling this wonderful joy simply for another’s happiness with no reward of your own.  In realizing how amazing it feels, I’ve tried to study it and find ways to further cultivate it within myself, and open up to feeling it more frequently.  In doing so, my jealousy has also decreased and become easier to handle each time, so that is an added bonus.

The first step in cultivating compersion is really cultivating joy from things that don’t benefit or directly effect you.  For me, I started practicing mindfulness first, learning to really live in each moment.  Then I directed that outward, I reached out for the feeling of joy in seeing happiness in others.  I would stop and watch my partners do simple things, inhale spices from a pan as they cooked and smile, lovingly arrange his wrestling figures with clear happiness in cherishing each one, get excited over a movie that was coming out that I couldn’t care less about but which clearly thrilled him, light up with a grin after they took a perfect photograph of sunlight playing on tree branches at the park.  I would look for joy in those moments, and taught my body how to respond with happiness when I just saw the people I loved experiencing their individual moments of joy.

Once I had learned to be in touch with and feel happiness when seeing the people in my life happy, compersion began to come more naturally.  When I would see a partner light up with happiness at something to do with one of their other partners, part of my reaction was to have a bodily response of joy at their joy.  At first though, that response was still small, and often overshadowed by jealousy or insecurity.  Those are powerful feelings, and it is easy to have them consume you and cause strong visceral reactions.  I had been teaching myself for years how to not lash out because of those reactions, but that was learning how to control a behavioral response, not quite eliminating the initial emotion entirely.  To handle working through those emotions I needed to really dive into the threads of them and untangle them so they could be processed and I could leave them behind me.

When I would feel jealous, I started really digging into the reasons behind it.  I asked myself what I was afraid of happening, and then what that made me afraid of, and so on, following it down the rabbit hole.  Often times it was insecurity, that someone would be a better partner then me, either sexually, emotionally, in giving advice, etc.  The scary thing was, often it could be true, I’m not super sexual with a lot of my partners, and I’m a much better person emotionally now, but I’m not the best, and when I first started doing this I was working through a lot of issues and was sometimes still kinda shitty.  So I accepted and acknowledged that.  I took into myself the fact that yes, my partners might have other partners who were better then me, in one way, or many ways.  Where did that lead?  I traced that to a fear that they would then leave more for those people.  Dissecting that it was really two fears.  The first was that they would leave me because the other person was better and that person would ask for exclusivity or they would just prefer to be with that person and not want to make time for me. The second was that in being with someone better, they would leave me because they would recognize I was shitty and not good enough for them.

Okay, so the first I couldn’t really fix, if a partner who really seemed to want to be polya then decided to be exclusive with another partner and cut me out, I couldn’t change that.  If they no longer wanted to make time for me, that was their choice.  So I asked myself what would happen then?  Well, I’ve survived some wretched things, I’ve lost a relationship one of the few people I loved the most deeply and was most attached to.  I’ve dealt with abuse and trauma from relationships.  And I’ve survived a lot of non-relationship related trauma.  If I could survive that, I could survive more loss.  Once I confirmed that in myself and recognized those fears, that jealousy mostly dissipated.  When it would come up, I would just have to remind myself that I could survive whatever happened, and I could make it dissipate again.

The second fear source was still there though, what if a partner left because another partner being better just made them realize I wasn’t good enough?  I could have worked through that one the same way, but the insecurity would still have been nagging at me.  So I worked on myself as a person.  I changed anything I was not satisfied with, that made -me- feel not good enough.  I went on a rapid path of self improvement.  So now, if a partner feels I am not good enough for them, I know there is nothing in myself I would want to change because I am good enough for me.  So I can accept that, and again remind myself of my ability to survive without them, and alleviate that fear in the same way.

That path dealt with most of my jealousy, but not quite all.  The rest was born from seeing someone else getting something I wanted.  I still felt jealous at times because a partner would be sharing something of themself with another partner, and I wanted to experience that as well.  That was my last big roadblock that would rise up and drown out my compersion.  That was also probably the hardest one to deal with.  First I would look at what it was I felt I was missing or not getting enough of from them.  Once I identified what I wanted, I asked if it was feasible to get that.  For example, when one of my long distance partners was giving time to another partner, I was jealous because I wanted more time with them.  It was easier for them to give more time to the other partner who lived nearby.  I had to figure out on my own and with them, if there was a way to increase how often we saw each other.  When there was not, I had to let it go.  When that jealousy would crop up, I would remind myself that they would love to give me more of that if they could, but it wasn’t possible, and them not doing so didn’t mean any lessening of their love for me.  Sometimes I realized that my partner just wasn’t aware of or wasn’t focused on my wants, so I could simply ask for them to be met.  If I saw another partner getting a lot of affection and realized I wanted more of that, I could let my partner know I was hoping for cuddles sometime soon and ask if they could provide that.  Often that was enough to solve the issue, and I made sure to center those conversations on my wants, and not as a response to what they shared with someone else, but at an appropriate time where they could focus on what I was asking.

The really hard part came with when they didn’t want to meet those wants.  There have been times where I wanted something like more affection from a partner, saw another of their partners getting that from them, and then asked for more of that, only to be turned down.  I had to learn to accept that.  Mindfulness came back into play here, sitting with my emotions and letting them exist, and then letting them go on their way.  I learned to accept that just because I wanted something from a partner, did not mean they wanted the same with me.  Them wanting that with someone else, did not mean they would want it with me or owe it to me.  Often times it wasn’t because of anything I was doing wrong, it was out of my control, and just something I had to acknowledge, and lower my expectations for.  And again, once that was done, I could redirect myself to compersion.

Now when I see my partners being happy with other partners, it does usually fill me with joy.  I’ve taught my body how to feel happiness in their happiness, and I’ve learned the skills in handling emotions that might come in and disrupt that.  Those other feelings do still interject at times.  I have to process and handle them, especially in new situations, or ones that hit old surprising triggers I’ve forgotten about.  I try and communicate about it and work through it both with my partners and on my own.  And once it has been resolved and I’ve let those feelings go, I can once again focus on that amazing feeling of compersion.  It is a hard but worthwhile process for me, because my life used to only be filled with joy I got from how the world effected me.  Now that I feel joy from the happiness of those I love, I have a hundredfold more happiness in my life and that is an existence worth working towards.

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How do you deal with unrequited love?

My first experience with love was a boy named Dan.  I was in sixth grade and he was in fifth. He had tousled dirty blond hair and a crooked smile, the sort of smile I’ve learned I have a weakness for.  I did not fit in among my class at all, though I went to a small school and everyone was always polite, it was the sort of place where in a class of 20, everyone was invited to birthday parties.  Dan had friends in his class, he wasn’t a popular kid, but he was well enough liked and had no shortage of people to trade pokemon cards with or chase around in a game of tree tag.  Some recesses, I was one of the ones he spent his time with, and it was the first time I craved a person, felt a constant burning desire and elation when I was around them, and a devastating loss when I was not, as though the world were a bit more empty.  I didn’t know before then that the quality of the world could change like that. I hadn’t realized that when a person occupied the same space as me, they could bring not only themselves and their presence, but could change the very air around them and the colors in a room, so it all was suddenly so much more alive.  We played hockey together, I got extraordinarily good at playing defense despite being someone who would have been more suited to an offensive position.  He was the goalie, and I wanted to be as near him as I could be at all times.  I never told him how I felt, though I wished every day to just be lucky enough that it would be one of those days that he spent time with me.  I used a birthday wish to wish that he would move in next door, and when the neighbors put up a for sale sign unexpectedly a few weeks later I was ecstatic, but a young couple moved in instead.  I went to a different school for seventh grade, and aside from a couple bar mitzvahs here and there, I didn’t see him again.

There was a boy named Han in my Japanese class in high school.  Another boy with a crooked grin, prone to laughter and easy with his smiles.  He sat behind me and I was the one he would often whisper his jokes to.  Walking into class and seeing him sitting there was so often the highlight of my day.  It was more then that, my world was a hell of depression, all flat like a paper cut out.  He rendered it in 3-D and brought the colors back, when my heart saw him and fluttered it felt like the first time that day I had taken a breath.  He confided in me about his crush on one of the girls in the class, it broke me a little to hear but I tried to encourage him to tell her and give it a shot.  I never told him the way he made my days bearable just by existing, or how I imagined his laughter in my dreams.

As I entered into the world of relationships, I connected too strongly, or not strongly enough.  I was a flurry of NRE (new relationship energy) and neediness, trying to finally satisfy my desperate cravings for a person of my own.  I wanted to possess someone, consume them, take in their brightness and hold it inside me so I would never feel that crushing loneliness that had lived within me again.  Often I made grandiose commitments and thrust myself into ill fitting partnerships without a second thought and found myself later trying to pretend that my love matched theirs.  As I was with one person after another who loved me more strongly over time while my feelings bordered on apathetic once the NRE had passed, I was wrought with guilt and overbearing discomfort.  The few times I felt a more enduring passion, I was paralyzed with fear of losing it and sought control just to hold on to my grip on the world. I was disgusted with myself for my needs, my desperation, how I saw myself leading people on more and more, the realization that I was failing to maintain emotional intimacy and was left in partnerships where I had to pretend or cause someone else the heartbreak I felt when my affections weren’t returned.

Even writing this I want to stop a moment and remark on it, since I haven’t looked back and viewed myself through this lens in quite a while.  Sweet gibbering fuckweasels I was unhealthy.  I was beyond a hot mess and the folks who put up with me through my teenage years deserve a fucking medal.

As I entered into adulthood, or at least left my parents home and began having more relationships that involved responsibility and cohabitation and emotional nuance, I began to take significantly more care in how I got involved with people.  I made a nice neat stack of mistakes in the last ten years as well, but I moved forward, gaining more self awareness and becoming more conscious of the commitments I made.  It took me many more years to work past controlling tendencies, but I started to improve, and I talked about in another piece how I learned to be honest and devoted myself to that ideal to an extreme. With that came a lot of one sided relationships.  I won’t say I didn’t love many of my partners, I did, but not to the extent they loved me or in the same ways.  It was something discussed to varying degrees, often times I was very blunt with what I could or could not provide, what could be expected of me, and where feelings matched up versus where they diverged. I began to see the effect of unrequited love on my partners, or at least an unmatched level of love and desire.

Over the years I’ve known both sides of unrequited love.  I’ve spiraled through a dozen ways of dealing with it, most of them terribly toxic.  Something changed in recent years.  When I was a teenager I was severely depressed for a handful of years.  Everything was constantly numb, and love was a brief blinding high in the flat twilight grays that were my existence.  As a young adult I was an alcoholic.  I had hated the numbness of depression, so I recreated it, because maybe without it I was too much.  I broke free of that, and I broke free of a lot of toxicity with it.  When I transitioned, when I embraced my independence and autonomy, when I learned what truly made me feel rooted and good, I was able to be a person with emotions that were often still too intense and too much, but that I didn’t need to numb down into nothing.  I studied mindfulness, it meshed well with my long held personal beliefs that there are few real negative emotions.  The emotions most people thought of as negative, sadness, lonliness, heartbreak, anger; they were all close friends that I embraced after years of solitude with nothing at all in my mind.  I learned to sit with them and trust them to just exist, to be, and then to move along.

These days I love the intensity of NRE as much as ever.  I’m careful not to make grandiose commitments during it, to try and spare the feelings of people who I am loving for a moment but maybe not for a lifetime.  When it passes I make my commitments sparingly, to the few people who capture me in such a way that I want to be drawn to them with that exuberant overzealous devotion.  Sometimes my feelings aren’t returned, or are mirrored back with a reflection that is far less intense and clear.  Where that once would have been devastating, it is now intriguing and tolerable.  My sadness and loneliness in those moments is exquisitely sharp but like a masochists pain, it feels good in equal measure as it does bad.  It is easily dispelled by the sheer joy of experiencing love well up from within me.  I can study my loneliness and the pain of unrequited love and be content just to let it exist.  No one is obligated to love me back simply because the intensity with which I burn for them is overwhelming.  It is no great tragedy if they don’t.  When I am the one loving less or with a different quality to my love, I try my best to be as honest as I can, make as few commitments as possible, so as not to lead anyone else down that road.  But these days the road of unrequited love is one I walk without fear.  Loving is the goal, being loved back is not a prize to win.  I would simply rather relish in the absolute joy of being in love, even when it’s laced with pain, than miss the journey of loving someone.

 

The importance of freedom

Relationship anarchy is a style of relating to others that highlights freedom and autonomy. It focuses on the desires of the individuals and finding the areas in which they overlap to create the fuzzy little space of the relationship you can curl up in.  It also focuses on the freedom of each person to define their own boundaries and express their own preferences, and to live a life in which they pursue dynamics that fit their flow, without unwanted restriction from other dynamics.

Freedom is one of the merits of relationship anarchy, one of the things that makes it so appealing to many people.  To really understand why people choose relationship anarchy as a life path or relationship style, we have to first understand the value of freedom.

I was a philosophy major the first time I went to college.  I did not graduate with a degree in it, because when I was close to doing so I got distracted by a need to craft things with my own hands and ducked off stage a few credits shy of my degree. I had enough for a degree in general ed, so I took that instead, but I had amassed the knowledge from a plethora of philosophy courses, despite having no big official paper to show for it.  And boy am I rusty when it comes to philosophy in an academic sense, but I did learn ways of thinking that I still apply every day. After all, philosophy is the study of learning, the study of knowledge, and the study of existence.  We all apply principles of that in the daily meanderings of our minds.  For me, my love for philosophy and understanding is why I sometimes end up sitting and trying to really deconstruct why freedom is so important to me.

It is easy to justify things based on what would be lost in their absence.  Without freedom, you have restriction, rules, a box to fit in.  Society is pretty big on boxes you know, which makes sense since the human brain is wired for categorization of things, and society is a group of people with shared dominant cultural expectations.  So society naturally expands on the human tendency to categorize, and creates strong expectations or boxes for what different relationships are and the expectations within them. There are restrictive ideas in the culture I exist in, on what a friendship is, what a romantic relationship is, the exclusive nature of a romantic relationships, and the inferiority of friendships in comparison with that one special romantic relationship.  These boxes are in opposition with the freedom of relationship anarchy.  They are defined by an absence, having one monogamous relationship is a thing because you are choosing or agreeing to an absence of any other romantic or sexual connections.  Having a romantic relationship being prioritized above friendships is a thing because friendships are seen as being absent of the amount of commitment, life integration, depth of emotion, and depth of connection that romantic relationships have. Without freedom to explore each connection based on exactly what you desire with that individual at that time, you are forced to build a dynamic based on absence, knowing that you have limited allowances for what it can and can’t be while being socially acceptable. So we can justify freedom because we do not want to lose the potential that any new relationship has. We want the potential for friendships and romantic relationships to not be limited in their depth because they are seen as different societal boxes, to not be exclusive in nature and limit the potential of other connections.

I would rather justify things based not on absence though, but based on abundance.  I am not just an advocate of freedom and relationship anarchy because I do not want my life and relating to other people to be restrained.  It is in part about bucking against those boxes and throwing off the restraints, but it is also about what happens next when instead of an absence of potential you have an abundance of it. When I started forming relationships that were not structured around certain titles or expectations, where everything in the dynamic was based on the desires of the individuals and where the overlap was, and where the freedom of each person to pursue connections and have their autonomy respected was given focus and priority, something magical happened.  Embracing that freedom sparked a change in myself.  Suddenly there was an abundance of potential in my world, there was an explosion of fluidity and growth.  When I engaged in a relationship it was with the understanding that it could achieve any depth of connection, any range of life integration, it was alright if it changed and shifted over time, and expressions of love and affection and sexual interest were based on mutual consent and desire and not on a certain title or level of societal acceptability.  I had the freedom to move around and grow and expand, like a glorious tentacle beast uncurling on the floor of an endless ocean, or a fabulous demon spreading sparkling leathery wings after shedding it’s chains.

Here’s what actually happened, and what is still happening every day as I experience the self growth this freedom has given me.  I have learned to express affection and love freely to my friends. I can tell my friends that I love them and shower them with adoration and compliments of how spectacular they are. It no longer feels awkward or too much or prohibited.  I have found that when I simply lack the time and energy for new connections but miss the amazing fluff-balls-in-the-chest feels of meeting and getting to know someone and feeling that spark as love and passion develops, I still can experience that because I watch my friends and loves and partners do so and their happiness is contagious because it does not in any way detract from what I have with them.  I have less fear of break-ups because for the most part they are no longer a thing in my world. Dynamics may change, the type of interaction and level of connection may change, but unless the other individual wants to sever ties completely, it is more a matter of a -shift- and not an -ending-. Having that fear eliminated or minimized has made me less controlling, and as such, I’ve learned that being controlling actually was making me feel pretty shitty and I hadn’t noticed how much it ate away at me.

And one of the changes I value the most is this: When I was a kid, I went to a glorious socialist jew camp, and it was the norm for kids to sit in lines of one person leaning back in another’s lap, and that person leaning on the one behind them, and so on in a big train. Big cuddle piles of friend on a bed were a natural part of every day life.  I had an abundance of platonic touch and affection, and some that evolved into more romantic or sexual touch and affection, but it didn’t have to.  Touch was just absolutely normal and comfortable.  And then fast forward through years of trauma, sexual assault, toxic relationships, and becoming a controlling, insecure, and sometimes emotionally abusive person. I came out the other side extremely touch averse, with only a few partners as exceptions. I worked hard to not be a controlling fuckwad of the highest proportions, and did a pretty decent job of making myself into a person I could respect and that those in my life seem to think is pretty rad. But I was still very averse to touch, and that made me incredibly sad when I compared it to my childhood and early teen years.  Well, in the past year, as I’ve dived head first into the rabbit hole of relationship anarchy, after dancing around the edges and dipping my toe in for so long, I’ve slowly started to heal.  I am not the bouncing cuddly ball of rainbows I once was, but I have times where I have platonic cuddle-time with my friends and loves and feel warm-fuzzy-connectricity instead of skin-crawlies.  Giving myself the freedom to explore the abundance of human connection has helped me start connecting more in the moment and feeling safe with touch.  That is what freedom creates, that is why it is important, it gives you a field that is ripe for personal growth and healing.  It presents your fears for you to confront and overcome, and it allows for abundance and exploration in the ways you connect with other human beings.

So freedom is and always will be of extraordinary importance to me.  I want a life filled with abundance, I want a life with an absence of restrictions, and I want more then anything for all those I love to have the same and to never be someone who takes that freedom away.

Relationship Anarchy is an act of Self Love

Relationship anarchy is an act of self love, and here’s why:

Relationship anarchy is fucking terrifying.  It isn’t just, as some often suppose, an egalitarian form of polyamory in which there is no hierarchy or sneakarchy to place some partners in positions of power or priority over others.  Relationship anarchy has deep anarchist roots and involves bucking the societal system of rules and structures and questioning their worth and merit.  It involves forming relationships rooted not just in consent, but in desire.  I want to go into that more deeply in another piece, but suffice to say, relationship anarchy involves navigating away from rule based dynamics and rules masquerading as agreements.

Imagine yourself creating relationships as an autonomous being, with another autonomous being, where you both decide what the relationship will entail and build it from the ground up.  The relationship, and I don’t mean just a romantic dynamic, but any friendship, partnership, way of relating to someone with emotions or vulnerability or touching of your squiggly bits, is tailored to fit exactly what you both decide.  You start with respect for another individual who you see merit and worth in, and therefor want in your life. You desire a connection and way of relating and sharing experiences with that person.  You engage with them, and begin to discover the ways in which they want to relate to you.  You discuss, open up, form a connection, and find the common ground in the fuzzy happy places you want to curl up in, in each others lives.  There are no rules in these dynamics based in desire and respect for autonomy.  Rules are manufactured by society, but a society that clings so sharply to fear and control. A society in which our very ability to eat and have shelter is based on coercive relationships such as working for a wage or buying goods born of others’ exploitation.  Relationship anarchy can be something of a haven away from that.  It can be descriptively at any given time, monogomous or polyamorous, because people can have those particular romance shaped feelings for one or for multiple people at a particular time in their life. But it throws away the societal structure that imposes that you should feel those romance wiggles for only one or only certain people, or that you need certain titles or to follow a relationship escalator when you do. So relationship anarchy is a ideology that centers the autonomy, desire, and choices of the individual, and the respect for another’s autonomy and as well.

Now what does that have to do with self love?  Well, when you embrace relationship anarchy and buck the coercive structures of society, you are saying that a person is autonomous, they have worth, they deserve respect, they should not be controlled by a societal system or a relationship title or rules. And in that, you are also saying that you have the same things, you are also an autonomous being with worth and deserving of respect.  I’m not saying that relationship anarchists do not suffer from shame and issues of self esteem and self confidence.  But to choose a way of loving and connecting that on a base level embraces and elevates personal worth and respect for autonomy and individuality, you are doing something that exhibits radical self love.  You are placing your own freedom and vulnerability and ability to connect, above the judgement and coercion of society as a whole.  You are treating others as individuals with whom you can form unique self made fluid dynamics, and as such you also are honoring the individuality and worth in yourself as part of those dynamics and shared relationships.  You are allowing yourself to make a relationship with another glorious human based on what you desire with them, and in doing that you are acknowledging your desire as having worth.  That is a radical act of self love, and you deserve to have it recognized as such.

And back to the fucking terrifying aspect, because yes, relationship anarchy is deeply scary.  When you decide to form relationships (platonic, romantic, sexual, power exchange, and all the squiggly in betweens) that involve creating a mesh of your mutual desires, and experiencing your ways of relating with another person that you both actively and enthusiastically choose at that time; and when you have relationships that recognize your autonomy and respect the individual, there’s a problem.  In the context of society, there is a big problem.  That lovely ball-of-joy-giving person that you are feeling all the fuzzy vulnerable things for, can walk away at any point in time!  Their squiggly happy feels for you can change! And you are in a relationshipping style in which you aren’t coercing them to stay, you aren’t exerting control, you may not have titles or ties to bind them to you, and you could lose everything at any point in time!  Yes, society sees this as a big problem which is why the typical societal relationships, even polyamorous ones, often do involve a carefully orchestrated web of titles and rules or agreements to give you structure and a false feeling of safety.  The secret that they don’t want you to know though, is that the safety walls you created are all smoke.  If someone doesn’t want to stay with you, a marriage license and two and a half children and the house you own together, likely won’t stop them from leaving.  Relationship anarchy is much more vulnerable and raw in acknowledging that people may choose to come and go from your life, that dynamics are fluid, and that we have no right to own or control people, so we cannot make them stay.  Hoo boy, that is scary!  I would like to address the depth of that uber scary sinkhole, and how glorious it can actually be, in depth at another time, but right now I’m going to relate that back to self love.  When you decide to engage in relating in a way that is so intensely vulnerable and admits that your spectacular connections may not in fact be safe or solid or last for the rest of your life and beyond, and that safety nets and guarantees are not real, and nothing is ever certain, you are forced to acknowledge something truly valuable.  That you as a person exist separate from your relationships, that you are an independent being, and that you will endure and survive as an independent being regardless of the ways your relationships with the people you love and adore continue to endure, or change shape, or end.  And facing that again is an act of self love.  It is an acknowledgement that you take up space in this world and you exist and are worthy of life, separate from all the people who’s lives you are a part of.

So my lovely long time relationship anarchists, and my beautiful budding new loving anarchist folk, to those who are curious and dipping a toe into learning about it all, and everyone in between: Remember your worth, remember your power, remember your freedom, remember your independence, remember your autonomy, and remember to love yourself always.  When you live this way, you already are practicing a radical form of self love, so recognize that within yourself and embrace it.  You are glorious.