Thursday, March 18, 2010

Compersion Confusion

Let's take a moment to discuss compersion.

Wiki defines compersion as a "non-sexual state of empathetic happiness and joy experienced when an individual's romantic partner experiences happiness and joy through an outside source." Seems conceptually simple, right? When you see someone you love being happy, it makes you happy too. Like the feeling one has when they watch their partner or child open the present that they asked for on their birthday. It's about soaking up someone else's smiles til you smile too.

There are some key elements in that definition that I'd like to point out. The most obvious is the whole 'non-sexual' part of Wiki's definition. Not to say that there is anything wrong with getting all hot and bothered while watching your partner get someone else all hot and bothered, that's a delicious experience in and of itself. And though it can be accompanied by compersion, it's not compersion. It's something closer to voyeurism. A good thing, to be sure, but not compersion.

It's about actually experiencing joy from seeing your partner experience joy. It doesn't come automatically with the idea that you don't mind if your partner has relationships outside of your own. It's usually (though not always) a learned quality. It's not simply saying "sure honey, do whatever you like." It's not simply the absence of jealousy. The absence of jealousy is also a wonderful thing, and it's on the road to compersion, but there are still a few more steps to go.

The most important element in compersion is empathy, experiencing other's feelings as they feel them. Without empathy, there is no compersion. If one has empathy for one's partner, then that empathy will show itself in other parts of the relationship. If you are not finding your partner to be particularly empathic in your relationship in general, there is no likely basis for compersion.

Empathy, like most emotions, is a physiological process. Mirror neurons, discovered accidentally in the 1990s by Neurophysiologists in Italy. The function of mirror neurons is still being debated, but there is significant evidence that one of the functions of mirror neurons is empathy. The more one uses mirror neurons, the more active mirror neurons exist. It's reasonable to assume, then, that empathy and compersion can be learned if practiced.

Some people, probably because of both biological and environmental factors, have a higher or lower mirror neuron response than others. So some people may be more naturally inclined to experience compersion. But most people have at least some natural inclination toward having empathy for others.

So yes. Compersion is attainable, wonderful, and not necessarily sexual. It's that sweet honey feeling all warm in your belly when you recognize the joy in your partners face as he/she holds hands with another partner. Very truly, the opposite of jealousy.