05/01/2015 01:23 pm ET Updated Jun 29, 2015

Fostering Compersion: The Polyamorous Principle that Can Strengthen Any Relationship

I was at a party recently where a poly pal was complaining about "the myth of the almighty compersion"--the phenomenon of being happy when your lover is getting pleasure from someone other than you. He told me his new girlfriend of just four months had started dating another fellow and now had less time for him.

"I am trying to be happy for her--but it feels about as good as the root canal I had last month."

This is the downer of ethical non-monogamy---your partner swept away with new relationship energy--you at home attempting to be a jolly poly good sport. I agreed with him--attempting to feel compersion at this moment would be wrong.

Compersion is an authentic feeling of pleasure that can't be faked, forced, or conjured up. It happens organically. It's like the spontaneous feeling I have when I see my kids thrive--I am overjoyed when they come home exuberant after having ventured out into the world. I sometimes feel the same way when my husband comes home revitalized by a sexual experience.

The times when I have felt true compersion have always been toward someone I've loved for many years, felt securely bonded to, and been actively invested in their need to thrive. This stable foundation is a prerequisite for me--but that doesn't mean it's requisite for others. Plenty of folk I know feel compersion for lovers they have known for less time, but, in general, a relationship made out of bricks seems to provide more opportunities for compersion than those that are made out of straw.

But let me be clear: There are moments when I do not feel sparkly about my partner's carnal excursions--and there's often a very grounded and good reason for not feeling happy. I've learned to trust my emotions (which is different than being ruled them!), and, in doing so, check my insecurities, communicate with my partner, and evaluate the landscape of my life at that moment. Open marriage can be a soup of emotions, candidly owning your feelings--from compersion to jealously is an important skill.

Remember: Compersion is not sacrifice. Sometimes people will immediately leap to this interpretation. If compersion is not happening for you, explore the reasons why.

I have learned that when doing polyamory or open marriage one must partake with like-minded people. I have sometimes asked my husband not to consummate a crush because not only did I not feel compersion, I felt threatened. Being poly in a primarily monogamous world demands necessary safeguards. I'm much more able to feel compersion if I know that my husband is having an attraction with a person who adheres to the same rules of engagement that we do. Having openness in a closed, sometimes sex-negative world is a challenge, and I am no dummy about that fact. I may love Christmas gifts but I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I got my first credit card bill.

I need clarity and a secure bond to have any openness. This bond comes by way of a few agreements we have set up. They are: 1) Relations must be good and solid between us before we do anything sexual with someone else. 2) People who are trying to steal us away from our marriage are off limits. 3) Sexual experiences with others must bring us closer.

The reason I have openness in my marriage is because I like ultimately what it gives us--a commitment to each of us thriving, feeling pleasure, and freely choosing each other from a sense of love and attraction, not obligation. Long term relationships are at risk of going on auto-pilot, each person consumed with getting your unending check list done. People start sagging when all you're asking for them to take out is the garbage. This can kill the spark: the monotony, the responsibility, the slow creep to the grave--bill to bill, obligation to obligation, nag to nag. I believe the British call it "a quiet misery."

I want the foundation of our connection to be a deep erotic love and attachment, not duty. To keep an erotic love alive takes some intelligent maneuvers. Allowing your beloved the space to realize how much they choose to be with you--a moment to moment rediscovery of your attachment is the heart of compersion.

I would love to hear from you if you have a new word for any aspect of love not covered by our current lexicon. Please e-mail me at