What is Compersion?

One of our community members, new to the Lifestyle, recently tweeted, “The first time I watched my husband fuck another woman, I was mesmerized & turned on to a degree I would never have predicted. Poor man I was with got neglected a bit while I watched.”

We totally know what she means. But, those just beginning to contemplate swinging may not. For a lot of newcomers, uncertainty about how they may feel when they finally see their spouse or partner enjoying the sexual company of someone else can be pretty daunting.

It does seem antithetical, doesn’t it? Society has told us for a long, long time that we need to protect and guard what is ours and that the mere idea of anyone else having sexual contact with the person we’ve selected as our partner should be viewed as threatening. We therefore expect that the immediate and predominant feeling we’d encounter upon seeing someone else pleasure our partner must be jealousy.

And yet, time and time again we hear lifestyle friends talk about how incredible it feels, emotionally, to watch their partner having sex with someone else. What gives?!

What gives is a phenomenon the Lifestyle community has come to call compersion. Don’t worry if you just raced to look it up and couldn’t locate it. Compersion is a lexical newcomer, relatively, that you won’t find in the Oxford English Dictionary, and pretty niche in terms of who recognizes and uses it. The Internet tends to credit the term to the Kerista polyamorous commune, which was active from 1971-1991 in San Francisco – and indeed it does appear in a Glossary of Keristan English (1985).

But what does it mean? Here’s what “Even Eve” of the Kerista community had to say about its definition:

Compersion — The positive emotion that comes from seeing one’s partners enjoying themselves together, the antithesis of jealousy. Compersion (the word) was coined by the alphabet board when a word to describe the emotion was being sought…

Yeah. You read that right. Eve says compersion as a word came to us through a Ouija Board. Shrug. Things get etymologically more plausible as Eve goes on to cite a 1943 American Anthropology article in which Claude Lévi-Strauss uses the French terms compère and comperage to describe the wife-sharing practices of an indigenous Brazilian tribe.

While the latter word origination seems more feasible than the former, we’re not here to judge. The interesting thing is not so much the “alphabet board” or the tribe of wife-swapping natives in Brazil and their French anthropological voyeur, but the fact that the phenomenon of experiencing pleasure when watching those they loved being with others sexually was so well noted within the poly community of Kerista that they felt compelled to sit down and figure out what the heck to call it.

Maybe it is the opposite of what we typically call jealousy, as Eve wrote. Maybe it’s more accurately the opposite of the German concept of schadenfreude (pleasure derived by someone witnessing another person’s misfortune). In the end, it’s probably not all that useful to try to explain or define compersion in terms of what it is not.

Let’s talk about what it is, and why it may not be so antithetical, after all. To do that, try taking things out of the realm of sex. Examples help:

Have you ever had the opportunity to observe your partner in her workplace or pursuing a hobby and felt a swell of love, pride, admiration and, well, emotional pleasure, as you watched her achieving success and excelling at what she does?

Have you ever cheered on your partner in a sporting event or physical endeavor and found that watching him take on and conquer the challenge made your heart swell with love and admiration and pride and, well, emotional pleasure?

Has it ever happened that you witnessed your partner receive some compliment or accolade or award or recognition and experienced not only love, admiration, and pride, but also…emotional pleasure?

Or maybe this: Have you ever given your partner a gift and experienced a feeling of intense pleasure in the giving that rivals any pleasure you’ve ever gotten from receiving a gift, yourself?

Compersion is a lot like that. It’s a welling up of intense pleasure that can occur while witnessing your partner enjoying an erotic experience, with or without someone else.

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to sit back and watch your partner masturbate and felt enthralled (and turned on) by watching him or her experience self-pleasure, you probably get it. What newcomers to the lifestyle may not expect is that – when you have a strong, stable relationship with your partner – those same emotions tend to emerge while watching him or her with other people.

Instead of feeling competitiveness or jealousy or fear, a lot of Lifestyle couples report that they feel both sexual arousal and a sense of emotional pleasure at just watching their partner giving and receiving with another, often in new or different ways than they are accustomed to witnessing within their monogamous relationship.

Compersion is a key phenomenon that keeps couples in the Lifestyle, unexpected though it may be. Couples who are fully secure in their own relationship and have strong communication between them often find that the intense thrill of watching their partners experience pleasure with others intensifies their bond with each other rather than diminishes it. And that is a surprising and welcome relationship addition for a lot of couples.

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