Acting on desire III: talking compersion

RWS LoversPart I and II.

‘Compersion’ has to be as unsexy a word as they come. Nevertheless, it is the closest to describing a condition for which no word currently exists — that is, a non-exclusive love, or an all-inclusive love, depending on which slant you prefer.

Theoretically, the word ‘love’ should itself be enough, but like many universal values, it has been hijacked for so many causes that its etymological history must mirror the history of modern humanity itself.

‘Compersion’ has a rather shorter history. The term was popularised by polyamory and swingers groups of the 1960s, and was coined to refer to the positive feelings one gets when one’s lover takes pleasure in another person. It has been defined, also, as ‘the opposite of jealousy’.


Eric Francis, long-time advocate of compersion, has written extensively on the subject. In an early essay, he explores the nature of compersion as such:

Love, as we often define it, is usually considered to be an exclusive rather than inclusive game. Someone loves you and therefore doesn’t love anyone else. But when you add it up, this usually comes out to a loss, because in our short visits to the planet, in a healthy state of mind, we might want to love everyone who is righteous and true, and to return the love of everyone who touches our hearts, and call that safety and nothing else. For living in the constant fear of loss and betrayal is hardly safety; it is hardly the security we say we seek; it is a setup for total paranoia, but strangely, sadly, it’s called love.

And as for sex — it’s no big secret that we’re turned on by many people. But it’s only been the “moral high ground” of certain, let’s say, social movements, that has instigated the idea anything but strict heterosexual monogamy and sex for reproduction only is permissible. In this world, do we need to live by these ancient codes? Well, not if we are honest.

It is true that if one’s lover has sex with another person, or even gets close to another person, they may choose to be with that person and not you. And this is a possibility we have to face no matter what. Living the way of compersion brings this to the surface where we can see it and work with it.

Yet remember that more often, jealousy has nothing to do with one’s partner actually having sex or sharing love outside the relationship. It is about the imagined fear of loss. We can become jealous at the mere idea or suspicion of this, or at our partner’s fantasies, and even at the love shared with him or herself. In plenty of relationships people stop masturbating (and creating art or music or writing or taking long walks in the woods) because it’s perceived as a threat by their partner. And that is not life.

Compersion takes us to the next realm beyond. It is about being with and appreciating our partners for their desires, dreams, wishes and their personal journey to selflove. It’s about being real, and having relationships as real people.

In other words, I believe the concept of compersion has the potential to extend itself beyond the contexts of polyamory and swinging, which are but two forms of social behaviour and organisation. Compersion is the basis of the social behaviour and organisation, but not equated with the behaviour nor the organisation itself.

Given the limits of language to describe that which it has not delineated, it is very easy to see how compersion may become conflated with promiscuity. However, compersion as described above clearly advocates responsibility, except that society hasn’t yet found a frame for that responsibility to be exercised in a way that doesn’t also come across as transgression.

I won’t pretend to have the instant answers here. I’m still working this stuff out myself. Cultural conditioning, however much one rebels, will still need to be worked through in each lifetime.

What I do know, is that for compersion to work on any level, communication is absolutely necessary. And I do not mean in the triter forms of expression where one just blurts out what one feels and expects the other person to do something about it. I am referring to a reciprocral communication based on sincere and genuine human contact, anchored by each individual’s willingness to take responsibility for their feelings, and the articulation of those feelings.

In the archetypal Lovers card of the Rider-Waite tarot deck, the link between Love (in the universal sense) and communication is inextricable:

The Lovers is a confusing card as it is ruled not by an emotional water sign but by airy Gemini. The original trump featured a man and a woman with a cupid above them about to shoot his dart. Later this became three figures, the interpetation being a man choosing between two women, or a man meeting his true love with the help of a matchmaker. Still later, with Waite, we have an Angel above Adam and Eve. The Angel stands for Raphael, who is emblematic of Mercury and Air, planet and element of Gemini. Gemini is the communications sign. It’s all about messages and making contact; also, as it is the twins, about finding your other self. In this regard, you can see that the Lovers begins to make sense. Especially if you change it back to ‘LOVE.’ Here is a card about perfect communication, about finding something your soul requires. In this regard, its most common interpetation about being ‘A Choice’ makes sense. When this card appears, you are being told to trust you instincts, to choose this career, challenge, person or thing you’re so strongly drawn to, no matter how scary, how difficult, irrational or troublesome. Because without it, you will never be wholly you. It’s sudden and unexpected, and it means a complete change in plans; but this is LOVE. True love. Go for it! (Thirteen, on Aeclectic Tarot)

The mutable nature of airy, intellectual (and often contradictory!) Gemini also suggests that this ‘LOVE’ is at once transcendent and context-dependent. Transcendent in the sense that it refers to a ‘perfect communication’, where all the bits of the jigsaw fit; and context-dependent in the sense that it is also ‘about finding your other self’, not the ‘other half’ as commonly understood, but the shadow self, already at once a part of the same self.

All this is really the long way of saying what Eric Francis has already done, that is, that ‘[s]elflove is the basis of all love anyway’. To love another well and true, one must first learn to love oneself, in order that Love is sought not out of lack, but in plenitude, in appreciation and in gratitude for who one and the other/s are, right in each moment.

Image: The card of the Lovers from the Rider-Waite tarot deck. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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