I recently added a new word to my vocabulary: Compersion. Wiktionary defines it as “vicarious joy associated with seeing one's partner have a joyful romantic or sexual relation with another.”
In a society where we constantly talk about and address issues around romantic jealousy, and where polyamory & open-relationships are more often negotiated than actively desired by both parties in a relationship, it felt almost counterintuitive to envision a context around compersion. To be able to contextualize it, I decided to look more closely into its extensively researched arch-nemesis: Jealousy.
Peter Salovy, in his book The Psychology of Jealousy and Envy, defines jealousy as “an emotion experienced when a person is threatened by the loss of an important relationship with another person to a “rival”.” At its essence, jealousy, then, is fear — more specifically the fear of losing an important relationship that is formative to a part of our identity. As I conducted more research, I was left with a question as old as time: “Is jealousy a part of human nature? Or are we socialized to feel jealous in the context of romantic relationships?”
First, there is the evolutionary perspective that centers procreation at the heart of sexual and romantic relationships, suggesting that men have evolved to feel sexual jealousy to ensure parental certainty, whereas women have evolved to feel emotional jealousy to ensure the commitment of their partner while raising the child.
Christopher Ryan, in his book Sex at Dawn, makes a compelling argument against this evolutionary perspective, challenging its emphasis on reproduction, since sex & romance are bonding mechanisms as much as they are an act of procreation. When we see sex & romance as bonding mechanisms, we are left with the question of why romantic relationships are the only ones that are viewed as a zero-sum game — where if you lose your partner to a rival, then they gain completely, and you lose completely.
Let’s switch our mindsets away from romantic jealousy for a quick example: When an older child is jealous of their newly born sibling, the parents will likely ensure that both of them feel loved, which would eliminate the fear the older sibling has (which causes the jealousy in the first place). Love, when it comes to children or to other people & objects, is not necessarily perceived as a finite resource. But when it comes to sexual and romantic love, we often assume that we can only devote our romantic love to one person at a time — which increases the fear around losing the relationship when there’s a rival.
This suggests that our social context, as opposed to the evolutionary one, is what amplifies the feelings of romantic and sexual jealousy.
What if we imagine a world in which sex and love are available to everyone, where everyone has more time to devote to love, and where everyone has the economic freedom to not depend on a partner? As Christopher Ryan states in his argument: “What is jealousy, when you remove the fear from it?”
What do you think? Would we be more inclined to feel compersion if this supposed-utopia were to come to life?