Motivation and emotion/Book/2020/Compersion

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What is compersion and how can it be developed?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Compersion is a unique emotion, most often expressed by people in polyamorous relationships[What is compersion? Explain]. This positive and open expression of love contradicts monogamous ideals of love, sex and relationships idolised within Western cultures. But as divorce rates increase and traditional ideas change, polyamorous relationships are becoming more widely accepted. Within these types of non-monogamous relationships, acceptance of a partners[grammar?] constantly changing needs is crucial to a successful and emotionally satisfying relationship. That's where compersion comes in.

This chapter covers the topic of compersion and explores the ways this emotion is experienced within different types of relationships. The differences between compersion and jealousy are discussed and the chapter concludes by explaining how people can foster compersion within themselves.

Focus questions:

1. What is compersion?

2. What are the emotional consequences of compersion and jealousy?

3. What social factors influence polyamory and monogamy?

4. Is compersion a learned emotion?

What is compersion?[edit | edit source]

Case study example:

Alicia and Marcus have been in an open relationship for 3 years and have both had sexual relationships with individuals outside of their relationship. However, Marcus has met Bridget with whom he wants to enter into a consistent relationship. Alicia has never had a problem with Marcus having other relationships before now. But she worries Marcus might leave her for Bridget and questions if she is prettier or smarter than herself. She experiences intense feelings of jealousy and betrayal whenever Marcus is with Bridget. This example describes a common experience within polyamorous relationships. Alicia is threatened by the potential loss of Marcus to his new girlfriend, and although they have been in an open relationship for many years, neither Alicia nor Marcus have had another romantic relationship outside of each other. This transition from purely sexual relationships with other people, to a serious relationship, is a challenging time, and it is normal and valid for Alicia to feel jealous.

As Marcus and Alicia discuss his new relationship with Bridget, Alicia begins to see how happy and excited he is and starts to share these feelings. Although she still sometimes experiences jealousy when he is with Bridget over her, she can feel supportive and excited for his happiness. She transforms her feelings of jealousy into feelings of compersion by focusing on her partner's feelings of joy rather than her own selfish feelings and insecurities.

Compersion is commonly described as a feeling of joy or happiness elicited by seeing your romantic or sexual partner engaging in a romantic or sexual relationship with someone else (Brunning, 2020; Roberta, 2016; de Sousa, 2017). More simply, it is the exact opposite of jealousy. The term was coined by a commune in San Fransisco[spelling?] in the 1980s, the Kerista commune, who centred their beliefs on free love and polyfidelity. The definition cited on describes compersion as ‘positive feelings about your partner's other intimacies.’ Although this term only came about recently, this concept can be seen in teachings of Buddhism dating back centuries, called mudita or sympathetic joy (Ferrer, 2019). This idea is described as the pleasure that an individual experiences when witnessing other peoples[grammar?] success or happiness, for example, a mother feeling joy when her child receives an award.

Within polyamorous communities, the pursuit of compersion is a valued part of both individuals[grammar?] and couples[grammar?] experience and creates positive feelings of love and sharing that sustain the relationship. With the increase in teaching about ideas of polyamory, resources and information on compersion has begun to grow, although relating the ideals of compersion to situations outside polyamorous relationships and challenging the traditional experience of jealousy in monogamous relationships is lacking.


1 Where did the term compersion first come from?

Fundamentalist Mormons
Ancient Rome
Kerista commune in San Francisco

2 What is mudita?

A word used in Hinduism to describe a supreme being
A dance move
A Buddhist word meaning sympathetic joy
An Italian dessert

Understanding compersion[edit | edit source]

This section gives a further understanding of compersion, beginning by classifying what we mean when we say 'emotions.' The section will move on to examine the Schachter-Singer theory of emotion and jealousy. Additionally, the emotional consequences on an individual and a relationship, of both jealousy and compersion, are discussed.

What do we mean by emotions?[edit | edit source]

Emotions are described by Tyng, Amin, Saad and Malik in 2017 as "the umbrella concept that includes affective, cognitive, behavioural, expressive and physiological changes ... triggered by an external stimuli and associated with the combination of feeling and motivation" (p. 3).

Innate versus learned emotions[edit | edit source]

Emotions can be examined from various psychological perspectives including biological or evolutionary, cognitive and social perspectives. These different ideologies raise the question - where do emotions come from? If you take a biological perspective of emotion, it would be considering the natural and innate bodily response that occurs with emotions,[grammar?] for example, when a person feels joy they smile. This is evidenced by the study conducted by Missana, Altvater-Mackensen and Grossmann in 2017 described in the case study below. Additionally, the cross-cultural similarities in expressions of emotions gives evidence that facial expression, in particular, has an innate, unlearned origin (Ekman, Friesen, O'Sullivan, Diacoyanni-Tarlatizis, Heider, Krause, LeCompte, Pticairn, Ricci-Bitti, Scherer, Lomita & Tzavarus, 1987).

Biological example

A study conducted in 2017 by Missana, Altvater-Mackensen & Grossmann demonstrated emotion processing seen in infants up to the age of 8 months. This study provided important evidence to support a biological claim of emotion, as infants are shown to be responsive to different vocalisations that are intended to elicit a certain emotional response. In a similar study in 2010, results showed that use of an angry emotional voice caused a response in the infants' superior temporal cortex, whereas the use of a positive emotional voice generated a response in the inferior frontal cortex (Grossmann). These two studies clearly highlight the role that biology has in emotional understanding and response, and understanding emotions as an innate human condition. {RoundBoxBottom}}

The cognitive perspective of emotions suggests that biology cannot sufficiently explain complex emotions such as compersion or jealousy, but rather attributes emotional response to the individual's interpretation of an event (Roseman, 1984). A social perspective of emotion is similar in that it argues a more learned view of emotions, suggesting that exposure to emotional expression in others affects an individual's emotional experience and response.

It seems logical to conclude that emotions are caused by multiple different factors including both biological responses and cognitive appraisals and that different emotions have differing degrees of these inputs. This statement agrees with the Schachter-Singer two factor theory of emotion.

Schachter-singer two factor theory of emotion[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. The Schachter-Singer theory of emotion

The Schachter-Singer theory of emotion accounts for both biology and cognition and their role in emotional responses. They focus specifically on understanding the process of emotion, beginning with a stimulus that causes physical arousal, this stimulus is then processed and the physical response occurring is cognitively labelled (see Figure 1). This physical response and label are associated with an emotion and the consequent feelings or response occurs. Schachter and Singer [year?] conducted an experiment to support this, in which they injected participants with a hormone used to replicate the physical state of arousal, including increased heart rate and breathing. They told half of the participants of the possible side effects of this drug and then placed all participants into a room with another participant who acted either happy or angry. Participants who were unaware of the possible side effects acted more strongly and in accordance with the demonstrated emotion of the other participant. Schachter and Singer concluded that the participants who were unaware of the side effects and therefore who had no obvious explanation for the physical symptoms were more susceptible to the influence of the other participant's emotion. This demonstrates the need for both cognitive awareness and physical symptoms in emotion processing and gives supporting evidence to the two-factor theory (Dror, 2017, Reisenzein, 1983; Schachter & Singer, 1962).

How does this relate to compersion?[edit | edit source]

Drawing on the ideas of Schachter and Singer's two-factor theory, compersion can be understood via this process of emotional response. For example, when an individual experiences a physiological reaction to a stimulus such as their partner talking about their date last night with someone else, the individual then attributes this response to a positive feeling or compersion. Other factors will also likely influence this emotional response. Compersion is primarily a learned emotion, whereas jealousy is a natural, ingrained response. However, looking at compersion outside of a romantic relationship sphere, and examining the experience in other types of relationships, a mother and child, for instance, it appears to be a fairly common and unlearned reaction for a mother to experience positive feelings when her child succeeds. Compersion is only unnatural when it is in response to a partner's other intimacies - why? This raises a potential area for interesting future research into the case of compersion and the role of biology, cognition and society.


1 The 2017 study by Missana, Altvater-Mackensen and Grossmann shows the role of biology in emotion processing. True or false?


2 Which best describes Schachter-Singer theory of emotion?

A two factor theory that includes both biology and cognition in an understanding of emotional response
A biological theory of emotion based on a study of infants
A theory focusing on the process of emotional response
A two factor theory that names biology and culture as the cause of emotion

Jealousy[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

What is jealousy[edit | edit source]

Jealousy and compersion are opposites on an emotional scale, meaning that by examining one it is inevitable and important that the other is also understood. This section will seek to explain jealousy and the underlying reasons and assumptions as to why it might occur.
Figure 2. A jealous individual can cause relationship conflict.
Jealousy is defined as "an emotion designed to alert an individual to threats to a valued relationship" (Buss & Haselton, 2005, p. 1364) or similarly, "refers to the situation characterised by the potential or actual loss of a...mate, to a real or imagined rival" (Hupka, 1981, p. 310). Jealousy can be understood from a biological perspective as an adaptive response to a threat to a valuable relationship and acts to protect from the potential or actual loss that might occur (Buss & Haselton, 2005) or from a cognitive/social view that suggests it arises from social construction and is learnt through observation and conditioning. Guerrero and Andersen (1996) conclude that perhaps numerous factors affect jealousy including biology, culture, personality and relationship situation, leading an understanding of jealousy as an emotion to a Schachter-Singer two factor theory type view.

Consequences[edit | edit source]

This section will look at the consequences romantic jealousy might have on an individual, [grammar?] on their partner and the relationship as a whole. It will also look at these same outcomes associated with compersion.

Individuals that reported feeling 'jealous' within their relationship also reported lower relationship quality (see Figure 2) and the non-jealous partner reported feeling 'mistrusted and controlled' (Newberry, 2010). Emotional associations of jealousy might include, pain, anger, sadness, anxiety, low self-esteem and humiliation (Pines, 1998). Assuming then, as compersion is the opposite of jealousy, compersion will have more positive emotional associations such as joy, high self-esteem and high satisfaction, and result in higher relationship quality.


1 What are the factors that affect jealousy as suggested by Guerrero and Andersen?

Relationship situation
All of the options

2 What are the emotional associations of jealousy in an individual?

Joy, high self esteem and high relationship satisfaction
Fear, pain and depression
Anger, sadness, anxiety and low self esteem
Anger, distress, and loneliness

How can compersion be developed?[edit | edit source]

Case study:

A study is currently being conducted by Marie Thouin at the California Institute of Integral Studies which aims to answer the following questions: what is the experience of compersion and what qualities of predispositions, at the individual and relational levels, must be present for the experience of compersion to arise? This study will shine new light onto compersion and assist in further answering the question of how can compersion be developed.

Currently, the research advocates for a change in the language surrounding relationships and monogamy, and highlights the "invisibility' of the word compersion in popular vocabulary" (Thouin, 2020). It fails to appear in any dictionary and is not even recognised as a word by spellcheck. Thouin (2020) argues that "to popularise the word describing this experience could be key to transforming narratives around the inevitability of sexual jealousy and possessiveness" and discloses that she wants this research to "normalise the concept and experience of compersion" (2020) so that more individuals can learn about and practice this positive expression of love.

Compersion is often cited as being an emotion or experience that takes time and work to achieve (Aumer, Bellew, Ito, Hatfield & Heck, 2014; Brunning, 2020). While little academic research exists that explains explicit ways to develop compersion, ideas from Buddhist practices may be utilised within polyamorous communities. The idea of mudita in Buddhism is similar to compersion, and thus drawing on the practice of mudita is a logical extension that may facilitate the experience of compersion. Meditation is a common practice used in cultivating mudita and reflecting thoughts of gratitude and joy (Casioppo, 2020). This practice of meditation and mindfulness, and focusing on an overwhelming experience of joy above one's selfish desires creates the groundwork for compersion. In attempting to transform feelings of jealousy into an experience of compersion, an individual can utilise this practice to reinforce these feelings of joy, and disengage with their ego-driven, selfish thoughts.

Figure 3. Positive thoughts create a positive person.

Another relevant study is the science of happiness or the study of positive psychology. Insights into how to develop other positive emotions such as joy might translate well to an experience of compersion. Specifically, using reappraisal of an event to change the emotional association and increase the occurrence of positive emotions such as compersion in response to a typically negative-emotion inducing experience (van Oyen Witvliet, Hofelich Mohr, Hinman & Knoll, 2014). In the case of compersion, an individual can reflect on the event or situation, and acknowledge the positive things they are observing, such as their partner's happiness, or their own ability to be selfless. This will shift the focus of the situation and individuals can make a conscious effort to change their perceptions (see Figure 3).

While these two measures might provide potential suggestions or information on cultivating compersion, this section also illustrates the significant lack of research into the best ways to develop compersion. Research on this topic will not only be beneficial for polyamorous individuals but also individuals on a larger scale, as it promotes many positive benefits.


Which of the following is a way to develop compersion?

There are no ways
Meditation based on mudita practice
Attending group therapy classes
Becoming a Buddhist

Relationships[edit | edit source]

This section demonstrate connections between compersion and both polyamorous and monogamous relationships and individuals, and how emotion meaning occurs in each.

Compersion and polyamorous relationships[edit | edit source]

Compersion and polyamory go hand in hand, as the founding principles of each of these ideas attempt to achieve similar goals. Polyamory fosters intimate relationships with multiple partners, and compersion is the positive emotion that will result from observing and engaging in these relationships. This does not mean that compersion is a naturally occurring emotion, as jealousy seems to be the common response to situations frequently experienced in polyamorous arrangements, and polyamorous individuals cite they have to work to reflect and practice these positive feelings[factual?]. As the antithesis of jealousy, compersion arguably also occurs as a learned emotional response and therefore this practice can facilitate a readily available positive response of compersion to previous jealousy-inducing events. Experiencing compersion in a polyamorous relationship is often cited as a positive emotion that signifies the unselfish love one has for their partner[factual?]. This positive emotion is an expression of this love and exhibits genuine happiness at their relationships with someone else.

Figure 4. Hollywood depictions of couples are primarily monogamous.

In some religious beliefs, for example, Fundamentalist Mormons, this ability to love multiple people and the absence of jealousy are characteristics of a higher self, and individuals strive to achieve this (Altman, 1996).

Compersion and monogamous relationships[edit | edit source]

In contrast, the very idea of compersion undermines monogamy, as it accounts for the experience of multiple partners and relationships. Arguably, monogamous relationships are founded on and driven by feelings of jealousy (Aumer, Bellew, Ito, Hatfield & Heck, 2014) and competition due to their highly exclusive value. These feelings are seen as a positive indication of an individuals[grammar?] feelings towards someone, as they show they 'care', however jealousy itself is inherently selfish as individuals[grammar?] view of the event and consequent feelings are inconsiderate of the other parties feelings and experience, and creates various issues within the relationship.

Western society tends to project a mono-normative ideal of relationships and what 'relationship' means onto individuals today through law, religion, expectations of marriage and cultural messaging. Entertainment media predominately portrays monogamous examples of romance (see Figure 4) and families, and this cultural enforcement idolises such a situation.


1 Monogamy is idolised in Western culture. True or false?


2 Can compersion occur in monogamous individuals?

No, it only occurs in people who identify as polyamorous
Yes, because jealousy creates relationship issues.
Yes, although it generally relates to your partners[grammar?] other intimacies compersion can occur in other contexts.[Rewrite to improve clarity]
No, only religious people can experience compersion

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Compersion is a positive emotion that an individual experiences when observing or hearing about their romantic partner having a positive romantic experience with another individual. This idea currently exists only within a romantic/sexual non-monogamous relationship frame, however, expanding this idea further could provide numerous benefits to individuals. Compersion can be consciously practiced which will lead to the development of this positive emotion and acts as a counterbalance to the common experience of jealousy.

Practical, take-home messages:

  1. Perhaps jealousy is no longer the best indicator of a valuable or happy relationship.
  2. Cultural and societal messages perpetuate an idea of monogamy as the 'ideal' relationship situation, however, this may not always be the case.
  3. Compersion and its associated emotions enhance both the individual and collective experience of a relationship.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Altman, I. (1996). Polygamous family life: The case of contemporary mormon fundamentalists. Utah Law Review, (2), 367-392.

Aumer, K., Bellew, W., Ito, B., Hatfield, E., & Heck, R. (2014). The happy green eyed monogamist: Role of jealousy and compersion in monogamous and non-traditional relationships. Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, 17.

Brunning, L. (2020). Compersion: An alternative to jealousy? Journal of the American Philosophical Association, 6(2), 225–245.

Buss, D.M., & Haselton, M. (2005). The evolution of jealousy: Comment. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(11), 506-507.

Casioppo, D. (2019). The cultivation of joy: Practices from the Buddhist tradition, positive psychology and yogic philosophy. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 15(1), 67-73.

De Sousa, R. (2017). Love, jealousy, and compersion. The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Love, 13. 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199395729.013.30

Dror, O. (2016). Deconstructing the ‘two factors’: The historical origins of the Schachter-Singer theory of emotions. Emotion Review, 9(1), 7-16.

Ekman, P., Friesen, W., O’Sullivan, M., Chan, A., Diacoyanni-Tarlatzis, I., Heider, K., Krause, R., LeCompte, W., Pitcairn, T., Ricci-Bitti, P., Scherer, K., Lomita, M., & Tzavaras, A. (1987). Universals and cultural differences in the judgement of facial expressions of emotion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(4), 712-717.

Ferrer, J. N. (2019). From romantic jealousy to sympathetic joy: Monogamy, polyamory, and beyond. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 38 (1).

Grossmann, T. (2010). The development of emotion perception in face and voice during infancy. Restor Neurol Neurosci, 28(2), 219-236. 10.3233/RNN-2010-0499

Guerrero, L. & Andersen, P. (1996). Chapter 6 - Jealousy experience and expression in romantic relationship. Handbook of Communication and Emotion, 155-188.

Hupka, R. (1981). Cultural determinants of jealousy. Alternative Lifestyles, 4, 310-356.

Missana, M., Alvater-Mackensen, N., & Grossmann, T. (2017). Neural correlates of infants' sensitivity to vocal expressions of peers. Development Cognitive Neuroscience, 26, 39-44.

Newberry, M. (2010). The positive and negative effects of jealousy on relationship quality: A Meta-Analysis [Masters thesis, University of North Florida]. UNF Digital Commons.

Pines, A. (1998). Romantic jealousy : Causes, symptoms, cures. Routledge.

Reisenzein, R. (1983). The Schachter theory of emotion: Two decades later. Psychological Bulletin, 94(2), 239-264. 10.1037/0033-2909.94.2.239

Roberta, J. (2016). What is 'compersion'? The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, 23(1).

Roseman, I.J. (1984). Cognitive determinants of emotion: A structural theory. Review of Personality & Social Psychology, 5, 11-36.

Schachter, S., & Singer, J. (1962). Cognitive, social and physiological determinants of emotional state. Psychological Review, 69(5), 379-399.

Thouin, M. (2020). The experience of compersion in consensually non-monogamous couples: A grounded theory investigation. What is compersion?

Tyng, C., Amin, H., Saad, M., & Malik, A. (2017). The influences of emotion on learning and memory. Frontiers in Psychology 8(1454), 1-22.

vanOyen Witvliet, C., Hofelich Mohr, A., Hinman, N., & Knoll, R. (2014). Transforming or restraining rumination: The impact of compassionate reappraisal versus emotion suppression on empathy, forgiveness, and affective psychophysiology. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 10(3), 248-261.

External links[edit | edit source]