My compersion appears to be conditional. I’m not ashamed for this. I’m trying to acknowledge it and turn it around. Love shouldn’t be conditional and for me it’s not. So this has been a big pill to swallow. Have you written about this? When a partner’s partner resents your existence and you feel your compersion for them begin to die?
Compersion is all the rage in polyamorous communities, positively regarded, and many times held up as an ideal to strive for. For any readers unfamiliar with the term, compersion (also known as confelicity or mudita) is delight in the happiness of others — even when that happiness has little or nothing to do with you. When you get down to it, compersion is just a very specific kind of empathy, one that runs counter to our cultural expectations.
In a polyamorous context, compersion can manifest in many ways, but most classically polyamorists will center their conversations around striving to be happy that their partner seems happy with their other partner(s) and in their other relationship(s).
Compersion isn’t required to be polyamorous, but its presence does tend to help. And not just in polyamory. Compersion can help in other facets of one’s life; for example, not falling prey to the worst of the effects of FOMO (fear of missing out) in the social media age.
Many people don’t experience it at baseline (although some do), but thankfully there are ways to cultivate compersion within yourself if it’s not something you feel naturally.
But does a person who has a tendency to feel compersion in general always feel it?
That’s a big hell no. I’ve definitely experienced what you’re talking about, letter writer. It’s entirely possible for those positive feelings to be overtaken by negative ones. I’ve been in situations where a metamour (a partner’s other partner) despises the fact that I exist, and it makes it pretty much impossible to feel any of the compersion that I would normally feel.
When They Act Like I’m in the Way, It Thrums Up Powerful Insecurities
I know why this happens to me, but I want you to bear in mind that this is my own situation, and yours could vary a lot. This is because everyone’s griefcase has different patterns so to speak, and emotional baggage can be highly individual.
While your reaction might be happening for entirely different reasons, my tendency to lose compersion in a situation where a metamour resents me has always stemmed from the fact that one of my deepest fears is that I’m in other people’s way. Pretty much ALL the time, not just when in polyamorous relationship systems.
I did write a little more about that fear in an article called “My Biggest Struggle Has Always Been Feeling Like a Third Wheel.”
But basically when a metamour starts acting hateful to me, it sends a strong signal that they resent my presence in the equation and I’m an obstacle. Which reinforces my insecurities that I’m in the way.
And as I get swallowed by those insecurities, it becomes really hard to feel anything other than enmity in return. Once upon a time, it would have been impossible for me to recover from this and to find emotional peace once the situation had devolved into that place. The years of emotional work have been kind to me.
However, while at this point in my polyamorous life it’s not an impossible situation anymore, it remains a challenging one.
I Tend to Expect It More From Newer Polyamorists — Which Makes It Easier to Deal With
Depending on the situation, I have a different breaking point.
For example, I tend to find it easier to extend one-sided graciousness and patience to people who are newer to polyamory and reluctant about it. I think this is partly because I know what that feels like (polyamory wasn’t easy for me at the start either, and I had a lot to sort through emotionally).
It’s a feeling I understand — and one that’s easy for me to not to take personally, even if some of the side effects of it can feel rather personal (rudeness, being ignored or insulted, the initiation of territorial pissing contests, etc.).
Conversely, I do find myself more quickly losing patience with long-term polyamorists who engage in the behaviors. Because to me that signals that they might be someone who doesn’t own their own feelings or attempt to work on their issues. And is instead predisposed to ask others to work around their insecurities indefinitely even if they’re behaving atrociously and tromping all over the insecurities of others.
This pattern of behavior has a far worse prognosis than (the near-expected) beginner struggles. Again, not always impossible (few things are). But longer odds that the work you do and the graciousness you extend will go anywhere or ever be returned.
Should Love Be Unconditional?
All that being said, I am not sure it’s easy to take what you said in passing for granted as a kind of gospel truth — that love shouldn’t be conditional.
There’s a philosophical gray area here. Whether or not unconditional love is a state to strive for is actually quite a controversial premise. I’ve seen people come down credibly on virtually every side of this issue that you can imagine.
A full exploration of these issues is beyond the scope of this piece (and would perhaps warrant its own followup article, so if other readers have thoughts on this particular premise they want to contribute towards that, feel free to comment or write to the blog privately).
But essentially, there tend to be some very reasonable arguments both for and against. Here are a couple:
- Love shouldn’t be conditional. We shouldn’t have to earn someone else’s love by doing certain things, being a certain way, providing them transactional benefits. If it’s more about these conditions (what they can do for us, how much prestige they add to our life by being linked to them, etc.) than about enjoying spending time with the person themselves, then one might argue that it’s not even love.
- Conditions can, however, serve a vital purpose in loving relationships. Unconditional love is a beautiful concept in theory, but when it comes to romantic love, we need to be able to set conditions with other adults (such as boundaries, etc.) in order to promote healthy relationships.
I actually agree with the broad strokes of both of these stances.
And so I’ve more or less taken the position that the health of a relationship is less about whether that love is unconditional or not — and more about what the conditions are, if any.
Are they petty concerns? Is it about the pursuit of status or attempting to outsource most of your life’s hassles to someone else?
Or are any conditions you have in place about making sure you’re protected and not vulnerable to abuse?
If it’s the latter, I don’t see any problem with it.
Have a question about a post? Maybe need some advice about a relationship or situation? Write me. I love getting messages from you.
My new book is out!
Dealing with Difficult Metamours, the first book devoted solely to metamour relationships, full of strategies to help you get along better with your partners’ other partner(s).