28 June 2009

Compersion: Love as Space

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Free World Mirror. Photo by Eric Francis.

This article is being discussed on the Planet Waves blog.

There are good reasons compersion feels like such a radical idea; why for example feeling good about your partner’s relationship with someone else feels so radical. It does; to most, the notion seems unconscionable. There are the ordinary ones: we ‘don’t want to think about that kind of thing’ or we equate monogamy (or the appearance of monogamy) with loyalty. That loyalty is the razor’s edge between being ‘with someone’ and ‘being alone’.

But let’s say you’re willing to go past the primal fear; you’re willing to think about it, even willing to feel it, and it starts to make sense that your partner is free and part of that freedom is opening the space inside yourself and in the relationship for them to have any experience they want. Let’s say you figure out that logic leaves you no choice but to extend your partner all the freedom they want or need.

What is so loving about attempting to define, limit or control the emotions or experiences of another person? Nothing at all; we just call it love to make it sound nice. Not all monogamous relationships have this as their basis, but we tend to see and experience this dynamic pretty frequently.

Then let’s say you sort out the difference between loyalty and monogamy. This is a big one, as just this morning a friend was telling me about her soon-to-be ex-husband and father of her kids hounding her over who was the subject of poems she wrote when she was sixteen years old.

If we’ve done these two things, we’ve covered the superficial basics of the issue. But we might feel disoriented; we typically use jealousy and the fear of jealousy perhaps more than any other force to orient in our relationships; if someone is jealous, you ‘know they love you’. If they are not jealousy, then you might wonder. Let’s say you see the madness of this, as well.

Now finally we can come to the subtler and more complex matters such as how we attach our identity and our gender identity to our role in our relationships. This would allow us to explore compersion as being specifically about releasing those moorings within our relationships, and then by extension, in a much wider social space; it’s pretty clear that society is organized around the concept of a one-on-one relationship, the experience of one, or spending your entire life seeking one.

I believe this is similar to coming out of the closet as some other sexual orientation, which is often about a complete re-evaluation of the same things: gender identity and the role our society tells us we’re supposed to have in our relationships, our communities and so on.

I’ll give you an example, using gender pronouns and a heterosexual framework. Once you’re in an established relationship with a man, you’re supposed to be the only woman, or the most important woman, in his life. That may be the difference people have in mind when they make a distinction between ‘friendship’ and ‘relationship’.

This immediately establishes a structure, indeed, power structure. The idea of a structure defines space: this relationship is at the top, or at the center, and the rest are beneath it, or around it. Within the relationship, someone is likely to be more confident and someone likely to be less confident; someone is likely to have a more pronounced control agenda and someone is likely to have a more submissive tendency. So the power structure is related to the structure of the relationship within what I will call social space.

When we add a factor like being free to experience intimacy with another person, the entire power structure has to be reorganzied, or rather, it is reorganized around that fact. For example, are both partners free to explore intimacy and pleasure? Is it equally easy or difficult for both partners to be present for the other person’s experiences? Do both have an equal desire to do so, or does one person have more of a desire; or even one person want to, and the other does not want to?

When that couple walks into a room, the entire shape of the social structure changes around their particular relationship choices. But closer to the nucleus, within each of those individuals, they must dismantle certain expectations they were taught to have about relationships. For example, if you expect to be the most important woman in someone’s life, or even the ‘only woman’ (which to some extent all woman expect from a relationship with a partner), one must entirely reorganize that psychic structure and indeed many others in order to be with a person who is free to explore other intimacies. You need to change powerful expectations, and those expectations have defined who you are.

As we know from gender studies, that definition is often political in nature. So this is a pretty radical change in how you relate to yourself and to society. For example, there are plenty of subcultures where someone’s personhood is dependent up on having a monogamous partner, or the appearance of one. And without that certification of monogamy, one’s personhood can be reduced; it can be shamed; it can be trivialized; one can be seen as a threat to the other monogamous partnerships that surround them (which must not in fact be so monogamous, given the extent of the threat).

All of this, from wanting to explore intimacy outside your primary partnership? Or from wanting to open the space for your partner to do so? Yes – that’s what I think is involved, and what I’ve experienced. It’s not only a complete reorientation within social space, it’s a reorientation within one’s inner space. This is not easy to communicate; I will see if I can describe how that feels in the next entry.

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