There’s more written in polyamorous literature about jealousy and compersion than possibly anything else. And still, the feeling of compersion seems elusive for many. Compersion— a word coined within polyamory but increasingly finding mainstream use— is defined as an experience of happiness, joy or pleasure invoked by the joy of another, and it can be an intellectual, somatic, or erotic experience.
Again and again I find clients challenged in experience joy for a partner’s joy. More often the initial response is jealousy. Or, they might experience joy paired with jealousy, envy, or feelings of insecurity. Our inner “perfect poly person” might want us to have insta-compersion for what our partners are doing with others, but it is rarely that simple. Many people find themselves exploring a ‘fake-it-till-ya-make-it” approach— and approach which absolutely has merits when you are working to deprogram the monogamous culture that tells us we need to be able to meet every need for a partner.
Recently, I have been contemplating that there’s more to this equation. I believe that simplifying the experience of a lack of compersion to being the presence of jealousy leaves out something very significant, an element that is of paramount importance to the core of our ability to be present in relationships. That element is safety.
I recently came across an excellent note on Facebook on safety. Called “A Checklist To Determine if a Man is Safe”, there’s many excellent points that I think can apply to all genders (albeit with some modifications). At the same time as I have been contemplating this, a question was posed in a group I am in, Cultivating Compersion, about trusting one’s intuition about a situation vs working on compersion.
I have found— both in my own experience, and in working with my coaching clients— that if you do not feel safe in the relationship, you’ll be unable to feel compersion. And safety is an illusive element to quantify, because what creates safety and un-safety can differ for each person, often influenced by their experiences in childhood, previous relationships, and other life events.
Safety is an experience that exists in the nervous system. We experience events and our five senses send signals about these events to the brain. The brain interprets these signals and creates a story about them, and then commands the body to respond. For example, your ears might hear footsteps behind you, but you don’t see anyone. The brain concludes there is possible danger and commands the body to stop digesting food and to focus on the cardiovascular system so that you can run away from this perceived threat. By contrast, when the senses experience warmth, predictable noises, and familiar surroundings, our brain knows that it is safe for our body to relax and the breath deepens, the muscles relax, and the stomach gurgles as digestion starts again.
When people talk about having a gut feeling about something, or their intuition guiding them, what they are often referring to is their honed-in ability to recognise and respond to their own nervous system’s responses. These responses have evolved in us for a very good reason: they keep us alive. They let us know when our body needs an environment different from the one it is in, they inform us when we need to take action, or when we need to hide. Many of these responses happen at a primal, unconscious level— and unfortunately our modern culture has taught us to ignore many of these responses.
When the brain is overwhelmed by input, it can send out response signals that might seem to outside observers like an over-reaction. Think of a war veteran or war refugee who begins to shake in fear when they hear a car backfiring because it reminds them of gunfire. From my own experience with PTSD, I have found myself activated and angry from unwelcome touch; I’m definitely grateful for the cognitive abilities to be able to recognise that a woman brushing past me on the dance floor is probably not actually a threat to my personal safety, even though my brain sometimes wants to interpret it as that.
I have learned, as a survivor of complex trauma, to recognise that fight-flight-freeze-fawn response when it arises and take a moment to quickly check in with myself. I literally have a conversation with myself that goes something like this.
“What just happened there?”
There was a threat!
“No, what really happened?”
Something happened that made me feel unsafe.
“Okay, so are you safe right now?”
Maybe. I’m not sure yet.
“Okay, what can you do to feel safer right now?”
Sometimes the answer is I need to remove myself from the perceived threat. Sometimes I need to go do something different to step into a space of playfullness rather than defaulting to defensiveness. Sometimes I need to go literally shake that feeling off. And sometimes the threat is actually real.
It is not uncommon in forms of Honest Non Monogamy for a new partner to be perceived as a ‘threat’. We might, for example, find ourselves concerned about the time-energy resources that our partner will be using with this new person and fear that it will deplete the time-energy they have for us (fyi this is totally a reasonable fear and a genuine concern that is worth addressing in your relationships). Our brains— that tend to be used to more monogamous thinking around ownership and obligation in relationships— might interpret the new partner’s presence as an indication that we ourselves are ‘not enough’.
These fears, these concerns, they are worth listening to. Whilst some might be irrational and unfounded fears, they are still stories that our brain is holding on to, and that our nervous system is responding to. And those responses- those are real. When the nervous system experiences a perceived threat and tells the body to prepare to run, muscles tense up and the breathing changes. For myself, I notice my psoas major muscle (an area of chronic tension for myself) begins to feel solid like a rock. I clench my jaw and grind my teeth and hyperventilate. I actually ended up with a cracked tooth from years of grinding my teeth during times of stress in relationships. There is a real, literal cost, to ignoring the messages our body is giving us.
This weekend I was at a gathering that my dear friends Tricia and Michael co-facilitate, called Being Held. Inspired by the work of Caffyn Jesse, Cuddle Party, and others, they create a container for the sharing of honoring touch, through what they call the Four Pillars of Safety. It is a beautiful exploration of how we can re-wire our bodies and brains into a space of recieving. I know that many people who have experienced touch-starvation have derived enormous benefits from these gatherings, and events similar. For myself— a person who grew up with too much touch, touch where I didn’t always have agency— it has been a profound means for me to learn what the experience of safe touch feels like.
The Four Pillars of Safety are defined as the means for how participants can allow their heart, mind, body, and soul to relax and open to being in connection.
Body Safety: ‘Meeting Equally’ in physical connection; defining Boundaries for touch; prioritising comfort; protecting the body; and thanking the “no”.
Heart Safety: Acceptance of the parts that feel unsafe; going to an emotional edge but no further, checking in regularly with one’s self and others; accountability and ownership of our own thoughts and feelings; honoring and seeing eachother as diverse beings.
Mind Safety: Co-creating activities through negotiated participation; revealing personal intentions and having transparency about who an action is for; creating clear time frames for activities; debriefing on each activity; holding confidentiality.
Soul Safety: Recognising the stories our brain creates; cultivating an attitude that there is ‘nothing to fix’, we are whole as we are; gratitude for all that is; honoring of erotic energy as life energy; maintaining a container of honoring and loving acceptance.
I really love this framework, and I borrow from these four pillars of safety in my Monogamy Detox course. I believe that these four pillars are the key to finding safety and security in relationships.
If you are experiencing jealousy in your relationships, or if you are struggling to feel compersion for a partner, I invite you to pause for a moment and consider:
- What if this isn’t about jealousy at all?
- What if this is about safety?
- Do you feel safe right now in connection with this other person?
- What would support you to feel more safe?
- In your relationships, what can you do in order to cultivate a greater experience of safety between you?
- Are you conscious of how you engage physically with your partners and do you notice when you shift from enjoying something to tolerating or enduring something?
- Are you engaging in something because it is what your partner wants, or because it is what you want? And are they in engaging in it from an authentic space, or from a space of wanting to please you?
There is so much we can do in our relationships to create greater containers of safety, honoring, and holding for one another. Many of us have grown up without these experiences as our default, and the default relationship escalator path of Monogamy offers many people a framework that implies (yet sadly does not guarantee) a container of safety. Traditional gender roles also offer a framework for ‘safety’, as long as everyone conforms to the expected role of their assigned gender. As our society continues to challenge the expectations of those raised as women, and those raised as men, many more people will find themselves experiencing a sense of being threatened. Now, more than ever, I believe that embracing approaches to living that ground ourselves in foundations of creating safety— actions of kindness, compassion, clarity, and community-building— is paramount.