Compersion & jealousy: is that really all there is?

I often see compersion defined as  the ‘opposite’ of jealousy. I understand why it is tempting to do this. The experience of having a loved one sharing intimacy with another can bring up complex and overwhelming feelings. Intellectually, we strive to simplify this complicated emotional landscape in hopes of ‘overcoming’, or at least understanding, our jealousy.

The problem is, in my experience, it’s not so simple. Emotions are not binary.

First, there is the issue of ‘conflation’ (experiencing different emotions simultaneously). In one of my earliest experiences, a lover of mine had a particularly prolific period in which he connected sexually with seven different women in a month. Sure, it brought up some fears in me of loss and inadequacy. Yet when he and I entered intimate space together, to my surprise, my mind went to images of all these women finding ecstasy in the arms of my lover, and rather than shutting me down, I became incredibly aroused. So while feeling jealousy, I also experienced erotic compersion.  Opposites, by definition, would not co-exist.

Second, how I respond to a given situation depends in part on how my lover responds, or how I think they do, in that situation. What is the story I am telling myself, what am I making it mean?  I therefore decided to do what any good scientist would do. I created a 2×2 table:

You can see here that compersion and jealousy are not the only possible outcomes, since it also depends on what is happening, or what is being felt, by my lover. Let me walk you through it.

If my lover is having a positive experience with another lover, I have two quadrants in which I might respond, generally divided into ‘positive’ emotions (compersion) or ‘negative’ ones (jealousy). However, what if something happens that leaves my lover feeling not so happy? Maybe he gets in a quarrel with his other partner, or maybe they break up? Or maybe he has stuff come up because he loves you so much that he is worried about you so he holds back with his other partner(s)? In this case, you might fall into the other two quadrants. You might feel happy/elated/relieved: this could be considered a type of schadenfreude. Alternatively, you might feel compassion/sadness/guilt. The best word I have for this is empathy. Technically empathy can be positive or negative, however in my experience we often speak of empathy in regards to someone’s negative experiences.

Importantly, these quadrants relate to the x and y axes, meaning they fall along a spectrum of feelings. Also, with the axes themselves, it is possible to be in a place of neutrality. I remind you, it is possible to fall in more than one quadrant simultaneously (conflation).

I hope this table will help you identify feelings that arise in you in relation to your lover’s others, as a starting place to diving deeper into the work of uncovering core feelings and beliefs. I’d love your feedback.