Why Some People Have No Problem with a Partner's Affair
How to understand jealousy, compersion, and self-esteem.
Posted Jun 02, 2020
“He that is not jealous, is not in love.” —Saint Augustine
“Love is when the other person’s happiness is more important than your own." —H. Jackson Brown
Compersion is a recently coined term that describes your happiness from your partner’s happiness with another lover. Is such an experience possible? How deep could it be?
“Jealousy is all the fun you think they had.” —Erica Jong
When we evaluate someone’s good fortune in a way that conflicts with our evaluation of our own fortune (well-being), we can end up with emotions like envy and jealousy. At other times, the two evaluations meet, and we wind up with the emotions of sympathetic joy (happy for) and admiration.
The root of envy lies in seeing ourselves in an undeserved position of inferiority. Similarly, jealousy, which involves the fear of losing our partner to a lover, includes a negative evaluation of the partner’s good fortune, as such a loss can be a mighty blow to our self-esteem.
Jealousy increases when the domain of the rival’s achievements is comparable, and hence relevant, to our self-esteem. Thus, a jealous reaction is more likely with individuals who place great importance on physical attractiveness when their rival is unusually attractive. In jealousy, the significance of the rival’s achievements depends not only on their relevance to how we desire to be ourselves, but also to what we believe our partner finds desirable.
Unlike envy and jealousy, sympathetic joy and admiration involve a positive evaluation of the other’s good fortune. These emotions are present when someone is so close to us that we consider her success our own, and hence, it poses no threat to our self-esteem (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019). This is known as “basking in reflected glory;” the other’s glory shines on us, enhancing our own self-esteem. We often see this in parental love and in the admiration of sports fans for their winning teams (Cialdini et al., 1976).
Is sympathetic joy possible in the romantic realm?
“I will be happy for my husband if he will find a lover; I will also be pleased if my young lover will find a woman his age. However, I want my profound lover only for myself completely. For whatever reason, I think he has been my only true love.” —A married woman
Although romantic love encompasses genuine care for the beloved, it is often not a general concern for the beloved's happiness in all circumstances. Frequently, the lover desires the beloved's happiness in a conditional manner—only insofar as the lover is either a part or the cause of this happiness. In particular, many people do not want their beloveds to be sexually happy with another person.
We can distinguish three major attitudes toward the happiness of your partner when having an affair with another person: (1) jealousy, (2) emotional neutrality, and (3) compersion. Jealousy seems to be the most common, while emotional neutrality is likely to be present when there is hardly any romantic connection between the partners (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019).
Compersion is a complex emotion that appears in complex circumstances. There is the situation in which people do not love their partner, and hence the partner’s affair does not harm their self-esteem but rather helps them focus on their interests, including their own affairs. In other cases, people love their partner and are happy about his or her affair because it increases the partner’s attentiveness and caring for their own needs. Indeed, individuals engaged in consensual non-monogamous relations tend to report that they experience an increase of warmth, closeness, and love toward their partner as a result of this lifestyle choice (Moors, et al., 2015).
Compersion in polyamory
“When the lover of my husband sits on his knees, I melt: ‘They’re sooooo cute!’” —Swann, in Hypatia from Space, Compersion
While there is no conceptual contradiction in compersion, there are various emotional obstacles in experiencing such happiness that more often generates jealousy than compersion. Here are a few features of polyamory that impact the emergence of jealousy or compersion.
The coexistence of multiple parallel romantic relations enhances the comparative aspect, in light of which the likelihood of losing one’s partner increases and becomes more concrete; in turn, the likelihood of jealousy rises. The comparative concern in polyamory is more vivid because you are surrounded by people who are tied up with your self-esteem: the lover of your spouse, the spouse of your lover, and others in this romantic network. Nevertheless, you are obliged to put less weight on the comparative concern. Indeed, the fact that polyamorous ideology favors such parallel relations reduces the weight of such comparison. The weight of comparison is also reduced when there are significant differences between the primary and secondary partners, for example, in age, appearance, character or occupation. This is because making comparisons between similar people is easier than making them between those who are significantly different from one another.
Intense passion, present in the initial stage of infatuation, increases the probability of intense jealousy. As one polyamorous woman said about the love affair that her (married) lover initiated with another woman at the infatuation stage: “I felt as if I had been stabbed with a knife in my stomach.”
Coping with potential harm to our self-esteem, as associated with compersion, calls for trust in one’s partner and confidence in the importance he or she attaches to us. Coping may be easier when both partners have an affair or the kind of job that dwarfs possible damage to their self-esteem.
The daily coping with jealousy may position jealousy at the center of our attention, thereby increasing it. However, such coping may also facilitate our adjustment to jealousy—and thereby decrease the emotion. Additionally, the higher probability of separation in polyamorous relations causes people to treat separations as more natural—which can also reduce the intensity of jealousy.
The above considerations indicate that the appearance of jealousy or compersion in polyamory is context- and personality-dependent. Nevertheless, it seems that compersion is indeed more common in polyamory than in monogamy. Although jealousy is not absent in polyamorous relations, it tends to be less severe in intensity and the related behavior tends to be less hostile than in monogamy.
The more natural character of jealousy as compared to compersion is evident from the fact that the experience of compersion, if it is to be felt at all, must be nurtured; by contrast, no one needs a tutorial in jealousy—it is a spontaneous reaction that we can merely try to moderate.
“I reserve the right to love many different people at once, and to change my prince often.” —Anaïs Nin
Emotional experiences are a package deal that includes both positive and negative emotions. We should not wage war against jealousy—when jealousy is moderate, it can contribute to romantic relations. Similarly, while compersion is not a miracle cure, it is also not a poison. In some (more limited) circumstances, compersion can be a valuable emotion. Making our partner happy is, after all, what underlies profound love (Brunning, 2019a, 2019b; de Sousa, 2018).
This post is based on my book, The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change over Time
Facebook image: adriaticfoto/Shutterstock
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The arc of love: How our romantic lives change over time. University of Chicago Press.
Brunning, L. (2019a), Imagine there's no jealousy. Aeon.
Brunning, L. (2019b). Compersion: An alternative to jealousy? Journal of the American Philosophical Association, 1-21.
de Sousa, R. (2018). Love, jealousy, and compersion. In C. Grau & A. Smuts (eds.), Oxford handbook of philosophy of love. Oxford University Press.
Moors, A. C., et al. (2015). Attached to monogamy? Avoidance predicts willingness to engage (but not actual engagement) in consensual non-monogamy. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 32, 222-240.