Opening up a relationship: Compersion, insecurity and ethical non-monogamy
By: Frankie Valentine
Sunday morning and I’m sitting at the table in the Melbourne house I bought with Mojo, my partner of seven years. Our two cats groom each other in the sunlight. A Subaru is parked in the driveway. We tick all the boxes of middle-class lesbian cliché, although I’m a stripper and she’s a musician, so we don’t quite fit the suburban relationship mould.
Mojo strolls into the room, telling me about a woman she recently met. She’s excited. I can see it in the way she smiles, the way her eyes sparkle. I have this sense that something’s different. “I think you have a little crush,” I say, teasing. She laughs, “No I don’t, she’s just cool.” “I think you do,” I respond. “Think about it and let me know in a few days.”
Later, she agrees that yes, she does have a little crush, but that she would never act on it without our agreement. The calm and composed manner I had days before goes out the window and I lose my shit. I scream and rant at her and even manage to throw in a ‘how could you?’ though she hasn’t done anything wrong. Eventually, I regain my composure and we talk rationally.
So begins the journey of opening up our relationship. The notion of ethical non-monogamy had always appealed to both of us. Mojo came from mostly open relationships and when we met I thought it would be the same with us, but she didn’t want that. I had always been monogamous in relationships, so I was comfortable with her decision. I honestly thought that when we did explore it, I would be the one to bring it up. I’ve always been bisexual and at times I missed exploring that.
I’d like to think that I behaved with grace throughout us opening up our relationship, but that’s not true. I succumbed to my insecurities. I felt them intensely and often reacted in kind, but was determined to work through my shit.
It would be a full year before I truly understood the feeling of compersion. I first read the word compersion in The Ethical Slut, where it’s used to describe the feeling of joy that comes from seeing your partner sexually happy with someone else.
Reading The Ethical Slut is step 1 of us consciously stepping into non-monogamy. Step 2 is having counselling sessions with a poly-relationship counsellor; steps 3, 4 and 5 are endless hours of talking boundaries. Step 6 is making a date—a sex date. We make one each, for the same night. My partner with the girl she met, and I with a male lover from my past. I haven’t jumped on the D for seven years; I want it to be with someone I know.
I enjoy the date; I enjoy the touch of someone else, the taste of someone else. I don’t spend the night wondering about Mojo or how she is feeling.
The next day, when I wake from a sex haze, my world comes crashing down. I feel like I have undone all the years of love, that I’ve made an irreversible decision. When I talk to Mojo on the phone, I revert to every toxic monogamous trait in the book. “Is she better in bed than I am?” I ask. “Tell me I’m sexier, tell me my nipples are better.”
I beg her to validate me at the expense of another. When I arrive home, and can look in her eyes, I realise everything is okay. We love each another and we fuck with renewed vigour. She still likes my nipples, too.
I am not proud of the way I responded in these situations. I am intensely passionate and that can sometimes manifest in over-the-top reactions. There is a common misconception that most people who choose polyamory are not the insecure type, that they don’t feel threatened. I can say with a humbled shake of the head that this is not true, that for me it takes work.
“Poly is tricky,” a friend said recently. “A lot of people think they have what it takes to handle it, but there is often this huge gap between your intentions and your feelings, that you can only be aware of when it happens.”
It’s true. I’ve felt it. I’ve seen it in others. I had to learn to let myself be vulnerable and not project it onto someone else. I had to learn not to compare myself with Mojo’s lovers, or compare her with my lovers. I have learned to trust that the intimacy she shares with another doesn’t diminish our love. Our relationship has grown stronger. Intimacy has deepened. Ever-evolving love and commitment comes through intense vulnerability.
I’m sitting at the kitchen table looking up at my partner of eight years as she tells me about this woman she met last night. There’s a certain sparkle in her eye that takes me back to the previous year. She tells me they have made a date for the following week. I don’t feel jealous, I don’t feel threatened; I feel excited for her, I feel compersion.
Frankie Valentine is a queer stripper and performance artist practising ethical non-monogamy. She has been getting naked for an audience of one or a crowd of a thousand for over a decade. She is currently studying writing at RMIT.
Archer Asks: André Aciman, author of Call me by your Name
Trans masculine India: Gender role play, prejudice and the hijra community
Ghosts of friendships past: On divesting from privilege
Fanfiction: Coding homosexuality as a teenager
Not like you: On gay assimilation and fighting for difference
Pride parade disruptions: Keeping queerness ethical
Archer Asks: Musician and performer, William Hannagan-Mckinna