Swinging: A Sustainable Lifestyle?
What Is Swinging?
As a Relationship Counsellor, I have seen an increase in the number of couples and individuals who engage in swinging as part of their lifestyle. Although sometimes applied to the general practice of non-monogamous sexual activities within relationships, for most people swinging applies particularly to couples exchanging of sexual partners as a social activity.
Most couples who engage in swinging are otherwise ordinary people, who have made the choice to keep love and sex at least partly separate. Sex, rather than being just an expression of intimate love with their partners, is also a recreational activity. Whilst happy with their partner-relationship, they seek sex with others for variety and novelty. In other words, it is as an addition to their relationship rather than an alternative. When it works, these couples still enjoy intimacy and a close connection with their partners
The swinging lifestyle has a list of standard term, which can be helpful in keeping open channels of communication with their regular partners and in setting up liaisons with other couples. Couples negotiate soft rules which set the basic expectations with hard rules being the non-negotiables.
Some of these rules might include sticking to same room sex (self-explanatory) to maintain trust and a sense of shared experience or allowing full swap sex, which would involve pairing off.
Of course, in the examples I mention below, all names and identifiers have been changed to protect the confidentiality of my clients.
For example, one couple I saw recently, Gemma and Mark, had agreed that they would only have same room sex with others, which they believed made the activity safer, whereas Chrissy and Theo had softer rules and had decided on full swap sex but with the agreement that there would be no contacting of the other couples unless it was done together. Robert wanted to see his wife Clarissa experience MFM (a male, female, male threesome).
Why Do Couples Swing?
The most commonly reported reason couples choose to swing is to ‘spice up’ their relationship, although other relationships are negotiated including swinging from the outset. Couples tell of the thrill in seeking out other couples or ‘picking up’ an individual for a ménage à trois. In fact, some report that the hunt is better than the sexual experience that follows.
Others see swinging as a way to act out sexual fantasies that don’t fit neatly within their existing relationship, whilst others still feel that the shared secret brings them closer. Couples also report a mismatch in libido and sexual problems as reasons they participate in swinging. Many consider it an antidote to cheating.
There are deeper seeded reasons and contributing factors of how and why a partner or couple chose to share sex and intimacy with others where sexual intimacy with one partner or each other does not seem adequate. One of the reasons is when a person or couple can split off parts of themselves to then share with others. Splitting is a psychological term to describe a coping mechanism usually developed from childhood. I will eloborate more on this in another article.
Breaches of Trust
David and Fiona sought Marriage Counselling some time ago. Happily married for 15 years, both are confident, secure professionals. Fiona is Pharmacist; David runs his own successful marketing business. Their 2 children are teenagers. Having been part of the swinging lifestyle for many years, they had refined their selection of couples and both considered meeting other couples as fun, often on interstate trips to be part of the success of their marriage. Having gone well for many years, on the most recent trip David had been attracted to the wife of a new couple whilst Fiona was not attracted to the husband.
The rules they had established prescribed that they would not proceed unless they were both interested but David convinced Fiona to go ahead, as he put it, ‘take one for the team’, which she did. Over the subsequent weeks Fiona’s behaviour changed and she started becoming frustrated with David and unusually quick to anger. She started talking about discontinuing swinging. By the time they came to see me, Fiona was feeling used and betrayed by David. David felt misunderstood and defensive because in his view Fiona had agreed to go ahead but Fiona could not forgive David for ‘breaking the rule’.
The problem here and for other couples I have worked with is that people’s emotions are far too complex to be negotiated entirely by intellectual decisions. Fiona may have agreed in the moment but her emotional response had rejected that decision.
When Does Swinging Impact Relationships?
Although some couples seem able to build successful partnerships around swinging, in some cases, the draw to the lifestyle stems from attachment issues. When one or both partners have insecure attachments styles, involving others in sex may have adverse effects. Jealousy is a common outcome, with feelings of jealousy often arising from fear that the relationship is under threat. Instead of being an activity engaged in with the partner, it becomes a comparison and a spur to jealousy, especially if there seems to be greater enjoyment with others than within the relationship.
Men with avoidant attachment styles may want to indulge in swinging, not being aware that they seek this pseudo-intimacy to distance themselves from their partners, thus reinforcing their emotional disconnection. For others what looks like variety-seeking may stem from identity and self-esteem issues rather than a genuine pursuit of sexual novelty. On the surface, women with anxious attachment styles may seek others, claiming sexual liberation or equality but on a deeper level it may actually be a form validation to bolster their sense of 'lovability' and value.
In other cases, swinging may be a distraction that allows couples to ignore problems in their relationship, a seductive distraction to be sure, fed by curiosity and excitement but ultimately it requires communication and cooperation. Ironically, it is hardest to do when the underlying relationship is not sound.
Taboo may also be an issue. Most swinging couples hide their lifestyle choices from their families and friends for fear of judgement or lack of understanding and whilst this may be part of the attraction it can also drive a wedge between confidants.
Whatever the drivers, many couples go into these sorts of relationships not fully appreciating the level of communication and commitment required to hold together a relationship under the increased pressure of unpredictable fall-out from sharing sex and intimacy with others. They are also unprepared for emotions that arises.
After all, sex produces Oxytocin and Vasopressin, bonding hormones which cause feelings of attachment even with strangers. No wonder many couples report feeling close to their sexual mate even when they don’t know much about them.
In my 15 years of experience as a Couples’ Counsellor and Family Therapist, I have seen numerous couples at various stages of the swinging lifestyle, often when withdrawing from the lifestyle. At this point, couples need to rebuild their intimate life together, whilst coming to terms with not sharing their sexual life with others. Some partners even experience a sense of loss or grief, not dissimilar to losing a loved one during this process.
If you and your partner are considering engaging in swinging as part of your relationship, there are a couple of things to consider. In the first place, what are your underlying reasons for wanting to participate in swinging? Do you want to share your partner with others or are there unmet needs within your relationship that would be best addressed between the two of you? Or sharing your partner with others creates the distance or safety that you seemingly require to maintain your primary relationship? Are you doing it to please and not lose your partner? And perhaps most critically, are you effective enough communicators to manage the emotional complexity of seeing your partner enjoying sex with someone else without loss of trust or intimacy? Are you prepared for the emotions that arises from sharing your partner?
If you are struggling with sex and intimacy problems or questions within your own relationship, All Relationship Matters can help by providing a safe and confidential space in which to explore towards long term solutions. Contact us now.