HER: “We are jealous animals.” That’s how Dr Helen Fisher explained her belief that open marriages don’t work when she was interviewed on a Canadian radio documentary called ‘How to Survive the Dating Apocalypse’. She said she would never entertain the idea of an open relationship herself because she is just “too jealous.” Clearly, claiming we are jealous animals across the board was universalizing her own tendency, treating her socially conditioned response as if it was a biological inevitability. But what if we aren’t actually wired to be jealous? What if we could overcome what our culture has taught us and share our partners — not fearfully or begrudgingly, but enthusiastically and lovingly?
HIM: I sometimes find myself thinking that everyone is a swinger, deep down. I recognize that is an extreme statement, considering that the Kinsey Institute estimates only 4% of married couples engage in the practice. But who wouldn’t want to double their potential pleasure? Try this simple thought experiment: would you enjoy being caressed by four hands rather than two? I’m not talking about sex here. I’m talking about a purely physical, sensual experience, without the relational, emotional, or social implications. Can you imagine anyone saying, “No, that sounds horrible”?
HER: I can think of lots of people who would say no.
HIM: I agree, but the reason they would say no is jealousy, not the thing itself. Jealousy is a powerful kind of fear that has to do with emotional security. Don’t you think, if you could just eliminate the jealousy, that when it comes to the simple act itself (doubling your pleasure), everyone would say yes?
HER: Sure, but jealousy is incredibly powerful and can keep people from accessing their pleasure. Most people can’t separate what their id wants from what their ego and super-ego tell them is acceptable (to use Freud as a point of reference). Society’s morality becomes our own whether we like it or not. We are told from childhood that you grow up, get married, have children, and cheating is wrong. Unequivocally. And that’s just secular society. If you happen to be religious, there is also a tradition of shame around sex. Masturbation is bad, premarital sex is sinful, and adultery is prohibited in the Ten Commandments and worthy of stoning. How is anyone supposed to let go and fully enjoy sex at all–let alone outside the strict confines of monogamous marriage–under those conditions?
Add to that our human tendency toward greed, possessiveness, competition, and insecurity, and you have lots of very deep roots for jealousy.
HIM: Those are good points. And I haven’t exactly been immune to jealousy in our relationship. In fact, you were the focus of my first real experience with that feeling shortly after we started dating. You, being the wonderful woman you are, surprised me with boudoir portraits for my birthday. The catch was, your ex-boyfriend was the photographer.
HER: He’s an excellent photographer, he had already seen me naked, and he did it for free. It seemed perfect!
HIM: Except that it felt like a punch in the gut. It was a new experience for me–a terrible new experience–because my ex was so non-sexual that I had never felt threatened with her. There was no jealousy on my part. With you, though, it was only months into our relationship, so I wasn’t on completely secure footing in terms of our commitment to each other. It suddenly seemed like we didn’t see things in the same way. I hadn’t met your ex yet (who would have guessed we’d end up having threesomes with him just two years later) so I wasn’t sure what your connection was. But the biggest issue was that I didn’t know in advance. On the afternoon the photos were being snapped, the two of you had a secret from me, however innocent it was. I suddenly felt out of the loop, and I hate the idea of being the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on.
HER: But, that’s how surprises work!
HIM: I know, but, in this situation, I really felt like I was the odd man out. You and your ex shared something that I wasn’t a part of and hadn’t consented to. Oh, and that thing happened to involve you being naked. It felt like the situation was imbalanced. You had made the decision to do this intimate thing without my input. But all this is me trying to put into words a feeling that was very powerful and very primal. It was awful.
Of course, I know you’ve since had that same experience of jealousy, because that’s essentially what went wrong at our first pool party. Am I right?
HER: Well, the feelings were similar, but you actually got a blow job from (and nearly fucked) a woman who I had never talked to, and I didn’t find out until later, so the situation was a little different. But, yes, the root of the jealousy was the same. I didn’t mind you playing with other people. What I didn’t like was not knowing or having the chance to give my consent about this particular woman.
HIM: So at the root it was the same — secrecy around a sexual situation. So the first thing we need to do to avoid jealousy is make sure everyone is on the same page. We need to know what’s going on and have given our permission, either in advance or in the moment.
HER: Yep. And the second thing that I noticed in your story about the photography incident is you mentioned that we were only a couple months into our relationship, so you felt a little insecure. I think insecurity is the primary cause of jealousy, and solving that issue involves both people.
Here’s another anecdote to demonstrate: My friend agreed to have a threesome with her friend and husband. She had given her consent in advance. She encouraged them in the moment. So they had satisfied our first requirement of knowledge and consent. But, as soon as her husband stuck it in her friend, she freaked out. What went wrong there? Well, their relationship had been rocky for a long time and she thought this might help spice things up. But, because their relationship wasn’t solid, she was always afraid he’d find someone he liked better, like maybe this friend of hers. No amount of foreknowledge can overcome that insecurity, which sparks jealousy. You have to know where your relationship is at before trying something new.
HIM: So, our second tip to avoiding jealousy is to not be insecure? Mind-blowing!
HER: Obviously that is far more easily said than done. But, basically, yes. I don’t have a perfect body image, but I know you find me sexy and I know you love me like crazy. That goes such a long way toward making me feel very confident when we go into sexual situations with others.
HIM: Maybe that’s why there are so many people in the lifestyle who have been together for a long time and who seem deeply in love. Those who aren’t solid as a couple can’t handle non-monogomy, and they simply don’t last. The lifestyle exposes insecurity like an x-ray machine.
HER: And the final obstacle to overcome is the social stigma, which is where we jumped into this discussion. This one is tricky too, because it’s so deep-seated, both in our traditions and in popular culture (the song “Jealous” by Chromeo keeps going through my head as I write this.)
HIM: The standard mindset holds that sexual or emotional attraction to someone else is a threat to your relationship. But we have to shift that thinking. First of all, some level of attraction to other people is universal. It’s not a matter of if it will happen, but what you’re going to do when it inevitably does. Right away you have a hurdle to jump if you decide to be real with your partner about that attraction. But, if you’re secure enough to be honest, and if your partner is looking for ways to make you happy and your relationship more authentic, you’ll have handed them an opportunity. If, that is…
1. you both agree to go on this sexual adventure, and
2. you feel completely secure in your love for, and commitment to, each other, then
3. you should see their sexual freedom as a gift to both your partner and your relationship.
HER: So, instead of seeing sleeping with someone else as something to be afraid of, you see it as something to be celebrated together. Rather than clinging defensively to monogamy as the only way to show your love and commitment, try to think of sexual freedom as the ultimate display of love and commitment. I will not hold you sexually captive. I will set you free, knowing you will come back to me, fulfilled and grateful and more in love than ever.
That must sound so wacky to people who have never experienced swinging or an open relationship. But it is actually possible. I swear. And it doesn’t mean I love you or want you a smidge less than someone who is completely monogamous. It means I am confident enough in us, and love you enough, that I can cheer for you when you get to fuck someone we both like, and you can do the same for me.
But if you’re considering something your partner isn’t aware of, or the relationship is in a rocky place to begin with, don’t even think about it.
Liam & Kate are a married couple, very much in love, writing honestly and insightfully about their adventures in the world of non-monogamy.