Dear Patrick: I have had fantasies about swing parties ever since I found out “the lifestyle” existed. After two years of often painful conversations, I finally persuaded my wife into visiting a local club run by a nice married couple. Our agreement was that we would just visit the place, take the guided tour, and stick around for half an hour. If she didn't like it, we could leave, no pressure. Well, she got turned on pretty fast by all the uninhibited behavior; we met a couple and had great chemistry with them, so we traded partners for the evening.
We are now regulars at this club. My wife is a volunteer helping to run the women's parties. She is looking forward to attending an annual conference in the spring. We've been asked to lead a workshop on communication skills. I am getting to spend naked time with more classy, hot women than I even dreamed about.
And I am completely miserable. I told her yesterday that I want to stop going to the swing club. She was shocked and really, really angry. She told me that it was my fault we experimented with sex outside of our marriage. And she accused me of trying to control her and take away something that is making her happy. She reminded me (over and over again) that this was all my idea. She doesn't believe I would be compassionate if she told me she was too jealous to continue the experiment. Since I am the one who is jealous, it is my job to “deal with it.”
I don't know if my marriage will survive this crisis. But thinking about her with other men is making me insane. I hate it. I had no idea how much I would hate it. But I do. We go to this place and screw other people like crazy, but in the meantime, we have not screwed each other for months. I figure other couples must have dealt with this, so I tried to bring it up with one other couple. Apparently jealousy has never been an issue in their perfect marriage.
I'm not stupid. The irony of the situation is not lost on me. I feel like I am being punished for breaking the rules. Deep down, I know this is not fair to her. But I can't help how I feel. This club is couples only, so if I stop going, she can't either. When we went to our first party, we both had the right to say, “I'm not comfortable with this and I want to leave.” Well, that's how I feel, and I want her to honor that agreement.
Next to loss, jealousy may be the single most painful emotion a human being can experience. It certainly paints itself with very large, vivid strokes so there doesn't seem to be room for anything else. Think of it as a very loud bully. Jealousy tells you that only one response makes any sense—to reclaim what is yours, lock it up, and never let anybody else see it or touch it. But we are talking about another person, someone who can never be your literal property. You need to shove the jealousy to one side and allow your rational mind to have a voice. When emotions are this rowdy, you can't trust them to make good decisions that will affect your quality of life forever.
Jealousy is not only a bully. It is a liar. This emotion promises us that if we can become the sole owner and operator of our partner, the pain will go away. The insecurity will fade. Things will return to the way that they were before, and all will be well.
Rationally, you know this is not true. You have violated your wife's trust. You encouraged her to experiment, and you are responsible for handing her a symbolic apple from the tree of knowledge. Both of you have taken a bite out of it, and you now know things you did not—could not—have known before. You can't erase the knowledge that your wife has enjoyed sex with other men. Even if you talk her into staying home, that won't erase those images or automatically restore desire and good sex to your marriage.
I understand why you panicked and made a radical demand. When we are feeling a high level of stress, all of us tend to start thinking in all-or-nothing terms. We skip over the tender, soft-hearted aspect of things because we feel so vulnerable.
You wanted to tell your wife that you are frightened about your marriage. You miss making love with her. She is the most important thing in your life. Most couples who have open relationships find that jealousy becomes unmanageable when the primary relationship is not in good shape. You want more closeness with her. If you had that, her dealings with other guys might become less of a trigger.
Find a couples counselor who is knowledgeable about alternative relationships. Interview more than one person. Avoid people who say, “Of course you feel awful. Nonmonogamy always demolishes relationships,” as well as cheerleaders for “the lifestyle.” You want someone who is able to put their own agenda aside so they can help you and your wife work out what is best for each of you. See if your wife will agree to a brief absence from the swing parties—no more than 30 to 60 days. This could be negotiated in couples counseling. This is not a concession to your demand; it is a compromise that will allow both of you to focus on the marriage. Realize that even if you became monogamous again, jealousy would still be a factor. If you don't learn how to control it, you will wind up driving her away by interrogating her about her lovers, as if she has done something wrong. You have both done the same things. She is not a villain. She thought you wanted a wife who was more open-minded and adventurous. At great cost to her own emotions, she went along with it. And now she is being punished for it. Nobody would put up with that if they had a healthy amount of self-esteem.
Jealousy usually comes from two fears. The first is the fear of being abandoned by someone we need and love. The second is a fear that we are not as good as the competition. For centuries, men dealt with these fears by forcing women to be faithful while they kept mistresses, saw prostitutes, and had the occasional same-sex adventure. The double standard doesn't fly any more. How would you like it if she started to blame and interrogate you about all those “classy, hot women” you bedded? You would feel attacked, harassed, and treated unfairly. And you would react exactly the way she has reacted to you.
A more effective approach is to face the twin fears and do something about them. You can work on the first one by restoring your marriage to a well-lubricated, working order. Instead of turning to the past and asking why the two of you quit having sex, ask her what you can do to restart the passion. How can the two of you fall in love again? She may have learned things about her own desire that can make marital sex amazing. Before you get your hackles up about that, remember that your experiences will also shape what you want from her—and what you have to give her.
The second fear is more slippery. How do we assess our own worth? How do we remain confident? It helps to have a partner who tells us we are special. But you also need to look at your relationship with yourself. Jealousy is a form of self-torture. It feels as if somebody else is hurting you, but you are really harming yourself. So you have control. You can choose to continue the torture or you can move into a different mode, one of self-care. If I stay home and mope while my partner is out on a date, for example, I will drive myself crazy. I need to plan an activity that I really like (perhaps something he doesn't enjoy doing with me). This doesn't apply to a couple who attend sex parties together, but you get my drift. Slather yourself with love and positive self-talk. If there is something you feel insecure about, fix it. It can take a while to learn some skills or change deep-seated aspects of the self. But knowing that you are moving in a positive direction can really help.
All couples who swing or practice polyamory or tolerate out-of-town trysts—whatever the form of nonmonogamy—have ground rules. “I don't want you to do anal with other people,” “I promise I won't kiss him,” “We fuck other people but we don't fall in love,” etc. The structure of swinging parties was designed to put both partners on an equal footing and short circuit jealousy. Both of them know what is happening. There are no secrets kept, no adultery. Maybe you and your wife need a ritual to remind you that your marriage is more important than any side adventure. This can be as simple as taking each other's hands, looking into each other's eyes, and saying, “We are doing this as a couple. We will arrive together and we will leave together because this marriage is the most important thing in our lives. We might have fun with other people, but we will never feel this way about somebody else.” Have a post-party routine like giving each other a massage—something to help you reconnect and pamper each other.
The last thing to examine is your experience at these parties. Are you getting what you fantasized about getting? Have you been disappointed in some way? If you were more excited about your sexual experiences, you might have less energy to obsess about your wife's adventures. Did it surprise you that she felt at home and took to swinging so rapidly? Were you disappointed that you didn't have to do more coaxing or help her to overcome her doubts? Maybe that was your core sexual fantasy (initiating her into a scary but irresistible world of pleasure), not sex with other women.
It's all AFGO, Another Fucking Growth Opportunity. If you are fucking the right way, that's what it always creates. Oh, and that other couple who claimed they had never been jealous were shovelin' the compost. Everybody on the sexual fringe has baggage. We are all working on scary and difficult stuff, and we don't have a lot of role models to help us through the rough spots. But I know from personal experience that couples can open their relationship without breaking up. In fact, sometimes it saves the relationship or makes it better. I hope that's where the two of you end up—wiser, not sadder, and dazed by post-orgasmic bliss.