According to Belgian psychotherapist and celebrated TED Talk speaker Esther Perel, there is no such a thing as a refuge from feelings of jealousy, possession, sorrow and fragility in relationships, even in the open ones. In exploring the implications of infidelity in couples, she defines the very nature of human relationships as a desire machine that always seeks for incompleteness and ambiguity since, by keeping you wanting that which you can’t have, they make you feel alive.
That’s the glamour of an affair, she says. Eventually, “at the end of an affair you’ll often find a longing and yearning for an emotional connection, for novelty, for freedom, for autonomy, for sexual intensity, a wish to recapture a lost part of ourselves or an attempt to bring back vitality” in the face of the loss and tragedy that often come along with marriage or stable long-term monogamous relationships.
Even swingers suffer love sickness: jealousy is a real hard mountain to climb.
But if this longing and yearning for vitality takes the shape of an affair (i.e. a secretive relationship) in couples, that’s not the case for open relationships, where lovers do both agree to have other sexual partners. Consider swingers: couples and singles that meet, mingle and then have sex with each other at a private party. Being it a lifestyle choice, a way to spice up your sex life, or just one of the items you want to check off your bucket list, swinging is like cheating together. Nonetheless, even swingers suffer love sickness: jealousy is a real hard mountain to climb.
Well, that’s not so hard to understand, faced to the contradicting stance of society that at once glorifies jealousy and makes us feel ashamed for it. In fact, on the one side jealousy is considered as an indicator of true love: if you love someone, you’ll be jealous. At the same time, society makes us feel ashamed if we feel insecure or envious, being jealousy a sign of neediness, a lack of confidence. Better put it: a lack of SELF-confidence!
The romantic turn
In the past, relationships exceeded the purely emotional nature they have come to take on today: marriage, for example, was conceived as an economic enterprise. Through time, the bound we establish with another person has become closer to the romantic ideal of turning to one single person who is expected to fulfil an endless list of needs: to be my greatest lover, my best friend, the best parent, my trusted confident, my emotional companion, my intellectual equal, while I’m chosen, I’m unique, I’m indispensable, I’m irreplaceable, I’m the one. As a consequence of such a romantic turn in relationships, hard emotional implications come along with infidelity (in couples) as well as with the consensual decision of welcoming more partners in our sex life (in open relationships). Including new partners in the intimacy of your sex life can be not just painful. It can rather be traumatic, since it can drive a real crisis of identity: I’m not unique, I’m not indispensable, I’m not irreplaceable, I’m not the one. What’s questioned then is our very self.
In 1963, cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall defined proxemics as “the interrelated observations and theories of humans use of space in interpersonal communication.” According to Hall, standard distances define the space of intimacy between interacting people: they can be intimate, personal, social and public, and they may vary based on cultural norms. You’ll be interacting within an estimated distance of zero to eight inches with your most intimate persons, of eighteen inches to 4 feet with your good friends, of 4 to twelve feet with your acquaintances, up to 25 feet as the interlocutor becomes formal. Anyone who transgresses such culturally determined distances in interpersonal relations is likely to be perceived as an intruder.
Why do even swingers and polyamorous people first tear down the border of their romantic love and then, once it has been transgressed, they feel violated?
Now, consider Mark and Alice: a couple that decided to welcome new partners into the intimate space of their sex life. Free play of desire, no pressure, no constraints: that’s how they expected it to be. And they felt brave and adventurous for going this far: polyamory sounds so plausible, an ideal way out of our society collective hypocrisy around sexual desire. And yet, Alice found out that hearing her beloved having an orgasm with the “intruder” really disturbed her, and she felt quite stupid and sad, and also totally displaced by the fact that the situation had gone that far that for a moment she felt like she were the intruder. “Something wrong was going on there – Alice says – someone went too close, I was too distant.”
Why are newbies perceived as intruders even when we deliberately decide to have them in our sexual life? How does it come that we get to point that we feel like we are the intruder? Why do even swingers and polyamorous people first tear down the border of their romantic love and then, once it has been transgressed, they feel violated? Here we go – (the lack of) self-confidence takes the stage again! Someone came too close, someone else went too distant: how to keep the balance right?
Taking up the concept of proxemics and applying it to swingers and lovers who opt for an open relationship, with all the emotional risks that can come along with it, may raise interesting questions about how to deal with closeness and distance in relationships, and reveal how central they are when it comes to jealousy in a couple, even an open one that chooses to try swinging.
Keep the balance right!
“In relationship with a partner all of us need a carefully calibrated mixture of two different ingredients: we have a need for closeness and a need for distance.”
Alain De Botton put it clear in The School of Life, his collection of critical insights about aspects of our everyday life: career, politics, travel, families... As for relationships, closeness expresses our need for intimacy – both physical and mental, for understanding, for complicity, for feeling at home with someone. At the very same time, we also need enough distance not to feel submerged, subsumed or owned by another: we want to retain a sense of freedom. Lovers often turn to swinging because they want to escape the feeling that their individual identity appears to be on the verge of dissolving into the couple: that’s the case of partners trying to find a remedy to over-closeness. The same goes for the other way around: some couples choose swinging for escaping their over-distance, and “perversely” – better said “paradoxically” – seeking for that feeling of dispossession that makes you come back to desire the partner you are on the verge to lose.
Swinging can be much more than escaping uncomfortable feelings: it is an empowering desire machine!
But for Jane and Clara – a happy swinging young couple – both approaches are wrong, since they express a clear unbalancing of closeness and distance. “Our relationship started three years ago. – Clara says – We went through small and big crises, and never turned to swinging as a remedy to our uncomfortable feelings. We’d rather preferred to talk about our respective needs and desires, in order to keep the balance right! For us, swinging is a creative assertive way of freeing our love for sharing, without losing ourselves in it.”
Whatever the reason you choose swinging, the emotional quality of the experience – that which may make you feel jealous or dispossessed – will always depend on your ability to keep the right balance in-between closeness and distance. Jane and Clara recommend: “The point is not turning to swinging in order to fix your feeling of over-closeness, neither of over-distance, ‘cause swinging and polyamory isn’t necessarily the happy island you would expect it to be. And yet it can be much more, if you just use your imagination in a creative and respectful way!”
So, what’s the remedy to jealousy for swingers and polyamorous people? Keep talking about the respective needs, make sure you both respect them, and use your imagination to turn such needs into desires. Swinging can be much more than escaping uncomfortable feelings: it is an empowering desire machine