Welcome to my virtual therapy room! I am Dr Lori Beth Bisbey and this is Sex Spoken Here. Today I answer the question ‘What is being poly (a swinger, having an open relationship) really like?’ with relationship stories I have gathered over my years as a non-monogamist, as a therapist and as a coach. Remember that this podcast deals with adult themes so if you don’t have privacy you might wish to put on your headphones.
Personally, I never understood why someone would expect one person to meet all of their needs. It seemed to me that I could easily love more than one person at a time and that doing so meant that I got to have variety and a more stable support network. But I grew up in a family with parents who were not only monogamous but my mother had never had a sexual relationship with anyone other than my father. She met him at age 16 and they married when she was 18. My grandmother (her mother) had three husbands and at least one other relationship and urged my mother to find her one man and stick with him. My mother has often said that I am much like my grandmother and associated this with having a harder life and making poor choices. Whereas I see this as having a rich life albeit with more complications than the average person coming from a heteronormative background.
I was actively encouraged to adopt my parents world view and to look for the one person I would ‘settle down with’ and have a family with. For a variety of reasons, this didn’t appeal to me. But the pressure was intense. So much so, that I had a monogamous marriage as my first marriage.
Many of the people I have met, shared life with, interviewed and worked with over the past 37 years (I was 17 when I was in my first proper consensual non-monogamous relationship) have experienced the same pressure to conform to their family’s and society’s expectations. AnnMarie has been a swinger for the past 25 years. She was in a monogamous marriage when the subject first came up. She and her husband had little exciting sex together. She described it as their rhythms not matching. She enjoyed leisurely sensual sex and he liked rough intense sex. The lack of agreement made for sex that was less than satisfying for both of them. She said they both always felt compromised which made her very sad. AnnMarie said that they spoke of breaking up but that they got along in every other way so they both felt it would be wrong to do so. At the same time, neither wanted to give up sex even though sex with each other didn’t work terribly well.
AnnMarie described looking through a local magazine that ran ads for escort workers, professional dominatrices and personal ads together trying to see if they could come up with something that would excite them both. She said they came upon an ad for a swingers club. ‘The place looked cool and we were excited reading the details. We decided to try it that weekend. We were so excited getting ready and it felt like it did when we first got together. We made an agreement that we would only watch the first time and play with each other and off we went. The night was amazing. We had some of the best sex of our relationship when we got home so we decided to go again. This time we agreed that we might ask another man to join us for some fun while we were there. At first we didn’t meet anyone that either of us was interested in but after midnight, Roger arrived and it was like a spark hit both of us. I hadn’t known that my husband always fantasised about sharing me with another man. That night, he was able to act out the fantasy and we all had a great time. One explosive orgasm after another. And when we got home it was even better sex. So that was when we became swingers. After that, we created our own ad for the magazine. We joined our local swingers club. When the internet arrived, we created a profile on all the main swinger sites. We went to the club twice a month at first. Then we would go to the club once and get together privately with friends or go to a party once a month. In the last few years, it has only been once a month as we have been busy with other things but we still love it.’
There are so many styles of consensual non-monogamy that it highlights how individual each relationship is. John and Gregory met at a partner swapping party given by friends. ‘Because when we met, we were each in semi-monogamous relationships, we didn’t really consider the possibility of getting together. We had a great time and then followed the rules and said goodbye. A month later we attended another party and rigged things so we ended up together again even though this was really against the rules. We said goodbye again reluctantly and without the other one knowing, both of us ended our relationships within two weeks of that second party. I got in touch with Greg a week afterward by email and told him how I felt about him. He told me he felt the same so we got together for dinner which wound up with us having hot sex in the restaurant toilets and then going home together. After a month we decided to come see you so that we could make sure we had good agreements about how our relationship would work. We didn’t want to find ourselves splitting up because we made assumptions.’ John and Gregory saw me for 40 hours sex & intimacy coaching all told over about 6 months. 8 hours of that was individual work and the rest of the sessions were as a couple. They spent the time looking at their expectations, creating clear agreements about communication, time spent together, relationship goals, other sexual relationships, boundaries and limits. They tried out their agreements around non-monogamy during the work and then looked at how they felt. Greg became jealous when John prioritised a date with someone new over their regular monthly poker game. Greg worked on his feelings and they added an agreement about what type of things are prioritised for their relationship. In this case, they agreed that the poker game was not to be prioritised in future. When they moved in with each other one year after we finished the work, they came back to see me for 4 sessions to revisit some of their agreements in light of them living together. John still wanted to make sure he had his alone time and so they agreed one night per week of separate time. As neither of them had started other lasting relationships, this worked well.
Sometimes it is not possible to involved everyone who is romantically attached to the people seeking help in the work. When Tara and Ruby came to see me they had been together two years. Ruby had lived with Wendy for four years. Tara had no other steady partners. Wendy had been seeing Jeff for 18 months. They came to see me because Tara did not manage Ruby’s relationship with Wendy well at all. Tara wanted to get to know Wendy and any other partners that Ruby had as she said this made her feel safer. Wendy did not want to meet Ruby’s other partners and they had an agreement that they would not meet each other’s paramours so Tara’s insistence on meeting Wendy in the future caused a problem for Ruby.
Tara started by saying ‘I feel less safe when I don’t know the other important people in my lover’s life. I identify as polyamorous but I rarely have more than one partner at a time because I find it difficult to divide my time and attention.’ Ruby’s reply was ‘I feel pressured to push Wendy to change our agreement because you get so upset about me spending time with her. I feel you do not respect my relationship with her which was there before you were. I feel pressured to spend more time with you and devote more attention to you because when I do not, you become depressed.’ Though we invited Wendy to take part in this work, she was adamant that she did not want to meet Tara and that she wanted Tara to take a step back because the pressure was causing issues in her relationship with Ruby. Ruby and Tara tried to negotiate a new agreement as to time and priorities in their relationship. After a few months of this work, Tara admitted that she was not comfortable with a polyamorous relationship where the paramours and even metamours (the people that your paramour is involved with – Jeff is Ruby’s metamour because he is the lover of Wendy) did not know each other and so Tara and Ruby ended their relationship amicably.
Other times, people come in as a group to work on various aspects of their relationships. When this happens, I often end up seeing different relationship combinations for some sessions, individuals for other sessions and the whole group for some sessions. Robert, Lance and Maria came in to work with me in order to look at how expectations caused issues in their relationships with each other and to clarify and agree upon expectations. Lance and Maria are married and at the time they came in to coaching they had been married for 15 years. Robert was single at that time and had been involved with Maria for 2 years. They originally met at a kink event and had some fun together. Lance realised that Robert was very interested in Maria but not interested in him and so he stepped back and encouraged Robert and Maria to form their own relationship. This worked well for the first 6 months and then the fractures began appearing. Robert complained that Maria expected him to ‘drop everything’ when she was available to see him but that she always prioritised her relationship with Lance. Lance complained that it felt like Maria prioritised her relationship with Robert. Maria complained that both men expected her to be ‘at their beck and call’ and that they rarely paid attention to what she needed and wanted. It quickly became clear that Robert waited around a lot for Maria to be available and that he tended not to plan things with friends or other possible lovers because he wanted to be there when Maria was free. Though he initially saw this as Maria’s expectation of him, when he examined this further, he realised that it was his desire to have more time with Maria which meant that he chose to wait around in case she was free. When she wasn’t free ‘enough’ he became upset and angry and blamed her for how he was feeling. Robert and Maria made a clear agreement to see each other one evening/night per week. Maria encouraged Robert to date other people and Robert agreed that he would try to do so. Lance said he felt better having clear parameters as to when Robert and Maria would see each other. Maria negotiated an additional day’/evening/night per week for herself with Lance and said that she might use this to date or she might use this as time for herself. Lance still felt that Maria was prioritising her relationship with Robert but he was able to take responsibility for these feelings. Robert and Lance had a session together to improve their communication. When they left coaching, the separate relationships were going strong and the three even enjoyed some social time together.
Arman and Jenny have been married for 20 years. After 15 years of marriage, they found their relationship was stagnant. Arman and Jenny have always communicated well. They talked to each other about being attracted to other people. One evening, Jenny decided to tell Arman an erotic story. She created a story in which she met someone on one of her business trips. They both found this extremely hot and enjoyed the sex so much that the next day they began talking about how they might try this in reality. They started by making some ground rules: 1 No giving out contact details to dates 2 One date only 3 No sleep overs 4 Dates only when away on trips 5 Safe sex only. For the past 5 years they have enjoyed adding these spicy encounters to their sex life. Arman says ‘The rules have made it possible for us to have variety without jealousy. We still share each encounter. We are having as much fun as we did when we began 20 years ago.’
I’d like to finish this podcast by answering a question sent in by Josh who asked whether ‘ ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ can work. ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ is when a couple agrees that they can have occasional sexual encounters with others but that they will not tell each other about these encounters and they will not ask each other if they are having them. For some couples this works well long term and for others this doesn’t work well at all. Problems arise when evidence is discovered by the other partner that reminds them that their partner may be having sexual relationships with other people. Other times the extra-couple sexual activity is highlighted because of a sexually transmitted infection, a poor choice for extra-couple partner (someone who telephones the home and is not willing to have a one night stand). Couples who do this successfully usually limit the experiences to a certain number of times per year or when away from home or both.
Thanks for joining me this week for Sex Spoken Here with Dr Lori Beth Bisbey. Write to me with suggestions for the show, questions you want answered at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow me on twitter @drbisbey. For a free 30 minute strategy session with me, go to https://drloribethbisbey.com and click the button that says Schedule Now! I look forward to seeing you next week for part 4 of this series.