When monogamous married people imagine an open-marriage it is natural to imagine the thrill of making love to someone else with your spouse’s full support. Similarly I know many who imagine watching their spouse have sex with another man or woman while they watch.
What these fantasies have in common is that the focus is on the “first time” nature of the event. Naturally, if one is only imagining what could be, it is a “first time” event; however, for all things there is only one first time. What is more, we humans have an amazing capacity to normalize things over time. For some people, the exciting sex is the point of open marriage and so even when they are in an open marriage, the goal is new ever more exciting and unusual sexual situations. However, for those of us who see sex as the byproduct of building new relationships (i.e. polyamory), the exciting and new sex is not the goal but a side effect of our expanded pool of love. Sure, sex is a very enjoyable part of that love, and by dating we do have sex with new people as our life goes on, but we don’t seek that as an end.
It was last fall when I first realized that our life of being fully committed to our marriage and family had completely normalized our polyamorous lifestyle. One day I realized that having relationships with other people had lost that taboo or unusual feeling, but rather had just become part of the milieu of life. One afternoon Paula and I were driving to the mall and she was chattering on (as she can do) and in the talk she spoke about the usual things: her mom’s health, her work, our kids. Significantly, mixed in with that normal chatter was a word about one boyfriend’s son going to the hospital and a little while later she mentioned that she had a hotel date set next week with another of her paramours. Nothing in the conversation separated the information about her mother’s trip to the doctor and the fact she’d be spending the afternoon in bed with another man next week.
It was then I realized how normal our sexual activities outside of marriage had become. The week before I’d spend an evening in bed with a man we both know and like. The sex was great, but it wasn’t a “red letter” day that I’d had sex with someone else besides Paula. She seemed happy that I’d had a good time, but no “Wow, how hot you had sex with someone else!” Similarly, the week before that she’d had a 2 hour romp with a new man. The sex had been great, but when she got home, we did not hop in bed and fuck, but rather it was very little different than if she’d spent the time with him watching a really good movie. At the time I didn’t see the significance or even wonder when things had changed from when it was a big deal when one of us had sex with someone else, but listening to her chatter on the way to the mall, it hit me; our open marriage is now just a normal part of life.
It’s been 5 months since then, and it is more obvious than ever how normal it has become. Part of me misses the zing that we used to get when we had sex with other people, but more of me likes the comfortable relaxed feel of our lifestyle.
So, for those who are considering open marriage, perhaps one of the important differences between swinging and polyamory is the answer to a simple question. How do you want extramarital sex to fit into your life? If you are just seeking that zing, perhaps swinging is better for you. For swingers there is always the search for new partners and a constant search for new sexual thrills. If that is what you want, then the swinger lifestyle might be for you. But, if you value close intimate relationships over the zing, then perhaps you would be more comfortable with a polyamorus model.
Let me close by saying that in reality the swinging poly binary is not static. Even poly people might go through periods of time with a series of shallow highly sexual relationships like swingers, and swingers sometimes find a person who progresses from just a fuck to a friend to a lover. For the poly who unexpectedly realizes that he/she has had one-off sex with four people in the last few months might feel a little let down at a series of dead ends; but, for the swinger that realizes that he/she unexpectedly has a regular paramour and is in love, the resulting fallout might be devastating to their marriage.
So, perhaps polyamory is less threatening to marriages than swinging after all.