“Isn’t it natural to feel jealous or bad or something terrible if you really love someone? So what’s wrong with me and my wife? When I found out she had sex with a guy on a cruise she went on with her girlfriends it just turned me on. That night, after she told me, we had the greatest sex ever! Now she says she wants me to have sex with her friend, Sheila — so we’re even. Are we both crazy?”
Vince’s bewilderment and similar variations of his confusing situation are not all that uncommon in my couples counseling practice. The truth is no small number of couples who really do love each other get quite sexually aroused about their spouse having sex with someone else before, during or after it happens, or in fantasy. Others keep circulating around a confusing mix of strongly opposing feelings and thoughts, while still others begin in agony only to later embraced and enjoy the very sexual behaviors they were first shocked and horrified by.
Another group seems to like it at first but not later. For most people raised in a culture that condemns this sort of thing and promotes sexual monogamy as ‘the only way to go’ dealing with this issue usually is excruciating. A great many breakdowns and breakups, along with all sorts of life chaos are the more usual experiences. Even suicide and/or murder sometimes are known to happen when a spouse or love mate has had sex outside their primary relationship.
What some people find strange is the fact that an increasing majority of couples in the developed world don’t break up or breakdown when one or both of them has sex outside their relationship. That doesn’t mean it is easy for all these couples to sort out. Some find it a relatively important but still a lesser significant event in their lives, while no small number of others actually enjoy what is so devastating to others. A surprising minority report that sex with others is actually good for their primary union, which is so totally opposite to what the majority of Western world couples experience.
What makes the difference between couples who are destroyed, couples who struggle through it and stay together, couples who take it in stride and are not much affected, and couples who enjoy and look forward to having multiple sex partners in their lives? Before we go after answers let’s get a little perspective and some background.
Down through the ages men and women have lived rather successfully with all sorts of different standards regarding sex. In all civilizations there have existed sexual standards which have at times included sanctioned and socially honored paramours, inamoratos, concubines, temporary travel spouses, concurrent secondary and tertiary husbands and wives, polygamist mates, and especially for the rich and the Royals various high status official positions for extramarital lovers of all sexual persuasions. There also have existed official holidays from monogamy, religious ceremonies involving sex with priests and nuns, sanctioned orgies, broadly approved of incestuous assignments and a whole lot more you didn’t get to hear about in World History 101. All major religions and major cultures have had extramarital, multi-person sex accepted and approved of in their history at times and in certain circumstances.
It is to be noted that traditionally matrilineal societies have had a whole lot less trouble with sex outside marriage than have patrilineal societies. Also in quite a few male dominant, agrarian societies having multi-person sex partners has been much more OK for males and often not at all OK for females. However, in certain hunter/gatherer tribes where male/female equality is greater, having multi-person sex outside a pair bond relationship, for both males and females, has been and in some areas still is highly approved of and is the norm.
Today around the world people in different cultures and societies react very differently concerning having multiple sex partners outside of pair bonded relationships. In some tribal cultures to refuse to have sex with a visitor or an important personage could be grounds for divorce and it might even get a person thrown out of the village. In other cultural groups multi-person sex can condemn a female to so called “honor murder” possibly by beheading or stoning. In contrast there are, and have been, sub-societies where the more people a woman has sex with the higher her social standing and desirability. And there have been the rare religious groups where even monogamous, marital sex has been deemed evil and equal to the sin of sex outside of marriage for both men and women.
You might say, “But all that’s ancient history”. Not so. In reviewing our current so-called civilized world I have seen a poll which showed that 67% of young, modern adult Peruvian women think sex with someone other than a spouse is quite justifiable. This number falls to 59% for young adult Brazilian women, and 50% among female Argentinians under 35 years of age. In a somewhat similar poll the UK number was 28% and the USA number was 38%, with various countries in the EU registering numbers similar to the South Americans. Urban dwellers in China score similar to the Peruvian women but measurements in rural China result in scores more similar to the English.
Modern world customs vary greatly in regard to multiple sex partners. The French have their custom of ‘separate vacations’ allowing for sex with another, and the Germans have Oktoberfest during which extra marital sex is not grounds for divorce. There is research that shows every year more married people have sex with someone other than their spouse, but the percentage of people divorcing because of infidelity continues to decline. Other research suggests that an increasing number of couples are jointly agreeing to engage in sex with other couples or a third-party. An increasing number of prostitutes offer their services to couples. Swingers’ clubs exclusively for couples are on the increase, and polyamore relationships where couples work to both grow and share real love along with sex with others are receiving increased attention.
No one is sure how many couples engage in Internet sex with others, or phone sex, or Second Life avatar sex, and the debate rages about whether or not any of that is adulterous. Sexual robots and three-dimensional cyber sex with electrodes to provide the physical sensations are in the works, and meanwhile couples rent and buy more explicit, erotic videos than do single individuals, and married women are the primary purchasers of sexual fantasy and erotic romance books according to some researchers. There’s a lot going on out there, and knowledge usually serves us better than ignorance.
So, with all that in mind let’s get back to what Vince asked. “Doesn’t everyone feel awful if their main squeeze has sex with someone else?” The answer obviously is “no” and reactions actually are quite varied. I want to acknowledge that many are deeply hurt in these situations, I see them in my practice and help them through very painful emotions. However, in this entry I want to relate that there are other responses that couples have. There is a minority in our culture who are erotically aroused and generally quite positive, others are only moderately disturbed, while some actually are fairly indifferent about the whole thing. This probably means your reaction to your mate having sex with someone else is probably not genetic or biologically ‘natural’ and ‘universal’, as some have argued. That’s good news because it also means that with work (psychological, ethical, relational, etc. work) you have emotional and behavioral choice.
Let’s look at the love factor for those who do get hurt because their spouse, or committed lover, had sex with someone else. There are those who argue that the more healthy, real, broad love you have the less you will see a spouse having sex with someone else as ‘vitally’ important. Therefore, the more you both have real love for each other the more you will be able to successfully stay together, even when great hurt and disturbance occurs. A supporting thesis goes like this. Only those who are markedly insecure and inadequate at both love and sex have to break up over a mate having sex with someone else. This might be because they can’t tolerate the idea that someone else might be better than they are at both love and/or sex. Secretly they suspect they themselves are inadequate and other people will outperform them. About that they are profoundly but secretly ashamed. The truly loving and self secure do not breakup or break down, they work it through with and for love. At least that’s some of the theory posited for this complicated issue.
We also must look at the healthy self-love factor. With enough healthy self-love and healing love for a spouse forgiveness, healing and relational improvement becomes more possible. Splitting up over anything sexual acts to make sex more important than love, and indicates it is likely self-love is deficient. Some religious leaders have taught that successfully staying together after infidelity is a special application of the great admonition “love others as you love yourself”. It seems like more and more couples are coming to new psychosexual understandings and with those understandings are working toward staying together. They do that with growing love for themselves and for each other. Also they jointly work against the common, cultural training to divorce over ‘going sexually astray’. This cultural training makes sex so incredibly important that it can, and by these societal standards, should outweigh healthy, real love. Fortunately for many couples, children and families real love often does prevail, and the problems our culture gives us concerning multiple sex partners are overcome and defeated.
It must be fully recognized that millions have been heavily programmed to give sex great importance, and some argue far more importance than it logically deserves. This is especially true for those living in the modern world where the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy can be responsibly guarded against. It also must be fully recognized that how much one hurts in a multi-person sexual situation may be heavily influenced by how one has been subconsciously programmed to feel and think about sex with someone other than a primary mate. How one has been programmed to behave about all this also is of great import. Acts against one’s self or against others almost always are counterproductive and they often negate the healing power of love.
Healthy, real love is protective (see the entry “A Functional Definition of Love") so those acting from healthy, real love take appropriate precautions for both sexual and emotional health. All persons in a multi-person sexual involvement are best treated with love, in fact the more love the better because that will produce the most health and healing when needed. Love between all participants also will assist in the healthiest resolution of difficulties. Making an enemy of one person usually just makes everything take longer and be much more difficult.
For the hurting couple grappling with their many difficult emotions here are a number of things to look at so that healing can occur. Everyone’s sexual background programming and beliefs, along with each person’s own sexual experience history, along with everyone’s religious training are well worth examining – but examining with love and with a loving attitude. The trick is to be very love-oriented and to combine that with being extremely truthful. It is love-centeredness mixed with truth that wins the day for most couples and for anyone else involved. Healing self-love, mate love and love for all concerned is the medicine that makes the difference.
Truth with love can defeat the problems while deception, lies, half lies and attempts at manipulation just make everything worse in the long run. Being not love-centered but fear-centered, or centered in authoritarian/judgmental controlling, or in victimhood, revenge, self-pity, judgmentalism or anything else can prevent love and truth from doing their healing work. Blame, accusation, condemnation, rage and other negativity aimed at yourself or others just helps you get a negative outcome. Be as loving as you can be to yourself and all concerned, be as truthful as you can to yourself and all concerned and you are much more likely to come out better than before.
Again and again that is the result I see in counseling with people dealing with these difficulties. I have worked with hundreds of couples hurting, struggling and battling their way through these issues. Those who do love mixed with truth are the ones who come out OK and often even better than they were. Seek the help of a loving, nonjudgmental counselor or therapist who only ‘takes the side of healthy resolution for all concerned’ and your journey to well-being will be both better and quicker. At least that is my experience and the experience of those therapists and counselors I have supervised.
Now, let’s look at the love factor for those who don’t get markedly hurt, upset, etc. about their love mate having sex with someone else. Swingers, polyamores, sex sharers, sex surrogates, erotic communalists, cyber sex aficionados and everyone else engaging in some form of sexuality with multiple people who really do a good job of showing their love-mate lots of healthy, real love usually are the ones who do best.
The general guideline is ‘do lots of love toward everybody involved’ or trouble will probably start and grow. Lots of truthfulness mixed with lots of love actions keep sex with each other more emotionally safe and nonthreatening. The couples who are less loving, less truthful and generally less successful at life tend to fail at having multiple sex partners in their lives. At least, in my counseling and consulting practice that’s what I have seen. Healthy self-love, mate love, reliance on truth, plus self-disclosure love and protective love (both physical and emotional) help toward a good prognosis. Anything less loving is likely to be much more problematic.
As in so many things those who do best at multi-person sexuality are those who are highly loving of self and others.
Again, the aim of this entry is to inform about diversity in the human condition. What we may have been taught is usual, normal, regular, etc. may be different for others, may be changing, and may have much more variation. What I promote is not a particular relational style but rather health and love in all things.
As always, Go and Grow in Love
Dr. J. Richard Cookerly
How do you know the ways you think about love and sex are not just the result of your family’s and your society’s programming and not necessarily about what is natural or best for you?