I have a PhD in that stuff, and yet, it’s not until I really started exploring couples’ experiences in the lifestyle that I understood for myself that it’s much more complicated than meets the eye.

There’s an ending variety of research on the pros and cons of entering into an ethical non-monogamy lifestyle that never stops to amaze me. For all those who are wondering, ENM includes (but not limited to; open relationship, polyamory, swingers, kink play etc). Historically, ENM has been associated with getting one’s sexual needs met outside their relationship for whatever reason (perhaps mismatched libidos, sexual incompatibility, health issues, sexual disfunction or simply choosing to remain in a relationship when the relationship is now purely and only platonic), however, as we will discuss below, sexual “selfishness” is actually probably last on the list when it comes to why couples invite others on playdates.

Let’s explore this topic a little more, and for the purpose of this article, let’s focus specifically on couples playing openly with others all together (commonly known as ‘swinging’).

Let’s start with research snippets

“Having an open relationship could make partners feel closer or feel more love for each other” (Cohen, 2015; Thouin-Savard, 2021; Wolfe, 2003);

“One specific positive influence is the experience of compersion: happiness or pleasure in response to a partner’s enjoyment of other relationship activities (Deri, 2015; Duma, 2009; Flicker et al., 2021; Mogliski et al., 2019; Ritchie & Barker, 2006; Rubinsky, 2018; Thouin-Savard, 2021; Wolfe, 2003).

“Compersion may be relatively common (Wolfe, 2003) and can involve personal enjoyment and sexual arousal (Deri, 2015; Flicker et al., 2021; Ramey, 1975; Thouin-Savard, 2021) as well as happiness stemming from empathically sharing in partners’ positive feelings about their other partners (Flicker et al., 2021; Thouin-Savard, 2021).

“Experiencing compersion might result in broader benefits to oneself. Thouin-Savard (2021) reports that participants experienced compersion as enhancing their self-growth and relationship satisfaction in relationships (Aumer et al., 2014).

“Swinging has shown benefits including increased confidence, the development of long-term friendships, enhanced trust within a relationship and more open communication”

Hold your horses….

Before you go off and quote me as the mad sexologist who said swinging was amazing for everyone and comes with no issues or risks, let’s hold your horses 😉

Like anything else, swinging comes with risks and difficulties, and as sure as hell, isn’t for everyone. Some of the parts that all couples should consider include;

  • Unpleasant feelings (jealousy, insecurity etc), especially at the beginning and/or if not addressed properly
  • Having less involvement with a spouse rather than more
  • Relationship changing or ending because of the third parties

There are however, benefits that broad society tends to overlook or be a little bit surprised by (Jenks, 1998), such as;

  • Enjoyment of compersion from watching one’s partner experiencing pleasure
  • Improvement in own relationship
  • Personal growth (emotional growth, self-love, feelings of safety etc)
  • Variety of sexual partners and sexual experiences
  • Pleasure and excitement from forbidden behaviours

What should we consider for a successful experience?

This is a great question, and I would agree that you definitely need to consider lots and lots of things before entering in this lifestyle. For example, readiness, boundaries, communication, respect and opportunities to debrief are amongst a few.

What boundaries should we hold?

Soft play/soft swap (meaning only playing without penetration)

Full play/full swap (meaning penetration happens)

Kissing/no kissing

Contact with the other party/parties outside playdates

Same room/different room (meaning partners choose to only play in the same room or don’t mind splitting)

Interestingly, it seems that boundaries evolve with time and with experience. Not in a negative way, rather in a way that allows couples to meet their needs as those evolve too. The risk is in partners not communicating these to each other or no longer being on the same page with their boundaries/ fantasies/ plans with the lifestyle.

Time for the nitty-gritty … What actually is compersion?

The dictionary definition of compersion describes the feeling of happiness / excitement when watching your partner experience something pleasurable. Compersion is born from an emotional connection to the other person and stems from seeing something and experiencing it yourself vicariously (almost through your own empathetic imagination).

Now sexual compersion is not the same as arousal. Arousal may come when watching strangers have sex for example or watching sexually explicit material. We may get turned on and wish it was us, but we don’t get feelings of happiness/empathy.

The reason sexual compersion doesn’t take place when a person watches porn for example is because the watcher has no emotional link to the people in the video. When you watch porn, you get pleasure from pretending you are doing whatever is being done to the man or woman in the video. When you experience sexual compersion, you are drawing pleasure from one of the people undertaking the sexual act. Sexual compersion is where you are experiencing intense feelings of arousal through empathetic imagination in the same way you almost feel pain when a person you care for is injured in front of you.

Complicated and hard to process? Yes. Even as I try to explain it, I accept it’s a very strange concept when you say it out loud. Though the real question is how much of the “complication” comes from us trying to conform with what society dictate is ‘normal’, ‘healthy’ and ‘morally right’. I’m going to take a wild guess and say… a lot 😉

Thinking of entering into a kink lifestyle?

As discussed through this article, though swinging has some really exciting and fun aspects, it also presents with some pitfalls which, unless addressed well, could damage your relationship (and your mental health!). Talking to a non-judgmental professional can help you and your partner navigate this path in a healthy way. Any questions or just wanting to chat about your situation, contact me

Couple counselling, couples therapy, sexology

Don't leave yet!

Let me support you

Subscribe to my newsletter for free resources, book chapters, and general positive psychology news. I promise not to spam you!

You have Successfully Subscribed!