Relationships are often breeding grounds for hidden desires and secrets, the lot of them created in some fashion to keep the relationship from falling apart, even if the relationship’s not going so well to begin with. Two individuals locked in couplehood don’t speak about what they really want, they lie, they even cheat. This, however, doesn’t have to be the case.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been speaking to Cooper S. Beckett, the author of My Life on the Swingset: Adventures of Swinging and Polyamory, as well as the creator of Life on the Swingset, a site for those curious about this more open perspective. For the most part, we’ve been chatting about what can be problematic about monogamy, the roadblocks for building a better relationship, and how to approach swinging as a first timer.
However, Beckett is not against any one relationship model, rather urging his readers and listeners to feel power in their own agency. He’s a brutally honest and forward thinker, and is unafraid to explain what he believes to be toxic in the current state of relationships. Conversing with him has been the good kind of mind boggling.
So strap in, unzip and unhinge your mind and biases for a moment or two, and enjoy this interview with the intellectual powerhouse and swinger of the future, Cooper S. Beckett.
How did you get into the writing you do now?
The way I got into it was I started swinging with my ex-wife and I was disappointed at the lack of welcoming yet friendly resources for newbies, for swinging. After I’d been swinging for about a year, I thought I could create that resource. That became Life on the Swingset and over that time, doing the podcast and website, we started to discover poly and other forms of non-monogamy and decided to expand our reach to not just being a swinging website, but being a welcoming site for all types of ethical non-monogamy.
How do you define ethical non-monogamy?
The key for ethical non-monogamy is that everybody knows what’s going on and everybody has opted in. There are so many people in non-monogamous relationships that don’t know it, because they have not been given the opportunity to say “yes” or “no.” And taking away that agency is really, really awful, because you’re not trusting this person you supposedly care about to make a decision on whether or not they want to be in a relationship where they are being cheated on or if they’re willing to be in a relationship where you are exploring other things. The biggest cancer in relationships, monogamous relationships especially, is poor communication. We are taught not to say what we want and what we need, and often what we want and need is variety and difference.
Are polyamory and swinging solutions to relationship problems, or is there something more tacit we could change in all relationships? And what could be missing in the communication between the different relationship models?
Everybody likes to proclaim their side is best, and really, there are many people for whom monogamy is absolutely what they want and need from life. And that’s absolutely fine. The problem I have with people is when they say that’s what they want and then do not act in a fashion that shows that is what they want. I would never tell someone who has chosen monogamy that they are wrong. What I would tell somebody who’s chosen monogamy yet is cheating on their partner, and saying otherwise, is tell them they’re doing it wrong. Because you are the one who’s saying one thing and actually doing another. Or trying to convince yourself monogamy is what you want. The reason so many people default to monogamy is that’s what our culture shows us is the world we have. Before I was a swinger, I didn’t know that was an option. When my ex and I were talking about wanting to fuck other people, we just thought the way you do that is you cheat or you get divorced. We didn’t know there was another option in the middle. What’s really sad for me is people who would be happy in an open relationship don’t even know that they have that option, because they haven’t been shown that option.
In terms of what people are naturally predisposed to, what are your thoughts on sexual selection and the idea that people are seduced toward certain things and not others?
I can only go by the things I’ve heard and read, and that make sense to me; for instance a lot of undiscovered tribes sort of default to polyamory. The happiest of the great apes, the bonobos, the ones who don’t have war, default to a female-run, polyamorous structure that encourages free sex and group parenting. I think it makes a lot of sense that group parenting would be far better than couple parenting, because with group parenting, you can share the burden, you can share knowledge, you can develop a far more well rounded personality by having a lot of people who care a great deal about you in your life. Families who have that extended support structure often produce much happier and well-adjusted children, because more love is never a bad thing. I think we’ve embraced selfishness as a society, and we’ve embraced it ever since the first time we had a plot of land and said, “I don’t want my neighbor coming in and having a claim on this land, so I’m going to say that it only goes to my son, we are going to close up this familial unit, and then I get to hold on to this thing that is mine.” If you encourage the group dynamic, then the group owns a thing and there’s a lot more resources there. And I’m well aware that this is the kind of thinking that sort of looks like I’m using selective comments to endorse my chosen lifestyle. But it makes a lot of sense.
What would be the case if the social narrative of monogamy were reversed, and group relationships were the predominant cultural norm? Is it possible to have all the relationship models working in tandem?
I don’t believe there is a utopia where everyone is one thing. My conceit is that there is more value in everybody exploring to the level of their happiness and the happiness of those around them, than everybody forcing themselves into an outdated mode, which is the monogamous marriage structure. It’s failed far too much, and the reason the divorce rate is going down is because the marriage rate is going down. The younger generation is deciding to get married far later, or to explore alternative relationships. People who won’t be happy being married and monogamous are more likely to just not get married, which is a positive, because people who don’t want to be in that structure shouldn’t be in that structure. The people who want that should have that.
What can be done at the larger systemic levels to ensure safety in certain choices, making sure that certain forms of sexual aggression are stopped?
I think so much of our problem is lack of education and repression. When you repress something, then it builds up. I get in trouble a lot because I blame religion, as it’s responsible for our incredible amount of shame and guilt, and our repression, and our lack of willingness to talk about what we want instead of just going and taking it. The reason I use the term ethical non-monogamy so much is because ethical non-monogamy is the key to all of it. It’s not doing something with a person that they don’t want done with them. And it’s both about asking for what you want, and accepting when the answer is “no.” Because when men don’t accept a “no,” it creates that toxic culture that makes women find alternatives to “no.” When “no” should be the most obvious thing in the world. That can be improved through education, through taking away the ridiculous stigma that comes along with talking about it at all. Consent is the most important lesson anyone can learn in life. We assume consent, rather than asking for it, and that’s because of our toxic culture.
I remember being in situations where I was jealous of my more sexually successful friends, not even about the sex itself but about the status, the ability to get a “yes,” like it’s a game.
I think the reason people play the games they do is because of the perceived notion of relationship failure. I’ve talked a lot about impermanence and how relationships can be successful even if they don’t last until one of you dies. The vast majority of relationships in the world end for various reasons, and we’re trained to look at that as unsuccessful, and so when you need something that your partner can’t fulfill, or won’t fulfill, that may be an indication that the relationship has run its course. But we can’t end it because of failure, because we will be failures. The divorce thing is so difficult and we rail so hard against it. Opening your relationship can help your marriage, and can help your relationship, if that is needed. If that is not what is needed, or if you too are actually fundamentally incompatible, being able to admit incompatibility would be fantastic. That was the case with my marriage. Ultimately, we were not compatible, and it had nothing to do with opening up our relationship, in fact that made our lives better. We were still fundamentally incompatible, and we are so much better off because we looked at it, we evaluated it, we admitted it to each other. We didn’t demonize the other person. We just let the other person go.
How do you define a successful relationship, knowing the possibility of ending?
I think a successful relationship is anything you can look back on that you got something out of. I got a tremendous amount out of my marriage, and I would not trade it for anything, and the fact that I got divorced would, to a lot of people, indicate it was a failure, but it was not. We put way too much value on the perceived notion of success, when you could very easily say, “that relationship where I spent a summer with that girl, that was a success, because we spent so much fun time together, and now it’s over because when we go back to work, school, whatever, it doesn’t work anymore.” That doesn’t mean it’s a failure now. You can’t rewrite the entire relationship as failure, when 80% was clear success.
I remember thinking I’d hate a number of exes forever, but that was what was fed to me, and now all of those relationships are great, hilarious stories.
We’ve been trained to hate our exes. We are supposed to be the good guy, they are the bad guy. And people get perplexed when that narrative isn’t followed. No one believes when a relationship breakup is mutual, but mutual relationship breakups happen all the time, we just need to hate the ex.
What are some tips for starting the conversation of opening up a relationship, and how do you handle a “no” from the other person?
That’s always the question I get asked, “how do I convince my partner?” Getting a “no” is tough. Ultimately, you need to ask yourself if this is something fundamentally in you, because if it is, if you cannot be monogamous, that’s either a relationship ender, or negotiations need to be had, because a “no” will likely lead to cheating. If it’s something you’re curious about, but you can’t do it, well that’s different. I’d suggest to everybody that we should all try to be flexible with our partners. Flat “nos” are rarely good, because that’s one half making a decision.
Have you ever encountered cheating that ended being beneficial?
Yes, and it usually involves kids in the relationship. Dan Savage talks about it a lot. When one partner is really just done with sex, and there’s no wiggle room, but the rest of the relationship is good, and there are kids, then I can sort of get behind cheating if that’s what will keep an otherwise good situation together. It goes back to the fundamentally incompatible thing I was talking about. It’s not “yes” and “no.” It’s a spectrum, and there’s a breaking point somewhere along that line where it’s untenable.
What are your views on jealousy?
I think jealousy is like a check engine light. It means something is wrong, which can be as simple as the gas cap not tight enough, or the engine about to fall out. Unfortunately, we usually react to jealousy at full tilt, when whether our partner eats an extra cookie or they’re cheating with an entire sports team. For me, jealousy has always just been an indicator that I feel left out, and then I ask what would make me feel included, and usually all I have to do is bring myself into a situation, or talk to someone, or understand what my partner is doing.
For everything Cooper S. Beckett related, check out his site, and that of Life on the Swingset, all of them linked in the introduction to the interview. Thanks to his work, and the work of his colleagues, some obfuscated questions may finally be easier to answer, and even ask without fear.