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Kinds of Open Fidelity

The relationship structures of the people I have interviewed can be fitted into four models. They illustrate four different ways in which you can go about honest nonmonogamy. Different models work best for different people, and there is some overlap between them. It is possible to change from one model to another over time.

The first model is a committed couple who allow each other just sex outside their relationship. For a couple like this, the primary relationship is solid and the relationships with other lovers are of much lesser importance. The ‘flings’ or one-night stands outside the primary relationship give a buzz, a bit of fun, some relief of potential boredom, or just a change.

This first model includes couples who go together to sex parties and swinger’s clubs. Or it might be that one or other of them goes to such events, while the other isn’t interested (but knows about their partner going).

A second model is a couple who are committed primary partners but also have secondary partners. The secondary relationships are romantic and loving and ongoing, but the secondary partners do not share the everyday things in life to the same extent that primary partners do. Everyone knows that the primary relationship always comes first. Sometimes, two people who both have primary partners can be secondary partners to each other.

A third model is a triad or a larger group, in which three or more people form a committed, loving relationship. In these groups, no one couple-relationship is more important than the other couple-relationships. The group usually live together, share their everyday lives and feel committed to stay together as a group.

And the fourth model is an individual who doesn’t have a primary partner but instead has a network of partners with whom they share parts of their lives. This can be like conventional dating, with new lovers coming and going, one-night stands or flings lasting weeks or months, and perhaps some ongoing long-distance lovers. The difference from conventional singles is that the person openly has more than one lover and tells all their lovers this (though they don’t necessarily give details of each lover to the others).

There are many possible variations and combinations of these models. I have come across examples of:

  • two committed primary partners who are generally monogamous but to open up their relationship just once and a specific circumstances
  • two primary opposite-sex couples where each man is also a secondary partner with each woman from the other couple
  • a polyamorous network of partners and lovers where some people have two equal primary partners as well as several secondaries and where friendship and romantic relationships blend into one another
  • a committed triad who allow each other casual lovers (as in the first model) or secondary partners (as in their second model)
  • a married couple who are searching for a woman to form a triad with (this seems to be very common, though stable triads that form in this way are much rarer)
  • a quad in which all members were primary partners to all other members.

Sometimes one kind of set-up will evolve into another: for instance if a secondary partner of one of a couple turns into an equal partner in a triad with both of them. Or a relationship starts off monogamous, then the couple explore opening it up but with strict rules to ensure that any ‘outside sex’ is only casual, and after a while they relax the rules and perhaps meet someone who becomes a secondary partner or form a triad.

Following on from my post on promises, it is important when making promises to work out between you which model of open relationship you would find acceptable and which you are sure you want to rule out. Remember that you and your relationship will evolve and your promises might need to reflect that possibility.

Promises

One of the key principles of Open Fidelity is to do with promises, and I want to look at this in more detail here.

There are three main aspects:

  • keeping the promises you make
  • avoiding making promises that you don’t think you will be able to keep
  • renegotiating your promises rather than breaking them

All three are essential.First of all, if you break a promise you’ll be hurting someone, whether it’s just by inconveniencing them or more seriously by shaking their faith in your trustworthiness. Promises between partners are particularly important because they have chosen to rely on each other more than on other people. If your long-term partner, who you’ve chosen to spend your life with, turns out to be someone you can’t trust to keep their promises, you are going to be pretty upset.

But if anyone says that you should keep every promise, whatever it was and however long ago you made it, they are being very unrealistic. A promise is a prediction of the future. It expresses an intention that you will do something or not do something. None of us can accurately predict the future, though. Circumstances change, and even if you fully intended at the time to do whatever it was, it can become impossible.

Acting honourably involves keeping your promises as far as you can. But when a promise becomes difficult to keep, what can someone do then? They can break the promise and make the excuse that it would have been too difficult to keep it. Or, better, they can renegotiate the promise: say that they are finding it difficult to keep and suggesting an alternative.

But that isn’t all. Someone who promises the world but keeps renegotiating out of their commitments just annoys everyone they deal with, even if they don’t, strictly speaking, break their promises. This situation can be avoided by not makeing promises you don’t think you will be able to keep.

Promising monogamy

This might all seem obvious. But one very common promise is to be monogamous, and we all know how often that is made and broken. It is a promise implied (and sometimes explicitly stated) in the marriage vows, and it is also often implied when two people start to go out with each other and act as a couple.

I have always found it hard to understand how people can promise to love and have sex with only one person for the rest of their lives. Only around half of the people who make this promise go on to break it according to various surveys, so why promise it?

When I was quite young I decided that I was never going to get married, and I think it was because of this issue. Why make a promise I know I probably won’t be able to keep, and thereby risk my own happiness and that of the person I promise monogamy to? I seem to be unusual in this: most people who are lucky enough to find someone they love, who loves them and whom they are legally allowed to marry seem to manage to get married. Why not just swallow my qualms and do the same?

Well, I for one don’t want to ignore my reservations. I don’t believe I should make a promise I don’t mean to keep, and I don’t think I should try to kid myself that I can definitely be monogamous forever, however wonderful my partner is.

The reason that some people get married or otherwise promise to be monogamous, I suspect, is that it is conventionally required if you want to be with the person you love, get the rights that come with legal marriage and have your relationship sanctioned by society.

But those of us who want to commit to a long-term relationship don’t have to go along with this implied requirement. You can avoid legal marriage, either by not having any kind of ceremony by having a commitment ceremony. Or, if you want to get married and your marriage vows include the word faithfulness, you can make sure it is clear in the ceremony what you mean by this and whether it includes monogamy.

A promise of faithfulness could mean that:

  • you will always take your loved ones’ interests into account in your decisions
  • you will be honest with them
  • you will put them first
  • you will tell them whenever you have difficulty keeping any agreements you have with them
  • you will renegotiate rather than breaking promises
  • you will listen to them, communicate with them, be tolerant and accepting, and to try your best to act lovingly.

All these are things that you can make an effort to do. But promising not to fall in love with someone else, not to be attracted to anyone else, not to fall out of love, never to stop finding your partner sexually attractive – these are things you can’t control, so any such promise

For all those readers who find monogamy difficult: will you join me in refusing to promise it? To do so will be not an admission of weakness but a statement of integrity.

Russell’s story: part 3

I’ve told you how Russell cheated on his partner Sylvia and how that in the end this led to their breakup. Now he tells how his relationships became more honest:

When I was near the end of the long-term relationship with Sylvia, Sally was one of several sexual relationships I was having – some regular, some irregular, some one-offs. Sally became a regular and my mental attachment to her grew. This did not affect my other friendships, whether physical or not. Sally did not mind me having my own life, she loved me ‘as I was’, unconditionally. Sally was married before to someone who was unfaithful but lied about it (and he was also dishonest in other ways).

Sally and I were able to talk about any subject – I felt she was completely non-judgemental and was very accepting about my situation, always positive and helpful and interested. She is very mature, wise, understanding and non-judgemental. As someone who doesn’t suffer from jealousy, she didn’t (doesn’t) get jealous of my friends or non-Sally activities. She does however really enjoy the times we spend together, and we have lots of good times together. She loves my ‘whole person’, which includes that saucy glint in my eye.

At the same time as I was getting to know Sally I was also getting to know Diane. She was, like Sally, more than ten years older than me, and she was a wheelchair user with quite severe physical disabilities. She was delighted with my interest in her and we had a few rather difficult to organise sexual experiences. Sally seemed happy for me to do this with Diane, and knew I was providing her with sexual release and companionship and love, which Sally believes is a human right.

When Sally and I discussed my flings with other women, we agreed some ground rules – I don’t play away at home, and am not to discuss lurid details with her (the less I say about it the better). The best thing to say is (if the time is right) “seeing X makes me realise how much I love you” and varieties of that. But only if that’s what I’m feeling!

Other rules were that I did not have those experiences in our house, that the behaviour didn’t get in the way of my being a good dad, and that I answered any questions she asked honestly. Also she would expect me to use a condom and be as safe as possible, partly to protect her.

Although in theory Sally is free to have other lovers, she tells me that I satisfy all her needs, give her more attention and love than she thought possible, and is very happy thank you very much. I think she thinks it’s fairer to share me out a bit.

I am honest with the women I’d like to ‘get to know better’ and I always wear my wedding ring. I’m sure this puts a lot of women off me, but it reduces the chances of misleading someone. Most women I chat up or pay a compliment to do not understand that I can be happily married but enjoy having sex outside of this AND have the ‘permission’ of my wife to do so. I know therefore how lucky I am to have Sally and how well suited we are for a lifetime together.

She is very satisfied sexually (we make love approximately seven times per week) and can see that I’ve got a very high sex drive/level of energy and stamina so is able to ignore the things which if she concentrated on would make her unhappy. She thanks me every day for making her into a mum.

The most difficult thing for Sally to cope with was that on occasions, Diane and I would have a ‘difference of opinion’ which would leave me feeling unhappy or preoccupied or thoughtful.

When we were considering getting married we discussed my sexual habits and agreed that we couldn’t vow fidelity, so we spent ages working out our own vows. My general recollection of these discussions is that I was amazed that I’d met someone who didn’t mind me doing this ‘naughty’ behaviour – making it not-naughty. This also made it less desirable for me, as my rebellious nature is attracted to those ‘forbidden’ things.

The wedding vows were:

By giving you this ring, I promise to continue the friendship, trust, respect and honesty that we have already established.

I promise to build on the solid foundation of our love, our shared sense of fun, joy in our children and appreciation of all that we have together.

I promise to keep listening to you, communicating my needs and practising tolerance of those inevitable little difficulties.

By giving you this ring, I am honoured to call you my husband/wife.

Building an open relationship

Russell’s description of his relationship with Sally illustrates many of the ways in which couples can make an open relationship work well. When they met, there were both keen to avoid dishonesty. It must also have helped that Sally already knew that Russell had multiple partners. He describes her non-judgemental, accepting, positive and mature, all characteristics that can help strengthen any relationship but that are especially important for an open one. In their wedding vows, there are many words that signal a good relationship, above all communication and listening.

Sally is lucky not to suffer from jealousy, and although there are some ‘things which if she concentrated on would make her unhappy’, the advantages of this relationship clearly outweigh the disadvantages for her. She prefers not to hear all the lurid details of Russell’s other lovers but trusts him to keep his wedding ring on. I have spoken with her briefly and she confirms that she is very happy in her marriage.

Russell and Sally’s story also shows how Open Fidelity can be part of a legal marriage. I find their vows moving to read – how realistic they are, how much more evocative of actual married life than the traditional vows!

Russell’s story: part 2

In the last post I introduced Russell and told you how he started to hide his occasional coffee dates with other women from his partner Sylvia. Here he continues his story:

About four and a half years into our relationship I had a very brief amorous encounter (non-penetrative) while on holiday. which left me feeling very happy and free, but I knew I couldn’t tell Sylvia. I excused my behaviour because (a) I didn’t have full penetrative sex and (b) I was upset with her for going off to visit someone I didn’t like. I did feel uncomfortable when she came back and I now had a secret, though I was already experienced in not talking about sex or other women and so it remained a secret from her.

Within a year or so I had a one-night stand at a festival, and after that I found sex with other women easy to find, enjoyable partly because it was secret, but also I didn’t respect myself in the way that I do now. I think I justified my behaviour by somehow thinking that my sex life outside of the relationship was separate to my relationship – a kind of parallel life. I didn’t like any deception that I did, but in my mind there was a pile of excuses – it was ‘only occasional’, or ‘only at festivals’, or it was OK because Sylvia didn’t trust me. But then it grew so I had several ongoing ‘physical friendships’.

I was aware that I didn’t like having slices of my life invisible or lied about to Sylvia, as I much prefer being honest because it’s easier. And of course I was enjoying the illicit fun, which also caused me to keep doing it and not tell Sylvia. Opportunities arose, I took them and chose not to share the information.

I’m sure my ‘playing away’ was obvious to Sylvia, it’s just that she was blinded by love and (probably) didn’t want to believe what I was getting up to. I do have regrets that I didn’t have the guts to be honest. I was afraid to tell Sylvia my true feelings, which were that I still loved her and could have lived with her but felt the need to have other female intimate company.

There was enough positivity in the relationship still, plus history, for this discomfort and deceit to be pushed out of my life, because I wanted to continue with Sylvia. What I mean is that the ‘good stuff’ outweighed the bad stuff – the conflict in my head and the occasional conflicts Sylvia and I descended into.

I’m not proud of this bit of my life because I hurt Sylvia such a lot with that behaviour, when she found out. The end of the relationship happened when a friend of ours was having coffee with Sylvia. Sylvia was burbling on about how wonderful I was and the friend said something like ‘how can you say that when he’s such a shit?’ Sylvia asked for explanation and the friend revealed I’d had sex with one of her friends at a juggling convention. Sylvia asked me directly as soon as she saw me: had I had sex with such and such at the festival? and I answered honestly.

I was due to go away the next day for nearly a week. When I got back Sylvia had moved out, and we didn’t speak. It wasn’t a dreadfully horrible break-up and we remained civil, but we haven’t spoken much since, and she’s moved away.

I have a general feeling of not respecting myself (or her) during the last few years of our living together, and my current honesty and openness (which is easier in the long run) is partly to atone or make-up for that period of deceit.

The deceit trap

I think this part of Russell’s story shows how easy it is to go from a little deceit to hiding a large part of your life from your partner. Once you have decided not to mention an encounter, it is hard to mention any future encounters because that would mean having to admit that you have lied before. The only way to end the lying is with a crisis – coming clean or being found out.

The excuses Russell made to himself are ones that unfaithful people have made throughout the ages. ‘I didn’t have full penetrative sex’, ‘I was upset with her’, ‘It was only occasional’, or ‘It was only at festivals’. In the end there are no excuses – and yet, there are logical reasons why people behave like this. When your choice seems to be between monogamy and cheating, and monogamy is simply too difficult, what other choice is there?

If you’re in Russell’s situation, if you’re cheating on your partner but not knowing how to tell them, I can sympathise, but I have to remind you of the stark fact: sooner or later, the truth will come out and a crisis will be reached – the only question is how soon that will happen. Unless you’ve got very strong reasons for keeping your relationship superficially happy but dishonest, I would recommend telling the truth sooner rather than later, as it can only get harder to tell the truth the longer you leave it.

And by coming clean, you also have a chance to control how the information comes out. Your partner might well be angry, but probably not angry as Sylvia was when she found out from a friend rather than from Russell. You can choose when and where they find out, you can be there to answer their questions, you can give your explanations.

Russell’s suspected that Sylvia probably knew about his cheating but didn’t want to admit it to herself. I’ve heard this again and again from people who have cheated and those who have been cheated on. I suppose none of us want to accept the idea that the person we have chosen as an ideal partner isn’t quite so ideal after all.

If you’ve been in Sylvia’s situation, suspecting that your partner is not being monogamous, bear in mind that they may still love you and feel committed to you. Be wary of the common assumption that if your partner cheats it must be because of something you’ve done wrong – it could just as easily be that they find monogamy difficult and don’t know what else to do about it. This blog is here to give people an alternative.

After the crisis, someone who has cheated then has an opportunity to decide how to change things, and they can choose to avoid being deceitful to future partners. Russell took this opportunity, as he explains in the next post.

Russell’s story: part 1

Russell is 38-year-old entertainer who finds it difficult to be monogamous and is now in an open relationship. This is the first part of his story, before he met his current partner, in his own words.

At the age of 20 I met my future partner of 9½ years. Sylvia was an arty type and we fitted well together. The relationship was good – in fact the sex was excellent and there was lots of it. It was other stuff which got in the way of our relationship continuing in a smooth progression of lifelong monogamy, mainly lack of trust, jealousy and a low self esteem on her part, and a lively, excitable, fun-loving persona on mine.

I’ve always found it easy to talk to people and am not bothered about appearances, so I’ve lots of friends and contacts. Sylvia wasn’t so outgoing and I often went socialising by myself. Sylvia would sometimes ask if I fancied other women, or if I’d told her I’d had a coffee with a female friend with whom I wasn’t sexually active, Sylvia would ask things like did we ever hold hands, or if I kissed my friend goodbye, was it on her cheek or lips?

I loved her – enough even to decline the offer of sex with someone at a party. This event (or non-event!) was some kind of fulcrum in our time together. I told her that I could’ve gone upstairs with the woman but had declined because I was in a relationship with someone who couldn’t cope with that kind of thing, and I loved her more than a quick fun bonk with a stranger. I felt good being faithful at the party, as I believed I was being honourable and behaving in the right way.

Her reaction was unexpected – she flew off into a rage. I think the supposition was that I’d done something to encourage this woman. When I told her, I wished I’d actually done the deed! If I had done it I would have either told Sylvia or been ‘seen through’ if I’d tried to hide it. And I’m fairly sure that would have been the end. It really made it clear to me that she had a problem with her feelings about me, that she was possessive and damaged.

So, smarting from a punishment for my honesty and integrity, I started ‘lying by omission’ i.e. I decided not to mention the occasional coffee dates as it only seemed to stir up trouble.

Trying to be monogamous

I should say from the beginning that I have talked to Russell but not to Sylvia, so I only have his side of the story. However, I don’t think his experience is unusual. He is the kind of person who thrives on getting to know new people, and on flirting. He says that many women find him attractive and he gets an offer of a sexual encounter fairly regularly. Someone with his kind of personality will always find monogamy difficult.

Russell is also a person who hates being dishonest or breaking trust. When he was with Sylvia he tried hard to stay faithful, in a relationship where this meant staying monogamous. When offered the chance to have sex with someone he found attractive, he said no because he knew Sylvia would be upset by it. This seems to me to be exactly the right thing to have done.

As usual, I’d like to ask what you would have done in Russell’s situation. I wouldn’t recommend lying by omission, the route he chose at the time – and I’m sure he now wouldn’t recommend it either.

One possible way forward might have been for the two of them to have a long discussion about what their different expectations were, and how they might get round their differing needs and personalities. Perhaps with the help of a counsellor, they might have worked something out.

Another possibility might have been for Russell to continue his ‘occasional coffee dates’ but mention them to Sylvia each time. But this would have been very difficult without first having that long discussion and it would have caused a lot of conflict. I can see why Russell didn’t do this.

And I suppose the other option might have been for Russell to decide that he was unable to continue in the relationship, given the differences between his and Sylvia’s outlook on monogamy.

When your partner admits being tempted

What about Sylvia’s options? I don’t know exactly why Sylvia reacted negatively to Russell’s admission – although again, I don’t think her reaction is unusual.

What would you do if your partner came back from a party and told you that they had been offered sex but refused because they wanted to be faithful to you? ( This is assuming that you have an agreement of monogamy, whether spoken or unspoken.) You could feel angry or hurt if, as Russell suspects of Sylvia, you think that they might have encouraged the other person. Or you could thank them for being honest and for thinking of your wishes even when tempted to break their promise.

It is clear to me that Sylvia’s reaction was most certainly counterproductive in this case. By giving Russell the impression that he was being punished despite his honesty, she was giving him no incentive to be honest again. Perhaps she thought that she had to give him a reason not to even flirt with other women again, never mind be honest about his flirting. With Russell or someone like him, this was never likely to work. Reacting angrily to your partner’s honest admission that they have refused an offer of sex is just encouraging them to lie in the future.

For some people who have experienced this situation, they’ve discovered that actually they didn’t mind their partner being interested somebody else, and the experience has opened up a whole new world of Open Fidelity. It didn’t happen this way for Russell and Sylvia, although the experience shaped the way Russell felt about monogamy and later helped him to work out a more honest way to have several lovers.

In the next post, I’ll tell you how Russell and Sylvia’s relationship developed.

Steering the polyamory bandwagon

You may have seen the link from here to Alan’s excellent Polyamory in the News blog. Last week Alan commented on a very interesting article in Wired by Regina Lynn, Internet Pushes Polyamory to Its ‘Tipping Point’. The Wired article suggested that the term polyamory has swept to mainstream acceptance. Alan makes an important point following on from this:

People who push hard for years to get a bandwagon rolling are usually unprepared for what to do when the bandwagon finally starts to move… Unless the people with the original vision stop just shoving the rear bumper and run up and grab the steering wheel, pretty soon the bandwagon outruns them and leaves them behind. And their elation turns to horror as it starts careening downhill unguided, in disastrous unintended directions. And then wrecks itself spectacularly in a ditch…

So maybe it’s time for we poly activists to pay less attention to pushing the polyamory-awareness movement, and more to steering it.

Alan says we should be taking every opportunity to save the word polyamory from being cheapened, and should in particular:

Insist on the part of the definition that stresses respect and the “full knowledge and consent of all involved”

This is well said and timely. I have visions of, say, a woman on a reality TV show boasting that she are ‘polyamorous’ because she has had sex with several men recently, conveniently forgetting about the need to tell each man about the others. And the same woman would no doubt be be horrified if one of these men told her he has another partner. Save us from polyamory becoming a cool word!

But I have a feeling that this is inevitable and that the word will be misused. Alan has in fact posted some examples of its misuse last year. Yes, we poly activists should keep insisting that it is used correctly, but as an editor I know you can’t control how a word evolves, even when thousands of pedants are devoted to keeping the original meaning.

Where Open Fidelity comes in

Am I helping or hindering this process with my new term open fidelity?

On the minus side, a few people have accused me of muddying the waters by using a new term when polyamory would do just as well for most of what I am saying.

On the plus side, the term open fidelity is more easily grasped on first hearing and doesn’t need explanation, whereas polyamory usually needs a definition before the penny drops. And I feel that as the various types of ethical non-monogamous relationships become more widely discussed, it is useful to make distinctions (see my previous post on the different definitions for more on this).

It is precisely because I don’t want to dilute the definition of polyamory that I have chosen a new term to describe something related – but not identical – to it.

The important thing is that, like many others, I am doing my bit to tell the world that being monogamous isn’t the only way to be faithful, and that honest open relationships and multiple loving relationships are possible. The more of us that do that, whatever terminology we use, the better.

What do you think? Which term do you use for your own relationship(s), and do you think having both terms is useful? And what can we do to keep the meanings of both terms clear?

Philippa, Jennie and Don’s story: part 3

In the last two posts I told you about Jennie and Philippa, who had managed to stay together (eventually) through Jennie’s affairs and Philippa’s transition from a male to a female body.

The year or more of upheaval and communication helped them to work through not just Philippa’s gender identity issues but also Jennie’s difficulties with monogamy. Jennie needed a man in her life, preferably a man who could be a dominant partner. Philippa had never wanted to play this role anyway, and she certainly didn’t want to play it now she had transitioned. Jennie didn’t want to deceive Philippa again, and Philippa didn’t feel threatened by Jennie’s interest in men.

So they hit on a potential solution: they would look for a man who could be partner and lover to them both. A tall order? Perhaps – but as luck would have it, their first venture to the UK Bisexual Conference (Bicon) with this aim in mind was successful. They met Don, a bisexual man who had been married twice before.

After the conference, it was Jennie who first got to know Don better while Philippa left them to it, and then Don and Philippa spent a weekend together and found that they too were very compatible. Less than a year after the three of them met, they decided over a shared ice cream in a cafe that they would commit to a three-way relationship, a triad. Don moved in with them and a while later they bought a big house together.

They have now lived there, with their two adult children staying for longer or shorter periods, for several years. Visiting them is like visiting any other family of their ages. There may be three of them, but they are as comfortable and ordinary together as any long-married couple. When I visited them they were bickering affectionately about what style of kitchen cupboards to buy. Jennie says:

There’s more people to share the bills, more people to share the worries, more people to share the work. If one is ill, there are two other people to rally round and take care of stuff. Remember, if you try to make a structure with two forms of support, it’s going to fall over, but a structure with three points of support is stable.

Triads

Triad relationships are very rare, much rarer than other kinds of Open Fidelity. Two people finding that they are compatible enough to share their lives for years or decades? This happens remarkably often, although many people spend years searching in vain for such a partner. One person finding two others who are both compatible with them? That can also happen, and if they are either honest about this and negotiate well, or (less ideally) they keep the two secret from each other, the parallel relationships can last. Those two others finding they are compatible with each other too? The chances of this happening are much lower.

All the triads I have encountered started with a committed couple getting to know a third person and finding that the liking and attraction flowed in all directions. If a triad does happen, it can be very stable, and there are a lot of advantages to this kind of relationship. As Jennie points out, buying a house with three salaries is easier than with two. Even when one partner wants to be alone or go out independently, the other two needn’t be lonely because they still have each other around. When two of a triad are in conflict, there is a third person with a vested interest in helping them to work it out but who can see the problem from the outside. And of course the possibilities for sex are enormous.

I know of only a few other triads that have lasted. Jennie, Philippa and Don are very lucky, or else (or perhaps also) very good at loving communication and negotiation. And they had an advantage in their involvement in Bicon, where there are always workshops on polyamory and on negotiation in relationships. Their example shows that it can be done.

Philippa, Jennie and Don’s story: part 2

In the last post I told you how Jennie’s admission that she had had several affairs coincided with her husband Philip’s admission that he wanted to live as a woman, to become Philippa. What happened next?

Jennie supported Philippa through the sex change but found it hard. She was continuing to spend time with other men and explore the submissive side of herself, and Philippa accepted this now that Jennie had come clean about it. The transition was obviously the right thing for Philippa to be doing, but as she took hormones and underwent surgery, Jennie became reluctant to share a bed with her.

After a trip away visiting a lover, Jennie decided they would have to get a divorce. But deep down she still loved Philippa and knew she was the same person she had married, and shared her life with all this time. Together they applied for the first stages of a divorce, and Philippa moved out to stay on a friend’s sofa. It was ironic, says Philippa:

Our wedding anniversary consisted of putting in the divorce petition, and then she came over and we actually went for a meal together.

After a few months, during which they had met regularly and found they still enjoyed each other’s company, Philippa found herself with nowhere to live. To Jennie the obvious solution seemed to be for Philippa to move back in with her and the teenage children.

I thought, we have so many life values and interests in common, we’d only end up creating two separate homes with very similar sorts of feels, and why would we want to do that, if at the end of the day we could still be best friends, even if we weren’t going to be sexual partners?

At first, Philippa stayed in the spare room. They talked a lot over the weeks and months, and eventually Jennie invited Philippa back into her bed. Through gentle exploration, they found a new joy in sex now that Philippa’s body was how she had always wanted it to be. They decided not to complete the divorce.

Life transitions, marriage and staying together

Many marriages might have been broken by the wish of one spouse to transition to another gender, the gender they feel is their true one. In fact many marriages might have foundered after the discovery of infidelity. This was a difficult time for Jennie and Philippa, and they did nearly divorce. It is a tribute to the strength of their love that they didn’t take the final step of the divorce but had another go at staying together.

What made it possible for them to get through this time? The fact that Jennie was able to get sexual fulfilment elsewhere probably made it easier for her to contemplate living as ‘best friends’ rather than as sexual partners. And for Philippa, who was only just getting used to having a female body, the trust the two of them had built up over the years probably meant she had a safe space once she was ready to start exploring sex as a woman, without having to go out alone and meet someone new who might not understand the process she had been through.

But overall I think it was the love they had built up over their years together, their respect for each other and their willingness to work things through that saved their marriage.

So, for a while they had a good arrangement, living together as a committed couple, but with Jennie seeing other men now and then. But, as you’ll read in the next post, they then took a step further and sought out a third person for a loving three-way relationship.

Philippa, Jennie and Don’s story: part 1

This is the extraordinary story of a marriage that has survived through one partner’s gender reassignment, the other partner not only having several affairs but also discovering that she liked to be dominated, and the addition of a third partner to form a committed three-way partnership. Philippa and Jennie have been together for over 33 years, first as husband and wife (when Philippa was Philip) and for the last five years as two members of a triad with Don.

Jennie and Philip met at university and got married the year they graduated. They were open to each other about their feelings, and quite early on, Philip told Jennie that being a man was something he found difficult. When they made love, he never wanted to be the active partner as he felt expected to be. Neither of the couple were very happy with their sex life, but they were happy to be together. As time went on, they had two children.

Several times in the first ten years of their marriage, Jennie found herself getting infatuated with someone else, and she told Philip about these feelings. Philip was not a jealous person and told Jennie that the marriage could be open if she wanted; Philip didn’t want another lover himself, partly because he was unsure of his own sexual identity. None of Jennie’s early romantic attachments led to any sex, and she was open about all of them. Later, however, she had several affairs that involved sex, and at that point she felt it would be fairest on Philip not to tell him. In one of these Jennie explored a side to her sexuality that she hadn’t explored before – her desire to be submissive to a dominant lover.

Why didn’t she tell Philip earlier, given that he had said he wouldn’t mind?

It’s traditionally seen as a betrayal when you’re sexually active with somebody else and you don’t tell your partner about it, but in a strange sort of a way, I felt very strongly at the time that it was helping me to keep the marriage together. I wouldn’t do it now, but it seemed to make sense at the time.

The affairs had been going on for over 15 years when Jennie finally decided to tell Philip. He seemed, from little teasing comments he made now and again, to have already guessed.

It was almost as if there was a challenge there to say ‘Come clean, I’m ready to hear it now’.

His response was a surprise: he was relieved. Philippa (as she is now called) says

She said she wasn’t seeing me as a man, and that she needed a man, and I said ‘Well in that case, I might as well stop trying to fake it.

Philip explained his wish to live as a woman.

To tell or not to tell?

The fact that Jennie decided not to tell Philippa about her affairs shows that, even with the best of intentions, it isn’t easy to be open to your partner about your interest in someone else. (Note that I will call Philippa by that name from here onwards, to respect her female identity; also, all names have been changed.) Philippa had already told Jennie that the marriage could be open, and yet Jennie felt it wouldn’t be right to tell Philippa about her affairs. When Jennie looks back, she clearly finds it hard to remember how she came to this decision at the time and, as she said, she wouldn’t do the same now.

Jennie’s silence makes some sense to me, though, given that there is strong pressure from society to keep affairs secret, stronger perhaps than the pressure not to have affairs in the first place. However idealistic you might be, the assumptions of the wider society can get into your head and lead you to conform, even when you have good reasons not to.

The complications in Jennie and Philippa’s relationship – Philippa’s difficulties with living as a man and Jennie’s new-found desire for a dominant lover – might have made talking about the affairs harder. Eventually they did talk, though, and talking about one issue seems to have made it easier to talk about other issues. It must have been hard for Jennie to finally admit her affairs, but she doesn’t regret doing it for a moment.

Did Jennie’s affairs help them to stay together? I think they probably did. She wasn’t happy with their sex life, so when someone offered her a kind of sex she preferred, it gave her a way to be sexually fulfilled while staying with the partner she loved. Despite her lack of honesty about her affairs, they don’t seem to have hurt Philippa and they gave Jennie an outlet for her sexual feelings. I wouldn’t recommend keeping an affair a secret, but in this situation, who am I to say it was wrong?