Helen’s story: part 1

As promised, here is the first part of a story from one of my research interviews. This is the story of how Helen and David, who had happy, fairly conventional monogamous marriage for 43 years, coped when Helen fell in love with someone else. David and Helen had a strong relationship, a good sex life (if less frequent than it used to be) and deep reserves of love and trust. She says:

I can honestly say that I was never tempted to look elsewhere, with or without David’s knowledge.

Then one day Helen was persuaded by friends to take part in a week-long historical pageant, in which a 17th century village would be reconstructed. There she got to know Julie and Miriam, who had been partners for five years. Miriam was in her sixties but Julie was about the same age as Helen’s daughter Georgina. They all hit it off and had some hilarious, and also thoughtful, times.

When the project ended, although she liked them as friends, Helen didn’t expect to see Julie and Miriam very often. But to her surprise, Julie kept on seeking her out, sending her little notes, inviting her on walks, for coffee, all without Miriam or David. Julie was vivacious and bubbly and Helen began to realise that she found her very attractive. Then one morning she awoke after dreaming about Julie in an undeniably sexual way. She realised that she was falling in love with Julie. She says:

My eyes had been opened. From then on I was like a love-struck teenager! I realised I loved Julie, but I could hardly believe it myself and didn’t dare express my feelings even to her, let alone tell David. It seemed impossible that she could love me.

Then one evening, over a meal that Julie had arranged, their feelings for each other spilled out. Julie said “I’ve loved you since that first week”. Then, as Helen puts it:

Everything went off with a bang. For three weeks we were in a crazy and intoxicating world, in a complete spin. We loved being together, it was effortless and we wanted to know everything the other had ever done. We felt we had always known each other.

Options for Helen

Helen had several things to cope with. First, the fact that this was all happening while she was married, when she had intended to be faithful to David all her life. These feelings must have been quite a shock for her.

Then there was the fact that it was a woman that she was falling for, when she had not been interested in women before. She was suddenly faced with her own bisexuality. Many women in their late 60s would find this particularly difficult, as homosexuality is only just becoming widely accepted in the UK, and bisexuality is still not often talked about in heterosexual circles. Helen was lucky, however: her daughter Georgina had previously come out as a lesbian, so Helen had worked through for her difficulties with the idea of women loving women several years earlier. But she had still never applied these ideas to herself.

Then there was the question of what, if anything, to tell her husband David. How to explain this double whammy – that you have fallen in love with someone else, and that it is a much younger woman? And to cap it all, Julie was in a long-term relationship with someone else, Miriam. Miriam was Helen’s age and Helen knew and liked her. She knew Julie was committed to Miriam, just as she was to David. She had no wish to hurt Miriam.

So, what would you do in Helen’s situation?

She could have insisted that they stop seeing each other straight away, to stop the incipient affair in its tracks. For those who believe that monogamy is the only ethical option, there would be no other choice. They would have gone home, concentrated on their marriage/partnership, and tried to forget each other and get on with their lives. Sometimes this can work, eventually, and in some similar situations this could have been the best solution.

Should she tell David? If Helen had put off seeing Julie before it had started, many would argue that she hadn’t been unfaithful and that there was therefore no need to tell her husband. No need according to a strict interpretation of fidelity as monogamy, perhaps, but in Helen’s heart there would still have been an important secret that she was keeping from David. If a relationship is to help each person to grow and be their full self, it is better to share this kind of discovery with each other, even if ‘nothing has happened’. In fact especially then, because it will be easier to confess to feelings for someone else that you haven’t acted on than it will be to confess to breaking a promise of monogamy.

If Helen didn’t break off contact with Julie, what else could she have done? She could have had an affair with Julie and kept it a secret from David and Miriam. I’ve posted already about the problems with this approach. Or she could have left David for Julie. In this case this would have involved a very sudden change of life, giving up her home (or perhaps forcing David to give up his), probably a drastic reduction in income, the disapproval of family and friends, and not least loss of the man she loved and had shared decades of her life with. If their marriage had been unhappy and she had been considering a divorce anyway, that would have been different. But Helen and David were happy together.

Helen’s story illustrates an important fact: people who fall for someone else while in a relationship aren’t always having problems with their relationship. Some people would have you believe that an affair is always a sign of something having gone wrong, perhaps a sign that the ‘faithful’ spouse needs to try harder to keep the ‘straying’ spouse. My research that shows that this just isn’t true: like many others, Helen fell in love with Julie even though her marriage to David was loving and stable.

I’ll tell you what she did in the next post.

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