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?

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