Helen’s story: part 2

In the last post I told you about Helen, David, Julie and Miriam and looked into what options Helen had, once she realised she was falling in love with Julie. But enough about the possibilities: on to what actually happened.

Helen didn’t feel guilty about spending time with Julie – how could such bliss be wrong? She introduced Julie to Georgina, who guessed that this was more than a friendship and said she thought David was beginning to guess that something was going on, not least because Helen was obviously deliriously happy. So with Georgina’s encouragement she chose a moment when she and David were both relaxed at home and told him everything. She also reassured him of her deep and enduring love for him, and that she would never leave him.

To her surprise, his reaction was cautiously positive. David wasn’t surprised but was pleased that Helen had told him. He greed that she could go ahead and continue to see Julie and become more sexually intimate with her. He made no conditions, but Helen promised that she would be completely above board with him and that she wouldn’t tell anyone else without his agreement.

In fact, it was worth it for David. The affair actually improved their life together. Helen’s passion for Julie spilled over into their marriage and rejuvenated it. She was more relaxed, more tolerant of little habits of his that used to irritate her, because of her overwhelming gratitude to David for his understanding of her feelings. Because she couldn’t see Julie very often, David got the benefit of Helen ‘firing on all cylinders’. And Helen came to see that she could love both David and Julie at the same time.

Loving the one didn’t diminish my love for the other. They met different needs and were in separate compartments. The one was a deep and enduring love – the anchor of my existence. The other was a life-giving and all-demanding passion, riding the crest of a wave.

Options for David

What would you have done in David’s situation? Some men might not have been as accepting as he was. Someone in this situation could have been afraid that his wife might leave him, or doubted his wife’s love for him. These are all natural reactions, especially when our culture assumes that they are the only reasonable ones. But David’s experience shows that there are other ways to react, and that they can bring benefits.

In fact, David is someone who doesn’t get jealous easily. Yes, there are people like him! Others might have needed more reassurance that the relationship was strong and that they were loved and valued. Some might not have been able to cope with the situation at all and might have preferred to impose restrictions on their partner or end the marriage. But what a shame to take such drastic action, when accepting the situation might have brought such a rejuvenation to the relationship?

In this blog I aim to give alternatives and show that they can work. Helen and David are far being from the only couple who’ve experienced this rejuvenation after opening up their relationship. You’ll hear about others in future posts, and I’ll also tell you later what happened next for Helen, David, Julie and Miriam.

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.

The stories I will be telling

In this blog you will have a chance to get to know some people whose relationship styles could be called Open Fidelity. They have gone about it in many different ways, but they have all had more than one lover, or had a partner who did, and have all been honest and responsible about it. I will also give you stories of some of them being less than honest, before they knew how to manage things better.
Where have I found these amazing people? It isn’t easy to find them, because many are reluctant to make the complexity of their relationships public, for fear that others will judge them as cheaters or worse.

  • A few are the friends whose stories first inspired me to look into open relationships.

  • Some are Quakers whose stories I heard about through the Quaker grapevine.

  • Some are friends of friends, of lovers and of former lovers.

  • Some I met in the bisexual community.

  • Some have contacted me after hearing about the project from web communities and e-mail lists, volunteering their stories.

The curious thing is that, whenever I’ve told someone new about the project, the chances are they say something like “Oh, I have a friend/I had an aunt/I know a couple who are doing exactly that!” Most of these friends or relatives haven’t publicised their open/multiple relationships, but those close to them knew about it and could tell me.

I then had to persuade people to talk to me to the book. The fact that I am not a journalist probably helped, as was the fact that I have had an open relationship myself, and in some cases my Quakerism helped. I guaranteed that I would do all I could to keep their identities confidential, which means nearly all the names (and some biographical details) have been changed.

Most of the stories came to me through recorded interviews. Some people wrote to me and I extracted and slightly edited parts of what they wrote. When someone is quoted here, the text has always been seen and approved by the person who provided the quote (or in a few cases a partner). Where I have edited someone’s words, this was to improve the grammar or sentence structure or make the meaning clear in the final context, and I have been careful never to change anyone’s meaning.

As the interviews have taken place over the course of several years and I have kept in touch with each interviewee, one problem that arose was that their circumstances quite often changed over that time. Some of the couples in open relationships decided to be monogamous; others split up, sometimes amicably and sometimes not. A few stories turned out to be not as good examples as I had thought, as people turned out not to have been as good at honesty and keeping promises as they had originally seemed. This is inevitable when you are dealing with real human beings. In some cases I have focused on the period when a relationship fitted the description of Open Fidelity and omitted other periods of the protagonists’ lives. Sometimes I didn’t know the later story, or could only hear one side of it, so it didn’t seem right to include it. But I am pretty confident that stories I tell are still valid – the relationships were open and faithful at the time, whatever happened later. In other cases I have been able to get a reliable update on the story, so I will talk about several phases of the relationship here.

I am still interviewing and looking for stories for this blog, so if you think your story of honest (or even dishonest) non-monogamy would be useful for others in your situation to hear and you would like to share it anonymously, do get in touch.

A summary of Open Fidelity

OK, I’ve talked about the problems with both monogamy and cheating. Is there another way?

Yes – it’s called Open Fidelity.

I think it’s time for an overview of what I mean by Open Fidelity. The following statements sum it up.

  • People can love more than one person at a time.
  • There are people in honest, responsible relationships between three or more partners, and/or who have opened up their relationship to other lovers. It can be done.
  • You don’t have to be monogamous to be faithful.
  • Faithfulness means keeping your promises, whatever they were.
  • Sometimes it is hard to keep your promises to your partner; it is better to renegotiate than break a promise.
  • Being monogamous can be great if it works for you; better to choose it out of the range of responsible options than to assume it is the only ethical choice.
  • Honesty is crucial in any relationship, especially if you have more than one partner or lover.
  • Jealousy can often be overcome, or lived with, or used to add excitement to a relationship.

Problems caused by cheating

Let’s look at the problems you fact if you start having a secret affair.

The edifice of lies

First of all, cheating by definition involves lying to your partner.
You have to avoid mentioning this new interest in another person, even though you’re probably thinking about them all the time.
You have to lie about where you’re going when you’re planning to meet the new person, and lie about where you were afterwards.
You have to lie about why you are suddenly glowing, or excited, or turned on.
You have to lie about how you learnt that new sexual technique.
You have to lie to your friends and family as well, to avoid word getting back to your partner through the grapevine.
You have to remember what story you told all these people and keep your story consistent.
You have to hide electronic traces of your affair as well as physical ones.
…and so on and so on.
It takes a lot of effort to build and maintain an edifice of lies of the size needed to hide a new relationship from a partner you spend a lot of time with. Personally I find this all far too difficult, and any lies of mine tend to be seen through by anyone who knows me.
Some people manage it, and even keep up the lies for years on end. Most are discovered sooner or later, and being discovered is always a risk. You can’t control every bit of information your partner receives – even if you did, this control would itself become obvious to them. In the long run, they are almost bound to find out.
Rona Subotnik and Gloria Harris, in their book Surviving Infidelity: Making Decisions, Recovering from the Pain, mention one woman who found out about her husband’s affair after his death – it was no less devastating than finding out when he was alive. And as he was no longer around to talk about it, she found it hard to work through what it meant about their marriage.

Lack of respect

Even your partner never finds out, the fact that you are lying to your partner means you are choosing not to give them any influence over one part of your life. Your choice to do this can only mean that your respect for your partner and their autonomy is lessened.
‘Oh no,’ you might say, ‘I’m keeping the secret from my partner because of my respect for them, because they would be upset if they knew.’
Really?
They will be upset one day anyway. And what kind of respect reduces someone’s ability to choose their response to the situation?
If you lie to someone about something this important, you are not respecting them – full stop.

Hidden means stifled

If a new relationship is hidden, it has little chance to grow. The new lover cannot become part of your life as new partner would usually do, such as by meeting your friends and family, going to events with you, being mentioned in conversation. If your new lover is single, they can’t start telling everyone they know about their new lover, so they become isolated. If they have a partner, they have to lie to their partner, so the same issues apply to as to your partner. (This doesn’t apply if the infidelity is a one-night stand or a series of one-night-stands, of course.)

It is often said that the secrecy and illicit nest of secret affairs is part of their attraction. Perhaps that is true, but compared with what you are losing through the secrecy, this seems a poor reason to have an affair.

There is another way!

This week in the Daily Telegraph, Angela Levin has a series of three articles investigating ‘why the UK is in the grip of an infidelity epidemic’. They are headed Desperately seeking someone’, ‘Being unfaithful keeps me happy’ and ‘Adultery isn’t the end – it’s a wake-up call’.

She has interviewed over a hundred people who have had no-strings-attached sex while married, without telling their spouses, and concludes that this is becoming more and more common in the UK. She also concludes that many of them don’t feel guilty about it. Women are no longer much less likely to have affairs than men, and age isn’t a barrier either.

Like so many journalists writing on this subject, Levin completely ignores the idea that someone might be honest about having sex with someone else. None of the interviewees seem to have considered for a moment the idea of telling their partners about their need for more sex, or about the fact that they are having sex with someone else. As usual, the choice seems to be between monogamy and cheating. The third article talks about what happens when the other spouse finds out, though this never seems to be through a confession.

Interestingly, there seems to be a consensus among the people interviewed that this extramarital sex keeps them sane and happy and therefore saves their marriage. To some extent I would agree with this: sex with others can enliven a relationship, as I have found myself and heard again and again from the people I’ve interviewed. But Levin does point out that “the partner who chooses to have a fling has to live a life of subterfuge and always be on the alert in case he or she is found out”. Yes, it is a big price to pay. I would go further: I’d say it the deceit that causes most of the problems, rather than the extramarital sex itself. In fact, if there is no deceit, sex with others has a much better chance of enlivening the relationship.

I want to say loud and clear to people in this situation: there is another way. You don’t have to be monogamous and you don’t have to cheat. But it requires talking to your spouse and telling them about your needs.

Here are some thoughts from an Open Fidelity perspective for someone who is married and considering having, or has had, a no-strings-attached affair, and who wants to stay in the marriage.

The ideal time to talk to your spouse about this issue is when you’re starting to feel unhappy and are tempted to cheat but before you have done anything concrete to find another sexual partner. It will be much more difficult to try and find a solution if you have already broken your original promises. But even that can be done. The longer you leave it, the more difficult it will be, either to keep the secret or to come clean. And the secret is almost bound to come out at some point.

Tell your spouse that you are having problems being monogamous. Tell them you have considered looking elsewhere for some sex, or that you have done so if that is the case. Also tell them how much you love them, how committed you feel and that you don’t want to leave them. Say that you would like to work out a way in which both of you can be sexually satisfied while still managing to stay together.

Then wait for the suggestion to sink in, for your spouse’s anger to die down, and for them to consider their options and the alternative options (the two of you splitting up; you having an affair behind their back; and you being unhappily monogamous). If your having sex with someone else with no strings attached will really not affect your love for your spouse or your relationship with them, it might be possible to convince them to accept this too (but make sure you are certain of it first!).

If you have been unhappy, the chances are they have also been unhappy, so they might be glad for the opportunity to talk about their difficulties. Who knows, they might also have been wanting something different in their sex life and have been wishing they could tell you. They might even have already guessed that you’re thinking of an affair. This will be an opportunity for you to work out what you both want and find a way in which your probably differing needs can be made compatible.

Then try, tentatively and gently, to negotiate with each other a solution that involves you getting some sexual fulfilment while staying with your spouse. I can’t say what the solution will be – each relationship is different – but I can, over the course of this blog, give you examples of people who have tried this solution and what they have learnt from the experience. Are there some rules that you can agree that will make it easier to cope with each other’s liaisons? Practising safe sex is an obvious example. Perhaps a period of strict monogamy would be a good idea while you find ways to make non-monogamy possible. Are you prepared for your spouse to have lovers too? If you find this idea difficult, ask yourself why. Look for support from others who have tried honest non-monogamy, perhaps via this blog and the links from it.

This whole blog is about this alternative to monogamy and cheating, called Open Fidelity, so keep reading if you want more tips.

Cheating

If someone is in a monogamous relationship and is attracted to someone who isn’t their partner, conventionally they have the following options:

  • ignore the feeling and stay monogamous;
  • leave their partner in order to get together with a new partner; or
  • cheat on their partner with the other person.

I’ve talked a bit about staying monogamous, though I’m sure there will be more on that in future posts. Leaving the original partner is always a possibility, but often the person does not want to leave, for reasons such as:

  • they love their partner
  • they feel committed
  • they don’t want to be seen to break their promises
  • breaking up would cause upheaval (emotionally, practically and/or financially, particularly if they are married or have children).

For those who don’t want to leave their partner but are finding it hard to reconcile this with an attraction to someone else, a secret affair is the only other obvious option in our culture.

So given that other options aren’t obviously available to most people (a situation I aim to change), it isn’t really surprising how many people cheat on their partners. It seems to be almost expected by western society today that many people will enter into ‘monogamous’ relationships (such as marriage) and will then, sooner or later, have sex with someone else without telling their partner or spouse.

Why I will never promise to be monogamous

Staying monogamous takes a lot of effort. And even when both partners in a couple are keeping to the rules, suspicions can arise and have a corrosive effect on the relationship. But even apart from these issues, I have another, more basic problem with monogamy.

If I promised to love only one person until death, I would be saying ‘never again’ to the experience of falling in love.

Never again to wallow in that delicious agony of lusting after someone.

Never again to experience the miracle of finding they lust after me too.

Never to flirt.

Never to kiss lips I haven’t kissed before (or at least only friendly kisses, not proper snogs).

Never to discover a new lover’s body, marvelling in its uniqueness, the way they respond or move or touch.

As I am also a bisexual woman, being monogamous with a man would mean ruling out all future sexual contact with a woman. And promising monogamy with a woman means the even more unthinkable suggestion of never again having sex with a man.

How can anyone volunteer for this? Does anyone really think about it this way when they make a promise to be monogamous? I can only conclude that for many people it is an intention not a certainty. Or even wishful thinking, or blind optimism, or self-deception. Or are some people even lying when they make the promise, knowing they don’t really mean it?

‘Oh no’, you may say, ‘for me it was easy, I knew I would never need anyone but my partner for the rest of my life’. Well, if so, I’m delighted for you and your partner, and good luck with never needing anyone for the years to come. My feeling, though, is that you are in the minority.

For me it is not monogamy itself that is problematic. I have been monogamous in practice for a year or two on several occasions; in other words I have had only one partner, and had sex with only them. But promising to be monogamous is another thing altogether. I tried once and lasted three months before ending the relationship. As long as I know I’m not ruling out possibilities in the future, I can live without these possibilities for the time being. But I couldn’t promise to be the exclusive lover, for the long term, of just one person.

Polyamory

A lot of the ideas in this blog overlap with those of polyamory, a relatively new term which is derived from ‘many loves’. Open Fidelity and polyamory are variants of one basic idea: honest, responsible non-monogamy. One definition of polyamory is “the desire, practice, or acceptance of having more than one loving, intimate relationship at a time with the full knowledge and consent of everyone involved” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyamory). Polyamorous relationships can include:

  • a couple in a long-term committed relationship in which one or both of them have ongoing secondary relationships with another partner, with everyone’s knowledge and consent;
  • three people who form a committed relationship between all (I call this a triad);
  • four people in who form a committed relationship between all, or in which all are linked to all the others but aren’t necessarily romantically or sexually involved with everyone else (a quad);
  • larger groups in which each person has a romantic relationship with at least one and mostly more than one other member.

These would probably all be classified as polyamorous relationships by most people familiar with the term (do you disagree? Add a comment!). They all involve romantic relationships and long-term commitment, and generally sex as well, with more than one person.

Polyamory is also often seen as an identity: someone might describe themself as a polyamorous person, that is, someone who is capable of polyamorous relationships and would like to be in such relationships, regardless of whether they have one, two or more or even no partners at the moment.

But there are other types of open, honest, responsible nonmonogamous relationships that some wouldn’t include within the concept of polyamory. For example:

  • couples who otherwise behave monogamously but sometimes go together to sex parties or swingers’ clubs and have sexual encounters with others, in each other’s presence;
  • couples who have agreed that they can each have sexual encounters with other people but don’t want these other encounters to develop into romantic relationships and have agreed rules to keep the relationships with others casual;
  • people who aren’t in a committed relationship at the moment and who date (or plan to date) several people in parallel, explaining to each new date that they are also seeing (and perhaps having sex with) other people.
  • people who would prefer to be monogamous but who are in a relationship with someone who finds this difficult and have therefore agreed to allow them other relationships as long as they are honest ones.

This blog is called Open Fidelity rather than Polyamory because I aim to show that the ideas of polyamory can be useful to anyone, including people who don’t identify as polyamorous themselves. Most people are interested in long-term relationships with only one person at a time, even if they don’t want to be strictly monogamous. So polyamorous relationships are probably always going to be a minority pursuit. I believe everyone can find these ideas useful, even those who fully intend to be monogamous, and even perhaps those who intend to cheat on their partners.

So what is Open Fidelity? It is being open about your attractions to more than one person and how you act on these attractions, and it is being faithful to any promises you have made to your partner. Before explaining this in more detail I will look further into the problems with the currently accepted way of doing things.

Receiving blog posts by email or syndication

I’ve just added a new page, which is linked from the list of pages on the right: Ways to read this blog. This explains how to receive posts or excerpts by email or using RSS feeds. It also explains how to become a registered user, in case this isn’t obvious, and why this is worth doing.