With actress Tilda Swinton declaring that three is company in her relationship, we explore whether giving up monogamy can set you free.
No doubt there are hidden difficulties that Swinton is not delving into. But is it possible that other ways of life can offer a rich or complicated kind of happiness? Is our idea of love perhaps too narrow, too literal, too unimaginative? The legendary journalist Gay Talese has been married to his glamorous editor wife, Nan, for 50 years this past June, and he is currently writing a book on their extraordinary and epic relationship. Over the years, he has had what he calls "romantic friendships" with other people, but the Taleses have maintained a closer and deeper connection than that of many more ordinary couples. "One can coast on the pillow talk of an affair for years. Affairs don't have the burden of breakfast, lunch, and dinner," Talese says. "But in the end, sex is not that important. The premier affair is marriage. Marriage is the main event."
In the 1910s and '20s, it was fashionable in certain circles to carry on with this type of romantic experiment. Virginia Woolf's sister, Vanessa Bell, a ravishing, statuesque painter who liked to wear gypsyish head scarves, lived on an English country estate with her lover, Duncan Grant, his gay lover, and her children, and her husband sometimes popped by for a week or two. She believed it was more important to live fully than to be conventionally comfortable or secure. One of Bell's frequent guests and ex-flames, the art critic Roger Fry, called her unorthodox household "a triumph of reasonableness over the conventions."
Open marriages have always fascinated and unsettled us because they threaten our assumptions; they raise questions we prefer not be raised. Is it too much to ask that one be attracted to, or intimate with, only one person for the rest of his or her days? How can we balance the comfort and stability of marriage with the desire for novelty and freshness? How does one resolve the yearning for freedom with the need for a settled life? A friend of mine has a pact with her husband that if one of them has a one-night stand while traveling away from the family, it's okay. She tells me, "In a long marriage begun in one's 20s, it seems to me that fetishizing monogamy is a mistake. Our arrangement is that if a partner wants to explore a fleeting intimacy with another while, say, abroad, this is okay, with the caveat that it's like gays in the military: Don't ask, don't tell." They've agreed that a far-flung fling every once in a while is not threatening to their relationship. This pact seems bewildering and scandalous to nearly everyone they describe it to. But for them, the possibility — the idea itself — lets some air into the marriage.
But are open marriages happy? We all know about spiking divorce rates in the '70s and the crazy ice storm that was marriage at that time. In 1972, there was a best-selling book, Open Marriage, that asked, "Is it the 'unfaithful' human being who is the failure, or is it the standard itself?" But its co-author Nena O'Neill recanted several years later, writing that fidelity was central to marriage. Jealousy is not, after all, an easy emotion to overcome. The fantasy that one can transcend rogue feelings like possessiveness and anger is rarely ever true, but one still can't help noticing that there are some unconventional marriages that endure where more traditional unions fail.
Talese says that offbeat marriages can be stronger "because you are both free and you remain together by choice, because of your admiration for each other day by day. I've never for one day in 50 years felt that Nan didn't love me, and she's never felt that I didn't love her."
It is an act of imagination to live differently from everyone else, and maybe, in rare and magnificent moments, it works.