It’s not an Open Relationship When it’s Cheating

cheating

If we had no hold on each other, if we were together by choice and free to love other people too, why, after Eadmund admitted to his fling, was I feeling so betrayed and angry?  He seemed to feel it was entirely permissable under the terms of what we had agreed but it didn’t feel right to me.

At the time and with no other ideas of how to conduct a relationship, I just assumed the whole open thing wasn’t for me, that I’d agreed to something I couldn’t fulfill and that I had no right to be feeling the way I did.  Now, I think differently.

The sort of relationship Eadmund described, the sort I agreed to, would not, if we had managed to communicate, have unfolded like this.  He would have met someone, sure.  He would have felt an attraction.  He might even have wanted to take it to a sexual relationship.  But he would have told me at every stage how he felt, what he wanted.  We would have had the chance to talk.  If it was going to hurt me and hurt us, we would have acted accordingly, leaving me feeling part of the discussion and not presented with a fait accompli.

Something about the story of them meeting on the buying trip bugged me.  The shock, anger and rejection died down in the main.  Life moved on.  The happiness and relief that we were at last being open about our relationship in front of his children and therefore in front of everyone was more than enough compensation.  But something still didn’t seem right and I was really struggling to make sense of it.  How could he meet someone and in so short a time be ready to sleep with them?  He had taken so long to make love to me.  He had been so cautious about approaching it.  It seemed out of character.  It made her seem as if she must be some superbeing, irresistible.  Yet he told me that he found me more attractive.  He didn’t love her.  He said he enjoyed my company more. He didn’t intend to carry on any relationship with her from now on.  Did she have an amazingly strong and individual personality that had transfixed him?  Not really.

Something didn’t add up.

One day before I set off for work, I noticed his computer was still on.  His email programme was open.  I didn’t have to leave straight away and there was no one else in the house.  Curiosity overcame me and with a sense of shame at the fact I was prying through personal things, I clicked on his email archive.  It wasn’t at all hard to find the emails.  He kept all correspondence neatly filed with a folder labelled with the sender’s name.  I found the folder for their correspondence and opened it.

As I read the emails, the story unfolded.  They had met months before at a fair in Italy.  They felt a connection at the time and kept in touch.  The emails carried on for five months, their tone becoming longing, romantic.  I recognised phrases he had used to me in the beginning.

‘I know we’re apart but you feel so close to me tonight, it’s almost as if I can smell you.’

Numbly, I read on.  I was distantly aware of a strange sound.  Whimpering.  Animal.  In pain.  It took a few seconds to realise the sound was me.

It was another visceral sensation of pain but at least it made sense now.  Yes, if I’d imagined him having a relationship with someone else, there would be a meeting, a courting period, consummation.

I admitted, later, to having read his emails.  I confronted him with what I’d found out.  On this occasion, he crumpled, ashamed.  He had meant to be brave, to talk to me if he found himself attracted to someone else.  He had meant to be open, to be honest, to be free.

‘Instead, I reverted to old habits.  I went back to sneaking around and being dishonest like I used to.  I talked this big talk about freedom and honesty and then I didn’t live up to it.’

At the time, I was relieved to have things out in the open.  We weren’t trying to keep a secret any more.  We were more open, we were happier with each other, communication was better again.  Finding the emails when I did was a huge step in being able to move on and rebuild trust with him.

But there, if you press me to it, is the difference between non monogamy and cheating.  An open relationship should be just that, open.  It should respect the needs of both people.  It shouldn’t be about compartmentalising love and hiding it away in boxes.  During the better moments of the Anne, Eadmund, Isla triangle, I had had a glimpse of how things could work.  When we all talked, we understood each other, we were close, we supported each other, we looked out for each other.  It’s not that ego and competition didn’t intrude, it certainly did.  We weren’t open enough to try and confront and deal with that.  He didn’t categorise either as an actual relationship although frankly he was kidding himself.  I was hurt from not knowing about their relationship until too late and it put me in the role of victim which made me fight back.  Isla was hurt about finding out about mine with him when her own with him had just been re-kindled.  She fought back too.  Again there had been lies, secrecy, hiding things.  But Isla and I did talk.  We supported each other.  The three of us talked less, but we did do so.  When we did, when we understood each other and when we were open with each other, there was a nurturing sense of love, support and community.

It wasn’t a successfully open relationship with honest open communication but new, strange and scary as it was at the time, this was where I first got a glimpse of how it could work.  Including other people doesn’t have to mean deceit, betrayal, pain.  It doesn’t have to have a victim who gets hurt.  It can also create a close knit group and increase the love, caring and support.

Cheating is a whole lot different.

An Interlude: Guilt

guilt_by_mare_of_night-d3a5szp

‘You don’t say anything about guilt.’ commented a friend of mine on reading my last post.

It’s true, I didn’t. In that moment, I didn’t feel any.

It felt so right, joyous and life affirming to love him and to express that physically just felt natural.  It never crossed my mind that something that felt so natural could possibly be something I would be ashamed of or guilty about.

I don’t mean to say I felt no guilt about the relationship.  Oh boy did I ever feel guilt.  But I never felt guilty about love and a natural expression of love.  I felt guilty about dishonesty, about not telling Jack.  I felt guilty about hurting him – that I wasn’t brave enough to tell him I wanted to leave him and that I used the relationship I had just started with Eadmund as a catalyst to force me to leave him.

I have come to realise that, unlike a lot of even my dearest friends, I have scant regard for social constraints.  If they don’t make sense to me, then I don’t hold with them.  I value kindness, honesty and being caring to other people.  Where I’ve failed to do that, even in difficult circumstances, I feel ashamed.

‘You don’t need to worry, Anne,’ Nia once told me, as she, Jack and I shared copious bottles of wine and she insisted on him giving her a hug, as she did with many of her male friends once she’d had a few, ‘I wouldn’t ever do anything with someone else’s boyfriend.’

On the other hand, as I was finding out, I would.  I was engaged to a nice man, I was in what Hollywood would undoubtedly call a ‘love triangle’ with Eadmund and Isla and in addition to that, my boyfriend (as opposed to my fiance you understand) was married and I never for a minute doubted that loving Eadmund and sleeping with him was the right thing to do.

In part, of course, I was in exceptional amounts of denial about my actions and their repercussions still and the realisation of what I’d done was yet to hit me.  But even when the realisation and the guilt did come, it was hurting people that made me feel terrible.  It wasn’t loving someone.

Love is a joyous feeling.  It’s a positive feeling.  It is a huge power for change and change, of course can bring disruption and upset. We all have to deal with the consequences of that disruption.  But love is never something to regret.  It’s the single most life affirming emotion we are capable of.  It’s entirely natural.  We are biologically programmed to feel it.  Nature would not give us an emotion like that and intend for us to feel bad about it.

Guilt on the other hand is almost exclusively negative.  Allowed to develop, grow and take over, it festers and destroys people.  Its function as far as I can see is to prompt us to realise that another time perhaps we should do things differently, in a more honest or kind manner.  Beyond that it has ceased to serve its useful purpose and we should step back from it and all it entails.

It’s easy to say that now of course.  It’s only taken me 14 years to get this rational about it.

One of the reasons I didn’t feel guilt at the time, denial aside, is that I’m not and never have been, religious.  I went to church at Christmas and Easter to sing nice hymns, smell the incense and because the vicar handed out satsumas or Cadbury’s Creme Eggs.  In some families it’s the done thing to be seen to go to church every week which is as much social conditioning and a way of social climbing as it is moral or religious impulse.  My mother used to worry sometimes that we didn’t attend church often enough, my atheist father didn’t give a damn.

I don’t want the trappings of what society deems a successful life.  I never wanted the career in the city, the Oxbridge degree, the flash house in the country with its media room and gym in the basement.  I want the things that will make me happy.  I want to hang out with people not because they will advance my career but because I enjoy their company, they make me think about things in a different light and above all they make me laugh!

I also don’t look at social convention and accept it.  If someone tells me I ought to do something, I immediately want to know why and usually want to do the exact opposite.  I thought, I would never have sex with ‘someone else’s’ man until I did.  Then I realised we are all sentient beings with the possibility of choice.  We act, we take responsibility for our actions and we cope with the repercussions.  If we are brave and realise what we want to do might hurt someone else if we do it secretly then we confront them, explain and ask permission.  If we’re lucky they will realise they don’t have a right to own our actions any more than we have a right to own theirs.  I’ve been ‘cheated on’ as much as I’ve cheated and what hurt was being made the victim, being lied to, being disrespected because of someone else’s cowardice.  I’ve been that coward and it was the dishonesty and hurt and making someone else the victim that made me feel guilty.

So no, as I lay in Eadmund’s arms, I didn’t feel guilty.  I knew we were both in so much trouble, but I didn’t feel guilt.

I hadn’t hurt anyone.

Yet.

Beyond the point of no return

When we talked about it in later years, he didn’t understand why I was so shocked.  It was a measure of how far in denial of reality I must have been, but it did come as a massive shock.  It was a line in the sand.  Before that kiss, I could kid myself that it was all in my head; that nothing was going on really.  After the kiss, I had to face facts.

I did talk to him.  I said something ineffectual about having a fiancé and how he shouldn’t have done it.  We shouldn’t do it again.  I went on holiday to Nice with my mother for a long weekend and it was at the back of my mind all the time.  I could still feel his lips on me.  The scent and taste of him returned to me so vividly it was as if he was still kissing me.  I replayed it in my mind like a movie.  I didn’t say a word to Jack.

I did talk to Isla.  I told her over the phone and tried to laugh it off as if it wasn’t serious.  Her response was brief and in a tight voice:

‘He should not have done that.’

‘It’s my fault too,’ I admitted, ‘I’ve been warned what he’s like but I’ll be more careful in future.’

‘He should not have done that.’

The hugs didn’t stop.  Why I thought kissing wouldn’t happen again if the hugs continued, I don’t know, but I suspect it had less to do with reality than it did with how very much I wanted to feel him close to me again.  And of course we kissed again and this time I kissed him back.

The following day, Isla took me for a walk before work.  She needed to talk to me about something.  She needed a minute to work up to it and I remember talking about something inconsequential to fill in the silence until she came out with it.

‘He should not have done that, because he’s also doing it with me.’

It took a minute to sink in but my blood drained down into my boots.

‘You weren’t expecting that were you?’ she sounded kind and amused.  My jaw must have been hanging open.

‘I’m actually surprised you didn’t notice something was going on a couple of years ago,’ she continued, ‘I thought you must be able to tell.’

Her marriage had been on the rocks.  She went to explain to him why she was being a bit flaky at work and they began talking.  He was supportive and kind when she needed a shoulder to cry on.  Needless to say there was hugging.  There was kissing.  There had been other things but surprisingly, although they had done everything but, there had not been sex as we’d traditionally define it.  It had run its course and they had gone back to being friends and co-workers again, but then, when he was hurt and vulnerable, she couldn’t help feeling the old emotions stir up again and the hugs had become kisses and more.

I sleep-walked through the day, numb.  I was devastated.  He hadn’t told me.  She hadn’t told me.  I felt childish and stupid.  An interloper.

‘Why didn’t you tell me before?’  I asked him.  We were both alone working in the same, small office.

‘I didn’t think of it.  The thing with Isla was over years ago, really.  If anything, I thought she would have said.’

This reverberated in my head and heart all day along with something Isla had said before we went back in to work.

‘I had to tell you, so you don’t get started on anything.  You’re going to get married.  You don’t want to be in an affair with a married man while you’re planning a wedding.’

She was right of course, this was the get out clause that would let me go back to Jack with no harm done.  He was my fiancé after all.  He was going to marry me and provide me with a future, family and stability.  Given that we were engaged, he should have been the one I loved more.  I should have been relieved and happy that I could get myself out this situation and settle down with him.  Why, then, did it feel like a prison sentence?

I went home and told Jack I was exhausted from work (an all too believable excuse) and would be going to bed without eating that evening.  He stayed up and watched tv.  I cried myself to sleep as quietly as I could.

The Kiss

The Kiss 1901-4 by Auguste Rodin 1840-1917

In 1999, after years as, ostensibly, the patient partner to a philandering husband, Eadmund’s wife Cloe met someone.

He was a customer in her shop, prone to outspoken declarations and intensity.  He was a fashion designer who at the time was considered an up and coming talent.  He asked her to model for his latest collection.  She was approaching 50 years old at the time and thought he was taking the piss.  She even rang up Eadmund and his best friend Joe to ask if they’d put him up to it as a practical joke.

They hadn’t.  Rupert Wallace Black was deadly serious.  He thought the world of her.  She was his muse.  She is and was an immensely elegant, striking and stylish woman.   The show apparently was quite something.  Their kids were partly disturbed and partly deeply impressed that mum was a model.  The elder two were approaching their teens and just trying to forge their own ideas of style, dress and image.  Having a mum who was a model, even if you did go to private school in Holland Park, did make her very different from the other kids’ mums.  But in what a cool way!  Cloe was in love and happy as she hadn’t been for too many years.  She blossomed.

Eadmund wasn’t exactly heart broken, it had hardly been the perfect marriage after all, but this change in their situation was big and frightening and hard.  He was shocked to the core and big questions like divorce had, of course, raised their head.  He lost half a stone in a week and took up smoking again.  At work, his best friends rallied round:  Jacob, who it always appeared he saw as ‘heir apparent’, Adam the American, Joe who was best friend of both him and Cloe and also Isla.  Isla was an open, warm and caring person.  I never realised that she and Eadmund had been all that close as friends, but she looked out for him, gave him supportive hugs and chatted with him in the pub as he poured his heart out.

‘He’s got so skinny, don’t you think?’ She said on one of our pub evenings together, ‘I just feel so sorry for him.’

I concurred.  The word on the shop floor had always been that he’d been a ‘naughty boy’.  There hadn’t just been Catherine, there had been others too.  Either he’d never been told not to dip his quill in the office ink or he just hadn’t listened.  Consequently no one felt that there was any aggrieved innocence about his reaction to Cloe’s new relationship.  No one condemned her either, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t feel jealous, hurt and afraid.  As his colleagues and friends, how could we not feel for someone who was so obviously hurting?

A couple of years earlier, the person who had started him in business and always been a huge influence on his life had died in a car crash.  A shockwave ran through the company at the time,

‘Did you hear? How is Eadmund taking it?’

He seemed to put a brave face on it.  I met him downstairs in the staff kitchen.  He was on the phone.  I was making coffee.  He was talking about the funeral.  Every one of my nerve endings was alert to his presence and proximity to me which was a fairly common reaction of mine by then.  This time, I also felt waves of compassion.  I wanted to help.

‘You have made me feel so much better when I was miserable,’ I thought, ‘You are always ready to give someone a hug.  Who do you have to hug you better?’

But he was on the phone.  I finished making my coffee and returned upstairs to my desk.

The memory remained with me.  Now that he was hurting again, this time I was going to do something to help.  We started going to the pub after work to talk.  I opened up about my relationship with Jack and whether I should be getting married.  Now that it was a done deal, I was starting to doubt.  He told me about Cloe’s boyfriend.

‘So my wife is sleeping with the man who’s sleeping with Kate Moss’

This was a rumour at the time and frankly may not have been true.  If he was, he dumped her for Cloe pretty sharpish.

We talked about commitment, loss, fidelity, monogamy.  He talked about letting people be free, about how the feeling of allowing her to go to someone else had its own bittersweet beauty.  He could see her grow and open up to the world in happiness and he couldn’t help feeling very happy for her.  It was absolutely right for her to follow this relationship and not stay within monogamous confines.  She had his blessing.  In fact, he had even encouraged her and persuaded her to go for it.  And yet, it also hurt.  Some days he almost felt elated just seeing how happy she was and setting her free.  Some days he felt inward looking, scared, jealous and vindictive.  It was a horrible, mean feeling.

I loved the way he talked about relationships and freedom.  I couldn’t quite conceive of not feeling distraught and jealous if your partner wanted to be with someone else.  I wanted to be that open-minded.  I wanted to have that expansive feeling myself.  My own relationship felt confined, predictable, conventional and a little claustrophobic.

From talking, a closeness and warmth developed very quickly.  I told him he needed a hug and did it.  It began to become a daily thing.  I had initiated it and I was far too embarrassed and self-conscious to do so publically but it continued to be a private thing, which, in turn, lent it piquancy.  The hugs became longer, tighter, more charged with emotion.  We always stood very still, close and I think I even held my breath.

‘You just held me so tight, for so long,’ he reminisced years later, ‘It steadied me. I think it saved me.’

But in time, it did more than that.  Standing as close as we did, my head resting on his chest, I was able to feel the shape of his body all the way down mine.  The day he found it sexual, I could tell.  Neither of us alluded to it but things had changed.

If I had truly loved my fiancé, if I had truly appreciated the partnership of marriage that I was about to enter into, I would have stopped and talked to Jack.  But I didn’t.  I wanted to see where it would end.

A few days later, we hugged as usual, but this time he gently turned my face up to him, looked softly down at me and kissed me.

The Break Up

Borough Market

It was the third weekend of May 2000 and I was in our newly acquired offices, sitting at what was going to be my desk and crying my eyes out.

As the person responsible for managing development of the burgeoning Borough Market, under the auspices of my cheese shop employers, I was supposed to be working a busy Saturday as the monthly market rolled around.  I’d got in bright and early for a 6 o’clock start.  We had set up an immense display of cheese, the shelves of the shop were brimming over with chutneys, pickles and condiments, outside on the cobbles a veritable harvest festival display of bread beckoned people in off the streets.   The shop looked fantastic, it was buzzing with happy shoppers and I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that wouldn’t go away.  So  I had rung my fiancé and told him that that not only could I not marry him, but I’d actually been in a relationship with my boss, for the past eight months.

‘You are not breaking up with me over the phone!’ he told me, ‘I’ll come in.’

To be honest it was a bit of a waste of his time.  He was never going to change my mind.  He came.  We talked.  I agreed that I wouldn’t go back to our flat that evening and he left.

It wasn’t that long before I became aware that I wasn’t alone anymore.  Jacob, one of my managers who was also a friend, had come in.   He was a bit surprised.  I have no idea what I looked like – vaguely molten I expect.  I just about sobbed out that I’d called off the wedding and he left as well.

I didn’t get any more work done that day.