No Secrets, No Lies
By Hank Pine, Reprinted From
© 2005 Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S., Inc.

I'm angry at myself and a little ashamed. I've agreed to write this essay, but I can't tell you my real name. I'm actually depressed about that.

I mean, it's pretty ridiculous—my wife and I have had a few non-illicit affairs. I promise you that we're happy and that the openness of our relationship has not proved harmful to anyone. So we have affairs that are not betrayals. Yes, we allow each other to do that.

And yet the public disclosure of this fact would endanger everything from careers to friendships to our standing in the community. We could never adopt a child, due to the joint unfitness of our character. Our parents would be mortified, while parents our own age would keep their children away. A giant O would hang above our house, a scarlet letter emblazoned upon the sky for the general protection of the citizenry.

Recently I attended a party where, after a few drinks, the talk turned to sex, as it so often does. A woman who knew nothing of my situation blurted quite out of nowhere that she just couldn't be in an open relationship. Now, this comment is dismissive from a point of nonexperience, but not too egregious. Then she went on to say, and everyone seemed to agree, that an inherent pathology lurked at the core of such a relationship, a perverse power dynamic that excluded real happiness. This was among a socially progressive group of adults who would never denigrate sexual difference in any other form but who felt free to disparage loudly and confidently a private sexual choice.

Not that long ago, in fact, I too was a member of the pious progressives. Probably in my past somewhere, at a party not so different from the one I described above, I also maligned open relationships as somehow inherently flawed. Or at least I nodded my head when someone said it was impossible, that the constituent partners were living a lie. Which is just the kind of thinking—the closed kind—regarding desire that often leads to sexual entropy and the forbidden fruit of an affair.

This all started when my wife and I were living in the Midwest, happy with each other and acting normal, and I developed a crush on a coworker. Following the usual script, I “struggled”—using all the metaphors morality and social convention could provide in defense of monogamy—but finally “succumbed” to desire. I kept the affair secret for a while, and then, feeling wrong about such secrecy, I “admitted my betrayal.” (Okay, so I was forced to since my wife caught me—I wasn't in my office much, I'd forgotten our anniversary, I was singing in the shower, etc. Hannah confronted me with her suspicions, and because I felt so guilty about lying, I wasn't very good at it.)

And, yes, for a brief time I even thought I was in love with the other woman—I'll call her K.—because we felt intimate in an exciting way. But, in fact, we were just having good sex, and those tiny chemicals of exhilaration were firing off in my head. (Sadly, it's here that many people abandon a more compatible partner for a new love, when actually they're just practicing serial monogamy.) And how could I not feel exhilaration? K. was wild, at the top of a field dominated by men, and had a penchant for skydiving. She had long legs and blond hair. She even liked my wife. They'd gone bra shopping together. Sometimes I'd leave my office at lunch and go to her bleak condominium and key-in the password at the little gate. She'd be upstairs waiting for me, on the rug next to the fake gas fireplace.

Things at home were a little less romantic, and even after Hannah confronted me about my affair and I admitted it, I still wanted to see K. But soon, thankfully, I came to my senses and broke it off with her. The pain I caused my wife just wasn't worth the good sex. I resolved myself to loving just one damn good woman who loved me back.

Still, there were a few scenes left in this little morality play of the Seventh Commandment. I apologized to Hannah and asked if she could forgive me. I said I felt ashamed and promised fidelity. Though I had contravened the “sanctity” of our relationship, Hannah “absolved” me of my errant ways.

In turn, her friends struggled to accept her decision to stay with me—“Once a cheater, always a cheater,” they preached. But they also liked me and hoped Hannah and I could work this thing out, if I could just get it out of my system.

And then an unusual thing happened, for which I have to credit Hannah. We began talking through the human predicament of desire, inquiring after real answers rather than the standard liturgy of convention, and somehow a new door opened. We abandoned the movie scene (tears, recriminations) and, I'd have to say, had an existential moment about the body—that there was nothing more than the body, a gift of unimaginable luck, and that as a couple we should allow our little ephemeral presences the greatest possible fulfillment in a very short life. In other words, Hannah said she was willing to let me have affairs, and in fact, she wanted to have affairs too.

Without a program, then, without any semblance of a script, we decided to try it, the open relationship thing. And after a couple of weeks of talking about the possibilities, Hannah suggested that I go see K. for an evening. “Just go over and see her,” she said. “I don't mind.” I peered closely at her. She's the sort of person who can hide nothing. “Really?” I asked.

It would be our first step along a path without direction, through a whole terrain of unmapped hills and valleys, a path upon which we'd make some real mistakes. It was not out of insecurity or some other weakness that she told me to go. It was out of love. The real kind, which relinquishes a proprietary view of the body in order to bestow the great gift of experience.

I did go to K. that night, and she and I sorted out some things. We also had sex unsuffused by the atmosphere of the illicit. (It was still pretty good, if you were worried about that.) And though we did feel close, there was a sadness to the event in that the “in love” language had been dropped. A boundary had been marked and not crossed. This was my first lesson in keeping the affair in a certain place, a necessity for limitation that can be a little hard to get the hang of.

When I arrived home in the morning, Hannah looked haggard and upset. She had watched the same movie three times in a row and smoked a zillion cigarettes—and she doesn't even smoke. She was jealous and hurt, and in turn, I was upset by what I saw as her contradictory behavior. We both seriously moped around the house for about a day.

Yet even then, when we were confused and just beginning, there was a clarity about things that drew us closer, a shared feeling commensurate with the significance of being human, of having that luminous body. It was easier for me: My body had gleefully pressed against someone else's the night before.

We got through that. Hannah and K. remained friends, and sometimes I slept with K. Of course, the three of us didn't hang out anymore; we weren't sophisticated enough for that. And even though K. and I were past the foolish love stage, things were still a little bit raw. It was a nervous time, but sometimes funny. They went out one night and bonded, talking about what a louse I had been. (Hannah couldn't help but tell me, of course, when she got home.) Hell, I was sleeping with K. and in love with my wife—and my wife was cool with that, and she was also incredibly sexy to me. I imagined the two of them drunk and talking about me.

It wasn't depressing, to say the least.

Soon afterward, we moved to a beautiful city in the Northwest, and Hannah met a guy she liked a lot, a musician, and I was the one left alone through a very long night. When she came home, I feigned interest in the sports page I had already read, but I instinctively drew away as she tried to kiss me. A sudden fury rose in my blood, and I stomped out of the room, slamming the door to my study. Hannah tried to soothe me through the closed door, but I would have none of it. A pretty good yelling match ensued, and I cleared out of the house. Hannah stood crying at the door.

And then, by the afternoon, we were laughing at the absurdity of it all. We'd both acted exactly the same way, as if it were somehow possible to tell yourself not to be jealous. That day, and for many days after, we talked a lot about jealousy—what was it? We settled on the opinion that it was a fairly predictable and inane emotion, a type of primitive reflex response. Actually, I've heard the theory that jealousy evolved to encourage monogamy because the species proved more successful when two parents were involved in child rearing. Such assumptions regarding our hunter-gatherer ancestors seem facile to me, but even if true, what place does jealous behavior have in the modern world? In addition to the fact that successful parents these days are gay, straight, single, and multiple, what of the simple proposition that the jealous partner shouldn't leave out of jealousy? And to us it started to feel like just a stupid emotion, perhaps unavoidable but easily contained.

Jealousy also seems to have a short half-life, to live in a quick flash of hot-bloodedness like its dumb cousin anger. So we decided to expect to feel jealous and to give the other person some respectful space when the feeling appeared. You couldn't force someone not to be jealous by kissing them hello and acting really nice. Neither were you expected not to feel jealous. For a reasonable amount of time, you could mope. Once this was established, jealousy was a navigable problem—and the benefits of that are difficult to put into words.

Eventually I found someone too. N. was younger than me and had recently broken up with her first serious boyfriend. She had just finished law school and worked long hours at her public-interest job. In a sense it was the perfect arrangement—she didn't want a relationship and so was willing simply to have a good time. N. was also smart, sweet, and attractive. She had, I will say, many appeals: Before becoming a lawyer she'd been an NBA cheerleader; she was a lapsed Catholic; she was too polite to ever call me at home (though Hannah had grudgingly said it was fine—it seemed better, she said, than sneaking off to a pay phone at the nearby Laundromat). There was a bit of a lascivious element, too, because in the early days of the affair, N. still lived at home. In a way, she was sneaking around more than I was because she was scandalously dating a married man. I think we identified with each other as outlaws.

Of course, the little chemicals began to fire off again in my head—the emissaries of exhilaration that herald a new closeness with someone. But now I understood that this just went with the territory. If I wasn't married we'd be dating, and maybe those chemical signals would lead to a traditional kind of relationship, at least for a while. But instead, N. and I saw each other about once a week, had dinner or went to a movie, headed to a hotel, and then each went home afterward. It became an old-fashioned affair, regular in its intervals, except that it was allowed within my primary relationship. So it remained limited from inception, but with a romantic quality that certainly exceeded friendship. (Mere friends don't typically spend long evenings at the Snooz Inn, though maybe they should.)

For Hannah, though, my long-term affair created some difficulties. The regularity of my meetings with N. led to tension between us, as she saw the musician, G., only occasionally. What typically occurred is that upon my return from a tryst, Hannah felt distant from me for a few hours or even a day. In contrast, I arrived home from seeing N. feeling closer to Hannah because of the special benevolence of our relationship. But from the other side, as I also knew, it's hard not to feel displaced by the homecoming. The other person returns with a just-ravished glow, the body lit up in a way that has nothing to do with you. Maybe once a week was a little too frequent.

However, Hannah vaguely knew who N. was—just as I knew G.—and therefore we never obsessed about the “unknown lover,” never fantasized about what unknowable threat or power this mystery person must hold.

And yet there was no escape from the sexual insecurity that is just part of the deal, which I think I actually experienced more than Hannah did. Sexual insecurity is part of any long-term relationship—you know, ebb and flow. We had a specific opportunity to figure it out in amplified fashion. What we both needed was a good amount of reassurance—a little compliment here, a flirtatious gesture there—that showed our continued interest in each other. You might call it seduction. No more than what people need in a monogamous relationship but with truly diligent application. And possibly our constancy in this matter never let us enter into the sexual drift that plagues many monogamous relationships. Which is not to say that you need to be in an open relationship to sustain intimacy long term, just that an open relationship can't be sustained without that closeness.

But unfortunately, I could really tell how much Hannah liked sleeping with G. Maybe she didn't hide her pleasure quite as well as I did, but I always knew when she'd just gotten laid. And so I had to work through my insecurities from the beginning. Maybe I had a more difficult time because of my assumption—that men are naturally (or at least socially constructed to be) more promiscuous. But that smile on Hannah's face showed me one thing, that even if men are arguably more pleasure-seeking with regard to quantity, women are arguably more pleasure-seeking with regard to quality.

So we did much better when we just accepted the affairs as a different sexual category that was not in competition with sex in our long, committed relationship. The former has newness while the latter has love. A surprising benefit of mixing the two, the feeling of another's body only heightened my awareness of Hannah's, possibly because the language of the body, like all language, operates by relation. And having another lover also elevated my awareness of my own body, allowing me to feel more alive in my bones.

Eventually my affair with N. drew to a close, and N. has a real boyfriend now. Since then, my extramarital experiences have been random and rare. On the other hand, Hannah's relationship with G. never really has faded away, possibly a function of the greater infrequency of their meetings (and that grin on Hannah's face). In any event, we're still together and still very happy. Often we feel we're happier than anyone has a right to be. We want to start a family soon, and we'll see if our open relationship continues or takes on a new form. But this week G., on break from touring with his band, is visiting us at our new house in the New England countryside. Of course, Hannah says they're not going to sleep together here. (“That would be wrong!” she pronounced with false modesty over fried clams last night.) But really? I wouldn't mind—at least I don't think so. I'm lucky and I'm in love.

Is there anything I've described that is really so dangerous? Is my relationship inherently flawed? Are other people's affairs for me to judge? I think, in the end, that we've been pretty good explorers. We've tried to put into play some honest ideas about sex and relationships, about desire and the body, that most couples are afraid to confront. And for this I don't want any credit, or even an anonymous credit. I'd just like to be able to tell you my name.