Anne Boleyn was not content to be the mistress of King Henry VIII. Born of aristocratic parents and a diplomat father, Anne and her siblings were familiar in the court of King Henry at an early age. Although she had previously been engaged to Henry Percy, an English nobleman, her family considered the match unsuitable and broke it off. They set their sights on Henry VIII and the throne. History tells that Anne refused Henry’s advances until his marriage to Catherine of Aragon could be annulled and Anne married to Henry in her place. Because the pope in Rome controlled the church and he refused to grant Henry an annulment, Anne pushed Henry to make a break with Rome and establish himself as the head of the Church of England. At much political risk, Henry broke with Rome, annulled his marriage to Catherine, married Anne, and made her queen of England. Her popularity waned however after she failed to produce a son after multiple miscarriages, quarreled often with Henry, and made herself a controversial figure with his political advisors. Her role as instigator in the upheavals of Henry’s court made her unpopular with the public. She was tried and declared guilty for adultery, incest, and treason and beheaded in 1536, three years after her marriage to Henry.
While Anne’s story is unique in history, it has some interesting resonances with polyamory. She was a second to a married man in a world where it was acceptable for a king to consort with other women. Henry clearly adored her and his marriage to Catherine was sexually dead. She was envious of Catherine because she wanted not just to be acknowledged by Henry as his lover but by his subjects as their queen consort. While she could have been powerful as Henry’s mistress, she was more eager to hold all the privileges that marriage to Henry would afford her, and the only way she could do that was by pushing Catherine aside. Unfortunately for her, society was not ready to accept polyamory and her aggressive maneuvers did not win her favors with the people.
If the primary feels jealousy at the thought of her partner with a second, the second feels envy at the thought of her partner with his primary. Who would want to be the mistress, forever of little social consequence, when the privileges of being the wife are so great? Despite being beautiful, brilliant, and loved by Henry, Anne wanted status, and in that department, being the secondary was much inferior to being the primary, and it still is today.
I have no intentions of “dethroning” my lover’s wife but I do sometimes feel envy at her position. Envy that I can never have what she has with him. Envy that what I want is possessed by someone else. I imagine the luxury of endless hours in his presence. The privilege of waking up next to him every morning. The good fortune of having met him early in life. I feel sadness that I was not the one to share his life, traveled to exotic places, and have a family together. I imagine that he will die before me and no one will care about my loss, while I will have to watch all the friends and family give condolences to his wife. When I see their photos together on Facebook with all the accompanying messages of support and approval, I feel as if I am behind city walls and their friends are the citizens guarding the sanctity of their king and queen. If some of those friends knew about my relationship with him they’d probably come after me with pitchforks too, and there is a part of me that feels anger at having to participate in this deception.
Envy is a strange feeling. It does not arouse anger like jealousy does, the feeling of being threatened that someone else is taking away one’s possession. For the second, the beloved was never hers to possess, and she cannot deny the right of the wife to her husband. Her lack of status, however, is a source of insecurity and an affront to her dignity, which she feels in all privileges society accords the married couple. She may cope with this by bolstering her status with him in other ways. For example, she might tell herself that she is more beautiful, or more intelligent, therefore he loves her more. She might reassure herself of his preference for her by dwelling on the weaknesses of their marriage and the strengths of their relationship. In a truly unequal relationship, such as a secret mistress and a married lover, the need to compensate for the lack of status is even more acute. Anne had to feel that she was superior to Catherine of Aragon in order to convince herself that she deserved to be with Henry.
Polyamory offers an alternative narrative. In a non-hierarchical relationship, the needs of one partner are not superseded by the needs of another. Each relationship develops independently, and the primary does not pose limits on her partner’s relationship with the second. Even though one can’t be married to two people at the same time (unless you are a polygamist) I have seen married couples extend significant privileges to the second in order to make her an equal partner. There are couples who cohabit with their second, sharing finances and parenting duties. Sometimes the primary and the second form a relationship with each other so that they become a triad. I know of one couple having a child with their second, securing their relationship by sharing the role of parents. Couples who are public about their relationship with their second also accord him/her more dignity and status than couples who are secret about it. I have even heard of one couple who got divorced so that one partner could marry her second, but the two of them maintained their relationship.
The second also has strategies she can use to deal with envy, and an important one is gratitude. In a society where husbands and wives are taught to be possessive about each other, an unpossessive wife/husband is a creature to be admired. The spouse also enables her partner’s relationship with his second in invaluable ways, such as providing childcare when he’s spending time with his second, providing physical and emotional space in their home when the second comes to visit, and lending a sympathetic ear when her partner wants to talk about his second. As his partner she has created a home where he feels safe and the second benefits directly from that.
The second strategy is comradery. The fact that the second and the primary share the same partner is good indication that they have things in common. At the very least, they have their partner in common, which itself offers a wealth of things to talk about and bond over. Once I was in an incredibly frustrating relationship with a married man who I felt did not understand my needs. The only thing that gave me relief and insight was talking to his other second, a woman who also happened to share my birthday. I was ten years younger than him and she was ten years older than him, but we quickly bonded over our shared relationship with our lover. I was very relieved to hear that she felt the same frustrations I did and she also helped me understand him in a way that only she could have done. In our mutual love for our partner we understood each other intimately as even the best of friends would not be able to do.
The third strategy, which can come spontaneously or be cultivated intentionally, is compersion. Yes, I wish that my lover had married me instead of his wife when he was younger, but I also love the story of how he met his wife, that it was love at first sight, and how weeks later, she asked him to ask her to marry her a year later, which he did. In their long partnership, I love how he has loved her so unfailingly and changed himself so he that he could love her more. I love to hear him say that she is the most incredible woman he has ever known and she has changed his life many times over. I also love the story of Kosha, the woman he was in a long distance relationship with for five years and whom he still talks to regularly, of loving her so much that he felt that his heart could breathe. I want to know everything about him, and everything about him is beautiful, including his love for other women. When I see the photos of him with his wife, I see the tenderness in his gaze, the happiness they have created together, and it seems to me an affirmation of the happiness I feel to be with this wonderful man. I love his depth, his passion, his devotion. It inspires me to want to merit such a companion. It hints to me of what is possible, of what awaits me, of what is already manifest in our relationship.
Society tells us that a romantic relationship should progress in a certain way so that two people who fall in love moves on to moving in together, getting engaged, and getting married, and then it’s happily ever after. But not all relationships can have this path, and there are great ones that have had other paths. I think of Japanese geishas who had powerful relationships with their married patrons. While the men raised families with their wives, it was the geishas that they turned to for companionship, pleasure, and intellectual conversation. I think of the twelfth century lovers Abelard and Heloise, whose physical relationship was brutally cut short when Abelard was castrated by her uncle. Abelard went on to become the greatest theologian of his time and Heloise became a great abbess. They reconnected and kindled a spiritual relationship that lasted the rest of their lives. Abelard became her mentor, pastor, and collaborator who wrote thousands of sermons, songs, and articles for the benefit of her religious community.
Would my relationship with my partner be different if we didn’t have other partners? Yes. But we probably wouldn’t have our relationship at all if his partner didn’t help with the children, the household, and his other obligations. We also wouldn’t be the people we are without our other partners. Polyamory allows us to have so much that we wouldn’t under monogamy: not only the relationship itself but the legitimacy conferred by the consent of our partners. We can pursue our relationship without fear, we can love each other without reservation and be able to share it with our other partners. Held not only by him but by our other partners, my love is allowed to flourish like a flower under the sun.
If Anne had not been envious of Catherine’s position as Henry’s wife, she might have continued as his adored mistress. In her quest to be number one she essentially conveyed to Henry that what she loved was not him, but the status of being his wife and queen. Henry might have divorced Catherine anyway, but Anne would not have lost her life as a result.
Photo: The Other Boleyn Girl, Directed by Justin Chadwick. With Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Eric Bana, Jim Sturgess.