Matthew and Mary Crawley of the hit series Downton Abbey had the worst time getting engaged, despite being in love the entire time. First, she has a one night stand with a Turkish guy who falls dead in her bed, then her mother becomes pregnant, throwing off Matthew’s standing as the heir; Matthew becomes engaged to Lavinia, but shortly after gets sent off to World War I. He comes back paralyzed from the waist down. Mary resigns herself to being engaged to Sir Richard, a newspaper tycoon, and Matthew miraculously recovers while Lavinia falls ill and dies. When Matthew is finally single again, he feels so guilty about Lavinia that he couldn’t allow himself to love Mary.
As the daughter of an earl at a time when women’s chastity was sacrosanct, Mary’s indiscretion, if it had been revealed, would have ruined her reputation and been a national sensation. But with support from her father, Mary decides that a lifetime with the wrong guy is too much to exchange for keeping her reputation intact. She breaks off her engagement with Sir Richard, but before she can agree to marry Matthew, she has to know if he would forgive her past indiscretion. To her surprise, he didn’t judge her for it. He said, “I don’t believe you need my forgiveness. You’ve lived your life. And I’ve lived mine. And now it’s time we live them together.” Matthew’s unconditional love for Mary made her love him more than ever.
In life, we overlook many of our partner’s “indiscretions.” We may overlook his tendency to watch a lot of sports on TV, drink too many sodas, or not putting away the laundry. However, society draws a hard line when it comes to sexual indiscretions. Watching porn? Disaster. Flirting with women? Unacceptable. Having an affair? Time to call the divorce lawyers.
I’m not saying that women should love their husbands for cheating on them or tolerate dishonesty, but love should include the desire to understand rather than punish. The majority of men who have affairs say that they love their families and do not want to divorce their wives. Nowadays people live a long time, and chances are good that you or your partner will be attracted to someone else at some point after marriage. Maintaining honesty and understanding about each other’s social lives can keep a relationship intact when deception will put it apart.
I had been learning about polyamory before I got married. The idea that we can love more than one person at a time made a lot of sense to me. After all, we can love more than one best friend, we can love more than one child, and we can love more than one parent. It never made sense to me that romantic love was somehow an exception. Even before I met my husband, I had made up my mind about the following:
- Sexual exploration is natural and healthy. Activities such as enjoying pornography, BDSM, role play, and other interests are harmless if not excessive, and can contribute to one’s health and happiness if consciously explored.
- Attraction to others is natural and healthy. When we are alive in the world and engaged openly with others, it is natural to be drawn to those we find attractive, and inevitable that we might fall in love with one or two of them. Just because we are attracted to a new person does not mean that we no longer love the one we are with. Monogamy is not natural and we can’t shut down a part of ourselves just to conform to social norms.
- Romantic relationships contribute to emotional, intellectual, and spiritual growth. Unlike Mary Crawley’s time, today most people have a few relationships before committing themselves to one, and most would say that those relationships helped them learn about themselves and prepared them for longer commitment. Why should that learning stop at marriage? New romantic partners teach us things that previous partners cannot. New relationships challenge us, help us grow, and add joy to our lives. Like new friends, they enlarge the community of people who share our joys and sorrows and help each other out in hard times.
- Jealousy and possessiveness are not healthy in relationships. My partner’s relationships are his own and I do not have the right to interfere with them unless they cause direct harm to me or him. The same is true for my relationships. We have a right to discuss with our partner issues that affect us, but we are each responsible for our own feelings and our own social lives.
When my partner and I got married, it was based on acceptance of the above premises, although putting them in practice was harder than accepting them intellectually. Since we opened our relationship, my husband has not been interested in exploring intimate relationships outside of our marriage although he is supportive of my doing so. But if he were, I would do the following:
- Be open to all sexual explorations, including porn, role play, BDSM, threesomes, bisexuality and more. If my partner is interested in these things, I would support the means to help him explore them safely.
- Be open to his attraction to others. I would not make judgements about who he finds attractive or who he pursues, and I will enable him to share his thoughts about others with me without fear of invoking jealousy or anger.
- I would support his extra-marital relationships by being friendly and welcoming to his lovers, and creating time and space for him to enjoy his other relationships. I would share in his happiness and be supportive if he has problems.
- I would communicate my needs without the expectation that they would be met.