Breaking Up: Gains and Losses - Interviewing: Experimental Marriage

Playing Around: Women and Infidelity - Linda Wolfe 1975

Breaking Up: Gains and Losses
Interviewing: Experimental Marriage

Proponents of open adultery tend to be almost old-fashioned in their allegiance to the institution of marriage. They are enthusiastic about extramarital sex not just because they are hedonistic, but because in their view it helps make marriage more permanent. They argue that many if not most divorces are caused by the desire for sexual experimentation, and that therefore permitting sexual variety within the institution can have the potentially stabilizing social value of forestalling or eliminating divorce. Sociologists have defined marriage as an arrangement that promises both permanence and exclusivity. The proponents of open adultery hope to accomplish greater permanence than is customary these days by letting the exclusivity go.

But does permitting sexual experimentation within marriage forestall or eliminate divorce? Is divorce actually caused by sexual monotony? The marriages of people practising open adultery also came apart.

Judy Miller / Sex As the Holy Grail

Judy Miller, whom I met at a friend’s party in a sprawling suburban house in Connecticut, had had an experimental marriage that had just shut down tight. Six months ago, after twenty-five years of marriage, her husband had left her, leaving Judy and their two teen-aged children to occupy the rambling suburban house next door to my friend. He had moved to an apartment in the city and his departure was still a raw wound for Judy. She felt betrayed. She had, she said, “tried everything, everything with him. Years of therapy. Years of open sex. If open sex won’t keep a marriage together, what will?”

We were standing in my friend’s crowded living room and Judy was talking nervously. Later we withdrew to her house next door, to her tape recorder and a borrowed tape. “My husband meant everything to me,” she said. “And I can’t let go, even now, even when I look at the separation papers. I’ve thought about this a lot. I’ll tell you how to start my story. If I were writing my story, I’d start it with the day my husband finally, after a hundred stops and starts, was really on his way out of the house. He was in the bedroom, packing his shirts. And I was showering, trying to be as casual as I could be. And suddenly I came storming out of the shower, the towel wrapped around me, and, I don’t know what got into me, but I was screaming at him. ’Listen, Miller,’ I was screaming. ’You can’t go yet. You and I still have unfinished business. It’s not finished yet, you bastard. You still haven’t fucked me in the ass.’”

I wasn’t sure why Judy considered this statement so revealing, and I pointed this out to her. It seemed at best an ambiguous remark to me. That’s when she said, “No! Don’t you see? I wanted to try everything, everything with him. I’m a fighter. I wasn’t going to let my marriage come to an end unless we tried everything to keep it together.”

She had first met the man who was to be her husband just before her seventeenth and his twentieth birthday at a May Day parade, where, ardent members of the Young Communist League, they had marched side by side. “We carried signs. I don’t mean the personal ones, like the dungarees of the boys, the turtleneck sweaters and dirndl skirts on the girls. I mean the actual signs. ’Youth unite. The future is yours,’ and ’Books not Bombs.’ And we sang, ’We shall all be free. We shall all be free, someday.’ And that’s how we fell in love.”

They were both living at home that spring. He had dropped out of college for a term to take a job “in industry,” as the Movement had directed him to do. They used to make love in his mother’s living room after the grownups had gone to bed. “Women’s liberation?” Judy said. “I had it all in those days. After getting out of bed at three in the morning, he’d put me on a bus and I’d go home to our apartment in the Bronx. Past empty lots and desolate corners. Boys didn’t walk girls home in the Movement. We were all equal. But I know now that even then I wished for somebody, some guy who would be concerned about me, care about me enough to see I got home safely.”

After two months of intimacy Matthew had asked to marry her. “I would have died if he hadn’t, but I knew all along he was going to. The Movement was so puritanical. You couldn’t have any self-respect if you made love to a woman and didn’t marry her. She was your comrade.”

So they married. Matthew went back to college. Judy got a job doing political organizing. But before a year was up she knew the marriage was in trouble. “I could never tell what was on his mind, what he really wanted of me. I was intense, confiding. He was like a tomb. At work I had a sense of being emotionally close with people; at night I came home to his silence.”

Judy felt that Matthew had withdrawn from her. They rarely made love. After two months of marriage, they limited their sexual encounters to once a week.

One night, to provoke Matthew, she decided not to go to bed with him but to put her blankets on the living room couch. He said nothing. The next night was the same. In her mind, she went over the possibilities of leaving him. But on the third night, he said, “Come to bed, honey.”

“I don’t want to,” she had said. “I’m thinking of leaving you.” He had come and sat by her and very thoughtfully said, “You know, that’s what I thought I wanted. I thought I wanted to get you to that point. But now that you’re there, it’s not what I want. If I can’t make it with you, I can’t make it with anyone.”

After that Judy was hooked, she said. She explained that whenever he would drive her to some breaking point through silence—and sexual abstinence—he would woo her back by admitting how special he found her, or, actually, by expressing his conviction that if he didn’t have her, he’d have nothing but failures. Never mind that she was a failure for him. Neither of them wanted to look at this. So life went on. He finished college, went to graduate school, became a psychologist. She had babies; two of them. And after a long time in which their marriage came to her to seem settled if not stimulating, he told her that he was angry with her for having years ago squelched his sexuality.

She insisted that his view had to be insane; it was her, not his sex which had been padlocked. But he maintained that he had always found her too overwhelming in her intensity, too demanding. He wanted to leave her. It would be best for both of them. He wanted to leave so that each of them would have a chance at still spending some youthful years with more compatible mates. Life was running out.

Judy had balked. She proposed that what he was going through was simply some sort of predictable mid-life crisis. He was craving sexual experience. Why couldn’t they, old comrades, find sexual salvation together.

It sounded so reasonable. Matthew agreed to think about how to try. A short while later he tentatively proposed that she join him in a shared sexual experience with some friends of his, a couple of gray-haired psychotherapists somewhat older than the Millers who wore Indian necklaces and sandals and smoked pot and were into “living” and “experiencing life, no matter what the pain.”

With this banal couple Judy and Matthew tried to rejuvenate their sex life. Listening to Judy’s description was, for me, like twirling a kaleidoscope and seeing the pieces of a pattern suddenly split, swirl, and reassemble. With mechanical suddenness, this stolidly political couple now moved from almost total abstinence to group sex.

They went to the therapists’ house, listened to jazz, turned on with pot. Judy’s description of the first night was that, “Nothing happened for a long while, but then after a lot of giggling and jokes, the male therapist began caressing my arms. From across the room my husband and the therapist’s wife were watching. Matthew got up and came to where we were. He began unbuttoning my blouse. The therapist was unzipping my slacks. I was both inside myself and outside myself. I was very worried about it on one level, and saying, ’What kind of madness is this?’ and yet on another level I was saying, ’If it’s what Matthew wants of me, why not? I’m a gutsy lady. I’m brave and special and I’d do anything for him.’ The therapist and I made love on the straw-matted living room floor. “But then something terrible happened,” she said. “While we were fucking, Matthew went over to the therapist’s wife and lay down naked alongside her. But he couldn’t get it up. He was impotent. What a scene we had then, the four of us! Matthew crying. Me holding him. Lilliana and Newton talking about the pain and experience of it all. After a long, long time they went to bed and Matthew and I fell asleep on the straw rug. But before we did, he made love to me, and it was all very deep and intense and I figured it had been worthwhile.”

They continued to see this couple on a steady basis. The sex was always good for Judy, and Matthew got over his potency problem. Later they advanced their experimentation by finding different partners for one another. For her, he located an old friend who had recently divorced. For him, she too found a friend, her very best, a woman who was married and more attached to Judy than to Matthew.

For a while this arrangement did actually seem to improve their marriage. “Things were good,” Judy said. “The best it was for years. I’d go out to Queens to visit this friend of Matthew’s. Matthew would have my girlfriend over. When I got home he’d want to know all the details of what had happened to me: how long we’d fucked; how many times I came.”

Judy wanted to know if I thought that perhaps there was something homosexual in this. I said I didn’t think so, that the homosexual explanation always sounded very handy but was too universally applied. I had the feeling that Matthew must always have felt sexually inexperienced, consumed with curiosity about what was normal sex, what it was that other people did.

“Yes, I suppose so,” Judy said, “since he was having no trouble making it with my friend. That turned out terribly for me. She proved to be the kind of woman who could have three orgasms in ten minutes, and she wanted to see him more and more, and I was furious, jealous. Especially since I didn’t care that much for his friend. That relationship was exciting, but foggy. Matthew’s friend liked screwing me, but he was looking for someone to have a full relationship with. I was in the way. I was in the way whichever way I turned.”

Still, it was Matthew who had finally put an end to the experimentation. He told Judy he had gotten it all out of his system (“like it was a poison, a drink,” Judy said). He broke off with her friend. And several months later he confessed to Judy that he had been having a secret affair with a woman she didn’t know, a woman he had come to love, and that this time he truly meant to separate.

“He took an apartment in the city,” Judy said. “I was sure he’d want me back. After all, we’d done everything, everything together. I waited. We spoke to each other every day. He’d tell me it was driving him crazy being without me. I waited. He told me he couldn’t think straight. I waited. I expected any day he’d say, ’Come back,’ just like that night he’d asked me back to bed when we were kids. But he never did.”

Judy was very often close to crying as she talked. What finally did make her tears come down was when she tried to explain that during the period she had pursued group sex with her husband, she had assumed that if they could arrive at intensely joyous sex, their relationship would be saved. “Sex was a salvation, a holy grail,” she said. “I began to believe that if we could find it, find good sex, whether together or separately, it would keep us whole and together.” It was almost the demise of a religious belief she was talking about, as well as the death of a marriage.

Alexandra Newman / Handmaiden

I got a better grasp of why experimental marriage kept suggesting religion to me when I interviewed Alexandra Newman, a thirty-seven-year-old writer who was also now out of a marriage that had incorporated open adultery—group sex and partner sharing. Alexandra’s marriage had been with a painter, avant-garde in his sexual style if not in his canvases. It had ended several years ago and she had just this year remarried. The past was far behind her, but she could remember her feelings and experiences well. In relating them, she made me understand how it was possible for some people to view sex not only as a personal but a societal salvation.

“I just got married but I was married before for ten years and it was in my previous marriage that I had extramarital experiences. My husband and I had a very strange marriage and in many ways the only thing that really defined it as a marriage was our getting a divorce. I was married to a painter and we lived in London and were very much involved with the artists and writers of the late fifties who were living abroad. By the early sixties most of them had already gone back to wherever they came from but we stayed on.

“We had lived together for three years before we actually got married. We married mainly because my parents were absolutely out of their minds with grief that I was just living with him. That happened a lot to girls in those days. I wanted to get married to make my parents less alarmed. But Harold wanted to get married too. He was in analysis of some kind and in a way it meant he could ’graduate’ if he got married. It would be proof that he had made it socially, that he was able to relate to another person. So we got married. But the marriage itself was horrible, the most unhappy period of my life, because by the time it took place, there were all kinds of negative things happening between us.

“In the three years previous to our marriage we had lived as a married couple. We were very monogamous, very intertwined and interrelated. But my husband had a friend who was a very strange person and had a great influence on him. This friend, a picture frame maker, was against marriage and was really very misogynous. He was against any man’s having a monogamous relationship with a woman. I cannot say to what degree it was his friend’s influence or to what degree this influence just reflected Harold’s own feelings, but by the time we married, Harold had decided to try to alter our life. He was thinking of meeting other couples.

“I was very uptight about the group sex business. Remember, it was the early sixties. This stuff is so prosaic today, but then it was very daring. I was especially worried about it because our marriage was not sexually very good. It probably wasn’t good on most levels, but sexually it really wasn’t good. So I brooded a lot, thinking that if it were good, perhaps he wouldn’t have been so interested in making it with other couples.

“Harold had problems, for instance with getting an erection, and he was never fully hard. Now, in a good relationship this might not matter because it doesn’t have to be that important. In fact, I read an article recently that maintained that among Europeans impotence isn’t considered quite the bugaboo it is here. What I read said that women are much more cooperative. They work around the problem. But at any rate, in those days, it seemed—at least to Harold—a very serious problem.

“I was fairly untutored. I had slept with a few other men, but just a few times, so I didn’t really know much about anything. I didn’t know what to expect, and I really just figured that things were going to kind of iron themselves out. But I didn’t have sexual benefits, if you want to call them that—orgasms. And I didn’t have a nice comfortable marriage. I was a real loser. So I went along with Harold on the group sex idea. He thought it was going to help his sex problem. He said it would help mine. But mostly I went along because I was from the generation where women were brought up to be handmaidens. Living in England just made it worse. It was impossible for me, at that point in my life, to think of saying no to something Harold wanted.

“Mostly I hated the group sex. As far as anything arousing goes, for me it was not very stimulating. I was even afraid to peek over and watch the other people. I guess I really felt it was kind of impolite.

“I have to admit that one time I did feel some gratification. It was a time when Harold had managed to get together for sex some quite well-known Londoners. Harold knew everybody who was anybody in those days. There was something about him, an intensity and intellect, that attracted people to him so that they let him just take them over. I wasn’t the only person who let him do that. Anyway, on this particular occasion, there were some very important people present. We were smoking pot (who smoked pot in those days? just us; we were so special) and then we had not so much group sex as simultaneous sex. You have to realize that in the early sixties all of this seemed very radical and there was a kind of evangelism about it. I felt this small group of people wanted to change the manners of the world and that maybe if the world’s manners were changed, all sorts of other things could change and be improved too. We generalized. If you could change sexual manners and habits, who knows? Maybe there’d be no more wars, no more brutality to children.

“I think the gratification I felt had to do with this kind of thinking and the fact that one of the men present was an internationally known celebrity important enough to make changes in the world’s thinking, if not its actions. I felt very powerful. I felt like some sort of a goddess. If I took my clothes off, and then the rest of them did, we’d all of us be on our way to some sort of apocalyptic change.

“So I began. We were in a house owned by one of Hal’s friends, a big old house with enormous quiet rooms. The living room had nothing in it but a fireplace, a huge bed, and oriental masks on the walls. There was music coming over the hi-fi, but otherwise everything was still. No one was even talking. There were four couples, and I undressed and started playing with one of the men, and he undressed and we got down on the floor and started making love orally, and then the others paired off in other parts of the room, and we never switched partners but we all stopped from time to time to look at what the others were doing. And while this was going on I did, that one time, look around me and have an intense feeling of gratification. It was as if I was a medium and I was feeling in my body what everybody else was feeling in theirs.

“But later that night I experienced a terrible revulsion toward Harold. It began as soon as the others had gone home and Harold wanted to make love to me. We always did that afterwards. But this time, I couldn’t. I felt repelled by him. And I never quite got over it. I didn’t want him to touch me anymore. We lived together a while longer, but I started staying away from home a lot, and a few months after that night I moved out and took my own place.

“That wasn’t the end of my relationship with Harold. We were very intertwined, and at first I wasn’t sure if I wanted to break away from him altogether. But I knew I didn’t want sex with him or any of his friends. I’d meet Harold for drinks, but I was trying to start a life of my own. Finally, I got into a relationship with a man I’d met on my own, and he moved in with me, and I wanted to have him all to myself. I wanted someone who was just mine. But I never had known quite how to keep my distance from Harold, and I let him meet my lover, and then, before I knew it, he was trying to take over my lover. He wanted us all three to go on a trip together and share our nights together. And my lover got turned on by the idea and was willing. And I felt frightened at the thought and I finally realized that the only way I’d be able to have someone all of my own was to get as far away as possible from Harold, to leave England, to leave any part of the world he was in.

“I left and came back to the States and I went into analysis. My analyst suggested Hal had been homosexual, although just latently. He said it sounded as if his relationships were full of masochism and God knows what, and that he wanted to have me just so he could share me with male friends and please them by offering them his woman. I’m not sure about this explanation, but when the analyst said I had been masochistic, there I couldn’t fault him. I really am very conventional. But I was going along with a lot of stuff that really brought me pain because I was scared of losing Harold. Today, when I hear about these communes and group sex, I think, in a way, they’re lucky, these kids today. But in a way, maybe they’re not. They’re another generation but who knows what’s going on inside them?

“Last year I remarried and I’m very happily married this time. My husband knows about some of the things I did with Harold but not about all of them. I wouldn’t want him to know all of them. He’s a very conventionally monogamous person and I love that about him. I love how possessive of me he is. I’m the same way about him, and I want us to stay this way. I can’t say that it’s wrong to sleep with somebody else when you’re married or that it’s right. It’s just that the way I was doing it was not good for me.”

Lydia Marks / Who Can Be Trusted When It Comes to Sex?

With Lydia Marks, a modern dance teacher and performer, I found myself debating the unanswerable: what is best for women? Lydia had been married for fourteen years to her second husband, with whom she had had three children, and had separated from him a year ago, when she was thirty-seven. Few women I met were as appealing or exciting in their physical style as Lydia, a slim dark woman with long, straight brown hair, long graceful arms and legs, and what I came to think of as a long smile as well. Whenever she smiled, her face became so animated that even when she returned to deep serious thought, her eyes remained animated, sparkling, still smiling for long mysterious moments afterwards. Men must have found her as intriguing as I did, for she had, from what I could gather, no dearth of lovers in her current separated state. But despite popularity and self-confidence, Lydia fiercely regretted the end of her rebellious experimental marriage and her abortive attempts at pragmatism about sex.

“I had three affairs during my fourteen-year marriage,” she said, “and each one of them was ridiculous. I always started out casually, thinking ’What’s the harm in this?’ but then somehow I’d screw myself up. I can’t be trusted when it comes to sex. I’m apparently not yet ready to separate it from love. And I wonder who is. I wonder whether any woman is.

“Each time I had an affair I’d start to believe I was in love with the man, even though I always said it was sex, not love, I was after, or adventure, not love, I needed. You have to understand that marriage makes people grow together like fungus on a tree. Something happens because of this that kills the physical excitement. In the beginning I couldn’t wait to touch my husband. There were all the corny things. We were magnetized like in the movies. I remember we once ran toward each other from opposite ends of an airport. But after a while, we lost that. It seemed to me that it was only when a man was really separate and outside myself that I could look at him and feel excited. My husband and I had grown so close that sex was like being physically attracted to oneself. We agreed, as a result, that occasional affairs would be permissible for either of us, provided we kept them slight.”

Lydia wanted me to know that this had not been a unilateral decision. Both she and her husband were to have the same privileges. They had had the kind of marriage in which everything was discussed and shared—the children’s inoculations, Lydia’s work, her husband’s job, their political attitudes—the trivial and the broad. “So I had the first affair,” Lydia went on. “I was already interested in women’s liberation, and I had very strong attitudes about affairs. For one thing, I always felt it was very divisive for single women to have affairs with married men. They shouldn’t be taking men away from their sisters. So I also determined it would be wrong for me as a married woman to have an affair with a married man, and I chose only among the single or separated. And of course I thought I was choosing men I wouldn’t love. I had three children and I wanted above all to protect their lives.

“My first affair was with an old boyfriend. We had kept in touch over the years, having lunch from time to time. Finally we went to bed. And that’s when I began noticing how tricky this business of love and sex is. Here I was sleeping with a man I had previously rejected as a marriage partner, yet suddenly I found myself contemplating divorce and pursuing this old relationship again. I felt I was in love.

“It took enormous control for me to break it off but I did. I was able to do it only because I had now met someone else, someone I was absolutely convinced could give me what I wanted sexually but with whom I couldn’t possibly fall in love. He was a hippy guy, a real kook. Forty years old and still bearded and barefoot. He couldn’t afford to take me to dinner. Anyone could have seen he wasn’t for me. And of course even I saw it, until I was into the thing. Then it started all over again—the worrying and wondering and wanting to be with him all the time. I even considered getting him together with my kids. I was lucky that time because he broke it off.

“I decided no more affairs. Too risky. But about two years later I got into another one. This last guy was even less appropriate than the one before. He was a chilly establishment type, the kind of guy who owns no shirts but his white ones and who wouldn’t dream of having a conversation through the door while one of you was in the bathroom. But even so, overnight I was dreaming of shaking up my life and hooking up with him. I was wondering how the kids would take it while I knew inside myself he was no one I even wanted to take to a party. No one I even wanted to introduce to my friends. But sure enough, it all began all over again, and this time I even went so far as actually to separate from my husband. It was very painful. I was weeping all the time. My kids were weeping all the time. ’When are we going to see Daddy? Daddy doesn’t love us anymore or else we’d all be together,’ that kind of thing. I wanted to go right back home.

“But it was too late. My husband felt betrayed by me. His affairs had indeed been casual but mine had become inflated. He felt my love for him had become wobbly or else this wouldn’t have happened. We’re separated now, and in marital therapy, and I want to get back together but he’s growing very distant. He wants a divorce. And of course, I blame myself. I see now that all affairs—even affairs with the unmarried—are dangerous because they can so quickly get out of perspective. The first thing you know, someone—it doesn’t matter whether it’s a man or a woman—is ready to run off from their marriage.”

I felt when I left Lydia Marks that there was no question but that experimental marriages with open adultery carried within their soil the selfsame seeds of marital impermanence as did traditional marriages, either those that were monogamous or those with secret adultery. No marriage today is immune. Whether their marriage vows deny or permit extramarital sex, married people continue to fall in love with new partners or out of love with the old; usually, today, when either of these crises occurs, they then separate.

The fear of separation—not the loss of a mate’s exclusive sexuality—is, I believe, what underlies most people’s anxieties concerning extramarital sex. It is as insurance against our anxieties that we consent to ethical proscriptions limiting ourselves from extramarital sex. We do not fear sexual sharing itself, but fear it only because it can lead to the possible loss of a partner’s emotional bond.

In experimental marriages the practitioners assume that they can avoid such loss of bonds by defusing sex, long a primary way of forming and experiencing attachment. But they fail. Sex keeps its volatility, at least when attachment is at issue—and often the participants in a sexual affair cannot themselves recognize what is at issue until after the fact of attachment. Therefore, I cannot see experimental marriage as the wave of the future, as some sexual utopians have predicted. It might even be argued that it aids new bonding by making the process easier, or at least more convenient. If extramarital sex were always about sex, perhaps open adultery might become popular. All too often, however, extramarital sex is not about extra sex but about extra marriage, extra emotional intimacy, or the need for a new or different primary bond of attachment.