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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon

Happy Valentine’s Day and… is monogamy dead?

Extract | 18 minute read
Gay couples have long been pioneers of alternative relationship models, argues Rosie Wilby in this extract from her new book. But what are these, and do they live up to good, old-fashioned monogamy?

Prologue: The Monster

Nobody warned me.

‘A bright young lady like you? The world’s your oyster. You could be a doctor. Go to Cambridge like your mother. You’ll be absolutely fine,’ said Mr Wallington, our head of year. A sentiment echoed by pretty much every responsible adult I knew. I was a white, middle-class, British girl with two academic parents, an only child with no siblings vying for attention. Life would be cool. I got complacent and a little smug, occasionally flunking an exam on purpose because I knew I could get an A next time.

And yet, as adulthood dawned, a darkness crept up through the cracks of the paving stones of the life they had all mapped out for me.

The problem wasn’t being gay. Everyone was fine about that. Mum had even once tried to tell me something about her and her friend Joan on holiday. Fresh from an aerobic session in front of her ‘Mad Lizzie’ video, she emerged from the house sporting a green leotard and pink legwarmers to say, ‘I wouldn’t mind if I had a daughter who was a lesbian.’ Then came the masked revelation about her ‘close’ female friendships. Having totally disrupted my sun-kissed, adolescent reverie about a girl from the year below in school, she rushed back indoors to find a book of lesbian poetry so that she could recite it later over the tea table… to the silent horror of Dad and me.

No, being gay wasn’t the problem. The monster yapping and snarling at the heels of my happiness was called monogamy. Nobody warned me… about monogamy. Nobody told me that by the time I was forty, I would have had four serious relationships – great. Oh, and four gut-wrenching, serious breakups – not so great. Each would smash me into a million pieces, the hammer wielded by a completely unexpected, exquisitely awful dance of mutual sacrifice; a compromise of my freedoms, desires and, ultimately, my identity and my soul.

Each time, either I or my beloved would cave in and screw up the dance and betray all the lifelong promises we’d made. Each time, I’d put myself back together again and start all over again, trust all over again, hope all over again. I was exhausted. But nobody gave me a round of applause for this resilience. No wonder I sought out a career where I would habitually get two rounds of applause every night, maybe more if I’d done super well. Maybe I could make jokes about monogamy, about the heartbreak. I could pretend everything was fine, just like all those responsible adults had said.

‘HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA, yes of course I’m fine… Here I am being super confident, sharp, witty and sexy in front of a hundred strangers.’

I’m really thinking, ‘None of these people know me. I will go home alone on the last train with all the drunks and freaks, the one a comedian friend refers to as the vomit comet.’

Most normal people file away any thoughts of doing stand-up.

‘You’re so brave. I couldn’t do it,’ they gasp.

‘Well, it’s not like being a firefighter,’ I say.

Yet it takes a whopping personal tragedy to propel you to undertake this extreme form of very public therapy. Many of the UK’s most famous comics started after a divorce (Sarah Millican, John Bishop), the loss of a parent (Michael McIntyre) or a similar seismic event.

If my life was now the sinking Titanic, comedy was my lifeboat and monogamy was my iceberg. I was using one to try and save myself from the damage, the carnage inflicted by the other. I was going to fight the monster that threatened me by understanding and taming it… and having a jolly good laugh at it.

Disclaiming the Disclaimer

At this point in pretty much every book about relationships, there’s a disclaimer. They all say the same thing. At the bottom of page eight of Aziz Ansari’s fun and interesting Modern Romance, he says ‘this book is primarily about heterosexual relationships’ and goes on to explain that if he tried to address LGBT relationships, he would need to write an entirely separate book. To use his casual language, ‘Well, write another book, dude!’ I don’t mean to single him out specifically. His is just the latest in about fifty similar disclaimers that I’ve read.

It seems a pretty paradoxical poor-do for governments around the world to start allowing same-sex couples to marry but not be open to embracing, discussing and fully understanding the uniqueness of those partnerships. Thus far, the equality debate has been based upon a short-sighted and unsophisticated presumption of sameness. Yet being gay in a heteronormative world is akin to being left-handed in a world designed for right-handed people. And I should know. I am left-handed (apparently an unusually high proportion of gay women are). Tin openers, toilet flushes, doors, buildings, computers… everything is designed the wrong way round. Yet because I’m in a minority, I’m expected to adapt and accept my lower level of comfort.

In the same way, everything about love and sex in our world is viewed through a prism of assumed heterosexuality. From relationship self-help and psychology books to romantic films, TV documentaries about love and marriage guidance and therapy services, we are expected to flip genders around in our heads.

I have lived proudly as an openly gay woman for most of my adult life. Yet this mind-blowing four-year journey into the dark heart of monogamy has made even that label, once attached firmly with superglue, look decidedly shaky. I probably am occasionally attracted to men – Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp and Mark Ruffalo would top the list. To be honest, I’d be hard-pushed to choose between them and my top women – Kate Winslet, Julianne Moore and Kristin Scott Thomas. Mind you, the mathematical probability of these six Hollywood stars making a simultaneous beeline for a modestly successful jobbing English comedian is probably lower than winning the lottery a hundred times over. So maybe I shouldn’t sweat over it.

I’ve had to accept that while my romantic drive is massively biased towards the feminine, my sexuality is much more ambiguous and hard to pin down. I pinned it down for two decades because I enjoyed being part of a smaller community and an energised countercultural political campaign. I found a sense of family and belonging. What I didn’t consider is how much harder it would be to access sex.

To get sex with a man, you only need to walk out of the house and smile at one. To get sex with a woman, you have to jump through a series of metaphorical hoops – that is if those hoops are on fire and wrapped in barbed wire. More and more lethal hoops are added the further you get into a monogamous relationship.

Recently, I conducted a not-very-scientific experiment on the tube. I tried engaging in eye contact and conversation with random men. On average, it took them two tube stops (approximately four minutes) to offer their phone number and ask me out on a date that same evening. I felt positively magnetic, even though not one of my suitors was quite A-list material. I daren’t repeat the experiment with women due to the variety of angry and defensive responses my advances have triggered over the years. The most extreme of these was being barred from the entirety of north London by one casual lover. Reader, I have definitely broken the ban. Occasionally, I switch my Tinder feed over to men just to marvel at the vast array of sexual choices I would have if I were straight. It’s impossible even to reach the ‘there’s nobody new around you’ message.

While researching this book, I’ve had to put every life decision I’ve ever made under intense scrutiny and face the terrifying, confusing possibility that I might not be as gay as I thought I was when I first came out. And, because I’ve realised first-hand what a slippery concept sexuality is, I’ve decided to write a book for everyone. Rather than forcing us into separate neat, tidy boxes, let’s explore what we can learn from one another.

Gay couples have long been pioneers of relationship models that have gone on to catch on more widely, yet are rarely acknowledged for it. We were ‘living apart together’ long before ‘LAT couple’ became a media buzz-phrase. Lesbians were retaining close familial ties with ex-partners and effectively ‘consciously uncoupling’ long before Gwyneth Paltrow broke the internet. In his 1992 book The Transformation of Intimacy, British sociologist Anthony Giddens described us gays as ‘prime everyday experimenters’.

Same-sex relationships also provide a fascinating test case scenario, allowing us a peek into instinctive male and female behaviours. Can they indicate how heterosexual men and women would act if they were not influenced by the opposite biological sex? I think so. We are the ones who hold all the secrets about what men and women really want. Ignore us (and kill us off in TV dramas) at your peril.

Meanwhile, many of my peers are questioning, and sometimes abandoning, gender-binary labels altogether. Maybe my worries about where I sit on the sexuality spectrum don’t matter so much if we’re all just people.

Over the last four years, I have talked to academics, friends and scientists and heard stories from people who’ve already radically rethought and re-invented their own relationships. I’ve collected and devised new words and phrases that better define the infinite variety of loving connections that we experience. Prepare to enter the world of love-affair friendships, cuddle buddies, metamours, platonic partners, logical family, post-romance, breakup energy, platonic snogging, romantic footprints, date substitutes, decompression years and a conscious uncoupling or two along the way.

Whatever your personal preferences and peccadilloes, we’re all in this together. Love can be hard work, alongside all the amazing bits. So let’s hold each other’s hands and work out how to go about relationships in this scary, busy, digital twenty-first century.

This is a call to arms. Love army, are you ready?

Photo by Element5 Digital

Chapter 1: The Infidelity Olympics

I strolled up the lower end of Camden High Street from Mornington Crescent in the golden evening glow of early August. The Camden Head was a bog-standard room-above- a-pub comedy venue that you happened upon just before the bustle of the market and the dodgy street traders who were ostensibly selling jeans or shoes but whispered, ‘Want any pot? Marijuana?’ The stage faced out onto a strange L-shape meaning that the two halves of the audience couldn’t see one another and really connect. You could find yourself in the bizarre position of having a great gig if you looked to your left and a terrible one if you turned to the sourpusses on your right.

Still, I had no need to worry about that tonight. Five people had showed up for me. Six, if you counted my partner Jen, who I’d roped into doing my music cues. Seven, if you counted the man who poked his head in and asked the way to the toilet. It turned out that people were more interested in the cacophony blaring out from a TV in the downstairs bar as Michael Phelps made a bid for yet another Olympic gold in the 100m freestyle. A lesbian comedian telling a story about growing up in Ormskirk didn’t seem to match up well. Ormskirk, I always tell people, is a northern market town not far from Liverpool… and a bit like Liverpool… if you take away everything.

Of the five people, one was a reviewer from Londonist (oh gawd), two were relatives of the promoter, and the others were Anna and Lou. Anna was a fairly new friend, one I was trying to solidify a genuine connection with. Friendships were just as important to me as romantic relationships, perhaps more so, and I was choosy about who I let in. So far, Anna was doing a sterling job of passing through my frosty defences.

I had expected her to appear with her partner Susan in tow. We’d had dinner a few times as a foursome and done all the usual lesbian bonding things like sharing cat stories over herbal tea. They appeared to me to have it all – mutual respect, a shared life, a beautiful home that they owned and had done up together, cool-sounding families and seemingly endless networks of friends. I was curiously dazzled by their comforting ‘normality’ and aspired to be like them. Together for eight years, they were longest-established lesbian couple I’d ever come into close proximity with.

They represented what Jen and I could settle into in a few years’ time. This was what we could become when those nagging ‘is this the right person for me?’ doubts subsided, when we had grown together enough for everything to be alright. They were a barometer of my own future.

Yet instead, Anna had brought another friend we’d met a few times, Lou. As we smiled and greeted, I hid my slight disappointment that she wasn’t with Susan, who Jen and I really liked. To be honest, though, I was just grateful to have an audience.

My stand-up career was going through something of a bumpy transitional phase. After a really good few years, I’d been propelled by a catastrophic breakup to explore more emotional, vulnerable terrain in my longer solo shows. Audiences were probably wondering just where my jokes of old had got to. As was I.

Yet comedy in London was now so competitive and saturated with hungry new acts that you couldn’t ever rest on your laurels and feel good about past achievements while you experimented with change. There were too many others chasing alongside and behind you. Like Alice in her looking-glass world, you constantly had to run just to stand still.

Still, the performance had a certain magical warmth that only very intimate shows have. I felt like I was heading back in the right direction. The reviewer smiled as she exited, which was something. ‘Well done, that was fun,’ beamed Anna, coming up to me with a hug after my modest applause.

‘Um, yeah, thanks for being good sports,’ I said gesturing a sort of apology for the scant crowd.

‘Can we buy you guys a beer downstairs?’

‘Oh, yes please! See you there in a minute when we’ve packed up.’

As Jen and I settled at the table with them, an unwanted voice popped into my head.

‘They are having an affair.’

It wasn’t that Anna and Lou were kissing or touching or really doing anything. But in an instant, it was just so obvious. Perhaps it was the way that they avoided touching. Like the sniffer dogs that the police used outside Camden Town tube just up the road, my specialised senses were heightened. I was on to something. I had spent years observing people, particularly couples, and eavesdropping on conversations for possible comedic inspiration. I now saw things I hadn’t always seen. That meant seeing things I didn’t want to, as well as the things I did, and sometimes wondering if I had it all wrong.

After making an arrangement with Anna to return her Dexter DVDs, I zoned out of the inane chatter and the Olympic babble still leaking from the TV. I considered the options. Someone around the table was having an undeclared relationship. All I knew for sure was that it wasn’t me. I wondered if Anna was actually having an affair with Jen and double-bluffing simply to make it appear that she was concealing an affair with Lou. That was way too complicated – but maybe I could faux-accuse her of that at some point as a way of prompting her to reveal the truth. The instinctive conclusion was often the right one, the one I arrived at before I started over-thinking. ‘Paralysis by analysis’, as they say.

The voice in my head was really annoyed with Anna, my supposed ‘friend’, now.

‘Why didn’t you bring your girlfriend? Why expose me to this other secret that I don’t want to know? Do you think I’m too stupid to notice? Or am I just so irrelevant that you don’t care about putting me in an awkward position?’

Then the biggest question of all…

‘Why can’t you play by the rules? Because if you don’t, then how can anyone else?’

Like doping in sport, if one person gave themselves an unfair advantage then everyone else would have to do it too. The rest of us would look like fools, playing and trying at love and happiness within fixed parameters which the cheats didn’t think applied to them. How could we ever get back to a level playing field?

I didn’t understand. That’s the one thing I can’t handle. Not understanding. I need to find rational explanations for things. I will devote years to searching for answers. That’s my ‘thing’. We all have our ‘thing’, our quirk that makes us unbearable to be around. People who love us learn to live with it. Jen often sang the Confused.com jingle at me, pretending to be the woman with the crazy hair, when I was in this state.

Dad, a higher education lecturer, once spent days scribbling in a notepad to devise his own mathematical formula for solving the Rubik’s cube. Mum and I were probably not quite interested or congratulatory enough when he finally did it. But that was a part of his ‘thing’, his obsession.

I wished that there could be some kind of scientific solution for the problem of love, sex and fidelity. But human behaviour can rarely be explained by logic or reason. So it is often way too much to ask for. Yet I appreciated the people who would at least try. I felt that Anna owed us an explanation for making us uncomfortable. It would never come.

I didn’t really know these people well. It shouldn’t have affected me. I was a resilient person. I had survived Mum dying while I was still in my twenties, breakups, career catastrophes, best friends being seriously ill and my alcoholic first girlfriend inadvertently burning our house down. The normal stuff like that. None of those painful events had floored me for long. They had all changed me, made me stronger in some instances.

Yet this… this discovery of deceit between human beings I liked and respected was the trigger, the calamitous incident, that torpedoed me into an alien stratosphere of existential despair. Two people who probably wished me no direct harm had utterly destroyed my faith in loving relationships.

Even though my own past romances had occasionally been troubled by unwanted extraneous desires, there had always been a total veto on acting upon them and just about enough communication to move forward healthily and recover. I had never before encountered this impenetrable wall of silence and denial. And now I knew it was there, I couldn’t un-know it.

From age nineteen onwards, I’d sought out emotional shelter by surrounding myself with cool, right-on feminists. A largely lesbian university collective a year or two older than me had provided most of the codes by which I lived. While they weren’t conventional, conservative, patriarchal ‘rules’, they provided a solid foundation of compassion, ethics and treating other people, particularly fellow women, well.

I idolised those women and cocooned myself in their values. Being gay and a feminist had represented a safe space for me. Until now. The fact that infidelity existed in this community threatened every decision I’d ever made about who I was.

I know, I know. Who am I trying to kid with my hippy-dippy naivety? Of course infidelity existed. But, as far as my adolescent experiences of utterly monogamous parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles had informed me, it only happened in TV dramas. And even then the unfaithful one was always a male character played by Trevor Eve. As a student on a film and TV placement, I was once an extra in a scene in The Politician’s Wife. In it, Trev was cheating on his long-suffering spouse, played by Juliet Stevenson. I had a mega-crush on Juliet Stevenson and almost went to pieces when I had to hand her a cup of tea on set. My feelings of adoration quadrupled my sense of protectiveness towards her character in the drama. I absorbed the message of the script wholeheartedly, forgetting that it wasn’t real life. Men were rats. Women were stoically beautiful and honest. So long as that dishonest Trevor Eve didn’t show up in my romantic life (unlikely), all would be fine.

I didn’t feel that I could breathe in a world without honesty. Honesty was everything. It was a deep-rooted psychological security blanket, a familiar comfort that dated back to childhood.

Mum had always been searingly direct with me about how annoying she found Dad. ‘It’s the way he’s always clearing his throat,’ and she’d do a little impression of it. I’d totally get where she was coming from. It was pretty annoying. But this transparency was reassuring. Her frustration was borne of the knowledge that she loved him and would stay with him and would always have to put up with that weird little persistent half-cough. Thus my own life remained stable.

We only saw Anna and Lou a handful more times. Once, Susan was with them at my solo show, The Science Of Sex. I couldn’t bear passively watching as a living, breathing, real relationship was incrementally destroyed in front of me. It was like witnessing a prolonged murder, this extreme case of mate-poaching rendered all the more remarkable by the quietly relentless way it was carried out. Why was nobody intervening? Why didn’t Susan do something?

During the show I would always call a member of the audience onstage to draw a graph of their relationship happiness over time, which I would then give some ridiculous annotations. Instinctively, I chose Susan. If I could reinforce the primary relationship, maybe I could undermine the affair. Heartbreakingly, her graph depicted a joyously amazing eight-year connection, the happiness level extending up and up off the scale and into infinity.

A matter of weeks later, Anna had left Susan and moved in with Lou. Because there was never any acknowledgement of what had happened, there was never any sense of things being put right. It wasn’t one of those affairs where the person eventually sees sense, grovels for forgiveness, goes back to their original partner and everything can go back to normal.

‘As we were everyone! Phewee what a relief! The order of things is restored. Hurrah!’

Instead, the order of things had been right royally fucked up. Friendships torn apart, houses, possessions and pets divided. This felt more sinister, more of a betrayal of all the values I believed in. This was someone sizing up and trying out their next partner while they were still in an existing relationship. It was a kind of non-consensual non-monogamy. I wondered how many other self-proclaimed ‘serial monogamists’ actually adopted this rather more duplicitous model.

It sent a dangerous message. If nobody settles down and commits any more, if we pursue individual happiness at the cost of other people’s feelings, if we leave so carelessly, then how can we build and maintain a stable sense of community? If this was the way the world was now, then nowhere was safe after all, nothing was sacred and nobody, least of all people who bandied the word ‘love’ around, could be trusted. This was bullshit. There had to be a better way.

It wasn’t that I wanted everyone to be puritanical, sexless martyrs. I could totally see the problem with fidelity. I’d made the deal with the devil and been forced to settle for largely platonic, companionate contentment with Jen. I knew that couldn’t last. I knew it wasn’t a long-term solution. The problem with not having sex in the modern world is that you are constantly reminded that you are supposed to be having it. So what are human beings with desires and dreams meant to do? I wanted to find out.

This was the positive side-effect of the traumatic fallout of Anna and Lou’s affair. They had unintentionally provided me with a quest. That can be a very energising thing, perhaps enough to reinvigorate a flagging comedy career.

This is an extract from Rosie Wilby’s new book, Is Monogamy Dead (Accent Press) 

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