This is an adapted extract from an unpublished memoir, The Dangerous Bride.
The night before I married Noah in the oldest synagogue in Australia, I kissed a girl dressed in a nurse’s uniform. She was a willowy, pretty redhead with serpentine lips, her plastic uniform dangerously short. The kiss felt bubbly like champagne, but that may have been the aftertaste of the two glasses I’d gulped down earlier in the evening. We kissed among fake velvet couches and rusty mirrors in a fetish club in Melbourne. The DJ served us to the thump of Relax, don’t do it. Our teeth clashed and the girl quickly pointed out this was my fault. I apologised, embarrassed, and tightened my grip around her slender back, sinking my tongue once again into her liquid otherness.
Kissing her was more awkward than pleasurable, but it was the awkwardness that I sought that night, the discomfort. Comfort I already had in Noah’s arms. I was in lust with the foreignness of the girl. I flirted with her and also with myself, falling in lust with the woman I became when I kissed her – strange to myself, unknown to her. I stared at the girl’s elaborate chignon and her attractive round cleavage, pleased with myself. I had no idea what she wanted me to do next, and even less so what I wanted to.
I soon realised the girl wasn’t as interested as I was. I tried more kisses and even a conversation, discovering that behind her skin-tight uniform lay a corporate soul. She was an IT something – a manager or specialist or some other title indicating a combination of tedious labour and money. Not wanting to dispel further the mystery of her dress, which I craved to unbutton slowly, I fell silent again. The girl, still on my lap, let me slide my hand down her cleavage. Yet her gaze was pinned somewhere beyond me, aimed at our one-man-audience, her skull-shaved, gym-hardened husband.
The husband finally made the leap to join the stage. His minty breath in the hollow of my neck, his Calvin Klein in my nostrils, he looped his arms around us both and I sensed his wife turning corpse-stiff. I felt sad for the nurse, but also disappointed. The fun was over.
‘The impossibility of having only one man,’ Iris Murdoch, the British novelist and philosopher, complained in her journals. But she also needed the one man, her husband John Bayley, to be happy. Before they married, Murdoch told Bayley she could only commit to a non-monogamous relationship. He accepted her wish and their marriage – as Murdoch’s biographer, Peter J. Conradi, wrote – both anchored and liberated her, becoming her ‘base for operations’ from which to explore the outside world. Their union not only endured for more than 40 years, until Murdoch’s death in 1999, but by all accounts it was a happy marriage for both of them.
I also wanted to be anchored and liberated. Paradoxically, the happier I felt with Noah, the more I wished for some debauchery to enter my life. For most of my adult life I tried to live the romantic narrative of my generation – serial monogamy. Yet I mostly failed, and at times my partners, too, failed on matters of fidelity. Instead of once again compromising or cheating, this time, like Murdoch, I wanted to tailor the institution of marriage to us rather than to some abstract principles it stood for. It felt to me urgent to (albeit unsuccessfully) go wild on my last unmarried night, but not in the usual way. I hoped then not to mark the end of my erotic freedom with one last adventure, but set the precedent to how Noah and I would conduct some of our married nights.
But how to live non-monogamously and happily? I’d already tried doing that once, just before I met Noah, but my then-partner and I had different wishes. His vision was that of a comradely non-monogamy, where we would venture together into the wilderness of others; threesomes and swingers parties were his forte. In contrast, I’ve always been a romantic and yearned for subtler, intimate affairs. Besides, I was a loner – group activities, even book clubs, turned me off.
With Noah I thought we had a better chance. He, too, was a loner. And he was subtle. Perhaps even too subtle. Whenever I’d occasionally skirt around the topic, trying to outline the boundaries of our fidelity, Noah would say, ‘Do what you like, just don’t tell me.’ His own needs he refused to specify. But I wanted to know…
So could we do this ‘right’? Apart from Murdoch and Bayley, there weren’t many successful role models I knew to learn from. Publicly at least, distrust, even condemnation, seem to surround non-monogamy. The common wisdom goes thus: when couples open up their gates to let strangers in, something about them, or between them, must be very wrong – just as it appeared to have happened in the fetish club.
In her bestselling book, Mating in Captivity, which explores sexuality within relationships with uncommon honesty, therapist Esther Perel argues that non-monogamy remains one of the last sexual taboos in the new millennium. At a time when Sexpo exhibitions have become mainstream entertainment, Dolly magazine has taken to advising girls on how to perform fellatio while wearing braces, and labiaplasty is increasing in popularity, we still, according to Perel, consider monogamy to be the only realistic option while non-monogamy is seen as an indicator of ‘a lack of commitment or a fear of intimacy’.
While I agree with Perel that we tend to associate desire extended beyond our partner with immaturity and an inability to commit to duty, I think we also attach to it other, even more severe, moral flaws. Sheer egoism, for example. Or even a ‘monstrosity’, as American novelist Frederic Tuten suggested in an interview for New York Magazine, where he proposed that people can live non-monogamously but should never speak about it publicly for their own safety.
Ironically, Tuten’s interviewer, Philip Weiss, chose to ignore his subject’s advice, and in the same article – titled The Affairs of Men: The Trouble with Sex and Marriage – admitted his own desire for extra-marital sex, instantly fulfilling Tuten’s prediction. Once he acknowledged something many of us may at least occasionally feel, whether we are in happy, moderately happy, unhappy, sexless or sexually satisfying relationships – that itching for something additional – all hell broke loose. The readers responded with numerous electronic condemnations. While the kinder comments merely suggested Weiss grow up and his wife divorce him, others wished upon him a range of misfortunes to put the biblical plagues to shame.
Angelina Jolie didn’t fare any better. Fans delighted in her confessions about incorporating knife-cutting into her bedroom repertoire as much as they did in her humanitarian work in Africa. But they were less amused by her publicly stated interest in opening up her relationship with Brad Pitt. In the ensuing outrage, Jolie stood accused of driving Brad to alcoholism.
On a more modest scale, I had my own experience with this outrage, not long before my wedding, at my then workplace, a community-based, mental-health service. My manager liked to discuss with gusto the size of her breasts, while my chronically underdressed colleagues of every gender and sexual orientation sported pierced eyebrows and tattooed bum cracks. Still it was I, the unpierced and non-tattooed, the conventionally engaged one, who managed to upset our institution’s elastic moral status quo.
One night during after-work drinks, we got to that obligatory stage of discussing our sex lives. By then I was too drunk to think about my loyalty to Noah. Not wanting to fall behind the picaresque tales I’d heard, I mumbled something about the ‘agreement’ Noah and I had (though I neglected to mention how fuzzy that ‘agreement’ was). A sharp silence cut into our bubbly group. Everyone’s eyes, strangely sober, became focused on me.
‘What’s the point of getting married, then?’ asked one woman, seemingly insulted, who had just told a graphic story about partaking in an orgy. ‘If I ever get married, I know I’ll be very loyal.’
Curiously, my wig-donning Hasidic mother seems to be more compassionate on the question of non-monogamy than my former colleague. She belongs to the school of thought that views such behaviour not as a sign of immorality or immaturity but merely a result of the wrong romantic choice. To show me the right way, she used to tell me: when you have two men, leave both and look for a third. Her point was that once I found my true love, that magical third man, he’d fulfil, and hence eliminate, all my desires.
The body of scientific research into human sexuality is inconclusive about our preferences. Some scientists are on my mother’s side, claiming that monogamy is intrinsic to human nature; some even think it to be one of the key features distinguishing us from animals. Others argue that by nature we are all non-monogamous.
There are also those more cautious in their diagnosis. Deborah Blum, for example, in her book, Sex on the Brain, suggests we are ‘ambiguously monogamous’, gradually moving away from the polygamous habits of our ancestors. And the evolutionary psychologists gender our urges: apparently, men are doomed to non-monogamy by their instincts that tell them ‘mate, cast your sperm as widely as you can’, whereas women enjoy straying too but only under certain conditions, mostly to do with soliciting the best genes for their future offspring.
The variety of generalisations about human eroticism seems almost as abundant as the number of experts you consult. But I’ve always doubted any attempts to fit our behaviour into one mould. I prefer to view our desires on a continuum, as signs of human diversity. Particularly, that I believe non-monogamy is never about sex only, just as sex is almost never about sex only. True, newness of sexual partners is one of the most potent aphrodisiacs, and whilst I see nothing wrong with choosing non-monogamy for this reason, my own experience tells me this is not the whole story. Choices of non-monogamy can indicate such personal qualities as a penchant for risk taking, originality of thought, curiosity, a boundless joie de vivre. I believe a parallel between people’s personalities and life patterns, and the nature of their desires, exists.
John Bayley writes in his memoir, Iris, that Murdoch’s insistence on sexual freedom was a part of her lifelong rejection of whatever could curtail her autonomy. This wasn’t a purely political standpoint, but a need rooted in Murdoch’s character. ‘Hers was in some sense a personality without frontiers,’ Conradi similarly wrote. Murdoch’s thinking, actions and emotional life were always guided by her boundless curiosity and energy. In her lifetime she wrote 25 novels and many philosophical works, and mastered several languages, including Russian. It was in that spirit of multitudes, I believe, that she noted in her journal of the ‘impossibility of having only one man’.
Anaïs Nin, another non-monogamist, was destined for the difficulties and pleasures of parallel existences starting with her conception. She was a French-Cuban with Danish heritage mixed in. Nin spoke Spanish, French and English. During her childhood and adolescence her family moved throughout America and Europe, and as an adult Nin also wandered around the globe. She tested the limits of a singular life in other ways too, switching between the writing genres of criticism, fiction and journaling, and dabbling in publishing and psychoanalysis. So it comes as no surprise that Nin usually had several concurrent lovers. In her forties, she went as far as becoming a bigamist, running two households for years. In her journal Nin once wrote: ‘I have seen in each man [myself as] a different woman – and a different life.’
With my own patchwork biography, I feel kinship to the expansiveness of Murdoch and Nin. The life I dragged behind me all the way to Australia, when I migrated here, was a version of the Wandering Jew narrative. I was born in Siberia, raised in Ukraine and I came of age in Israel. In the course of my life, I’ve tried many different dress styles, hair colours and university degrees. Several times have I changed my name. Greedy for every kind of life I could have, I tried my hand at being a matchmaker, a columnist for a Tel Aviv magazine, a caseworker with Jaffa’s Arabs. I organised nightclub parties for a living and wrote three fiction books. I even made shoes in my first Australian job. In short, I find it difficult to answer in a straightforward manner even the simplest of questions about myself. The ribbon, which barely holds my life together, is my passion for newcoming.
What some people fear, I crave. I love peeping into windows, stepping into new doorways, arriving – in foreign cities, landscapes, university faculties. I love shaking hands with strangers, being initiated into routines and politics that belong to someone else. The pleasures of beginnings – the risk-taking they entail, that sense of lurking possibilities – make me feel deeply alive. It is as a newcomer that I feel whole, free, utterly alive, and this was what I sought in non-monogamy too, alongside the erotic titillation. To paraphrase Rilke, I was greedy for the life yet unlived.
What also stands out to me in the debates about non-monogamy – besides their repeated attempts to come up with a blanket theory – is that the consensus remains that a sexually and romantically exclusive relationship is the only practical (and moral) option. If you want a lasting love, you must either find ‘the third one’, or tame your ‘instincts’. Today we expect faithfulness from our spouses even more than ever. In Australia, according to the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, our opposition to extramarital affairs has grown from 80 per cent in 1993 to 90 per cent in 2009.
Yet frequently our relationships do not live up to expectations. Although statistics on adultery tend to be unreliable, they are consistently high and keep getting higher. The bulk of international studies settle at about 45 per cent, while some researchers estimate 60 to 70 per cent of marriages are affected. Then, of course, there are the statistically unaccounted for who keep (at least for now) their loins exclusive for their partners but consume internet pornography, or flirt vigorously in cyberspace (the historian Pamela Haag calls these ‘Avatar affairs’). Since infidelity is prevalent, it seems that our current attitudes rule out not other lovers but negotiation between spouses. Possibly, people cheat now more than ever while trying and/or pretending to be monogamous.
And what about our right for happiness? In her memoir, Affection, Krissy Kneen describes her monogamous life as ‘the slow torture of my abstinence’ and herself as ‘squirming with the fleeting possibility of other entanglements, struggling to contain the force of my love for one friend after another’. Judging from the intensity and persistence of Kneen’s fantasies described in the book, she is not built for monogamy. Yet, as she details in the book, she’s been monogamous for many years for the sake of her husband, and also because she fancies herself as unattractive to potential lovers: ‘If I were single now, there would be no men plucked from my furtive fantasies…’ Has Kneen resorted to monogamy not out of some natural inclination or character strength, but like many of us – partly, at least – out of fear?
Perhaps the current vehement opposition to non-monogamy as a legitimate relationship choice occurs precisely because it is increasingly harder to remain faithful. Historically, people craved diversity in their love lives even when individual happiness was not yet accepted as our birthright, and when the average marriage span could be as short as 10 to 15 years.
Nowadays we could spend 50 years or more with our partners. Within such a timespan, the temptation to stray must be stronger. Besides, contemporary communications technology makes it easier to conduct affairs. In this context, I wonder whether even the current pornification of society is just another attempt to hold onto monogamy. To reignite diminished desire, we offer couples Viagra, Tantra workshops and user-friendly S&M kits, encouraging them to re-enact any fantasies they harbour as long as these remain within the twosome.
This laborious sex fits in well with another idea that can be found amongst many therapists and laypeople: non-monogamous behaviour is symptomatic of laziness, or misplaced efforts. In his influential advice book Passionate Marriage, American psychologist David Schnarch expresses this attitude. ‘Monogamy per se,’ he sweepingly asserts, ‘is not the problem.’ The problem, according to Schnarch, is that people need to work harder on themselves to become better lovers and generally better human beings. Then everything in their lives will be monogamous and fine. In short, an interest in others supposedly always comes at the expense of the hard labour our relationships require.
This might often be the case. And I also believe passion for your beloved can last as long as you work on it (although, of course, no great sexual passion can replicate itself precisely over decades). But does non-monogamy have to always be on account of your spouse? Bayley admits he was occasionally jealous of Murdoch’s affairs. But, he writes, she soothed his feelings ‘by being the self she always was with me, which I knew to be wholly and entirely different from any way she was with other people’.
That night in the fetish club, I hadn’t come there to look for anything instead of Noah. I wanted an addition. Our love, like many other requited loves, was a great and complex project. I didn’t think then that us and the kissing of a stranger interfered with each other.
‘Oh well,’ Noah had sighed the day after our wedding, when I finally recounted my hens’ party to him, knowing that the incident with the nurse wasn’t in the category of ‘not telling’, since she wasn’t a man, and a kiss wasn’t intercourse. ‘Did you really have to kiss her?’ The sigh felt like an artifice – lip service to yesterday’s intense celebration of normality with the rabbi and the wedding cake – rather than genuine disappointment.
The day had been marvellous. From our apartment we could smell the salt of the ocean, hear the Tasmanian ferry’s departing toots. Through the windows we saw the city buildings wrapped in the sun’s pink glow, like gifts. We had a great time rummaging through the comforting symbols of domesticity you receive on the occasion of your official union: embroidered towels, frying pans, vases. We argued happily and kissed and answered the numerous congratulatory phone calls, putting the callers on loudspeaker, as couples do. Wrapped tightly, cosily, in the sunshine and in Noah, as if in a cocoon, that afternoon I thought how it was probably not always going to be this easy, particularly when my turn came to have my jealousy tested.
But I still wanted to try.
Seven years later and divorced from Noah, I am sorry to report I still haven’t found what I wanted in non-monogamy. If my attempt before Noah didn’t satisfy me because of its crassness, then with Noah it was the subtlety that killed our best intentions. That condition of Noah’s, not to tell, made our extramarital ventures feel sneaky, more like ordinary cheating.
In retrospect I know that those two non-monogamous relationships were doomed anyhow – for reasons of incompatibility – rather than ruined by our (occasional) affairs. If anything, it was the lure of sexual freedom those two men offered me, each in his own way, that prolonged my stay with them.