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An Open Marriage

Diana HelmuthDiana Helmuth
Diana Helmuth
7 min read
Published in Late Start 


    This week, my heart has been heavy with the passing of a friend. He was killed in a motorcycle accident, leaving behind a beautiful home, a 2 year old daughter, many devoted friends, and his partner of 16 years, Beth.

    Now, I know you’re thinking you might want to click off now, because this smacks of a potentially depressing post. Maybe one too personal to write about publicly, even. But the reason I want to talk about Sam and Beth is because they shared — what seemed to me — the strongest marriage on Earth. Aren’t most of us seeking that special recipe that leads to our very own “happy marriage cocktail?” By all appearances, Sam and Beth could have taught a course on this particular brand of mixology, if they’d wanted to.

    But it wouldn’t have been like them to tell other people how to live, much less put themselves out in some way that might seem, well… gloaty. So, because I held such admiration for this couple and because I write for a matchmaking blog where most of our readers are looking for that particular formula themselves, I’m going to stand up and do it for them. And I promise it won’t be depressing.

    This article is about a happy marriage. And the recovery from it.

    First of all, Sam and Beth were not perfect people. They were as flawed as you and I and everyone we know.

    Lesson 1: There are no perfect people. So you needn’t be a perfect person to have a happy, successful union.

    Both Sam and Beth were survivors of diseases, cross-country moves, difficult family members, career shifts, depression and money concerns. They came toward each other from the distant lands of two separate religions. They were also in an open marriage.

    Now, don’t think I’m oblivious to the fact that some of you may be dusting off your opinion cards on this one.  I’m fully aware there are many people who could never be happy in a polyamorous lifestyle or an open marriage. And as someone currently in a monogamous relationship, I’m not here to advocate that the key to happiness is giving our partners permission to sleep with other people (and, I might add that when I first met Sam and Beth 8 years ago, I thought they were totally insane). But in San Francisco, folks all around me were testing and breaking “the rules” of what it meant to be a Woman or a Man; a Girlfriend, a Husband, a Married Couple, etc, and writing new rules of their own. In a city characteristically peopled with adventurous types in perfectly happy, rainbow colored or goddess-flavored identity crises, they really weren’t so weird in the whole scheme of things.

    Lesson 2: Your happy, successful union doesn’t need to be just like everyone (or anyone) else’s.

    Beth and Sam were nice, and they were stable. I mean really, really stable. You couldn’t shake them from each other. There was no pretense, no proving, they just moved through the same space with a respect for the other that was both subtle yet palpable (and obnoxiously enviable). I was in awe of their togetherness. They never fought in public, never put each other down, and never questioned each other that I saw. Even over having sex with someone else.

    Beth needed Sam’s permission to have another lover, and vice versa. However it worked – for whatever the reason – their alternate lovers did not drive Sam and Beth apart, but seemed to drive – or at least be part of what kept – them together. My theory was that Sam and Beth were the perfect example of “if you love something, let it go.” They were both the holders of the jar, and the butterfly flying out; the power-holder, and the one being set free. And they both kept coming back again, and again. I’ll be honest, I didn’t understand them. I probably never fully will. But you couldn’t deny how happy they were.

    Lesson 3 (and I’m still working this one out): Could true, mutual respect — vs. a sense of ownership — wherein each partner is equally free to choose or not choose the other at any time, create a sense of freedom and gratitude that fosters happiness in a relationship?

    What I’m trying to say here, is that the reason Beth and Sam were special wasn’t because of their open marriage. Their open marriage was, rather, the manifestation of an agreement between the two of them based on mutual respect (not the contrary as most people assume) and its success was predicated on their spectacular ability to communicate candidly about absolutely everything. Each remained perpetually open to whatever emerged from their snarky San Franciscan skulls. Respect. Freedom. A deep interest in each other’s individual perspectives and experiences. This was the particular cocktail that worked for Beth and Sam.  It was a pleasure and an inspiration to witness them together.

    Lesson 4: Unconditional, radical acceptance of each other — regardless of what anyone else thinks — may create deeper intimacy than socially-constructed commitments.

    We live in a culture increasingly focused on finding a “good” partner who is “worthy” of us and can provide the relationship we “deserve.”  But this type of unconditional acceptance among partners seems destined for the endangered species list. Because, and this is the truth we all live every day, even if you are the “Perfect Partner” to your lover, it won’t save you from being alone.

    Fear of abandonment lives in a dark and primal place inside most of us. It doesn’t care if our abandoner chose to leave us, or had no choice. Each day, Sam and Beth lived in that reality, embraced it instead of shrinking from it–and still… Beth is now alone. Abandoned. In the last way she probably ever thought possible.  For all of the radical and unconditional acceptance she gave and received, beyond choice or control, her fate is to continue her life without Sam. Like anyone who has experienced abandonment, she will have to contend with this for the rest of her life.

    I should mention, Beth would be the first to tell you she is not alone. First of all, she’s pretty woo-woo, and if ghosts are real, Sam is probably haunting her pleasantly over the bathroom sink as I write this.

    But she is contending, every second, with the reality that Sam is no longer with her in life. Her grief is palpable. She cannot sleep alone at night and she cries in waves, steady-eyed, as if trapped in her own raincloud that will not move on. But she is trying. She plans trips to the gym, has friends over and is busily arranging her next career move. She plays with her daughter, and preserves Sam’s memory for her in videos, pictures, and toys. She is not walking quietly into the night of depression, fearful of any love going forward, or burying her soul in a shroud of repressed pain, but I know she will never be the same. That is the legacy and the curse of a great relationship–whatever its dynamics.

    But here’s the thing about Beth and Sam’s particular approach to partnership: it’s as if they were more “in reality” than those of us blanketing ourselves against the coming storm with the rules of traditional coupling–not to mention romantic notions. On a certain level, Beth and Sam have been building each other into people more capable of handling this looming potential loss all along. As if they saw and named and embraced the inevitable fragility of human connection in a way few of us do or are capable of doing.  Our marriages and partnerships, our treasured friendships, tether us to one another and to this world; but they cannot save us from being alone.

    Beth and Sam chose to confront this possibility daily, and not hide in denial. They were willing to allow for the possibility of being abandoned at any moment, in order to choose to stay. Beth cannot be afraid of loneliness now like many of us would be in her shoes. She will never be the victim of feeling not good enough, and she will never be afraid to just be herself. This is the gift she and Sam gave to one another during their time together, and that is why I wanted to share their relationship with you.

    It makes me think of what poet Eden Ahbez was referring to when he wrote: “the greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love, and be loved in return.”

    Lesson 5: Beth is going to be fine. The rest of us? We should be so lucky.

    Pick the love lock, 

    Author of Heartalytics Series–
    The Love Gates

    Art by Eugenia Loli

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