Monogamy is overrated. Honesty is imperative.
I had a boyfriend once who claimed that serial monogamy is the best humans could hope for. It didn’t sit well with me, in my twenties and rebounding from a disastrous relationship. I wanted this new man to want me so much that he would forsake all others forever. A proposal would be “proof” of my self-worth – not exactly the stuff ideal marriages are built upon, but did I mention I was in my 20’s?
Of course, I asked Byrne about it. I knew that she and Duncan had been married for almost sixty years, and that not a day of that had passed without him watching her dress and tell her she was marvelous. I also knew that each of them had had affairs. Which was a contradiction I intended to resolve on a drive out to the beach. I was mad at her again, by proxy. Just like I had been when her philosophies on jealousy had backfired when I copied them, without being honest. This time I was mad because the boyfriend she had nicknamed my “Rolling Stone” had dumped me and my if-you-love-me-then-propose-already baggage.
We drove across the swing bridge over the Beaufort River and headed toward Hunting Island. There was no oncoming traffic, tomato season was still months away. I passed the turnoff to the road with the tree that an earlier boyfriend had aimed for, with me in the passenger seat. It was a mile marker of trials I thought had made me stronger but obviously hadn’t. The smell of marsh sulfur mingled with the salty sea air.
“I’ve told you Duncan and I had an open marriage,” Byrne began. “But it was nothing like this serial monogamy nonsense. The reason we began to take other lovers was to protect our own love from the stress of Alison.”
Alison was her real daughter, not an adopted one, like me. She had some form of schizophrenia since childhood, back in the days when doctors blamed such conditions on mothers. I didn’t ask for details of the sexual arrangement she and Duncan reached in these troubled times, and Byrne offered none.
“Neither one of us kept count. It wasn’t a game or a punishment,” she said. “It was just a way of getting away from it all, like going to a costume ball. Our various partners weren’t obliged to know the strain of what we ourselves could not escape. It was a physical release that kept us from wearing each other down. It saved our love.”
This was not the image of a devoted Duncan I preferred, the pure romance that I wanted to think possible. It was not the image of a martyr mother, undyingly devoted to her damaged daughter. But there was a truth in what Byrne said that settled like a curtain coming down. What matters, above everything, is honesty.
12 thoughts on “Monogamy is overrated. Honesty is imperative.”
August 13, 2010 at 6:40 AM
refreshing to have a champion of infidelity cheering us on……actually I do understand that you’re hardly championing infidelity. Quite the opposite. You’ve described well Byrne’s and Duncan’s remarkable fatihfulness to each other and to Alison.
August 13, 2010 at 6:46 AM
…and to think. When she first told me the story I thought she meant open marriages were the way to go! So shocked was my twenty-something self at the time I couldn’t imagine what to say…
August 13, 2010 at 6:53 AM
my brain is having trouble wrapping itself around that one; not in a judging way but believing that no emotional pain was caused. All I can say is that they had must have enjoyed an amazing trust in each other…as for feelings of jealousy, they had to have felt them! How did they deal with that?
August 14, 2010 at 8:16 AM
True…and perhaps by the time I knew her Byrne had glossed over any temporary jealousy or hurt feelings because she knew how the story ended. But she was pretty darn certain of the stories she told, and I beleive her. She was an uncommon woman – one I could never emulate, just learn from.
August 19, 2010 at 1:50 PM
When Byrne went into the hospital to have Janie she came home to a completely changed Allison who would have been about 2 years old. She had been a perfectly normal child until that time. It took so much energy to deal with her that she consumed all that each of them had. They took her to every specialist in NY. She was one of the first recipients of electro shock therapy. I can’t imagine the pain they all suffered. The affairs took place during this time period. One of these took place in Chicago. This man flew her there for the weekend. He wined and dined her. This time away from Allison helped her cope. She was always very up front in these realtionships many of which went on for long periods of time. She let them know that she loved Duncan and would never leave him. Actually Byrne and Duncan were very careful not to discuss each others affairs with each other. Byrne always said, “That would have been cruel.”
August 20, 2010 at 11:10 AM
Wow – this is exactly the background I was hoping to get – proves my memory is good! Have you seen all the other comments? It was quite a conversation starter. Keep in touch!
August 14, 2010 at 4:19 AM
Teresa, I think this entry is fabulous. I could never do what she and Duncan did, but you explain Byrne’s wisdom so gently — with such a careful balance of rationality and emotion — that I am able to understand it. I can visualize myself in some other time or life, married to someone-not-Mark, being able to do the same thing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy as things are: I’ll keep my handsome writer to myself, and I’m glad there aren’t any beautiful models hanging around:-). But your words brought me to a surprising realization of something that I have not otherwise understood. I’m pretty sure I felt myself grow~
August 15, 2010 at 10:12 AM
I have always believed that there is a separation between intellectual and physical fidelity. It is the former that I find more difficult to understand and would probably be unable to forgive. It might be this attitude that makes me one of Byrne’s daughters.
August 16, 2010 at 6:59 AM
There were millions of reasons she adopted you 🙂
August 16, 2010 at 3:19 PM
My typing skills are lousy. It should say intellectual and physical infidelity. LL
August 18, 2010 at 10:30 AM
Emotional infidelity is the one that really gets me. Byrne would have found me a sadly deficient daughter. Beautiful post, as always, Teresa.
August 18, 2010 at 11:54 AM
I think she would have known exactly what you mean 🙂