What Does Being A Couple Mean When You're In An Open Marriage?

When I asked my husband to open our marriage, I went on a search to find what it meant to be together while apart.

During my honeymoon in France, on the train from Paris to Nice, I scanned my dictionary for words with œ. I had become obsessed with the ligature œ, the conjoined twin letters used frequently in French words. They call it “O et E collé” (O and E glued), or sometimes “E dans l’O,” which in French sounds like "eggs in the water." After cœur and sœur, I came across mœurs, the French word for mores. I couldn’t remember the exact definition of mores, but I knew that mores were social things, codes, rules of some kind.

Monogamy is a mœur, I thought. An expectation of marriage.

Suddenly, the word upset me. I loved Eric, sitting beside me on the train. My other half, my twin soul. He was my husband now, but after six years of sharing a bed, a bathroom, and a bank account, our passion had waned. If I had to have sex with only him for the rest of my life, did that mean I’d stop having it altogether?

The word mœurs looked like like monogamy itself. Œ was the couple at the center of the word, surrounded by M, U, R, and S — murs, the French word for "walls." Walls to protect from, say, extralexical affairs. The walls need some windows, I thought, a way to let air in. Otherwise mœurs might suffocate itself.

Sometimes conjoined twins are surgically separated. It’s typically done very soon after birth; otherwise, they don’t survive. I feared it was too late for us, but I wanted to try anyway. I’d have to separate us verbally.

“I want to sleep with a woman,” I said. “But I don’t want to lose you.”

“I don’t want to lose you, either,” he said.

Sex seemed like a pleasurable way to begin a painful procedure. These words were just the beginning, a tacit agreement, a release form.

I assumed that merging my body with another person’s body would help me to decouple from Eric. We didn’t discuss anesthesia, the odds of recovery. We didn’t know how much it would hurt.

“Coupledom is a sustained resistance to the intrusion of third parties. The couple needs to sustain the third parties in order to go on resisting them,” says Adam Phillips in his book Monogamy.

It seems paradoxical, this sustaining and resisting. The conventional wisdom is to banish third parties so that we don’t have to resist them.

“The faithful keep an eye on the enemy,” Phillips says. “After all, what would they do together if no one else was there? How would they know what to do? Two’s company. Three’s a couple.”

The conventional wisdom is to banish third parties so that we don’t have to resist them.

I was having a long-distance relationship with Elena. She and I took self-portraits and sent them to each other every day. They were a novelty then, these first selfies. The ones Elena sent always looked badass and boyish. She wore a baseball cap with the hood of her sweatshirt pulled over it, peering out from under the protective awning of her garments. I mimicked these photos and felt the same twinge between my legs when I took them as when I received them.

Despite this symmetry, I felt off balance. The more I leaned into my new twinship with her, the more I worried about losing my old one with Eric. I took different selfies and sent them to him. I played up my femininity, aloof and pouty, like a model. The photos he sent back were similar, but of course they were not the same. His blue eyes stared back at me, his blond hair, his maleness. The twinge I felt was higher. It was my heart.

I’d heard immersion was the best way to learn a language, so when Elena came to stay with me after Eric went away to New York for school, I asked that she speak only Spanish. But it wasn’t just language. I wanted to immerse myself in her.

We conversed in rudimentary sentences, and I’d watch her mouth and mimic her, making th sounds for C's and Z's like they do Spain, even though it felt wrong, like a speech impediment. I watched her face as I spoke, to see if the words I chose made sense, changing them midstream if her eyes squinted or she opened her mouth to correct me. When she spoke too quickly, her Spanish sounded like gibberish, and nothing in her face helped me decode it. I’d follow her eyeline to a chair, or to my wristwatch sitting on the bedside table, trying to find meaning in the objects she settled on.

“Something about my watch?”

“I’m not always talking about what I’m looking at,” she’d say.

The words snapped me like a rubber band. She was getting impatient with me, her student. And I was impatient too. I wanted our needs to be magically understood and met. I wanted us to be fluent in each other.

And mostly we were. But I often mixed up my pronouns, saying "you are" instead of "I am," which is a pretty big difference. But she still knew what I was talking about. "You" and "I" had become interchangeable.

Psychologist Ricardo Ainslie, author of the book The Psychology of Twinship (1997), says that our desire for simple, automatic relationships, for sameness, is a desire to return to the relationship we had with our mothers in the womb. “[We] wish to return to a symbiotic relationship—that is, a relationship characterized by a lack of self-other differentiation in which one’s needs are magically understood and met.”

The original symbiotic relationship is between the mother and child, but Ainslie suggests that with twins, it can also be between baby and baby.

“There’s an experience of self and other as being one. ... A complete closeness. A sense of immersion in another person that feels whole and complete and almost ideally satisfying.”

“Take care” were her last words to me.

Almost ideally satisfying. This troubles me. If diving headfirst into the pool of another person and sinking deep to their depths can yield only an “almost ideal” satisfaction, where can you find something total and absolute?

A year had passed since Elena and I had begun our daily conversations and occasional visits, when she asked me to come to Spain for a few months. “I’ll work and you can write,” she said. “I’ll take care of you.” I was tempted but I couldn’t oblige her. The rest of me was still so enmeshed in my relationship with Eric that handing her even a thread more would have unraveled it, and me completely. The phrase "take care" stuck with me. It is a loving gesture, but also a way to say goodbye. Cuidate, she said, at the end of our conversation. Those were her last words to me.

During those first six years of our marriage, while we lived together and then apart, were monogamous, then open, then monogamous again, I had the same partner at my advertising agency job. I was the copywriter, and he, the art director. He was my work husband, my work brother. We spent more time together than with anyone else.

In a folder on my desktop I keep a photo of us sitting side by side in a giant twin stroller which we called the Manstroller. It was a prop for a commercial we’d written for a mini fast-food sandwich (a snack for grownups). The spot featured two grown men in business suits being pushed in the stroller by a nanny. We were proud of this commercial, but once it started running on TV, it wasn’t so well-received.

“Did you guys do that one with the guys in the stroller?” friends would ask, in a way that said "I hope not." It turns out that listening to adults cry like babies is funnier in theory than in practice.

We didn’t care. The photo of us acting like babies in the Manstroller made it all worthwhile. We were tired of being the breadwinners of our families, the grownups. The Manstroller prop cost more than our cars, and it felt good to waste someone else’s money, since we had to be so careful with our own.

Whenever I told people I was supporting Eric, they raised an eyebrow. The eyebrow said, "Are you sure he’s not using you?" I didn’t think so. Eric had supported me after college while I had an unpaid internship, and I didn’t think of that as using him. That support had helped me get a job as soon as we moved to L.A. — the same job that would later allow me to help him focus on his art career in New York. In a way, investing in me was investing in himself.

"Support" is a weird word to use. "Support" suggests the body, holding it up. Support hose prevent bulging veins in the legs. Bras prevent breasts from sagging. It may be too tender a word for what I was offering Eric. Perhaps all I was doing was covering expenses. And it wasn’t as though the money came with no strings attached. For one thing, I’d asked for the open relationship.

“Are you sure he’s not using you?” The answer was no. 

I thought I could trade this freedom I’d given him to pursue an artistic career for my own freedom to pursue a sexual relationship with another person. I wanted an artistic career too, but we couldn’t both quit our jobs and be artists at the same time, I reasoned. So while I was the one working, I thought it was only fair that he do something of equal sacrifice for me. If we couldn’t have sameness, then I wanted evenness. I wanted fairness. I wanted balance.

But what was on the scales really? Money versus bodies? It is impossible to compare the two. They are different systems of measurement, like weight and mass.

And the money wasn’t really money, anyway; it was the freedom to pursue something that wouldn’t necessarily lead to money.

And the bodies weren’t just bodies, they were people — with identities, spirits, wills, and desires.

"Are you sure he’s not using you?" The answer was no. But was I sure I wasn’t using him? As a mother, a father, a sister, a brother? An anchor, a life preserver, a safety net, a doormat? A twin? I did not know.

Eric and I share a house now. It is evening and he is in his studio, working on a solo show. I am writing a book at a café. I overhear two women talking about a word that means both separation and union, and I almost interrupt them to ask what the word is, but I don’t want them to know I’ve been eavesdropping. I’ll find it on the internet, I think. I’m good at googling.

I try various combinations of search terms, but can’t find a single word that captures the essence of both separation and union.

The only thing I find is a page about the psychoanalyst Otto Rank. In his book Art and Artist, he says the best relationships have both individuation and connectedness. Difference inside likeness — a nesting. “Human beings need to experience both separation and union,” he says, “without endlessly vacillating between the two poles.”

I think about the time Eric and I spent apart, trying to separate. Back and forth between New York and L.A. Oscillating like fans.

Maybe there is no single word that means separation and union. Maybe I misunderstood the women in the café, heard what I wanted to hear.

I was so excited about the possibility. I wanted simplicity. I wanted concision. But now that I’ve looked for this word and not found it, I wonder: How can we integrate separation and union into ourselves if we can’t even integrate them into a single word?

I look up from my computer and notice the women are gone.

It’s not such a ridiculous hope. There are words that have these kinds of superpowers. When Elena and I were together, I had been collecting idioms to improve my Spanish, and had come across a list of words with no English translations. I was struck by one in particular: saudade. It’s a Portuguese word, and according to its Wikipedia page, it means something like “a deep emotional state of nostalgic or melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. ... [I]t carries the repressed knowledge that the object of longing will never return." Saudade, in a stronger manifestation, could be felt “towards people and things whose whereabouts are unknown, such as a lost lover or a family member who has gone missing.”

It occurs to me I have saudade for a word that may never have existed. This word that I hoped would teach me how to live.

Leah Dieterich’s writing has appeared on Bomb Magazine’s Word Choice, The Nervous Breakdown, and The Offing. She is the author of thxthxthx: Thank Goodness for Everything (Andrews McMeel, 2011) and is currently working on a book about coupling, identity, and vanishing twins.

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