I really don’t know how these things work but I would be completely convinced my husband does not love me if he came up with an arrangement like this. The outcome is almost inevitable either way.
- Novelist Olivia Fane was in open marriage with writer Adam Nicolson
- Married at age of 22 and drew up ‘contract’ stipulating rules of taking lovers
- Adam was permitted one affair per year, abroad, for two week
- Fane was allowed ten kisses a year, and a two-week affair every other year
- Couple had three sons and, initially, a very happy marriage
- Fane says in an open marriage the risk of losing your partner is more real
- Fane then married Mark May in 1993, and they have a traditional marriage
When I was a girl of 13, my mother said to me, ‘Darling, I wish to give you some sound advice. It’s important you remain a virgin till you marry. No man wants soiled goods.
‘But after you’ve married and had your children, take lovers if you want them. But you must do so with absolute discretion. No one must ever know.’
While my school friends considered my mother’s words avant garde to say the least, the family into which I was to marry made her seem positively provincial.
The writer and historian, Adam Nicolson, was my first boyfriend. I was 19 when I met him at Cambridge University, where we were both students. He was as witty and clever as he is nowadays, and I adored him.
I remember watching him, awestruck, as he debated with two of his friends.
I didn’t understand a word of what they were talking about, all I remember was interrupting to ask what the word ‘paradigm’ meant.
But right away, I knew this: I wanted to be the one he was talking to.
My background wasn’t exactly bookish – in fact, both of my grandmothers warned me against being a ‘bluestocking’, because if I were one of those I would more than likely be left ‘on the shelf’ and never marry.
But my mother was an expert in the art of flirting and how to get a man to fall in love with you, though she remained utterly faithful to my father. I followed her advice to the tee.
‘Always tell a clever man he’s handsome, and a handsome man he’s clever.’ Doubtless her own mother had said the same thing to her.
And so, that very first afternoon, mesmerised by his elegant turn of phrase, I jumped onto Adam’s knee in my tight jeans and pink mohair sweater and told him how handsome he was.
Soon after we met, he took me to meet his father, Nigel Nicolson, at the family home, Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. Nigel lived alone, having divorced some years previously, and I grew to love him as I might a second father. He taught me about literature and art, calling me his ‘philosopherette’.
He gave me a copy of his book, Portrait Of A Marriage, the story of his parents, the writer and politician Harold Nicolson and poet and gardener Vita Sackville-West.
I read about the depth of their love, but I also read that they had both had affairs throughout their marriage, each with the same sex. The Nicolsons were a family in which infidelity was not only tolerated, but celebrated.
I began to consider that marital fidelity was a dull task barely worth considering. I was studying Classics and felt the ancient writers and love poets would have agreed with me.
The lesson of history seemed to be that what mattered was not the adultery itself, but getting caught. It was just about honour and propriety. But I didn’t give a fig for propriety. Propriety is about appearances; what truly matters is the heart.
The atmosphere at Sissinghurst was for me – at core, a simple Home Counties girl – intoxicating. My ten years with Adam were, quite simply, my education.
Adam and I would arrive there late on a Friday night and sit at the old scrubbed pine kitchen table while Nigel gave us what I came to think of as the ‘cast list’ for the weekend. He would take us through the private lives of the various politicians, writers and artists who would be staying with us, or coming to Sunday lunch.
He would say things such as, ‘now X is married to Y, but having an affair with Z’. He would then ask our advice about whether a married couple would actually prefer to share a room (i.e. they were sufficiently young and in love) or sleep apart – leaving them free to entertain other people.
I embraced the Bohemian lifestyle, wholesale. I was young, I went with the flow. I had read somewhere that Inuits traditionally offer their wives to weary travellers after a day’s trudging through the snow. Weren’t sexual mores pure convention?
Within months of beginning our romance, Adam and I used to idealise our future life together, how we would have our own separate passions – not to mention lovers – in different wings of a large house, but then meet in the middle for lunch and tell each other all about them.
When we decided to get married three years later, at the tender ages of 22 and 24, we felt excited, radical. Everyone else was sensibly co-habiting. We, meanwhile, were preparing our marriage ‘contract’.
OPEN TO IDEAS
The sexologist Alfred Kinsey was in an open marriage with his wife Clara Bracken McMillen
The rules were these. Adam was to be allowed one affair a year, provided it lasted no longer than two weeks, and it had to take place abroad. He also had to seek my permission first. My mother had warned me that all red-blooded men were unfaithful to their wives.
Certainly, when my paternal grandfather stayed on in Durban at the end of World War Two for three months longer than strictly necessary, everyone knew there was a woman involved, but no one even mentioned it and when he got home he went on to live many happy years with his wife. What did an occasional fortnight matter?
As for myself, I was allowed ten snogs a year and a love affair for two weeks every other year, provided it took place in Stoke Newington; a joke between us because it sounded the least romantic destination we could think of.
Looking back, our contracts seem childish, but we somehow trusted them. I never found out exactly where Stoke Newington was, but I did take advantage of the snogs.
The time between meeting someone you like and kissing them has always seemed to me more perfect and less messy than the time between a first kiss and full-blown sex. I never felt that these flirtations threatened our marriage at all.
People ask me now what it was like to live in an open marriage, but the truth is it didn’t feel ‘open’. He was working as a travel writer for most of our marriage – how many young men can really be trusted to be 100 per cent faithful to their wives when they’re in another country for weeks on end?
And the truth is, Adam’s affairs were short and rare.
I remember the phone call when he first asked my permission to embark on a brief liaison with someone he had met in Los Angeles, a few months into our union. I was so pleased with myself, bordering on smug. I thought, our marriage is so strong, it can contain this.
Some years ago, I read an article by Adam in which he mentioned how happy he had been in his 20s.
That was our decade, and it touched me. I was also very happy. I didn’t know what ‘working at a marriage’ meant. We certainly did no ‘work’. As far as I was concerned, it was all play.
I never knew a moment of boredom in his company. I adored his intelligence, his perceptiveness.
His use of words thrilled me. I once said to him, ‘I wish I had your words, Adam,’ and he made me a little matchbox and called it The Word Reservoir. I still have it tucked away in a drawer.
Even the last year of our marriage, 1989, began so well. At seven, four and two, our three sons were out of nappies: they were walking, talking sweet young boys and, after the hard work of their younger years, domestic life had taken a positive turn.
I was also enjoying writing a column in a magazine called Social Work Today, my first foray into journalism. But most importantly, I was beginning my first novel, Landing On Clouds.
I wanted to make Adam proud of me, to be part of the Sissinghurst myth, to deserve my place among those extraordinary people. He took my manuscript to read on a skiing holiday with his sister and their friends.
I was invited, of course, but I’m a useless skier and wanted to stay at home with the kids. Near the end of the holiday, he rang me from the resort. He told me he thought my novel was terrific. He said, ‘You know, Olivia, you can really do this.’
I think that probably counts as the happiest moment of my life. But then he said, ‘By the way, I’ve just met a rather nice girl, but the trouble is, she lives in London. Would you mind if I slept with her?’ I was effusive: ‘Adam, of course I wouldn’t mind! But just once! Just the once!’
TRUTH AND TRYSTS
Between 1.7 and 6 per cent of married people claim to be in open marriages
Later, I would look back on this moment and think of a girlfriend of mine, who sends me pictures of roads. She writes: ‘Wouldn’t you just love to walk down this one? Just to see where it would lead you?’
They are long and leafy and often there is a curve round which you cannot see. It felt like I was watching Adam turn the corner in the road, leaving me and going somewhere else. And then, although we were still living in the same house, I lost him completely. He had fallen in love with a pretty doctor, one of those on the ski trip, and I didn’t fight for him.
You can’t even talk to someone who’s in love, they’re on another planet. Losing Adam broke my heart.
A marriage is like a great fat book, a soap of the highest calibre, an epic on the scale of War And Peace. I had got to know and love all the characters within it. I wanted to know what they’d do next. My divorce was like losing the only copy in print, when I’d been so gripped, so enthralled by it, and knowing it was lost for ever.
Remarkably, I didn’t fall into a depression after our marriage broke down. They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and that was certainly what happened to me.
We finally divorced in 1991. I have never blamed Adam for what happened. When you marry into a family such as his, you know what you’re letting yourself in for.
I entered it, eyes wide open. Adam and I didn’t even set out to be faithful to each other for ever and ever, so in a sense no trust was betrayed.
Yet it turns out that perhaps the rules in our marriage ‘contract’ were the wrong ones.
Two years later I got together with my present husband Mark, who was a year younger than me, an old university friend. And the truth is, I don’t think he would have loved my naive, 19-year-old self as much as the graduate of the Nicolson School of Life and Love.
Mark is also from a family of artists and romantics, though with one crucial difference – in his family, fidelity mattered very much. It was at the heart of everything.
So, when we married in 1993, we took our vows seriously. We were going to be faithful to each other till death do us part. We wanted to become ‘one flesh’ as the Anglican marriage service poetically describes it.
The removal of the temptation of others is good for a marriage. I have learnt that I am someone who requires absolute closeness, I need to get inside my partner’s skin and see the world as he sees it. Twenty years on, he is a part of me. Infidelity doesn’t let that happen.
Mark and I now have two sons of our own, as well my three children from my first marriage.
A lot of our time together has been spent in the normal to-ing and fro-ing of domestic life.
We have been to weddings and funerals. We have grown up with our friends, and been with them through their own highs and lows. He was with me when my mother died; I was with him when his father died.
We have lived the most traditional of marriages. And the richest.
The Conversations: 66 Reasons To Start Talking by Olivia Fane is published by Square Peg, at £15.99.