The first rule was the time limit: two weeks maximum. The second was that the affair should take place far from home, preferably abroad.
The third was that each of us had the power of veto: if we felt even the remotest bit uncomfortable, we could say to the other: ‘Stop!’
And kisses didn’t count. Kisses were just for fun.
These were the rules of my open marriage — rules I followed during the eight years I was with my husband, the writer Adam Nicolson.
Olivia Fane is the author of Why Sex Doesn’t Matter. For all our safeguarding rules and our conviction in our perfect relationship, in the end my husband fell in love with someone else and left me. And it broke my heart
And rules that ultimately led to our very painful divorce eight years later.
Of course, anyone reading this will scoff: well, of course it led to divorce. What did she honestly expect?
But to the young 20-something bohemian me — and, it would seem, a surprising number of couples today — it wasn’t obvious at all.
How pleased we were with ourselves, Adam and I. How smug. Only we knew the truth about things: love was for life, sex was for pleasure, fidelity was for the dull.
We’d chat about it, fine-tune it, laugh about it. We would say how alive it made us feel, like the whole world was ours.
I remember looking around me at a railway station, in a lift, in a library and thinking, gleefully: ‘Any one of these men could be my lover, if I wanted.’
I relished that power, that sense of limitless possibility, while feeling safe in my belief that my marriage was indestructible.
Only . . . it didn’t work. Open marriages very seldom do. For all our safeguarding rules and our conviction in our perfect relationship, in the end my husband fell in love with someone else and left me. And it broke my heart.
How pleased we were with ourselves, Adam and I. How smug. Only we knew the truth about things: love was for life, sex was for pleasure, fidelity was for the dull. We’d chat about it, fine-tune it, laugh about it. The pair are pictured above on their wedding day in 1982
So it was with some sadness and fascination that I read of the case of Professor Neil Ferguson. Were it not for his embarrassing indiscretion, as the health adviser who helped order the nation into lockdown and then broke the rules by allowing his lover to visit, we would not have known that they were keeping the concept of open marriage very much alive in the UK.
It emerged that he and Antonia Staats, a married mother of two, had an understanding with her husband, Chris. She was free to have a lover — as presumably was he.
The two men even met: Chris is a Cambridge graduate and senior lecturer in Arabic Linguistics at SOAS, and Professor Ferguson an epidemiologist and professor of mathematical biology. They are said to share an interest in data science —among other things.
When the story broke, everyone seemed so outraged, not just by the flouting of the self-solating rules but also for the decadence of their lifestyle.
But how can I wag my finger censoriously at them when they are only enjoying a way of life I was once certain was the ‘right’ one?
While I’m in no position to judge, I fear it’s rather too late to warn them. If Ms Staat’s young children don’t know the true state of their parents’ relationship, they will do soon and they’ll be hurt.
Professor Neil Ferguson’s lover Antonia Staats is pictured above
The world as they know it will suddenly crumble. They won’t escape. The world of my three very young sons crumbled, too.
Yet it’s not just the children I care about. They will weather it in the end, and even learn something from it: my own sons are now in their mid-30s, all married, and most certainly monogamous.
It’s Antonia and Chris I care about most. I wonder how they’re faring really. How blithely one enters an open relationship; how bitterly one regrets it.
I met Adam at Cambridge when I was 18. He came from a long line of bohemians; his grandparents were Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, whose own open marriage was celebrated in their son Nigel’s book Portrait Of A Marriage. Nigel gave me a copy the first time I met him.
Fresh from an Anglican all girls’ boarding school, I was as innocent as can be. My own family background was conservative and conventional. Yet I wasn’t at all shocked.
I read about how his father Harold had taken male lovers, while Vita’s lovers were women. Yet his parents adored each other, and when Vita died in 1962 Harold could scarcely be bothered to go on living.
I think my mother thought this strange family was corrupting me. At one point she said: ‘They’re all homosexual in that family, Olivia! I thought you wanted children?’ But I was in love. And I also thought the Nicolsons were right.
I’d come to the conclusion — as a 16-year-old virgin — that love and sex were totally disparate entities while studying for my English Literature O-level. Our teacher must have been at least 70, blind, fearless, and — as far as we girls were concerned — right about absolutely everything.
One day we were giggling over the phrase ‘make love’ in Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice. ‘The phrase means “to court”,’ our teacher barked.
‘It may come as a surprise to you lot to know that the word “love” once pertained to the human spirit. Now it seems to be about “fancying” someone.’
Suddenly, it all made sense. At school dances I’d always been drawn to the good-looking boys, not to the ones who were clever and had something to say for themselves — boys I could grow to love.
I began to think of ‘fancying’ as a hobby, making a bee-line for the sexiest boy in the room, to see if I could nab him for the slow dance at the end of the evening.
Portrait Of A Marriage, therefore, just confirmed what I thought I already knew. Desire might overwhelm you, obsess you, take over your life, but ultimately it didn’t matter. What mattered was love.
The two men even met: Chris (pictured above) is a Cambridge graduate and senior lecturer in Arabic Linguistics at SOAS, and Professor Ferguson an epidemiologist and professor of mathematical biology. They are said to share an interest in data science —among other things
Adam and I made our open contract almost as soon as we started going out together. Both of us enjoyed short-lived flirtations with other people, but nothing serious. Our contract was still firmly in place when we took our vows, at a church wedding in 1982 (the forsaking all others bit we simply parroted on autopilot).
I didn’t feel like a fraud: I loved Adam with all my heart, and thought we’d be married for life.
It was to be three years before our rules would be tested. Adam was in the U.S. researching a book. The phone call came, the permission was sought.
‘Of course!’ I said. ‘Go ahead!’
I never met the other woman; I didn’t even know what she looked like. She was 20 years older than me and married. I didn’t care about her at all. I cared about us.
Adam came home, we congratulated each other on how brilliantly we had handled it and never spoke of her again.
The next affair was mine, four years later. By then, our lives had certainly lost their bohemian edge. I had recently given birth to our third son; our older boys were still under four. Our house smelt of nappies, with toys scattered everywhere.
Perhaps Adam thought: ‘What happened to the girl I married? What happened to that romantic life we envisioned for ourselves?’
Whatever his motives, he suddenly said: ‘You look like you could do with an affair.’
I laughed. I was lying on the sofa in my baggy maternity clothes. ‘You’ve got to be joking,’ I said. ‘Me? An affair?’
‘It would do you good,’ he insisted. ‘You look terribly mumsy, if you don’t mind me saying.’
‘And who exactly would I have an affair with?’ I asked him. ‘Look in your address book,’ he suggested. ‘There must be someone.’ So that’s exactly what I did. I sat on our double bed and searched through my address book looking for a possible lover.
Was I angry with Adam? Not in the slightest. I even thought he was right. I had let myself go. It was time to get my life back.
The man I hit upon was called Peter, someone I’d kissed at university. I remembered an Italian boy, with huge, expressive dark eyes and a swarthy complexion. That very night I rang him. Remarkably, he picked up.
We chatted a while, he told me about his life — he’d married, had a son, separated — and I told him about mine. We arranged to meet in the summer. We could rent a cottage on the Suffolk coast. We both agreed it would be a lot of fun.
I had four months to prepare for our ‘family holiday’ (we took our boys along, who were around the same age, and far too young to understand what was going on).
I never shared my plans with Adam, though he might have picked up a new lightness in my step, even a new wardrobe (I gleefully put a stop to ‘mumsy’). If he did, he never mentioned it.
Plus, I was obeying the rules. Only a week. Miles from anywhere. Adam could veto it at any stage.
Peter and I had a wonderful time. Walks along the beach hand in hand, sunsets, the full works. And I fell madly in love. But even then I knew, this is only the madness I’ve read about — ‘lovesickness’: a disease, something to be got over so that one could resume normal life.
Yet when Peter confessed at the end of our glorious week that he was in love with a girl in Tuscany, I was surprised by how much it hurt. I never saw him again.
When I came home, Adam and I fell back into our routine. He barely asked about the holiday. I thought obsessively about Peter, I just couldn’t help it. Adam and I had prided each other on never having secrets from each other, but here was one I could never share.
The only aspect of our marriage which didn’t suffer was our sex life. But spiritually, we were drifting apart. We may have been as intimate as ever with our bodies, but no longer with our hearts.
A year later, it was Adam’s turn. He wanted to go skiing with a group of friends. I wasn’t a very good skier, so I agreed to stay at home with the boys. A few days in, there was a phone call. He said he’d met a woman he wanted to sleep with. Was that OK with me?
Professor Neil Ferguson is pictured above. Were it not for his embarrassing indiscretion, as the health adviser who helped order the nation into lockdown and then broke the rules by allowing his lover to visit, we would not have known that they were keeping the concept of open marriage very much alive in the UK
Yes, of course it was, I said. Only a week, preferably overseas and never to be repeated. Those were the rules.
Only a very different Adam came home. He could barely look me in the eye. He seemed distracted, absent. Then he told me he wanted to see her again. Just once.
This was a flagrant breach of our rules, but I so wanted to please him. I wanted him to come back and say: ‘Thank you! I’ve sorted things out now!’ So I agreed.
But, of course, he didn’t. That’s not how this kind of passion works. He was in love, and I couldn’t bring him back.
For the next nine months we limped along. He stuck to the rules; he didn’t see her, but the atmosphere at home was unbearable.
There wasn’t any nastiness — tempestuous rows and reconciliations I could have coped with — it was the politeness and emptiness that I couldn’t tolerate.
We both knew the marriage was unsustainable.
Eventually he said to me: ‘I have done everything I can to get over this, but it’s no good.’ So he moved out and we divorced on the grounds of his adultery.
Both of us suddenly found ourselves having to grow up at last. Both of us became better parents than ever before. I was determined our foolishness wouldn’t destroy our boys’ lives as it had ours.
I married my second husband, Mark, three years later. We had been undergraduates together: we used to kiss in the library. We’d met again when he’d been training in obstetrics at the hospital where I’d delivered my third child. And he made it quite clear from the outset: he was having none of this open relationship malarkey.
It’s funny to call ‘fidelity’ an adventure, but that’s how it felt. His body and soul belonged to me, and my body and soul belonged to him, and neither of us has strayed.
Adam went on to marry his skiing holiday fling, and they’ve stuck together very happily.
All four of us meet up at our sons’ weddings and there are regular phone calls, too. I would like to think of us as friends.
For years I wanted Adam to confess he had made a mistake, but he never has.
‘Being married to you was like being married to air, to fire,’ he once explained to me. ‘I needed to be with someone whose feet are firmly planted on the ground.’
Perhaps we wouldn’t have lasted the course even if we had been faithful to one another. We shall never know.
I’ve been married to Mark for 27 years, and what I’ve learned is that fidelity is more important than sex. We have this idea in our society that you have to be permanently thrilled — and if you’re not, something must be wrong.
If your sex life isn’t sparkling and ever new, it must mean it’s time for a new partner.
But married sex is just different. The media forever tells us we have to ‘spice it up’, as though the very love you have for each other depends on it, but the truth is very different.
Marriages require openness, honesty, mutual respect and affection. Sex is simply part of that package, and a good part, too. You may not get the goose-bumps of an illicit encounter, but something infinitely richer and longer-lasting.
In fact, I only really understood what a wonderful thing a marriage is, a family is, when I lost them first time round. I feel so lucky to have been given a second chance.
Olivia Fane is the author of Why Sex Doesn’t Matter, published by Mensch in hardback and as an e-book.