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Why sex isn't key to a happy marriage

By Rowan Pelling | China Daily | Updated: 2015-05-02 08:11

As Sir Michael Holroyd - husband of novelist Dame Margaret Drabble - admits to having 'romantic relationship without sex' with a theatre critic, Rowan Pelling says there is something beautiful about a marriage that moves beyond jealousy

A year or so ago, I was wandering round the V&A when I found a little side gallery I'd never visited before.

There were delicate architectural drawings on display of colonial buildings from the Arts and Crafts era. When I leaned in to look at the notice beside a design "for a house in Tsinan" by Oliver Hill (begun in 1922), the text was so unexpected and quietly subversive I had to photograph it with my iPhone.

"This house was designed for Peter and Helena Wright, English missionary doctors in China. Helena was Associate Professor of Gynaecology at Shantung Christian University, becoming an internationally famous pioneer of birth control and family planning. Hill, a fashionable country house architect, had known Helena since childhood and they had a long-standing relationship that did not threaten her marriage."

That last sentence struck me as being a little gem of British understatement. So much emotional complexity and spousal accommodation wrapped up in one elegant line. I had to read the caption again to take it all in; the architect designing a beautiful residence for his lover and her husband, with everyone's knowledge and approval.

Even in this day and age, it can be hard for curious onlookers to accept that there are some marriages that can withstand the presence of a third person. Furthermore, that the arrangement might not be an endurance test, but a carefully discussed decision that suits all parties.

Take this week's admission from biographer Sir Michael Holroyd of his close friendship with the theatre critic Susanna Clapp, who "travels across London to see me and dine with me in Notting Hill. I suppose we've been spotted out together numerous times - I'm not hiding anything."

Holroyd made it clear that the novelist Dame Margaret Drabble spends quite a bit of time with her son Adam in Oxford, so conversation and companionship drives his friendship with Clapp. He added: "I know you can have a romantic relationship without sex, but I think I've said enough. As I'm on medication following my illnesses there can be no question of sex."

There is also no question of divorce. Holroyd said of his novelist wife, "Margaret will be coming over later this week. There is no fighting or splitting up."

So it seems what's been admitted to is a form of romanticised companionship, which occupies different turf to Holroyd's and Drabble's 33-year marriage. For all we know, Drabble's glad a sophisticated soul such as Clapp is keeping her husband company, allowing her a guilt-free absence. And why ever not, if nobody's in the dark and it suits all parties? After all, most people in long-lived relationships have heard their other half's stories a hundred times and can anticipate their thoughts on most topics. Isn't it a kindness to lend them to fresh and more appreciative ears?

As my trip to the V&A proved, it's hardly an unprecedented arrangement in marital history. The Bloomsbury set was rife with triangular relationships, while Edith Nesbit and her husband Hubert Bland ran a famously complex household, with lovers on both sides. Nesbit's close friend from the Fabian Society, Alice Hoatson, became both the couple's housekeeper and Bland's lover, bearing him a child, Rosamund, who Edith raised as her own.

Indeed, my favourite overheard conversation of recent months involved a woman telling a male friend that her husband and boyfriend of several years standing knew about one another and had no hostile feelings. "I think both of them would find me too exhausting on a fulltime basis," she said. "I see," said her friend, "how very Edwardian." And it is the sort of plot line that would slot nicely into any early episode of Downton Abbey.

But then these sorts of situations have always been more readily observable in high society, where there's enough money and who-gives-a-hoot attitude for there to be any unpleasant consequences.

I enjoyed the episode of BBC Two's Posh People: Inside Tatler, which featured 71-year-old Lady Christine de la Rue reminising about her unusual domestic m��nage. Her husband, Sir Eric, had been 36 years her senior, and some years in to the marriage she began a parallel relationship with her spouse's friend David Liddell-Grainger, dividing her time between them. She was quoted as saying at the time: "There is no bitterness between any of us. It has all been amicable. I love them both in different ways." She proved her point by eventually moving her frail husband in to Liddell-Grainger's castle, nursing him until his death in 1989.

Then there's Diana Athill's clear-sighted account of her relationship with Jamaican playwright Barry Reckord. The pair lived together for 40 years and, for six of those, in the 1970s, Reckford's girlfriend Sally Cary was also part of the household. Athill explained she could accommodate Cary because "the passion, so to speak, had gone... Then darling Sally turned up, and we were both so very fond of her."

I'm not sure those kind of arrangements are much less common today. But they're certainly harder to speak about in a society that's largely replaced religion with the cult romanticism when it comes to relationships.

Under the new value system, falling short of single-minded physical passion for your spouse is the worst sin imaginable. Which only goes to show a chronic lack of imagination in many individuals. Certainly, there are few pains crueller than sexual jealousy when you're in the early, intensely erotic years of a relationship. However, to pretend all marriages continue to blaze on a high flame for several decades is to wilfully ignore everything we've learned about human life from evidence and literature. Surely most people are aware that libido (or hydraulics) can fail, and there can be other - often more profound - levels of connection than sex?

This is surely what Cathy expresses in Wuthering Heights when she says: "Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He's always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being." Many a married person will recognise that sense of always carrying the other with you. Just as a few, rather more unconventional ones will feel their level of connectedness makes possessiveness irrelevant.

My own husband has long professed himself baffled by people who rage with jealous emotion. In 20 years of marriage, he has never once attempted to curtail my movements, or question the company I keep. Not even when I was editor of the Erotic Review magazine and found myself occasionally besieged by over-excited male readers.

But, as my husband freely admits: "I am infinitely puzzled by men who are physically possessive." A bafflement that I suspect springs from the long illness and death of his mother when he was a child. He has long known that passing human folly is as nothing compared to the heartbreaking loss of those you love most. And he has an evolved belief that everyone should be free to pursue what's truly life-enhancing to them. His main aim in life is to spend as much time as he can at home, undisturbed, listening to JS Bach and Miles Davis, while I am a social animal, who heads straight to the Chelsea Arts Club.

Why should we deny one other our very different forms of escape? Especially when we spent most of the week together, shepherding our sons or mustering joint outrage at the politicos on Newsnight.

In the early years of my marriage, I was miffed by his lack of green-eyed monster, but now I know deep love takes many forms and that it's better to be nurtured and supported than jealously possessed; that there's often a high price to be paid by the relentlessly adored and caged - that there is something beautiful in a marriage that's moved beyond jealousy, because you have so little left to fear.

Why sex isn't key to a happy marriage

Even in this age, it can be hard for curious onlookers to accept that there are some marriages that can withstand the presence of a third person. Provided Tochinadaily

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