The magic of a ménage à trois
A menage is usually associated with tortured bohemians driven by wild passions — but for one man it was a surprisingly calm and positive experience
The ménage à trois seems, at first glance, to be rather quaint. It conjures images of Jeanne Moreau, with her two lovers in the film Jules et Jim, or Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir with their shared student lovers in Paris in the 1950s. As a way of life, it appears to have all but vanished: its conflicting passions seem out of date in this era of sexual freedom and gender equality. I'm sure the menage a trois has not disappeared. What truly is one? It's basically three people, romantically and sexually attracted to each other, living in the same house. Sounds like a normal polyamory relationship, and we all know that "in this era of sexual freedom and gender equality", polyamory is becoming more acceptable (or, perhaps the proper term is tolerated).
Equality is the modern mantra for relationships, but there’s plenty of evidence to show that striving for equality can cause problems. How many of us have had some experience of being in a couple in which one partner tries to make the other more like him or herself? I've never actually heard of someone trying to make their partner be more like himself. It's always the "ideal" picture of what he thinks his partner should be, unless he's a narcissist. Usually this becomes a war of attrition, through which both parties ultimately reduce each other’s freedoms; one person surrenders and a regime of compromise, damage limitation and emotional management is established.This terminates any chance of there being a healthy relationship.
This scenario troubles me greatly as I’ve fallen foul of it many times. The hard-won “peace” can lead to boredom, the victor becomes tired of the person they’ve turned into a reflection of themselves and usually, at this point, one partner leaves to start the battle again with a new lover.Again, I've never actually seen the "reflection" challenge. It seems more likely that one becomes bored of the other because of other reasons, such as lack of emotional, sexual, and/or romantic feelings, length of time the relationship has endured, etc.
There is a radical alternative and it was one advocated by Simone de Beauvoir. She claimed that “there can be no equality between the sexes, only conflict” and believed that monogamy always led to adultery. There can be equality between the sexes, and I'm not sure why there can't be. I'm not sure how one wanting to change his partner into a reflection of himself has anything to do with the male and female sexes, for if this situation happens, it can also happen in homosexual relationships. Also, monogamy doesn't always lead to adultery. I don't know how Beauvoir could have come up with this. Perhaps, she or her partners always cheated in their monogamous relationships, but I'm pretty sure and am positively certain that monogamy does not always lead to adultery. Polyamory can too, by the way. It really depends on the people in the relationship, not the type of relationship. Her ironic solution was to accept conflict rather than trying to eradicate it — to accept and welcome adultery into the home. Her ideal was to live within a ménage à trois; to fight daily with irreconcilable differences in an emotionally charged war-game of constantly shifting allegiances. First of all, what is this conflict that this woman is talking about? I don't see it. Second, accepting and welcoming adultery is completely different than what a menage a trois or a poly relationship is even about. Adultery is cheating and cheating is unacceptable in any kind of relationship, the two above mentioned included. And why in heaven would you want to fight with these irreconcilable differences every single day except if you're fucking insane? Wait, I just got a lightbulb moment. This chick is crazy. Perhaps the rest of the poly communities should not really think too hard on her theories about love and relationships.
From personal experience I can honestly say that, crazy as it sounds, the ménage à trois might be a solution to the problems of contemporary relationships.
In 1993, I was 22 and a recent arts graduate, when I walked, quite by chance into a ménage. Carol, 30, and Jake, 44, were artists, bohemians and also my landlords — I lived in the flat above their home in Camden, North London. Jake had been a successful artist in the 1980s but had fallen out of fashion when the new Young British Artist scene took over.
Carol had been a muse for the older man — he’d made many paintings that attempted to capture her youth. It was clear to me, on moving in, that Jake’s star had long since faded as had their affections; they had been living on his savings, he drank excessively and had become boorish and resentful. He picked fights with Carol, claiming that she was becoming a “typical bourgeois housewife”.This is where a divorce would come in, you know, in a normal relationship.
She bitched at him and hated herself for doing so; she had never built a career of her own or had children, and was often resentful because of all that she had sacrificed for him. They were trapped in a stalemate, becoming equal in as much as they were denying each other joy and freedom. Their clothes had become grey with washing.The author is implying that being equal with your partner has to be in lack of joy and freedom. IF I'M NOT HAPPY, NEITHER WILL YOU DAMMIT!
Jake and Carol were hungry for my attention. I spent long nights hearing Jake’s encyclopaedic theories on politics and art, I became the student of the older man, and perhaps in doing so accelerated Carol’s disillusionment with him and her desire to rebel.
He talked of the Surrealists, Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dalí, and Paris in the 1920s, of Anaïs Nin. All of whom, it is now well known, were engaged in long and historically significant ménages à trois. (The list of artists and thinkers who were involved in ménages in the last 200 years is revelatory and includes: Jack Kerouac, Paul Éluard, Émile Zola, George Eliot, Eugene O’Neil, Duchamp, Augustus John, Stanley Spencer, Marguerite Duras, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, D.H.Lawrence, and Nietzsche.)
Influenced as he was by so many, I do not think that Jake had consciously conceived the idea that his wife should seduce me. As with most ménages à trois, it started with adultery. If Jake taught me about art then Carol taught me the art of deception.The author is also implying that all menages a trois have to be within the context of marriage, adultery, deception, and secrecy. I repeat. THIS. IS. NOT. WHAT. A. HEALTHY. RELATIONSHIP. IS. LIKE. And it's really not helping poly relationships either.
As the months went by and our liaisons became more frequent, we became more careless in hiding ourselves. Strange changes occurred within him; he reported one day that he and “the bitch” had started having sex again after a period of many stale years. Their fights did not abate but now led to furious lovemaking. His smile secretly thanked me.
Our ménage did not extend to “three in a bed” (the modern day “threesome” usually utilises a “disposable” third party and is not an ongoing commitment between three). In many of the most famous ménages, the long-term liaison with the third person is a known fact, which is nonetheless never discussed. Sometimes, it is.
This was the case with Anaïs Nin whose husband Hugo was fully aware of her bed-hopping with Henry Miller but quietly condoned it because of the sexual and artistic awakening it had brought to his wife. Had the reality been forced into the open, it may have ended their marriage.And who's to say that would have been a bad thing? I don't understand. Why is decieving your partner(s) a good thing? For sexual and artistic awakening? Honesty is always the best policy even if it ends a relationship. You shouldn't have cheated in the first place. If Hugo would have been okay with Anais having a relationship with Miller and his wife (which he supposedly was, secretly), he would have been okay with the relationship if she had straight-up told him before she had sex with Miller.
This was also the case with the ménage between Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Neal’s wife Carolyn. With Cassady’s permission and encouragement, Kerouac lived with Carolyn when Neal was touring. Whether Jack and Neal were also lovers is up for debate but certainly Kerouac was in love with Neal Cassady’s mind (he was the inspiration for the hero, Dean Moriarty, in On the Road).
It is clear from memoirs that their creative relationship-à-trois was never discussed. This secrecy is hard to grasp in our era of emotional transparency, personal accountability, the confessional and the talking cure. It is impossible to imagine the sort of trio in which Kerouac was involved sitting down with a relationship counsellor on a “level playing field”, trying to “iron out differences” in the name of equality. What does this even mean?
No, for a mènage to flourish, everything must remain unsaid, there must be secrets and deceptions, all conflicts must be kept alive, inflamed, eroticised. Flying in the face of our modern values, it is not self-expression but the constant suppression of truth that is empowering. You're fucking kidding me. Oh my god. Oh. My. Fucking. Jesus. Christ. Mother. Of. God.
Those who have more formally organised agreements are the exception to the rule. There are no fucking exceptions to the goddamn rule! That's not even a rule! The rule is always be open with your partner(s) and communicate! What kind of society do you live in? How many of your relationships have been failures? Anais Nin and her husband didn't divorce because they couldn't afford to and because they were both emotionally retarded*! The example here is Henri-Pierre Roché, the author of the book upon which the film Jules et Jim was based.
In 1925, Roché lived with a married couple, the Hessels, and had an arrangement to have “weekends off” from his sexual obligations to Frau Hessel. Although musical beds took place on a rota, the tone of communications on the subject (revealed in Roché’s memoirs) was polite. “We shall stay at Fontenay and you shall also have a room to yourself,” wrote Herr Hessel to Roché.
Such an unspoken arrangement was similar to what I experienced. Even when Carol and I had slept together, it was agreed that she would creep back to Jake’s bed so that he could wake to see her face — this was part of our silent understanding, our “perverse equilibrium”. Any attempt I made at confession he waved away with a laugh. I knew that he knew and he knew that I knew he knew. And Carol smiled over us both.That's complete and utter bullshit. How can you expect a relationship to thrive that way?
Carol enjoyed the pretence at deceiving her partner and he was reinvigorated by having to fight for her attentions. Their musty old home had been transformed into a cauldron of competing energies, which then spilled over into their lives. I know some people who enjoy being deceived in return for a re-invigoration of their relationship. My question is how long will the relationship last after the spark?
Carol started looking for work, radically changed her appearance and began shaping a future independent of “the old tyrant”; Jake in turn began experimenting with new ways of making art. As for me, although they drained me, I felt absolutely indispensable to their survival and the constant flexing of the emotional muscles brought a sense of personal strength.
It can be no coincidence that the ménage is linked to the ambitious and powerful. Voltaire and Rousseau were involved in their own liaisons-à-trois as they drew up the concepts of liberty and freedom. Comrade Lenin, François Mitterrand and Franklin D. Roosevelt, all had two women at the same time. Marx and Engels, both had wife and lover — Engels living with two sisters. It’s possible that the same energies of ambition and belief in change that fuel creativity are common to those drawn to politics, and that the ménage à trois is the natural home for such living forces. It can be a coincidence that the menage is linked to the ambitious and powerful. Not all those who are in them are famous and heard-of. Being in a menage is not better than being in a monogamous relationship. There is no such thing as a better type of relationship, only the one that works for you.
Our ménage had to end, not because the pressures became too great but because the outside world had its own demands. I had been with Jake and Carol for almost nine months and was living on next to nothing, when an offer of work came up in Scotland. Jake refused point-blank to allow me to leave. He would reduce the rent to zero. He feared getting old, he said. Carol was scared of being left alone with Jake — things would regress, she would have to leave him. Even as I moved out, nothing was said of what had happened between us. The menage acted like a drug, a respite from reality. It would have been easier to just suck up and deal with the issues of the existing relationship.
The ménage is certainly not for everyone, its demands are taxing and there are victims. Many now claim that the affairs of Sartre and De Beauvoir were exploitative, that their “third parties” were abused. Their lovers were certainly not treated as equals (ironic, as they were both Gauchiste radicals). To the modern mind, which advocates equality, fairness, and the avoidance of all conflict, this must seem utterly undemocratic — a tyranny of the passions. Menages don't have to be taxing and there don't have to be victims if the relationship is honest. How hard is it for people to understand this?
Nonetheless, one must look at the many artists and radicals who were involved in ménages and acknowledge the power of the artworks and concepts that have been unleashed from living in such a way. Granted, but there are other ways to unleash the art of great people other than dishonesty and pain.
Sixteen years later I learned that both Carol and Jake have new careers, and a live-in lover. Their marriage has survived when nearly all those around me (apart from gay and lesbian couples) have failed. This, again, is a generality. Their marriage could have survived, but not necessarily well, and if it had, Carol and Jake must have changed something in their arrangements for that to have happened. Also, gay and lesbian couples, as any other type of couples have the same rate of failure in a relationship. As for me, after many attempts at monogamous union, I find myself writing about the ménage à trois with a certain nostalgia. I don't understand why people have to pain themselves with doing something that obviously doesn't suit them to appease some certain power (society or their own guilt, for example). If the author wanted to be in a menage a trois and liked the concept and relationship, he should have searched for one, not a monogamous relationship.
A true ménage is a rare thing, and cannot be willed into existence. Who in their right mind would invite such conflict into their bedroom? Either someone very mad, very eccentric or very brave. Such people are rare in this time when everyone is striving towards that sameness that is called equality. This is ridiculous. A true menage is a very popular thing and can be done easily, provided the people have the right mindset. There is nothing wrong with equality. I still don't understand why he has an issue with it, he didn't even explain.