BBC Radio 4 is currently running a drama series called How To Have a Perfect Marriage, in which a couple learn to cope with a husband’s coming out by attempting a closed loop relationship. It is written by Nicholas McInerney who chose to tell his autobiographical story from the persepctive of the wife. “After all”, he writes, “it was she that was being confronted by a huge change in her life over which she had no real control, but had to come to terms with. We wanted Karen to have a strong voice which caught the impact of what was happening to her – raw and real and honest. We also wanted to try and capture the great conflict that lies in the heart of all of us – our imagined ability to react decisively and rationally whilst dealing with those things that strike deep into our very being – messy and confused and volatile. Above all I wanted to try and depict Karen as not being a victim, and to show her having choices too”.
Forget closets, the place where gay men hide, and women who married them keep quiet, is the cupboard under the stairs. This is a dark space where we hide those things we want to keep private from the rest of the world. Your friends and your family don’t have to see what’s in there, in fact, it’s probably best if they don’t. Explaining to others what is in the cupboard is just too hard: you don’t have the language, and they don’t have the experience. We can process the news of an affair far more effortlessly than we can understand this.
If we have a cupboard under the stairs this means we have a home, and because we love our home, we want to keep it just the way it is. Women who have accidentally married gay men are no exception to this. Navigate to Home is our comfort and salve, the retreat when the rest of the world is too cold, too unfriendly, too busy, too quiet. It’s where we know where the tin foil is, and that the upstairs bedroom door slams when the back door is open, and where the carpet is loose on the fifth rise, and where the single simple act of putting a key in a lock is a single simple act of breathing in. It’s where the people we love live and come home to, where the pillows smell of their hair and their shoes sit by the front door refusing to run themselves upstairs and their pictures smile in their frames, and their finger prints smear the bathroom mirror and an odd sock waits patiently in the ironing basket for its partner to be found under the bed.
Going into hiding in our cupboard under the stairs then keeps our home safe and the door stays shut because it is fastened by an invisible closed loop. The Closed Loop marriage describes a relationship where the two people who love each other most in the world stay married, but the gay one gets to have sex with anyone they want, and the wife, as McInerney says, chooses to go along with it.
Irrespective of sexuality, it is fair to say that many marriages have survived on this basis and its success relies on a contract to which both parties agree the rules, and from which both parties derive some benefit.
Clearly for him the benefits are considerable:
- He gets to have his cake
- He gets to eat his cake
But for the wife she will have to decide whether the compromises she has to make are of equal value to the preservation of her home and her marriage, and she has to choose if she is going to be happy in her cupboard under the stairs.
The power of “us”
For many years you have known that the tiny words us and we have always meant you and him, that while we struggle to find the words to describe our lives we use the words us and we as shorthand for all our shared experiences, to convey to the rest of the world that we are a couple, that we know each other, understand what the presence or the absence of a look, a touch, a word or a quietness means. We barely notice the tiny words, and we take for granted the power of what those words mean to us. And one day your husband will use those words us and we when talking about another. He doesn’t even notice it, and he doesn’t mean to hurt you, but in that moment you know how painful and powerful that slip can be. The intimacy that once existed between you has gone because it simply can’t be shared.
He won’t notice either that as he walks through the door, he brings with him an unfamiliar smell. This isn’t the smell of sex – this is the smell of other, an awareness that this is something different, like a child on their first day of school bringing back on their hair and their clothes unknown children and unknown places. This is the smell of someone else’s home, where the man you love has lain on another’s bed and left his smell on another’s pillow.
In this cupboard, he’ll say that this is the best way, that this means he won’t be promiscuous, that he will have a relatively stable and “monogamous” relationship with one man, who in turn is faithful to him. He will say that this isn’t about love, it’s just about sex. This is an unbearable paradox: youmay feel reassured that you are still loved, but hurt that he will do this to you, for someone he doesn’t even love. And one day he will say that he is “fond” of this other person, and suddenly you will long for it not to be love. He has begun something new and exciting, he can’t wait to get ready, to go out, to be wanted, to want, to be thrilled, to be alive, but none of these feelings are for you. He thinks when he is at home, he is just the same person he used to be, but you know, that what you knew, has gone.
You’ll talk and talk and talk and talk. He’ll cry, and you’ll cry, and you will be closer than you have ever been. You’ll comfort him in his transition because he’s your best friend, and yet you’ll hate him and want to find some punishment through your words and actions that will show him how much you are hurt. You’ll feel bloodied and scarred but there are no wounds for anyone to see. You’ll spend hours under the stairs negotiating the rules. You’ll agree not to talk about when he is going out and when he will be back, and then after an interminable month you’ll demand to know when he is going out and when he’ll be back, and month after month regretting both choices, but at a loss to know whether there might be a third. You’ll want to know and not know, you’ll be obsessed by who this person could possibly be. You’ll know rationally that nothing you can say, do, wear, lose, gain, embellish, reduce will make any difference but you will try them all. You will need to know that it wasn’t all a mirage, that once you were loved and wanted. And you’ll spend hours in your dark cupboard analysing every event, every absence, every business trip, every bad traffic day, every friend.
The closed loop is a noose, it restrains and restricts both of you. It prevents either of you having a life. One day he will fall in love, one day he will want more. He has already begun to move away from what was, and he may not yet have realised that he can never go back because everything from now on is better. He has put on a new pair of glasses and suddenly the world shines: everything he has denied, tried to deny, failed to realise, is in sharp focus. It feels right, he feels right. He can’t stay in the cupboard under the stairs because there is just so much happening outside. He will begin to bend the rules, he will begin to justify what he does, he will begin to open the door and let the light in.
And then, as unwilling to leave as you were to go in, you come out. Some of your friends are curious, scandalized, shocked, unsurprised. They will tell you they knew what you didn’t, that you were deluded because you couldn’t see what was obvious to them. They will talk about how hard it must have been for him and you will agree because this isn’t about you. You will feel unloved, unattractive, undesirable, a failure, stupid and exposed. You will see his life begin, and yours end. You no longer care about preserving your home because it is no longer the salve of comfort and love. You forget where the loose carpet is on the stair and your feet will slide out from under you and there is no longer anything to catch hold of.
It’s been hard to leave the cupboard, because although you know it’s dark, at least you know you are in there with him. You chose, at all costs, to try to make this a place of comfort, to be at home with the spiders and the wellingtons and the Christmas decorations. But once the door is open, your choice to stay is taken away. You have to leave and find a new place. And then one day you do. In this new home you know when to duck when you come down the stairs and you know where the tin foil is. It is still a place where people that love you come, and they still smile from their frames, and they still leave their fingerprints on the mirror. But now the single simple act of putting the key in the door is a single simple act of breathing out, and in this home, there is no cupboard under the stairs.