Four months before our wedding, we met with the vicar to talk about the ceremony. He was keen to get to know us, and to explain some of the practicalities that come with getting married in an Anglican church; for our part, there were some language issues to discuss and resolve, specifically around the overt references to God that run through the standard wedding service. Liv wrote about this on our other blog a while back, but finding a happy middle ground between my lack of faith and her quiet belief in a Christian God was incredibly important to both of us.
It is to his immense credit that Tony, our vicar, did everything he could to accommodate our various requirements. The church is not renowned for its flexibility, but he listened patiently to all our thoughts on the subject, offered a range of thoughtful suggestions, and didn’t once question whether a church wedding was a suitable option for us, given both my agnosticism and my unwillingness to feign belief. The end result was a ceremony that felt meaningful, personal, and above all honest – something for which Tony will always have our sincere gratitude.
That said, and despite all our careful planning, there was one small and somewhat unwelcome surprise to navigate in church that day. When we combed through the wedding service in May, we were delighted to see that the line ‘…forsaking all others’ had apparently been expunged from the basic text. As a non-monogamous couple with no intention of treating marriage as an arbitrary end point to the sexual freedom we’ve always granted each other, omitting any reference to fidelity made complete sense, and relieved us of any obligation to lie in front of family, friends, and (in Liv’s case) God. While neither of us had given it much thought before that afternoon, it felt like a lovely little bonus.
Unfortunately, fate – or Reverend Tony, at any rate – had other ideas. As the words came out of his mouth, I remember flicking my eyes over to Liv for the briefest of moments – less in alarm than in amusement. ‘Expect the unexpected’ is a pretty good mantra to keep in mind when planning a wedding, but of all the moments to have its prescience confirmed…! I think I was still smiling when the moment came to signal my assent. “I will,” I said. I will love her, comfort her, honour and protect her, and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as we both shall live. Yes. Yes I will!
And I meant it. I only unpicked and fleshed out the reasons why I meant it in the weeks after the wedding, but at that moment in church, with all those eyes on us, there was suddenly no conflict at all between the promise I was making and the type of marriage I knew we’d have. It didn’t feel like a fudge, or something I just had to swallow for the sake of our audience; it felt good. It felt right.
Because when you break it down, what does ‘forsaking all others’ actually involve? It doesn’t impel us to abandon our families, nor to put aside our friends. In fact, it says nothing at all about the close relationships we have with the other people in our lives, and offers no definition of the fidelity for which it asks. Instead it relies for context on our innate, cultural understanding of marriage, and on the values ascribed to it over the centuries by a range of (predominantly conservative) institutions. The result is a declaration that conflates fidelity with sexual or romantic exclusivity – in most people’s minds, at least.
Is that set in stone? No, it bloody well is not. Even within the social paradigm of a traditional, monogamous marriage, there is no clear and universal test to determine what constitutes a breach of that clause. Depending on your outlook, it can mean anything from a few flirty text messages to a full-blown affair, with a range of other tipping-points littered on the battlefield between those two extremes. For those couples who follow a different pattern altogether, any cookie-cutter interpretation of ‘forsaking’ simply isn’t going to reflect our (diverse!) realities.
No wonder that’s the case. All relationships are unique, however hard their protagonists may try to argue otherwise. It’s a funny thing: we’re (rightly) happy to think of ourselves and our partners as special in so many ways, but most of us also tie ourselves in knots trying to jam the complex set of interactions that makes up our shared world into a generic framework, the various norms of which provide comfort and guidance, as well as an anchor to hold us steady in a place we instinctively understand – or have been socialised to recognise.
Step outside the dominant, monogamous framework, and you’re almost forced to examine the specifics in more detail. Yes, non-monogamy and polyamory absolutely have their own big buckets – their own sweeping generalisations – but the terrain that fills them is still fresh enough to actively encourage exploratory digging. In the relative absence of guiding principles, terms are routinely negotiated, rather than assumed, and relationships are built bottom-up as a result.
For me, ‘forsaking all others’ is an affirmation of the apex role our life together occupies in my thinking, and in my decision-making. Regardless of friends and family – of who else we choose to bang or which other relationships blossom and fade over the years – Livvy will always come first. The future we build won’t be conditional on plans I make with anyone else, because my commitment to her is absolute. It’s the bedrock without which everything else would crumble, which is why it felt important enough to formalise with a wedding ceremony in the first place.
That’s not to say I don’t respect the hell out of people who make non-hierarchical polyamory work for them! I do: it’s just not the kind of relationship we want – as Liv explained in this blog post back in April. The freedom we each have to see other people exists only because we’re both 100% confident in the strength and primacy of our love for one another. That confidence is our insulation against jealousy, insecurity, and fear; more positively, it’s the catalyst for all the exploration and fun that’s filled our life together from day one. It’s a virtuous circle, which I have no intention of breaking.
In the end, that’s what the fidelity clause in our wedding declaration means to me. I consider it a promise to keep faith with the foundational principles that underpin our relationship. A promise always to put her first – to put us first – and in so doing to forsake all other claims on my basic priorities. It doesn’t mean I won’t have sex with anyone else, nor even that I won’t form emotionally deep or complex bonds with my secondary partners – those are practical issues for us to discuss and negotiate as a couple, and to revisit periodically as our circumstances, feelings, and responsibilities evolve. We will always jointly set our own boundaries, and those boundaries belong to us. They’re not society’s business, and they certainly don’t require any blessing from the church!
But we’re a team now. A family unit. Husband and wife. Our lives are interwoven and we’ll chart our future course together; wherever that journey takes us, I’ll be faithful to it – for as long as we both shall live.