Sydney Morning Herald, October 30, 2020
This year, my best friend and I will celebrate our 20th anniversary of living together. Twenty years in a relationship that, for a long time, I have struggled to describe. We are friends, companions, emotional but not sexual intimates, and we’ve built a partnership that shares attributes with traditional marriage, open marriage and polyamory. As our significant anniversary looms, I’ve been looking back over our time together and attempting to find a definition for what we are.
I first met Susie in 1995 when I abandoned my fledging career as a jobbing actor to move to Edinburgh with my then-boyfriend. He and I rented a room in Susie’s flat for our first nine months there. I felt an instant connection to her and we soon became good friends. Even when my partner and I moved into our own place, my friendship with Susie continued.
Having both sacrificed our creativity in relationships, we resolved to help each other realise our dreams.
Three years later, my relationship had turned toxic: I was physically unwell, desperately unhappy and trapped. One morning I told my boyfriend I was going out for a newspaper and never returned. Instead, I turned up on Susie’s doorstep. She took me in and had the strength and tenacity to extricate me from the situation. The intense experience bonded us and deepened our friendship.
At that point, I was a 28-year-old jaded serial monogamist with no desire for another relationship with a man. I wanted to live life on my own terms, and assumed that once I was back on my feet I’d leave Susie and move into a place of my own.
But, as time passed, we realised we loved cohabiting. I was happy around her, and her infectious enthusiasm for life filled me with optimism for the future. Her fierce loyalty and her belief in me made me feel secure. I didn’t want to move out – and Susie didn’t want me to leave.
At that time, she was 35 years old, had experienced several long-term relationships with men and, like me, had no desire to rush into another. She was working towards setting up her own arts funding organisation and wanted to focus on that.
We both felt a sense we were destined to share some kind of adventure. Unsure of what we were heading into, we decided to carry on. Our relationship differed from anything I saw around me. Our close friends, seeing our happiness, didn’t question our arrangement. Our families, while not always understanding our choices, did embrace the situation.
Other people speculated. Were we just friends, or were we in a lesbian relationship? What exactly was going on? Not fitting into a clear category was at times confusing for us, too, and something we discussed. We were more than friends, but less than lovers. We felt loving towards one another, but neither of us wanted to pursue a sexual relationship.
The connections that mattered to us were those of the heart, mind and soul. It seems obvious now, but what we were struggling to articulate was a deep, platonic love. A struggle not aided by the fact that society and those around us didn’t appear to recognise this as a valid and positive relationship option, but it was the option we chose to build something permanent together.
We lived together like a couple – bringing each other tea in the morning and discussing our plans for the day. But, like all healthy partnerships, we also operated as individuals, pursuing friends and interests of our own, and although we kept separate bank accounts, we discussed money regularly.
Susie owned our flat, but we considered it a joint asset. Yet as we built this home life together, I never felt our relationship embodied the routine, comfortable companionship some couples reach after many years together. Our connection constantly forced us to examine our hopes for the future. To challenge each other to become the women we aspired to be.
Intrigued to explore whether there was a precedent for our relationship, I discovered that in the US in the early 1900s, some educated women were exploring an alternative to heterosexual marriage. In 1880, a third of all American college students were women, and after college half of them remained unmarried because they found it impossible to merge domesticity with academic aspirations.
To live independently of men and pursue their intellectual and artistic goals, women graduates lived together in a life partnership that became known as a “Boston marriage”, a term associated with Henry James’s 1886 novel The Bostonians. While some Boston marriages may have included sexual intimacy, others did not.
My relationship with Susie shares similarities with a platonic Boston marriage. Having both sacrificed our creativity in relationships, we resolved to help each other realise our dreams.
After ruling out acting, I was uncertain what to do next. Susie encouraged me to write, a path I’d contemplated but lacked the confidence to follow. With her emotional and financial support, I reduced my working hours and began to write short stories.
After securing a scholarship, I took a PhD in creative writing at the University of Edinburgh and started the novel that eventually became She Chose Me, a psychological thriller, published in 2018. In return, I supported Susie’s ambition to start her arts organisation, which we achieved in 2015 with the launch of The Bridge Awards.
In keeping with a Boston marriage, neither of us had a desire to be with a man full-time, and we both, for different reasons, knew motherhood wasn’t our destiny. While our lives benefit hugely from the input of our male friends, colleagues and, occasionally, lovers, we’ve always found aspects of being in a traditional male-female couple restrictive.
I also have lousy taste in men. Apart from a few lovely exes, I’ve favoured narcissistic bad boys who took over my life and derailed it. With Susie, I have someone who cares for me and has my best interests at heart. What more could I want?
We have always discussed our desire to enjoy sexual intimacy with others and have both had male lovers. We never hide these relationships from each other, but we try to respect each other’s right to a private life. And we have always been honest with these partners about our arrangement. Most men have been accepting, although some have found it too unconventional.
Apart from a few lovely exes, I’ve favoured narcissistic bad boys who took over my life and derailed it. With Susie, I have someone who cares for me and has my best interests at heart.
Susie and I don’t always approve of each other’s choice of partner. She will always tell me what I least want to hear, and, infuriatingly, she is usually right. Likewise, I can be very blunt when I think Susie is involved with the wrong person. But we’ve both learnt to express our opinion without interfering and to trust that the other person will take the advice when ready.
I’m often asked if my friendship with Susie prevents us from finding a “real” relationship, and my answer is always no. Maybe one day, one of us will meet a potentially full-time romantic partner. If that happens, we will find a way to make it work. If it doesn’t work, it’s not the right person.
We’ve already brought another like-minded woman into the fold. Some years ago, Susie reconnected with Mary, an old friend from Australia. Like us, she was independent and admired the set-up we had.
Now she stays with us for part of the year and we visit her in Australia. Mary’s presence has transformed our lives for the better. She is a powerhouse of a woman and possesses a practicality both Susie and I lack. We wouldn’t be celebrating our 20th anniversary without her.
For Debbie, leaving her husband of 21 years marked the end of her loneliness
I don’t want to give the impression we exist in an all-female utopia. Far from it. Three opinionated women under one roof does not always a joyous household make.
Last year presented us with our biggest challenge to date. While on holiday in Australia with Mary, Susie was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. When she phoned and told me, my reaction was visceral. I was in shock, unable to stop crying and shaking. As soon as she arrived back in the UK to start treatment, practical demands took over, and I had to put my fears aside. Her survival was non-negotiable.
I could not – and would not – accept a future without her in it. After eight months of treatment, she’s now free from cancer, and the three of us are even more determined to live life on our own terms.
I don’t know if other people will come into our lives, but I do know that Susie, Mary and I have signed up to share the journeys of illness, old age and death together. Call me morbid, but I can’t think of anything more romantic than that.