Masha Halevi, a 44-year-old Israeli woman from Shoham, did her doctorate in geography on places sacred to Christianity. So it may be surprising that her status today, in total contradiction to the view of Christianity – or most other religions – is married + boyfriend.
Four and a half years ago, on her 40th birthday, a dramatic change took place in her life. “Apparently as part of the crisis of turning 40,” she admits. “I saw a film that suddenly aroused in me a desire for a similar wild love affair, and I kept thinking: Will it never happen to me again? I want to divorce and fall in love again. And then I met someone on the internet, and became [openly] conscious of these needs. I couldn’t think about cheating, and I didn’t want to divorce. I discovered that there’s such a thing as an open relationship. I told my husband that that was what I wanted.”
Her husband’s initial reaction was firm opposition. But after two months of discussion and hesitation, he agreed to try. “At the time there was only one forum in Hebrew on the subject, which itself had one point of view, and we had to invent everything from the beginning. My husband was afraid that we were playing with fire, and that we wouldn’t survive it. In the end he understood better than I that I needed it, and that if it didn’t happen - I would be so frustrated that in the end I would get up and leave. We decided that in any case, this wouldn’t break us up. We were very compatible after 15 years of love, forgiveness, support, a security net and great cooperation in the house with three children. We said that we’d find a way, that we’d move forward and backward until it worked out. And that’s what we did. After the fact, with all the mistakes, I think that our behavior was right."
Today she has a husband and she also has a boyfriend. “The same boyfriend from the beginning, for the past four years. I’m quite conservative after all. My boyfriend is married in an open marriage and he has a family, so that it’s balanced.” Only after half a year, when she realized that it wasn’t going to change - after her husband told her that “he no longer understood monogamy” - she began telling her friends. Two and a half years ago she wrote a revealing post on Facebook, and very soon was being interviewed on television.
It was after she had gone public that Halevi began to feel uneasy. “I felt that I had to prove that I was normal in other ways. For example, I needed my daughter’s hair to be combed and her ponytail in place, so people wouldn’t think that I was a mother who neglected her children while she's spending time with her boyfriend. I still didn’t know if the people around me knew. It was quiet.”
Did they know?
“And how. At a school event I quietly asked one of the fathers, who was a friend, and who congratulated me on my ‘career change,’ whether people knew about me. He told me that when I was interviewed by Amnon Levy on TV, within an hour, everyone in Shoham knew, there were WhatsApp messages and phone calls - 'Turn on the television quickly.' And then, next to the food table, one of the mothers said to me, 'You probably know what I think.’ But I didn’t know. There I was, standing there, waiting for her to hand down her judgment, while she was piling food on her plate. Finally, she told me, 'I really envy you.' But not everyone is envious, some of them judge me."
After Halevi was interviewed by a local newspaper, and described her decision to be with two sexual partners, a barrage of angry comments appeared online. “There were a lot of curses in the talkbacks – slut, whore, you’re bringing down the country, because of you Jewish children were burned in Brooklyn,” she says. “By the first evening after publication there were 800 hate responses - that really shook me up, I cried all night. It was beyond the abuse experienced by every woman who dares to talk about sex, or to actually do it - and not even in the context of marriage.”
When Halevi, who now runs a website called “From Monogamy to Open Relationships,” began to analyze the responses, she realized that what people were reflecting was “a shakeup of the most basic world order. If it’s possible to question something as axiomatic as monogamy - where does that leave us? If you can cast doubt even on that, you can cast doubt on anything, and then how do we know what’s right, what’s wrong, where the boundaries are, how we're supposed behave in a world like that.
“Polyamory really is shaking up things, because it allows you to take apart everything that used to be included in a single package - to separate sex from parenthood, parenthood from partner relationships, one woman can have two children by two men and be in a relationship with a third man. For the government and the bureaucracy, that’s problematic. My husband, for example, was offered a new job that required relocating, and then the company heard about me and began to ask - What does that mean? Who else will be traveling with you? Who's going to require health insurance? Emigration based on which relationship? Monogamy is convenient for the bureaucracy and provides a wrapping of security, but it also destroys the relationship. Many people either cheat or feel that they’re missing out on something.”
Autonomy and freedom
Halevi immigrated to Israel at the age of 7, settling in Jerusalem. “A good Russian girl who played piano and violin and studied music in high school. I always was very mainstream until recently. When I grew up I became a tour guide.”
Let’s define "polyamory" - a relationship based on love with more than one partner. But to be frank, we’re actually talking about sex.
“You don’t have to downplay the importance of sex - it’s a central part of our lives - but it’s also about autonomy, about my freedom. I can be myself without hiding my fantasies and urges and loves. Everywhere we wear masks and feel guilt and shame. The fact that I can talk about everything and don’t have to keep secrets is priceless.”
How many people live in consensual non-monogamous relationships?
“In the United States, the estimate is 5 percent of the population, about 15 million people. A study this year found that almost a quarter of the singles in the United States have tried this kind of relationship. Awareness of the issue has increased lately, to the point where I’ve seen complaints on Facebook.”
A kind of trend. Has it already reached mainstream art? Hollywood?
“On ‘House of Cards,’ the president and his wife live that way, but it’s presented as something bad - done for economic and political reasons. It’s definitely beginning to enter television and films more, and academia is more interested in the subject than in the past.”
Do you and your husband know each other’s partners?
“My husband knows my boyfriend, and I know my boyfriend’s wife, and sometimes we even go out for coffee together. I know who my husband’s girlfriend is, but I haven’t met her. We’re quite private. Every two or three weeks we update one another.”
Some people say that polyamory is a capitalist consumer concept - sanctifying choice, taking what you need from each person - money, sex, family life, security.
“Monogamy is a consumer concept to the same degree. Both are strategies for fulfilling needs. Monogamy is a solution for needs such as security, certainly. Non-monogamous relationships are a solution for things like freedom, excitement, for some people sexuality.”
How did your children react?
“Our children are 13, 11 and 6. When we came out of the closet, we spoke to them and told them that we believed that one can love more people, and Mom and Dad have another boyfriend and girlfriend. When he was 11, the eldest said: So what’s the problem with that? I recently asked him how he feels about it and he said that he liked being special.”
What have you learned about love from this experience?
“Today I understand that there are many people who could suit me, not just one person in the world. People should know that if someone dies or leaves them, it's not the end of the world. When you know that you’re going to be monogamous, you can’t allow yourself any compromises, because how are you going to marry someone who has a flaw that bothers you? It limits the number of people to whom you can open your heart. Today I can permit myself to go out with someone whom I wouldn’t want to marry, and still be in a good relationship with him.”
What’s hard for you?
“For a year maybe, I mourned the dream of monogamy and the romantic dream that it’s possible to be fulfilled by one person forever. First I dealt with fears and jealousy, and now I’m in a place where I’m happy and calm, but still passionate.”
Who usually initiates the opening of a marriage?
“Almost always the woman. I think it has an element of female empowerment, because throughout history, men were free to cheat or to marry additional women. European royalty became monogamous only in the 12th century, and even then kings had several lovers. Their children [from those relationships] were illegitimate, which reduced the battles over inheritance. And there’s the concept 'boys will be boys.' Women didn’t have that freedom until the advent of financial independence and birth control - which enable women to enjoy sex without sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy and to be free to leave when they’re not happy. So I think it’s a continuation of female empowerment, and it’s no coincidence that more women choose it.”