An ode to unconventional relationships

At University I took course entitled Feminism, Stories of Love and Desire. During this ten week course we studied various novels by French female writers which talked about feminism, love, unconventional relationships and sex.  We discussed these novels in class.  It probably won’t surprise you to hear that we discussed sex in class a lot too.

One of these novels really struck a chord with me, and today, nearly fifteen years later, I am thinking about this novel again.

The book was called Les Vaisseaux du Coeur by Benoîte Groult.  Les Vaisseaux du Coeur literally translates as The Vessels of the Heart, but when it was made into a film it was given the English title Salt on our Skin. 

Les Vaisseaux du Coeur is about a female Parisian intellectual who has a decades long ‘relationship’ (liaison might be a better descriptor here) with a Breton sailor.  They meet with varying frequency over the years, often in exotic locations, to escape, to indulge and to have sex.  Good sex! (Like I said, we discussed the sex A LOT in class). 

Early on in their unconventional relationship he asks her to marry him.  She declines. As a Parisian intellectual she cannot envisage a future as a sailor’s wife.  Their liaison continues in secret (he ends up marrying someone else) and they meet, at least twice a year, for the next 20 or so years. 

There are two things about their unconventional relationship that I do not like. 

First, I cannot condone the extra-marital affair that he undertakes and that she is complicit in. Although I am not married, and have never been married, marriage is an institution that I believe in. Once two people have made a promise to each other I think they should keep it.  I am sorry if I am being excessively traditional in this regard.

My second dislike with regard to their unconventional relationship is perhaps more subtle and relates to their social class.  There is an implied superiority / inferiority dynamic in their relationship. She is the intellectual; he is the dullard.  She is refined; he is a sexual beast.  She is a city dweller; he is most definitely not.  She is complex; he is simple. 

Les Vaisseaux du Coeur is branded a piece of feminist literature.  If the roles were reversed and she were the dullard, simple, country bumpkin sex object and he were the refined Parisian intellectual, I can’t help but think that feminists would be up in arms.  How dare a novel objectify, simplify, patronise a woman like that?  To me, feminism is about achieving equality of the sexes.  If Les Vaisseaux du Coeur is ‘feminist’ literature, it is certainly not a brand of Feminism that I would subscribe to. 

I was thinking about Les Vaisseaux du Coeur today because, like the protagonists in Groult’s novel, I need some time just to focus on me.  In fact, having left a controlling relationship not so long ago I need to focus on restoring me. 

unconventional relationships

These days, I often feel that I live three parallel lives. 

First,  there’s the planet of Cygnet.  My son and the apple of my eye, he is the person who I look at and wonder what I have done to be so lucky in life. When I am with Cygnet I am with Cygnet 100%.  He has my undivided attention … or at least that’s the aim.  He still managed to cuddle a random stranger from behind (thinking she was me) as I knelt down to pick up my dropped keys in a coffee shop at the weekend. 

Then there’s the planet of work.  I returned to work when Cygnet was 7 months old, 6 weeks after I had separated from his father.  Cygnet’s father and I were still living together. It was an horrendous time and sometimes I look back and wonder how I got through it.  But I did get through it. I got through it by using my work as my escape.  By focussing 100% on work during the hours I was there (which are full time hours) I was able to put the other stresses to one side.  Not forever, but for eight hours a day 5 days a week.  The distraction of work got me through a difficult time. I also excelled.  I am proud to say that when I am at work I excel.  When I am not at work I don’t even think about it.

Thirdly, there’s the planet of ‘me time’.  This time is limited.   In my experience, and I recognise that my experience is different from many single mothers, one of the differences between lone parenting and couple parenting is that as a coupled parent you may get your free time in short but frequent bursts.  Your partner might take your little one to the park for a couple of hours while you meet a friend for coffee or have your nails done. Wishful thinking?  Sorry!

My experience as a single parent is that this ‘me time’ comes less frequently but in larger chunks.  For me these are chunks of 24 hours when I can get my nails done, go to a gallery, meet a friend for dinner and the theatre and get an uninterrupted nights sleep. In reality I tend to do the washing and strip some wallpaper and potentially dabble in a bit of dating.

I feel like my three planets are being held in a solar system at a precise distance from each other by a series of complex and delicate magnetic fields.  It is a tenuous and temporary balance, easily disrupted. 

A don’t think that my delicate solar system could cope with another planet, a planet of relationships entering the magnetic field.

I already have a fractious co-parenting relationship with my ex.  We are currently going through a difficult patch as he is being his normal controlling self and I am trying to pluck up the courage to resist (more on this in a future post).

I often think about the challenges that a prospective partner would face entering into a relationship with me.  The ex…the omnipresent ex…who still dictates my mood and sometimes my self-esteem will be around for the next couple of decades.  

Then I think about the challenge of ‘blended’ families and step parents and logistics and finances and the complication. Oh my god the complication!  I just can’t face it.  My three delicate planets would collide and explode.  I don’t think that I could manage it, or that I want to try to manage it.

So this is where, at the end of this blog post, I finally return to Les Vaisseaux du Coeur.  Putting aside the extramarital affair and putting aside the inequality in the relationship, there is something about the relationship described by Groult that is very appealing. 

I could meet with someone twice a year, we’d perhaps have some sex, but we’d definitely have a lot of relaxed, meandering and indulgent conversation.  Conversations that don’t have to end because a deadline has to be met, or because routines and complicated schedules have to be followed, or because we are just so bloody knackered by the complication of it all that we just don’t know who we are any more.  This is what I want.  This kind of relationship really appeals. 

I want the easy-going, the unconventional, the escapist, the part-time, no not even the part-time, the very-little-time version of a relationship. 

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  1. April 7, 2016 / 9:27 pm

    It sounds like you have had such a tough time since your little boy was born. My little girl is just 7 months and I went back to work on Monday, it has been horrendous for a few reasons but I can’t imagine going through it all without the support of my husband. You are superwoman! I loved reading this and hope you manage to fit in some more ‘you time’ when you can! Jemma x

    • thesingleswan
      April 9, 2016 / 7:57 pm

      Thanks Jemma, I hope that being back at work isn’t too stressful. It’s tough, but you’ll get through it. Good luck. x

  2. April 7, 2016 / 10:34 pm

    I couldn’t possibly comment 😀 xx

    • thesingleswan
      April 9, 2016 / 7:56 pm

      Well, thanks for commenting anyway. Pen x

    • thesingleswan
      April 9, 2016 / 7:55 pm

      Ah, thank you! That’s so nice of you to say. I hope I don’t disappoint. Pen x

  3. April 8, 2016 / 11:41 am

    What a refreshing post, you write like a dream btw- and I think you are right, it is absolutely down to the individual to decide what works for them relationship-wise. You are right about the inequality of the narrative, no doubt in fitting with the period. We still have a way to go for real equality but hopefully class boundaries don’t exist and prevent love in the way they once did. Thanks for linking up to #brilliantblogposts
    Honest Mum recently posted…Confessions of a Dietitian Mum: What I Actually Feed my Children by Laura ClarkMy Profile

    • thesingleswan
      April 9, 2016 / 7:54 pm

      Hi Vicki,

      thank you for such a nice compliment. It means a lot. It is always a pleasure to link up to #brilliantblogposts . Pen x x

  4. April 8, 2016 / 4:00 pm

    I was totally lost in your writing while reading this. I love your reference to the book, and your critique of its standards, then ultimately picking out the parts which actually appeal to your own complex situation.
    Don’t give up on a complex blended family – as a child of one, they are crazy but can be packed to the brim with love, experiences and are they are definitelt not all bad…
    Thanks for linking up to #coolmumclub
    MMT recently posted…#coolmumclub: Meet the Members…Life, love and dirty dishesMy Profile

    • thesingleswan
      April 9, 2016 / 7:53 pm

      Thank you for such a nice compliment. I won’t give up on the idea of a complex blended family. I just know that I am not ready to tackle one yet. Thanks for your comment. Pen x

  5. April 9, 2016 / 8:35 am

    I love the description of your three planets and the way they are held in delicate balance. I’ve never read Les Vaisseaux du Coeur – it sounds like an interesting book but I agree with you that if those kinds of roles were reversed, feminists would be up in arms about it and denigrating men is not my brand of feminism either. I can certainly see why that kind of unconventional relationship could be appealing though.
    Louise (Little Hearts, Big Love) recently posted…Easter Trail at Black ParkMy Profile

    • thesingleswan
      April 9, 2016 / 7:51 pm

      Hi Louise,

      Thanks for your comments and your compliments!

      All the best Pen x

  6. April 10, 2016 / 9:21 am

    Your three worlds sound very similar to mine, except that my “me time” seems to be entirely taken up with blogging (which I would imagine a significant portion of yours is too). For me, the set-up is slightly different, because as Piglet doesn’t have a father, there is no one to take him out on occasion (if I consider the remote possibility of ever having a relationship, I guess this would be a bonus), but I do live with my mum at the moment, so she can keep an eye on him for short periods if I need to do something. The novel sounds interesting. I guess at the time it would have been regarded as feminist because it was flipping generally accepted gender norms, even if it isn’t strictly representing true equality. I’m sure that the idea that a woman could be fulfilled in a relationship that wasn’t about marriage and children was pretty scandalous at the time. #KCACOLS
    Min recently posted…In Praise of the Mum Cut *My Profile

    • thesingleswan
      April 10, 2016 / 8:29 pm

      Hi Min,

      I guess you are right. Groult wrote Les Vaisseaux du Coeur in 1988. That doesn’t feel that long ago to me, but then I guess I still feel young and need to face the reality that I am not! I guess even in the late 80s a relationship that wasn’t about marriage and children probably was a bit scandalous. Thanks for your comment, and I am glad I am not the only one who doesn’t just live on a different planet, but lives on three different planets and hops between them.

      See you soon

      Pen xx

  7. April 10, 2016 / 12:09 pm

    I’ve never read that, I’ll have to check it out – though I agree with you on the extra-marital side of things. I like my romance (and, er, less on the romance) fiction to not involve cheating. I don’t care how unrealistic the not cheating is, lol.

    I think when you’re ready to invite someone else into your lives it will happen. I had a really casual relationship with Marianna’s dad for a couple of years – we liked each other but wouldn’t do more than text once or twice for weeks at a time, there was no pressure to be all coupley and joined at the hip, etc – and then eventually it fell into place and we moved onto the next stage. x

    Thanks so much for linking up at #KCACOLS. Hope you come back again next Sunday!
    Jess Powell (Babi a Fi) recently posted…This Week #30My Profile

    • thesingleswan
      April 10, 2016 / 8:24 pm

      Hi Jess, thanks for your comment. I really like the way you’ve described things all falling into place. That is what I would like to happen. I would like things to fall into place rather than having to engineer everything. All the best and thanks again for the comment. Pen x

  8. April 10, 2016 / 12:20 pm

    I can totally see why you kind of agree and disagree with the novel in different ways. It seems quite appealing I guess for where you are now in your life with Cygnet. You never know in future; things may settle and you may see a new relationship in a different light. I have a step-father and all was fine. Like anything, new territory always takes a bit of getting used to. Good luck and thanks for sharing with #bestandworst xx
    Sarah Howe (@RunJumpScrap) recently posted…My Happy List Week #8My Profile

    • thesingleswan
      April 10, 2016 / 8:22 pm

      Thanks Sarah. You are right, we never know where life is headed. That’s what makes it exciting! thanks for your comment. x

  9. April 10, 2016 / 12:51 pm

    I think there is such a wide range of ‘relationships’ these days. There are so many that would be considered unconventional, that they are probably more ‘normal’ than the 2.4 children thing!
    Whatever works for you at the time I think. I can totally see why you are thinking this way too, and with your little one and your ex the way he sounds, why not!
    P.S. Love how you linked this post in with a book. I haven’t read it, but I like it.
    Amanda. #kcacols
    Amanda recently posted…Guest Post. Ten Deserts Inspired by Books! by Andrea LochenMy Profile

    • thesingleswan
      April 10, 2016 / 8:21 pm

      Thanks Amanda,

      People seem to like the book link – I will do this more I think. I might have to find more time to read. Loads of love Pen x

  10. Sarah
    April 10, 2016 / 2:53 pm

    I find a lot of feminist tomes tend to make men flat characters. But then that seems to be part of the aim. I’ll have to give this one a read – totally agree with you re the affairs though. #KCACOLS

    • thesingleswan
      April 10, 2016 / 8:20 pm

      Yes, this is very true. If I am to be a Feminist then I certainly don’t want to be condemned to flat men (neither literally nor metaphorically ;-)) thanks for your comment. Pen x

  11. April 10, 2016 / 7:11 pm

    Sometimes people think my relationship with my husband is unconventional because of how little time I spend with him but we’ve always been this way so it’s the norm for me and can’t be help because it’s his job. Each to their own is my opinion. I love how you link this post to a book and also how you use planets as metaphors for your life #KCACOLS
    Becky @ Educating Roversi recently posted…Incognito TeacherMy Profile

    • thesingleswan
      April 10, 2016 / 8:18 pm

      thank you Becky. I am really glad you enjoyed the post. Pen x

    • thesingleswan
      April 10, 2016 / 8:17 pm

      Thank you. I appreciate it. Yes, I’ve had a rocky time, but actually life is pretty good. Thanks for your comment. Pen x

  12. April 11, 2016 / 8:11 am

    What a great post. As a former single mom I can completely understand how you feel. Most people don’t understand why I feel lucky my ex walked away within a year of our separating and never looked back. It wasn’t easy but it was one less horrible thing to deal with. I remember being where you are, and I don’t blame you! The idea of bringing someone new into my world and my son’s was terrifying. Obviously I did, since I remarried, but it was a very bumpy road! Good luck, stay focused on your worlds and do what is best for you and your minion! #KCACOLS
    Allyson Greene recently posted…Dear Baby Boy: Why I Write my Son LettersMy Profile

    • thesingleswan
      April 11, 2016 / 8:13 pm

      Thank you Allyson and I really appreciate other people sharing their stories in the comments of my blog. I really do enjoy reading them, particularly, obviously, when they are stories of encouragement like yours. thanks Pen x

  13. April 11, 2016 / 11:39 am

    Everyone’s got to figure out these things in their own way according to their circumstances I think … Good luck as you do that for you

    • thesingleswan
      April 11, 2016 / 8:12 pm

      Thank you!

      Pen x

  14. April 13, 2016 / 6:07 pm

    I think our ex’s might be the same person 🙂 I am with you, there are not enough hours in the day to fit everything in. I haven’t been on social media much recently as a result. Single parenting is just tough. I see the appeal in your vision of a future relationship. Polly x
    Our Seaside Baby recently posted…Silent SundayMy Profile

    • thesingleswan
      April 13, 2016 / 6:47 pm

      Hi Polly,

      I hope you are well. Yes, I think our exes might be the same person. And you are right, there are not enough hours in the day to fit everything in. I end up staying up later and later and later and just look exhausted at work. But, by the time I have put Cygnet to bed, done a load of admin and washing etc and then sat down to have a glass of wine it is often really late. Ah well. good to hear from you. Pen x

      • April 13, 2016 / 9:24 pm

        Hi Pen, I am well thanks although some days are better than others, I’m sure you can relate! I am starting to look like a zombie, caused by sleep deprivation that is usually self-inflicted. How are things with you? Have you been to any good exhibitions in London recently? I haven’t been to any in ages and miss them so will venture up to London soon for a child-free day out to get my fix. Any recommendations welcome 🙂 Polly x
        Our Seaside Baby recently posted…Silent SundayMy Profile

        • thesingleswan
          April 15, 2016 / 9:27 pm

          Hi Polly,

          I know exactly what you mean. By the time I manage to get into bed it is often really late. Even though Cygnet sleeps well – for that I am really lucky – I often look like a total Zombie. Cygnet was with Daddy tonight so I went to the circus on the Southbank. It was breathtaking. I am going to Undressed: A brief history of underwear – an exhibition at the V&A tomorrow. I will let you know all about it. Loads of love Polly. Hang on in there. Pen x

  15. April 14, 2016 / 8:44 am

    I’ve never heard of, or read that book before, but your description of it has definitely piqued my interest! I think I may try and find it.
    You know, humans are super resistant to change. It’s scary, and it disrupts our comfortability. Of course you’d be afraid of adding another planet, you’ve worked so hard on perfecting the balance of the ones you have. But the quote that says “In the end it all works out” really isn’t a lie. Somehow, someway, things always seem to work out.
    Try not to stress about it too much and just let things fall into place <3 #KCACOLS

    • thesingleswan
      April 15, 2016 / 9:24 pm

      thanks Savannah, I am working hard to perfect the balance, and there are times when that balance does in fact feel about right. I am scared to disrupt it. Thanks for your comment. Pen x

  16. April 15, 2016 / 1:02 pm

    I agree there are many different boxes we put ourselves into to categorize the different roles we have to play. Relationships are another thing altogether, good luck with the dating game, enjoy a bit of fun. I used to see dating when I was a single mum as a bit like having my nails done or a spa day…something just for me;)

    mainy – myrealfairy
    mainy – myrealfairy recently posted…Bee House….is it a good idea with kids?!!!My Profile

    • thesingleswan
      April 15, 2016 / 9:21 pm

      Hi Mainy,
      that is a very good way to put it. Dating is just for me and it is going to stay like that. It shouldn’t be stressful, just fun and relaxing. Thanks for your comment. Pen x

  17. April 16, 2016 / 11:22 am

    Such a interesting post and attention grabbing post. It sounds like life hasn’t been the easiest for you. But one thing is for sure your love for your son shines through! Xx #KCACOLS
    Mommy’s Little Princesses recently posted…Exploring Filey…My Profile

    • thesingleswan
      April 16, 2016 / 8:39 pm

      Thank you. That’s a lovely thing to say. Pen x

  18. April 18, 2016 / 5:14 am

    Such an intelligent, well thought through and beautifully written post. It’s interesting to see how feminism is interpreted by different authors. I subscribe to your brand of feminism where it’s equality between men and women that’s important (including equal pay grrrr…) rather than one sex being dominant over the other and as Vicki mentions in her comment I guess books are a reflection of their time. I hope that you continue to find the balance between your worlds and that whatever your relationship status, you and Cygnet are happy. Because really that’s all that matters, at the end of the day. Thank you so much for linking this up at #sharethejoy (and I’d love you to link up your post about female masturbation too this week if you have the time!)

    • thesingleswan
      April 18, 2016 / 9:02 pm

      Hi Michelle,

      thanks very much for your lovely comment and it is always a pleasure to link up to #sharethejoy. I will link my post on female masturbation, it seems to have gone down quite well (no pun intended ;-)). All the best. Pen xx

  19. April 26, 2016 / 4:30 am

    Mmmm, reading about Les Vaisseaux du Coeur reminded me of Jean Paul Satre and Simone de Beauvoir’s unconventional relationship. With your background you probably know it better than I do, but she, a self-proclaimed feminist, would go and pick up young women, many of them college students and in awe of their lover(s), for menage a trois. In later life I believe Satre himself acknowledged this wasn’t exactly model feminist behaviour and de Beauvoir got herself in all sorts of trouble during her lifetime. It sounded dreadfully exploitative to me, which can be the issue with unconventional relationships (although let’s not pretend otherwise; conventional ones are sometimes exploitative too). Anyway, I wish you well on your quest to find “me” time and fulfilment.
    John Adams recently posted…Fighting fatigue with Energex PlusMy Profile

    • thesingleswan
      April 26, 2016 / 7:23 pm

      Hi John,

      Thanks for your comment. I read a biography of Sartre a decade or so ago and, as you might expect, his ‘open’ relationship with De Beauvoir came up. The biography portrayed their unconventional relationship as being more on his terms and to his benefit than to hers. She apparently pined his attention and the security that a monogamous relationship with him would have given her. I don’t really know what the lesson is here…perhaps that unconventional relationships always end up exploiting one or other partner, or perhaps that both individuals need to be open and honest with each other about the kind of relationship that they want so that they can make it work for both of them.
      thanks for your comment John


      Pen x

  20. May 3, 2016 / 1:30 pm

    I loved your image of the three planets held in perfect but precarious balance. I hope you find the relationship you seek – and maybe one day, some space for someone who can support (not financially! I know you have that covered) and cherish you and Cygnet.
    Jess Paterson recently posted…Are You Guilty Of Treating All Your Children The Same?My Profile

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