Actress Maria Bello has appeared in some of the most striking films and television shows of the last decade: “A History of Violence,” “Prime Suspect,” and most recently, the summer crime thriller “Prisoners,” with Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman, to name just a few. But despite being in the public eye, the 46-year-old mother of a 12-year-old son has kept her personal life relatively private. Until this Sunday, when she wrote a New York Times “Modern Love” column titled “Coming Out As A Modern Family” about her non-traditional family unit. It was a coming out story of sorts, because after a lifetime of being involved with men, Bello is now romantically involved with a woman.
But that’s only half the story.
Bello’s current partner is a Zimbabwean woman named Clare, with whom she developed a close friendship before becoming romantically involved. But the real meat of what’s interesting about Bello’s life isn’t who she chooses to call her partner. It’s how she defines one.
“I have never defined myself by whom I slept with, but I know others have and would,” she writes. “It’s hard for me even to define the term ‘partner;’ For five years I considered my partner to be a friend then in his 70s, John Calley, with whom I talked daily. He was the one who picked me up each time I had a breakdown about another failed romance. Because we were platonic, did that make him any less of a partner?”
And I have never understood the distinction of “primary” partner. Does that imply we have secondary and tertiary partners, too? Can my primary partner be my sister or child or best friend, or does it have to be someone I am having sex with? I have two friends who are sisters who have lived together for 15 years and raised a daughter. Are they not partners because they don’t have sex? And many married couples I know haven’t had sex for years. Are they any less partners?
In fact, Bello goes on to redefine the nature of partnerships to include a multitude of partners at once, all filling different roles. Her son’s father, she acknowledges, partners with her in parenting, and is the best father-figure she could hope for. Just because they’re no longer romantically involved doesn’t lessen his value as a parenting partner. Nor does it take away from the romantic partnership she’s forged with her current romantic partner Clare. Or the sibling partnership she and her brother share.
In the end, Bello notes, all of these various partnerships aren’t only vital to her kind of family, they’re also very necessary — especially in a crisis. When Bello becomes sick, it’s the strength of her various partners and partnerships that help nurse her back to health, and get her well again.
Thinking of a life with multiple partnerships — romantic, friendship, familial — may not work for everyone, but Bello says that it’s become her definition of a “modern family.” And gender doesn’t seem to matter — love does.