As a couples counselor working with gay men I am often asked my opinion on monogamy and open gay relationships. What works for men in long-term relationships?
First, the research.
Several research studies show that about 50% of gay male couples are monogamous and about 50% allow for sex outside of the relationship. The research finds no difference in the level of happiness or stability among these groups.
Next, my opinions and advice, based on my therapy practice.
If you and your partner want to have a close relationship and have additional sex partners, be prepared for a lot of talking. And I’m not just referring to discussions about when, where and with whom. I mean talking about feelings, what we therapists call “processing.”
If that kind of conversation makes you squirm, I understand. Most men are not socialized to embrace the sharing of intimate and vulnerable emotions. However, if you aren’t willing to experiment with processing then I suspect the closeness of your relationship may be limited, and you guys could be headed for trouble.
Here’s why learning to talk about feelings is extra important in the context of an open relationship. Most of us enter into long-term relationships because we want to feel special to another person. We want that experience of being number one in the eyes of our partner. We want the comfort, satisfaction, support and meaning that can come from spending our lives committed to another individual.
Additional sex partners can be perceived as a threat to the safety we long for in our long-term relationships. Some of us may not feel threatened on a conscious level, but I believe most of us do feel it unconsciously. And in some manly circles, it is not cool to admit that.
So if you want the experience of an open relationship that works, you will need to continually tell each other how much you love each other, how deeply committed you are to the partnership, and how glad you are to see him. Lots of hugs and kisses will need to be exchanged.
Additionally, you will need to listen without getting defensive while your partner tells you about their moments of insecurity when you have sex with others. You will need to encourage this kind of sharing from him and to push yourself to express any of your own feelings of insecurity, vulnerability or jealousy when he plays with others.
You are not responsible for changing your partner’s emotions but you are responsible for listening to them and for making sure that your partner feels heard by you. Repeat back to him what you heard him say about his feelings so you both know if you really listened.
Beyond feelings, couples must also agree on the guidelines of sex outside of the relationship. They need to talk about what kind of sex is acceptable and what is not okay. These rules will require negotiation. Again, lots more talking. A good book on this subject is called The Ethical Slut, written by Dossie Easton and Catherine Liszt.
The core actions of a successful open relationship are identical to those of a successful monogamous relationship: shower your partner with attention and positive regard, offer lots of physical touch, share your more vulnerable feelings, and listen well when he does the same.
These principles are easier to say than to do. They take practice and risk, with lots of missteps along the way. Monogamous couples can sometimes get away with avoiding this work and do okay. Not great, but okay. But couples in open relationships won’t do well in an autopilot relationship. To be successful in working through the inevitable hurt feelings, these couples need to lead the way on relationships based on intentional communication.
For more information about how I help individuals and gay couples build better relationships, please visit my website at www.gaytherapist-sanfrancisco.com. I offer services in my San Francisco office or by Skype or phone worldwide.