Throughout my time working with young people, I have had the opportunity to witness amazing conversations. I recently spoke with a group of young Black gay men ages about some of the sexual health and health promotion efforts we are building. Second, we need to improve intergenerational relationships and build better communication between younger and older adults.
Gay men’s stories of monogamy and non-monogamy: change, flexibility and tensions
What are the relationships of young gay men like today? It can be surprisingly difficult to answer this question with confidence.
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Little research is being done on gay male couples—how they build and sustain their relationships, what they think about monogamy and marriage, what they believe about the attitudes of their peers. We did a self-funded study in called Beyond Monogamy. We wanted to know more about the experiences of long-term non-monogamous male couples.
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Because we were examining long-term relationships, we had, by definition, an older cohort participate in the study. This year, we completed our Choices study, which focused on gay men ages and explored attitudes and practices about monogamy and marriage. We discovered a lot of interesting things.
They also believe in marriage. Virtually all of our respondents believe that communicating with partners about their sexual lives is a vital part of having a successful relationship. Our study also affirmed the wonderful and creative diversity found in male couples. I think this is useful information for anyone working with gay men, and for young gay men themselves.
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These men have found many ways to build strong, healthy and loving relationships—strategies we believe would be useful for all populations. Even though we had heard anecdotally that younger men were interested in monogamy, we were surprised at how widespread this was. We also heard that marriage is definitely becoming the norm. We thought perhaps this was a consequence of assimilation—being more integrated into the general population fueled a tendency to mimic traditional heterosexual models, including the expectation that couples would be monogamous.
They were aware of other options and norms and were choosing to be monogamous. The men also brought considerable attention to strategies that would keep their relationship strong within a monogamous model.
These included the importance of communicating honestly and regularly about such things as acknowledging attractions, how to cope with temptations to stray, and keeping their sex lives together active and satisfying over time. This commitment to ongoing communication brought a lot of depth to these relationships.
A few respondents mentioned greater acceptance by family or greater respect from friends or the community at large. In the quantitative part of this survey which we conducted first , a small but significant number of couples described themselves as monogamous even though they had occasional three-ways or sex with people outside the relationship. We were curious about this. We conducted a second, qualitative survey in order to explore this. Twenty-five percent mostly played together and very occasionally saw other partners separately. Once again, communication was frequently cited as an essential element of making the monogamish approach successful.
Respondents had a variety of reasons monogamish relationships worked for them. These included the opportunity to accommodate differences in sexual interests or libidos, and the chance to compensate for limitations related to health or disability. Many enjoyed the added fun and excitement it brought to their sex lives.
Others liked the way it kept their relationships fresh. More than half of these relationships started out as monogamous, then opened their relationships after some period of time. This was a trend we also saw in our earlier study of long-term non-monogamous couples. Half of those longer-term couples average relationship length 20 years started out monogamous and then opened their relationships later. On average, the longer-term couples began to consider themselves non-monogamous about seven years into the relationship. But it also adds an extra layer of mystery, excitement, exoticism, and fun.
But along with cultural differences, such as language, food, spirituality, traditions, and habits, can be cultural differences about money. Just ask a scholar in feminist studies if that statement is true. Unlike straight couples, who up until relatively recently had the monopoly on legal recognition of their relationships before domestic partnerships and marriage equality laws , gay men were treated by the law as two unrelated individuals under one roof, especially for legal and tax purposes. They are more likely to have joint bank accounts, joint tax filing, and automatic rights of survivorship on everything from ks to Social Security survivor benefits — and they have for generations.
Sex — Gay male couples tend to approach sex differently. We all know that gay male couples are much more likely to entertain the idea of, or even be in, a non-monogamous relationship.
So, part of my job in couples counseling is to help gay men understand this, and to avoid making direct comparisons to straight relationships all the time some of the time is OK, particularly in confronting double-standards and internalized homophobia. While this is not necessarily unique to gay men, a big factor can be finding time for sex, when often both partners are busy, high-level executives or professionals who work extraordinarily long hours or have jobs that require frequent travel. Household Chores — Perhaps surprisingly to a non-clinician, the issue of how to equitably and fairly divide the list of common household chores can be frequent topic in conjoint therapy.
While modern straight couples sometimes like to pretend that they are oh-so-liberated, in reality, in many or most cases, the woman is subtly expected to, and ends up doing, the majority of the household chores related to keeping things clean, organized, in good repair, supplied, delivered, monitored, and humming along in a domestic household.
Monogamy or Bust: Why Are Many Gay Men Opposed to Open Relationships?
In couples counseling, I generally recommend that a Master List of Required Household Chores be written down, which is exhaustive and comprehensive. Who pays the bills? Who does the cleaning? Or, who supervises the cleaning? Who mows the lawn? Or, who pays the gardener to mow the lawn?
Who supervises the gardener? Who changes the light bulbs? Who cooks? Who cleans up?
Who grocery shops? Who picks up the dry cleaning? Often, making a list and then discussing how to divide it can be a discussion at home, or in session. Gay male relationships where there is a parenting factor involved differ from straight relationships mostly in that same-sex parenting needs extra support. Family — In gay male relationships, the role of one of the male partners in taking care of aging parents can be an issue, similar to straight couples. Fortunately, for most of the gay couples I have worked with, there have been surprisingly few seriously hostile in-law conflicts.
More often, the son-in-law is treated as a full member of the family, which is a nice thing to be able to say about the current times we live in. Fun — Fortunately, one huge and consistent benefit I have observed in gay male relationships over straight ones is that gay couples consistently demonstrate a youthfulness, playfulness, and sense of fun, especially with peers but also alone with each other.
While this is common to affluent gay male couples, even middle class or working class gay couples seem to have an extra sense of discovering fun, creative pastimes. Men are physically larger than women, so they can go through a lot of alcohol and food at events hence the stories of the first all-gay cruises running out of alcohol on board!
A friend of mine once said that he believed gay men had particularly-evolved critical thinking skills. While two gay men might love one another in their relationship, they will still subtly compete with one another to others, like most males in the animal kingdom.
This can be a certain mutual benefit, but it can also be a source of competition or even resentment of what the other has that he lacks. We want to make ourselves attractive to each other, but we also tend to want to be recognized and admired in our own right by others. For gay male couples, loving and accepting the self individually and in context of each other, and society at large, can be a challenge.