Gay Male Relationships: What are the Boundaries Between Partners?
As a gay men’s specialist psychotherapist and coach for 30 years now (in 2022), and more recently a nationally Certified Sex Therapist, I like to write about topics that I’m observing across recent multiple sessions with my clients from my full-time private practice. A topic emerged recently that has to do with the idea of, what are the boundaries between partners in a gay male relationship?
We tend to think, “What boundaries?” when we have a partner, because we’re always together and it can feel like we are melded together as one, but healthy relationships do have them. When I help either single gay men or partnered/married gay men as individuals, or when I work with gay male couples, I notice where they are having trouble with boundaries and what might need to change for them to feel better about them. Ironically, how a couple deals with apart-ness or boundaries that underscore their identity as individuals actually helps how they interact when they are together.
Below is a list of common themes around this “boundaries in a relationship” topic:
- Body – When you’re in a relationship, especially I think if you’re living together and/or married, you kind form a covenant about each of you keeping your bodies reasonably healthy. Sometimes you have to discuss what those boundaries are. For example, my husband and I had to discuss and negotiate the fact that I ride a motorcycle, a well-known dangerous pastime. But we discussed what makes riding safer (good quality protective gear like a high-grade helmet and body-armored leather riding gear), and taking other precautions. We take care of each other by planning healthy meals at home that take into consideration our (middle-age) health risks, such as trying to be lower-sodium. We both encourage each other to have regular doctor check-ups. For couples where there is a difference, such as one partner smokes and the other does not, you can discuss the boundary of each partner making choices as an empowered, informed adult male, and while one partner is not really the “boss” of the other, there might be a discussion about relative harm reduction of risky practices or habits. (My article on gay male couples discussing their boundaries for themselves and each other regarding drug and alcohol use, “Of Potions, Pills, and Powders,” is here.)
I’ve worked with a number of gay male couples who have had to discuss and negotiate boundaries about appearance. One couple had a reduction in their sexual frequency, and upon careful discussion, it was revealed that one partner didn’t like his partner’s relatively recent different hairstyle. Other couples, more frequently, have had to discuss a reduction in sexual frequency due to one or both partners’ weight gain as a turnoff.
While each partner is a grown man in his own right who has autonomy over his own body, which is an important concept that I talk about with gay male sexual assault, abuse, or domestic violence survivors, when you’re in a relationship, there is a balance between how you would manage your body single vs. partnered. If there’s too little discussion, it can cause friction if you or your partner are doing things that somehow cause problems between the two of you, but too much discussion and a partner could feel “bossed around” by his partner, and as I often say, grown men don’t like to be told what to do by other grown men; it’s a form of male privilege in society that we are raised (even gay men) to have our way. And I also say, if you don’t know what male privilege is, just ask a lesbian; she’ll be happy to tell you!
- Money – One huge difference between my work with gay male couples and the rather rare occasions that I work with straight couples is that gay male couples really have a hard time melding their finances. Straight couples, historically, have gotten so much support for their relationships that you’ve had 24-year-old straight couples graduating college, getting married, buying a house, and blending their collective household earnings into one big pot as a traditional family. It’s just expected, and in many families, one or both sets of parents “set up” their respective kids with help for a house and a very collective family home. With gay men, we are, in general (there are always exceptions) much more reluctant to blend our respective incomes and expenditures; it’s very “my money, your money.” Gay men can find it mutually emasculating to not have full control over what they earn and spend. I help many gay male couples on how to manage money in their house, even if their incomes differ greatly (my article on that is here.)
Gay men might differ among the two (or more) partners on how money is spent. One partner might have a penchant for collecting expensive autographed baseballs while the other partner thinks that’s ridiculous. The partners in gay male relationships can have fertile ground for conflict when it comes to spending priorities; one partner wants to spend their annual tax refund for new kitchen appliances while the other one wants to book the latest Atlantis cruise.
Healthy boundaries in this, just like with our bodies, come from discussion of each partner’s relative values, and identifying areas of compromise, even you realize that solutions often lie in very imperfect agreements that aren’t fully “winning” the argument, but aren’t entirely losing it, either.
- Space – Gay male couples in session often report conflict in their home about boundaries related to space. The most frequent conflict I hear about is about privacy in certain personal spaces, such as their cell phone (my article on gay men resisting the urge to “snoop” is here). Another big area might be their email box, or personal journal. Household spaces like certain drawers might be off-limits to their partners, such as wanting to keep their “spank bank” masturbation materials private, or not wanting to share clothes or other “stuff” just to preserve a sense of autonomy, individuality, and privacy, even when they are partnered and sharing a home (and a life together).
The partners having a sense of their own “space” can help reduce anxiety and promote a certain relaxation of trust and autonomy. When partners “snoop” (like in the phone or email example), it signals mistrust and it usually means the partners need to discuss something having to do with their sexual boundaries about whether they are monogamous, or they are each following the rules of Consensual Non-Monogamy (CNM) (I have a certificate from a year-long training in Consensual Non-Monogamy and Polyamorous Relationships from the Sexual Health Alliance).
Snooping is usually an expression of either a conscious or unconscious anxiety, fear of abandonment, need to control, insecurity, abandonment anxiety, or even just a longing for intimacy and wanting to “know” your partner more intimately. It’s generally a “bad thing” (a source of conflict in a relationship), but it can also be discussed in terms of what the “snooping” partner is needing – but missing – from the relationship. This can actually be discussed in the context of a need for an increased sense of connectedness and intimacy, instead of just being a creepy power-play in one partner trying to “own” and “control” the other one.
- Time – Partners need time together, sure. That’s what creates and sustains a relationship. Practices like observing your anniversary, having a weekly “date night,” planning vacations and holidays together, and just casually having “Netflix and Chill” time together are all important. But to avoid relationship boredom, enmeshment, ruts, and risking getting tired of one another, you each need at least some time apart. Often, gay male couples get this through work. As the pandemic begins to (we hope) subside in early-mid 2022, more gay male partners (and everyone) might be commuting back to an external office, at least part-time. Many/most of the gay men I see in my practice have high-demand/high-reward jobs that require frequent work travel.
But gay male partners need non-work, non-partner time as well. Pursuing hobbies that your partner isn’t really interested in, seeing friends that your partner doesn’t enjoy as much as you, or even just spending time alone to refresh and rejuvenate are all examples. In CNM, even the time partners spend with sexual partners outside the relationship can be an important opportunity for individual recreation, such as for sexual variety with a different “type” of guy than what your partner is, a different kind of sex (kink play is a good example), or just getting to know (even briefly) different types of gay men who are “out there” in the community.
Each partner in a gay male relationship needs to discuss, with his partner(s), how much time away from work he wants to 1) spend with his partner; 2) spend with others without you; 3) with others with you, and 4) spend alone. In relationship discussions, each partner should take their turn asking/discussing these four areas so that there is a broader sense of understanding of time boundaries in any given week. As the relationship evolves, or we evolve as people getting older, these proportions might change with us.
- Family of Origin – We don’t often think about Family of Origin issues when we talk about boundaries in a gay male relationship, but they are there. Some partners, even when together for a long time, might not want to disclose sensitive materials that come from their upbringing in their Family of Origin. The family’s legal history, perhaps a family business, its status in society where you grew up, family members who are famous (or infamous!), generational aspects of money, and “secrets” of your parents or siblings might all be examples of the boundaries about your Family of Origin where you don’t “go there,” even in a long-term relationship. It’s important that each partner feels like he has the right to set those limits out of his own comfort, or the need to be discreet. However, if there are family issues in your history that might somehow endanger your partner (such as a history of violence/abuse, theft, or driving under the influence), that needs to be discussed as a risk-reduction discussion in planning or hosting family visits.
- Sex – Sexual boundaries would be part of the overall discussion around making a monogamy agreement (and what that “covers”) as well as the ground rules for a Consensual Non-Monogamous relationship. The partners might have boundaries about when, where, and how they masturbate (which is normal to do, even in a relationship). Whether or not you discuss who your outside partners are, when, where, and what/why would be a variable to discuss. Some partners want to know these things (it can be a turn-on to hear), while other partners might agree to CNM, but they don’t want to “hear the details” that might provoke jealousy, anger, anxiety, or abandonment. And each partner might need to have a different “style” when it comes to this apart from the other(s).
For example, recently a gay male couple who are clients of mine discussed how they handle being out at a big gay dance club event, where they each “allow” the other to dance with, and even kiss other guys, maybe even grope in the late-night Bacchanal of Debauchery, but they have much stricter rules about actually going home with another guy. This is actually a topic I’ve worked with many gay couples on, because being a Pride events or dancing at gay clubs worldwide is a fairly common occurrence and it’s part of global gay male culture in most cities, large, and even small.
Boundaries in a gay male relationship, like so many other topics, require discussion. Being candid, compassionate, honest, and direct are all helpful approaches that make for high-quality communication (which is the most frequent my gay male couple clients ask for help with). The process involves selecting the topic area, each partner stating what they want for themselves, and what they want to propose/ask for from their partner, and then generating some suggestions for creative solutions for “how things work” in your household.
Similarly, it’s important to discuss when there are boundary violations in your relationship, on any of the above topics. What was the violation? How/when did it happen? Why was it important? What is the “repair to the rupture” that the partners can negotiate?
Healthy discussion of relationship boundaries can be a component of an enduring, “healthy”, comfortable gay male relationship. This can prevent codependence, enmeshment, or its opposite, estrangement/abandonment. While it’s great to be together for sharing emotional, physical, sexual, social, and community experiences, these are enhanced when there is also a complementary component of the “separate” as well that’s built-in to your relationship structure.
If you need help with identifying, setting, or reinforcing boundaries for yourself or in your relationship to/with others, consider therapy (for guys in California), or coaching services, either for you as an individual, or you in the context of a relationship (dyad or polycule). Having outside, objective consultation can help you learn how other gay male couples get through boundary violations and challenges, and how you can, too.
For more information, email me at Ken@GayTherapyLA.com, or call/text my cell at 310-339-5778.