As an LGBT-affirmative therapy specialist, and, more specifically, a specialist in gay men’s therapy, gay couples therapy, gay sex therapy, and gay coaching (life/career/relationship), I’m often asked the same questions for guidance over my long (28 years) career. One of these is, “How do gay men successfully navigate the challenges of a long-distance relationship?” And my answer is, “Very carefully!”
Because embedded into that question is the dilemma of two (or more, in polyamory) gay men in a relationship who are asking of themselves, and each other, to strike a balance between the emotional/romantic closeness that they feel, with the physical distance that stands between them when they live in different cities, states, or even countries or continents. This is why that dilemma sounds hard, because you really are trying to achieve closeness among distance, which sounds contradictory.
However, since my career has been so long, working with hundreds (really thousands) of gay male couples, I’ve gained through “observational data” many “example case studies” of how gay men have had long-distanced relationships and been successful – or not. As I like to say, the older I get, the stronger my opinions get, because there have just been so many case examples that either underscore what tends to work, or illustrate what doesn’t work, across many different kinds of gay male couples (national origin, ethnicity, economic class, age of partners, etc.). So when people hire me for gay couples therapy or coaching, part of what they are paying for in a consultation is that long experience and “abundance of data” of how previous gay male couples handled the challenge, and then you get the benefit of those who have come before you.
HISTORY OF GAY MALE LONG-DISTANCE RELATIONSHIPS
In our modern world, increasingly, we have a sense that people are mobile. We’re not just born in a place and then live and die there for our whole life span. Straight or gay, people are often born in one place and live in at least several others before their life is done (the average American moves 11.7 times in their lifetime). In the United States, we are a nation of immigrants from other countries, in general, but for gay men, we often find ourselves moving away from the cities and towns of our Family of Origin because we often seek out cities where the LGBT community in general, and gay men in particular, are numerous, welcomed, and enjoy a sense of belonging, equal legal civil rights, and cultural validation. Many gay men have to leave where they were born and raised in order to achieve this sense of comfort, what we clinical social workers call the “goodness of fit” with the “person-in-environment” theory (which I teach a lot in my graduate course on Couples Therapy in the school of social work at USC).
The challenge is, fortunately, there are many places for gay men to feel this comfort and strong sense of community, historically and presently. We’ve probably heard of the “gay ghettos” of America: Hell’s Kitchen or Greenwich Village in New York City. Dupont Circle in Washington, DC. The Castro District of San Francisco. Boystown in Chicago. Vauxhall in London. The Marais in Paris. Nollendorfplatz in Berlin. All of Amsterdam! And that’s just a “Western” focus. So, in today’s world, where gay men spend the money they would have spent on raising kids on travel (basically), we as a group tend to travel to other world gay-friendly destinations, for vacations or even for work, as gay male professionals in the workplace. It is there that we meet “the guy” and fall for him, even if at some point it’s time to go back home.
When this happens, we can be left with the joy of meeting someone we really click with, but then have to cope with the disappointment that we don’t live in the same city and can’t date regularly like two people who live in the same city could, easily.
Sure, we could write it off as a vacation fling and forget about it, and while some do, sometimes Fate would have it that the relationship really “clicks”, despite the many gay men we might meet back home. Fate can be a real bitch sometimes.
So what do we do?
FINDING WHAT WORKS
When I conduct couples therapy, I often educate the couple on my perspective on “what works” in gay male relationships for both their enduring longevity (lasting a long time, like the marriages we might have seen among our parents, grandparents, aunts/uncles, or even siblings) and, according to research, reported levels of satisfaction in the relationship (where they are not just together for a long time, they are together a long time, and are happy doing it.).
Two of the models that I have developed in my practice when conducting gay couples therapy (or gay male relationship coaching) involve the “Three C’s” of Commitment, Communication, and Compromise; and the “Four Levels” of making your relationship work: 1) Emotionally; 2) Physically (including both casual touch, affection, and your sex life type/frequency/satisfaction); 3) Domestically (making a home together under one roof, sharing chores, finances, and decor); and 4) “Managing the Other” (coping with the stressors that intrude on a gay male relationship from the outside in, such as dealing with a demanding job, a disability, a bad political climate, stressful living conditions, jealousies and boundaries, etc.).
When we talk about long-distance relationships, we’re talking about that third one, making your relationship work Domestically. Because in a long-distance relationship, you might be very emotionally connected (even in love), and you might have great sex when you’re together (and even perhaps when you’re apart; more on that later), and you might feel a strong and secure attachment (that’s a very clinical term, by the way) and manage as a strong dyad of “you and me against the world, kid”, but you might lack the domestic component, which is making home and hearth together where you sleep, eat, play, and just live in the same place, not just city, but especially the same house, condo, or apartment.
Whenever I talk about gay men’s mental health in terms of managing stress, I talk about adaptive coping, which is both cognitive (changing your thinking) and behavioral (things you actually say or do). Like so many other stressors, coping with the pain-in-the-ass factor of dating someone (or even beyond dating, to a serious relationship) with someone in another city (country, whatever) is about asking yourself, “What can I think, or do, to make this better?”
And it’s a combination of things that help you get by until one day you might live in the same place and make a home together. It involves similar “levels” of the 1) emotional; 2) physical; 3) economic; 4) developmental; 5) social; and 6) existential. Let’s look each of these in turn:
Perhaps the greatest sustainment of a long-distance relationship (let’s say LDR from now on) is that you and your partner have an emotional connection mentally, romantically, sexually, and socially that “works” for you, and that you want to preserve it beyond the vacation fling. It’s about recognizing that you seriously “like” or even love this person. You are bonded emotionally in a way that crosses miles of terrain or even oceans and continents. When you’re in love, the distance doesn’t matter, because you each are always “in” each other’s hearts, and that’s the closest you can possibly be. There are people who live in the same house who can be distant if the love isn’t there. So, you start with the emotional bedrock of a strong romantic connection first. This often involves the feelings that get evoked in you when you’re with, or just communicating, with this person; feelings of warmth, relaxation, goodwill, comfort, pride, validation, romance, arousal, acceptance, and even amusement. It can also be recognizing cognitively that you share similar value systems that make you feel compatible, heard, understood, and accepted. Just thinking of him brings a smile to your face, a warmth in your heart, and a tingle in “other places”. Which brings us to…
Coping with the physical means that you get used to spending time apart, and you physically bond through sex when you’re together, and you can create a “cyber-physical” response if you have sexting sessions on FaceTime or Zoom or whatever webcam or audio services you can use for an exchange of erotic energy.
You also cope with the physical distance by sometimes eliminating it, meaning that you go visit him, he comes to visit you, or you meet in some neutral place that “splits the distance” between the two of you. In my long experience and observation, this leads to the next question: the Economic.
If you meet a guy on a business trip, chances are you have a job that includes work travel paid by your employer, and this probably implies that you’re some kind of sophisticated professional (baristas don’t travel for work). This also probably implies that you earn a hefty salary, and you might have sufficient disposable income that allows you to “add on” days to a business trip for some leisure travel, including that with your partner. Or, you amass airline or hotel mileage club miles that allow you to travel out to your partner more frequently. If both you and your partner are men of reasonably high means, then the cost of air travel and things like hotel or ground expenses are not a hardship, and then the only real inconvenience of an LDR is the time it takes to get there. In some cases, the budget might even allow for you to live in one city, and take a pied-a-terre apartment somewhere else, where and your long-distance partner can rendezvous (I observed this example recently with a client). But, this is kind of rare, because one or more of you would have to be a high-income person to have almost unlimited means to travel.
If you’re not a man of means, and your partner isn’t, either, then it’s going to be harder to sustain your LDR, because there just isn’t money enough to spend on plane tickets to see each other with any kind of regularity. In some ways, we could even say that gay men sustaining an LDR is a matter of at least some privilege, and we all know that this varies greatly from gay man to gay man, and is one of the more controversial topics in LGBT socialization today. Just like our world in general, there is an increasing income gap, and all that that implies. Gay men are not immune to the economic politics of the day, even though the stereotype of gay men is that we are affluent because we generally don’t have a wife to “support” or kids to raise. The less money there is for travel between your two locales, the less frequently you see each other, and that can imply that the LDR is really just pen-pals, which usually can’t be sustained realistically unless one or both of you have a plan for relocating. Which brings us to…
Developmentally, how old you are might have implications for the LDR. For example, if you’re young and just out of school years, you might have more flexibility in terms of picking up and moving at your whim. Same thing if you’re older and retired; you can sometimes “pick up and go” because you don’t need to think about your local career. If you have some type of career or job where you can move easily (such as a traveling nurse, flight attendant, hair stylist, chef, etc.), that can help you move to where he is. But if you’re a physician, attorney, therapist, tenured professor, or have a career that is very closely tied to state licensure or to a local institution or industry (think Hollywood entertainment or Wall Street finance), then it might be harder to move without disrupting the evolution of your career. If your partner has the same situation, it’s hard for either one of you to move. So, if you’re negotiating ways to ultimately make your LDR local and make a home and future together, you have to discuss and consider who has the most “professional mobility” to move and continue working.
Another factor in “who moves” is social. If you have a robust social network and deep social/civic roots in a city, it would be harder for you to move than your partner who might be in a college town after graduation. You would have to discuss which of your social environments (his, yours, or a new neutral one) is the most conducive for you to “set roots” together.
Another “social” component in an LDR, and this is the biggest one, is whether you maintain a monogamous relationship (with only masturbation as your “comfort” when you’re apart), or if you negotiate some form of Consensual Non-Monogamy (I’m especially trained in this as a sex therapist, by the way, by my continuing education work with the Sexual Health Alliance). This usually involves a discussion about reconciling how connected you feel to one another, and having strong “romantic” or even idealized feelings that you “only have eyes for one another” with the very practical reality that Mother Nature is going to give you urges to have sex probably more frequently than you see one another in person, and as all us guys know, sometimes masturbation just doesn’t do the job and you want partner stimulation. (I wrote a previous article on “The Role and Purpose of a Fuck Buddy” about a long-distance gay male couple separated by one partner’s graduate school, and that explains more about how they handled the very practical aspects of sex while maintaining their relationship.)
This particular topic often benefits from relationship therapy or coaching, because it can involve your Families of Origin, values, spirituality, differences in natural libido, function of sex in your life (recreational, stress management, entertainment, etc.), and also benefits from a pretty thorough discussion of ground rules and “operations” of how you can “have an open relationship without hurt feelings” (my two-part article on that starts here.)
Often in my practice, I apply elements of Existential Psychology: Who am I? Why am I here? What’s the point of all this? Why bother? And navigating your LDR involves some discussion of where each partner is going in his life and how you each foresee what you want out of this lifetime, theoretically for decades to come. If you think that’s way too “heady”, consider that probably your parents or grandparents are or were together for many decades (both of my sets of grandparents were alive and married for over 60 years each). Time goes by faster than you think. Today’s two gay hunks from a circuit event are tomorrow’s “cute old gay couple” at the retirement complex. That’s why when you’re navigating an LDR, you have to develop the ability to “project” if this is the person you see yourself evolving with over the course of potentially many years. If so, “waiting a bit” before one of you moves is a relatively short time, an investment in a long-term payoff. Scheduling longer vacations can help test whether you would get tired of each other after a week living together, but there is some risk, because living together when you’re both working and navigating your respective careers and annual rituals is very different from being in “Vacation Mode” together, especially when you factor in your respective families and cultural differences (more on that, here).
BRINGING IT ALL HOME
If all this sounds like I discourage long-distance relationships, it’s because I kind of do. You have to consider whether you’re pursuing an LDR because you actually have a neurotic fear of intimacy of anyone close in your home town that threatens your fragile sense of autonomy and fear of engulfment by another or where having a partner is just like being with your domineering and demanding father (I’ve seen this). And are ALL the local men not worth dating? Are you sure you’ve gotten out there and met enough of them to determine this? If you’re from a small town, maybe you have, but if you live in Los Angeles, and can’t date anyone without flying to Barcelona, I would give that some personal self-reflection!
Another factor is that gay male relationships don’t receive the same social and legal validation that straight ones do, and the last thing gay relationships need is another stressor like living in separate cities.
But the guys I’ve worked with in LDR have already considered this – sometimes, a lot – and they remain smitten with and committed to the guy they met on Ipanema Beach in Rio on New Year’s Eve, and relocate to become an American ex-patriate making a new permanent home in Sao Paulo for decades and counting, learning the language as they go along (that’s a true story). Sometimes, Cupid plays his little tricks and shoots the arrow while you’re shooting something else, far from home. In these cases, as AA says, “living life on Life’s terms” means that you accept the circumstances and savor and protect the love you’ve found, however initially “inconvenient”. That’s Love’s deal; it might give you Mr. Right, but it doesn’t promise Mr. Right Next Door.
So if this is your situation, and Love and Life have given you a long-distance relationship, you don’t have to navigate the challenges of that alone. Consider therapy or coaching for the support you need to make it work, even if it takes time. Love makes the world go ‘round, and sometimes, it’s worth the trip. For more information, email me at Ken@GayTherapyLA.com, or call/text my cell at 310-339-5778, and I (or one of the other staff clinicians) would be happy to help!