In my psychotherapy practice specializing in gay male individuals and gay male couples over the past 24 years, I have worked with many guys who need help because they are upset after discovering that their boyfriend or partner/spouse was “cheating” on them. I hesitate to even use the word “cheating” because it implies that it’s a crime, that only one person is responsible, and creates a lot of high drama when what you want is a calm, rational approach to understanding the situation and ultimately having the relationship heal from it.
In previous articles, I discussed how gay men can have a “hotter” monogamous relationship, how they can have an open relationship without hurt feelings and while preserving emotional safety, and even the ideal ways to have a fuck buddy or a three-way. But I have yet to write an article about the likely reasons that guys break a monogamy agreement, and I think it’s important to consider these; I don’t think they are talked about enough. By understanding, in general, why gay men “cheat”, we can prevent this, or come to terms with it after it happens. Besides the self-righteous rage (which has uncomfortable associations with historical moralism and sexism), understanding what lead to the cheating can help a couple get through it without breaking up over it.
Of course, the first thing people will say is that the reasons for cheating (for lack of a better word for “breaking a monogamy agreement”) is that “it depends on the person”. That’s true, but there aren’t really a thousand different reasons, there are a handful that keep coming up repeatedly in my practice, and over many years doing therapy for gay couples, I’ve helped the couples get through all of them without necessarily breaking up. These include:
You have to remember that the cultural concept of monogamy (even for straight people, even more so for gay men) is a cultural construct, much like being a vegetarian or keeping Kosher when you eat. It’s very late-evolution, high-executive-brain-functioning kind of stuff. It’s not stem-of-the-brain, primal, basic instinct stuff. So, when guys cheat, it’s possible that their “old brain” primal instincts of wanting sex are taking over their “new brain” concepts like “don’t do that, because having sex with only one partner has symbolic meaning for you to represent love, intimacy and social commitment.” It’s like people who are starving might steal food before they go hungry; the urge to eat is stronger than the moral issue that it’s wrong to steal. Some would say this is “thinking with the little head, not the big head.” Other times, there can be a problem where your S.O. has “let himself go”, and isn’t as attractive as he used to be. Some of this is natural aging that can’t be helped, and you just have to be grown-up about that. And in this related article, I talk about how to make an effort for your partner. But many guys cite unmet physical desires or curiosities as the reasons that led them astray.
So…What’s the “Fix” for This?
You and your boyfriend/partner/spouse (I’ll just say S.O., for Significant Other, from now on) need to have very frank, very explicit discussions about what your particular body (cock, ass, mouth, etc.) needs and wants sexually to be satisfied. Sometimes, the discussion needs to be about “novel stimulation”. Straight guys have sometimes used the vulgar but descriptive phrase, “You know, sometimes you just want some strange pussy.” If you or your partner craves, on a very basic level, sexual variety, then that needs to be discussed. For many gay male couples I’ve worked with, this can be satisfied by way of the occasional three-way romp, where by playing together, you share the third person and enjoy them together. I always say for couples that “shared experience breeds intimacy” over the life of the relationship. Sharing experiences, good or bad, bonds you over the history of time and makes for a rich, shared life together of adventures, feelings and memories. You can also vary and experiment within your sexual relationship, so that things don’t become too predictable, boring, or stagnant. Change up the top/bottom roles. Experiment with your kink sides if things get too vanilla. Vary the time, place, and style of your sex. Talk about – or, if that’s too embarrassing, even with your partner – write down some sexual fantasies and then exchange lists for your partner to read, if it’s too embarrassing to talk about out loud. And you might need to negotiate things that would turn you on, and make agreements with your partner (such as reasonably managing weight). If you’re going to limit sex to one partner, be a sexy partner to each other. A monogamy agreement is a commitment to sex with one partner, not a commitment to celibacy.
Sometimes, cheating is about fulfilling an unmet emotional need. Someone might act out sexually and break a monogamy agreement if they feel unheard, unloved, ignored, belittled, or even unjustly criticized by their S.O. It can also be a maladaptive coping for a guy who is under too much stress at work, such as meeting up with an escort boy or erotic masseur to cope with working too many hours in a week, or dealing with an unreasonable/oppressive boss. It can also be coping for worry, such as a guy who might be facing a health crisis, having to take care of a sick parent, or dealing with financial stress. And while many might say that having sex can be a great way to relax, if you’re doing it in a way that “needs” to be kept secret, it creates added problems. The difficult emotions, instead of being expressed and processed verbally, get acted out behaviorally. This might temporarily assuage the negative emotion, but then if the sex is kept secret and then later discovered by the S.O., there is hell to pay and then the acting out sexually wasn’t the best way to deal with emotions.
What’s the Fix?
Basically, all negative emotions get better as we talk and communicate about them with another person. This is the whole point of “talk therapy”. If you feel your S.O. just isn’t “getting it” in understanding you these days, sit him down and talk about it. Tell him what you feel and ask him for what you need. Give him a chance to change how he’s relating and responding to you. If it’s work stress, employ some stress management techniques like taking up yoga, mindfulness meditation, other exercise, more hobbies, taking an anxiety medication prescribed by a qualified psychiatrist, changing your work habits, or even finding a new job. Think about and speak about your stressors before just acting them out sexually in secret.
- Developmental Stages of Life/Coping with Aging
People go through predictable life stages, and psychologist Erik Erikson said there is both a challenge and a reward to every phase of life. I work with many guys at midlife (approximately 38-50), and cheating can sometimes be a way that a guy reassures himself that has sexual clout, influence, and “gay community commercial value” to someone besides his S.O. It’s a reassurance that his youth is not fading away, but his virility and sexuality are being validated, usually by someone much younger. It’s an ego boost to be a middle-aged gay man and still be desirable to younger gay men. It can be temporary respite from feelings of insecurity, aging, or even a fear of their own mortality. But unfortunately, the ego “stroke” (ahem) can anger and hurt your S.O. if you’re doing it on the sly.
What’s the Fix?
Understand that getting older is a fact of life, and just as you went from infant to boy to teen to young adult, so shall you continue from young man to middle-aged man to senior man. Everybody gets older. It’s asking yourself, “Can I get older and make that OK?” It’s practicing what Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (one of the techniques I use) calls “Radical Acceptance” of what it is, without having to panic over it. Your worth and value do not end just because youthfulness fades. Talk about this with your S.O., whether he’s younger, same age, or older than you. Try therapy to process through your anxieties and insecurities about getting older, and make an art of how to age gracefully — emotionally, physically, and socially. Make a study of Healthy Aging, even if the people in your family didn’t age all that well before you (or if they didn’t even make it to older ages). Sometimes guys cheat because they are defending against an unconscious fear of their own death (“Moonstruck” explored this theme, as Olympia Dukakis’s character discovered). If you always put your self-esteem up for a vote by others based on youthfulness or “classic” handsomeness, you’re likely to lose over time. Self-worth has to come from within, from all aspects of yourself, and not just a youthful appearance. You and your S.O. might be at different phases of life, or you might be at the same phase, but handle it differently. Talk about this with your S.O., and ask how you can both give and receive support for aging together.
- Sense of Self
Still other guys cheat because they have long-standing insecurities after “taking in” lots of anti-gay rhetoric or oppression from others, such as bullying, or the cumulative effect of constant anti-gay messages in the media, usually from Republican politicians and religious conservatives who fan the flames of hate. Cheating with lots of guys can be a way that some men psychologically validate themselves after years of being put down with rhetoric, discrimination, or abuse. Other guys might feel like they are under-achievers because they don’t have the big house or fancy car, or whatever, and try to “make up” for what they feel they lack by just having more sex. OK; for some that might be fun, but when it’s “secret” or breaking a monogamy agreement, then the solution becomes more of the problem.
What’s the Fix?
Having therapy to heal from past hurts, such as childhood abuse, bullying, or even past adult discrimination experiences, can help a lot. Therapy can help you identify what you might be feeling, even unconsciously, from your Family of Origin “stuff” that affects your self-esteem and self-concept. Overcoming self-doubt, and building self-esteem and self-confidence to improve your career, income, health, relationships, and place in the community are probably the most common issues that I help guys with in my practice, because so many guys need help and support with this after growing up in a generally homophobic society.
- Social Status and Entitlement
Some men have Narcissistic Personality Disorder and feel that the rules that apply to “little people” don’t apply to them, so they feel under no obligation to honor a monogamy agreement or any other restriction on what they want, when they want it. Perhaps the most “high-profile” reason for cheating comes from guys in the media, usually straight guys, who have so much income, status, fame, and privilege that their ego gets really inflated and they start to assume that they are immune to anyone telling them “no”. Tiger Woods comes to mind: incredibly rich, handsome, and validated by society for being a superb athlete. Movie stars and politicians are also powerful, rich men, and that translates into virility for straight men toward straight women. This dynamic is perhaps less common with gay men, but when any guy becomes rich, powerful, constantly validated, and enjoys unusual social privilege (the best restaurant tables, lots of “yes men” around him, fame, adulation, gifts, favors, compliments, etc.) it’s very easy to “forget” a monogamy agreement and feel that one is entitled to do what he wants, when he wants, with whomever he wants.
What’s the Fix?
If you’re someone who has perhaps recently achieved a lot of status, such as with a powerful or high-paying job, with lots of people validating you and telling you how great you are, remember that being a classy gentleman means that “character” is what you do when no one is looking. Just because your looks or status can attract a lot of potential partners doesn’t mean you have to say yes to their wily ways and seductive manipulations. Sexual self-empowerment is saying yes when you want to say yes, and no when you want to say no. Coping with status and power means you self-regulate when you do things, and when you don’t. It’s a skill that every gay man has to have, which is how to say “no” gracefully – because in both monogamous relationships, and in open relationships that have rules – the ability to say no assertively is an important task, and is part of the commitment you have made to your partner. Resist urges to keep up with the next guy in competition, and resist the social pressures that you have to act like a Casanova to fulfill some kind of social status expectation.
- Family of Origin
Some guys cheat because the relationship skills that were modeled for them in their Family of Origin were not very good. Maybe when you were a kid, you saw your dad cheat on your mom, or your mom cheat on your dad, or both. Or maybe your parents divorced when you were so young that you had no models for good relationship skills in your whole upbringing. Sometimes it’s hard to have a strong relationship if you’ve never seen strong, healthy, happy relationships modeled for you. As an adult, you have to find your own way, and negotiate a way of living with your partner that works for you and works for him – even if it wouldn’t work for anyone else. You and your partner get to create what is best for you, and it’s no one else’s business. But if your Family of Origin relationships were a mess, and you find yourself following suit, therapy might help you come to terms with how to resist the negative influences of your past.
What’s the Fix?
Think about what seemed to “work” in the relationships you witnessed growing up, whether it was your parents, grandparents, aunts/uncles, older siblings, or neighbors, and leave the rest. Think about the examples those people set for what to do, or what not to do, in a relationship. Think about what a satisfying and enduring relationship would look and feel like for you, and then assert this to your partner, and negotiate with him on what he feels would work, too. Together, you create a dynamic and an everyday lifestyle that works for you, even if it needs an occasional tune-up, or it changes/evolves over time.
Preventing “cheating” involves understanding your physical, emotional, and social dynamics within and around your relationship. When you focus on making your relationship work for you and your partner emotionally, physically, domestically, and managing the stressors that impact your relationship from the outside, you insure your relationship is sound from any stressors or forces that would undermine it. It’s a homophobic myth that “gay relationships don’t last”. You have the power to create the relationship you want, and if you need help with this, consider individual or couples therapy to help you strengthen the relationship that you and your partner want to create together. For more information on becoming a therapy or coaching client, text/call 310-339-5778, or email Ken@GayTherapyLA.com.