Gay Men and Consensual Non-Monogamy Early in Relationships
The curriculum that trains AASECT Certified Sex Therapists like myself (which includes hundreds of hours of instruction, four in-person weekend seminars, 50 hours of clinical supervision in not less than 18 months of experience, and continuing education weekend seminar updates each year), frequently addresses the “style” of sexual relationships. Styles or structures of relationships can include monogamous ones for couples or polycules, and ones where Consensual Non-Monogamy (CNM, or “open relationships”) is employed, with many variations on the definitions of these terms (beyond just the idea that there only two, such as “open” or “monogamous”). The options are more nuanced than that, and every relationship needs to carefully determine which style of relationship is right for the partners involved. This discussion is often part of the process in sex therapy, couples therapy, and relationship coaching, which are all services that I offer daily as a gay men’s specialist for 29 years in 2021.
Historically, discussions of gay male relationships in particular have tended to focus on this idea that gay relationships start off monogamous at the beginning or early phases of the relationship, and only after being together for a while (several years, at least, or even longer) is the option of Consensual Non-Monogamy (which I have additional training in) even considered. It’s this implication that gay male relationships have to “pay their dues” or “earn the right” to consider non-monogamy, after a period of time “being a good boy” so that you then “qualify” to consider CNM after having proven yourselves capable of mastering what I call the “Three C’s” building blocks of a healthy relationship: Commitment, Communication, and Compromise (my article on that is here).
CNM Early in Gay Male Relationships
But like all assumptions about people and relationships, these ideas benefit from some critical thinking and analysis. What if gay male couples didn’t have to “earn the right” to CNM by being monogamous for a certain socially-acceptable period of time? Is it possible for two (or more) gay male partners to form a relationship from the beginning that is CNM?
This is the idea that has been a topic of discussion in various recent couples whom I support in my practice. These guys come to me with a pretty strong determination that while there are many social pressures to be monogamous in general (which is probably left over from the social pressures on gay male relationships to be “less bad” by being “more heteronormative,” which is what I call “apologist gay relationships”), these guys actually want to both cultivate and develop their new emotional and sexual relationship while also having some kind of sexual expression with others.
Immediately, I can hear the outcry: “But that’s impossible!” But I think that knee-jerk reaction from the gay community in general, and even from therapists who purport to serve gay male couples, is akin to the earlier idea that said, “Two men in a relationship? But that’s impossible!” Nothing is “impossible” in terms of a relationship style if two (or more) partners want to cultivate that style of relationship. When we’re talking about two (or more) consenting adults, pretty much anything is “possible.” Whether it is subject to social scrutiny, disapproval, disbelief, or even condemnation is another thing entirely, of course taking into consideration that no one outside of a relationship should be putting their nose in the business of the people inside that relationship. If you look around, there are many people who are appointing themselves to be judge, jury, and executioner of people in relationship styles that they don’t approve of.
One of my gay male therapist colleagues, when he disclosed online, that he was in a “monogamish” relationship with his long-term partner, got “flamed” by negative commenters. “Sir,” he replied, “it doesn’t have to work for you; it only has to work for us.” I’ve cited that story many times to my clients, because part of human dignity, and exercising the adult prerogative and Constitutionally-given Right to Privacy (which is what ultimately defeated “sodomy laws” in the United States), is the right to enter into, sustain, or even leave adult romantic, sexual, domestic, and social relationships as one sees fit. Any societal practice otherwise is fascism and getting into “The Handmaid’s Tale” territory of human beings having their adult relationships controlled by others.
Emotional versus Physical Agreements
So, now that we’ve established that consenting adults, in this discussion gay men, have the right to enter into whatever relationship style they want, including CNM ones from the very beginning, how do we do that? How is that “not” a recipe for misunderstandings, feelings of betrayal, resentments, abandonment insecurity, confusion, jealousy, frustration, and chaos?
The answer to that is by employing the same three building blocks mentioned above: Commitment, Communication, and Compromise (my article on that is here.)
Part of the process of couples therapy or relationship coaching (similar/overlapping but still distinct professional services) is providing a forum (in session, at first) for communicating wants, needs, desires, questions, fears, and questions. Recently, two different gay male couples came into my practice and wanted to work on the fact that while they were enthusiastic about starting a new relationship of “only” a few months together, and they were committed to making this relationship work between them in all kinds of ways (emotionally, sexually, socially), they also wanted to not be monogamous, but were worried that being non-monogamous early in the relationship would set them up for failure.
Let’s look at why they might feel this way: First, the traditional argument is that gay male relationships that are not monogamous from the beginning, at least for a certain vaguely-defined “period of time,” lack sufficient time for proper attachment, bonding, getting to know each other, building trust, and establishing a firm connection, without “distractions” by other men. This is a compelling argument, and it has worked for many gay male couples as being a “tried and true” approach. It works for some, or even for many. The monogamy period might be of whatever duration, or for the entire life of the relationship, theoretically into old age.
But could there be other ways that gay male partners could attach, bond, know each other, trust, and establish a firm connection, while engaging in sex with that partner and with other sexual partners? I think there could be, in some instances.
But I think there is a distinction between having outside sexual partners versus outside emotional partners early in a relationship. I get “more conservative” that way, in that I think that while a new gay male relationship can sustain the incorporation of outside sexual partners, such as hookups, it’s harder to establish a Secure Attachment (from the world of “attachment theory,” that many therapists espouse and discuss) if there are other men vying for your emotional attention, such as “dates,” versus CNM strictly for sexual variety purposes. I have found in my many years of experience that despite polyamorous relationships that I have seen be successful (more on that another time), it’s much easier to have what has been sometimes called “a fidelity of the heart, not of the genitals,” where you have one romantic/domestic partner, but perhaps other lovers for sexual purposes only, despite perhaps a certain fraternal camaraderie that comes with having a regular “fuck buddy.”
So, in sessions, when both partners agree that they are starting a reasonably-new relationship, but they also are curious about the idea of “not” being monogamous from the start, I might encourage Partner 1 to describe his own desires and misgivings about that, as if Partner 2 wasn’t there, just focusing on his own thoughts and feelings. Then, we do the same for Partner 2. Then we look for areas of overlap, and areas of incongruity between them.
Then, we might discuss the options of different potential scenarios they could experiment with. These scenarios often include language like, “How about if we…” and then they fill in the blank with how different arrangements might work, such as discussing what kind of sexual arrangements they want to consider. Maybe they allow anonymous “tricks.” Maybe they “play together.” Maybe they attend group sex scenes together. Maybe they discuss what they do with outside partners, and maybe it’s “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Proposing different arrangements, agreements, and scenarios helps the partners to feel empowered to brainstorm and “put it all on the table” on what kind of scenarios might work for both of them, and perhaps most importantly, why. There’s a discussion of what the scenarios or options mean for them physically, in their ideal, desired sexual expression, and the implications for those options emotionally, or even socially. You get a good perspective on something if you look at it from multiple points of view, for yourself and for your partner(s).
Then comes a period, perhaps a month or two, of experimenting with a scenario and “ground rules” they both feel that they can sincerely commit to. After that period of time, they take a step back, and discuss and evaluate what they have experienced during that time, and what has come up since in terms of thoughts, feelings, and reactions to adopting those relationship style practices. There is reflecting, and evaluating, really four areas: what worked, what didn’t, for both Partner 1 and Partner 2.
Then, there is a discussion of what kind of adjustments or changes does each partner want to propose for modifications moving forward, based on their reactions and needs to the previous arrangement.
Having discussions in your relationship on what is working, and what is not working, such as causing confusion, frustration, jealousy, or any other negative emotion, is an idea that works in domestic/romantic relationships, and it also works in other interpersonal relationships, such as with friends, family members, or work colleagues.
One framework for that discussion is about to what degree needs are being met — for all concerned. What needs, or even desires, do you have, and to what degree are they being met. Then, ask your partner for what you feel they could do to better meet those needs, while of course they ask the same of you. This sense of give-and-take in relationships, both talking and listening, expressing your feelings and listening to theirs, has a tendency to build trust, intimacy, and feelings of confidence in the relationship because each partner feels connected to an interpersonal process that feels validating, genuine, productive, and pleasing.
Challenging Old Gender Assumptions
Men in general, including straight men, are so often dismissed in a very misandrist way that “men don’t have feelings” and that they are just sex monsters with no emotional life, and then women, usually straight women, are seen as just little bundles of emotion and have no sense of raw sexuality that is ever validated historically by a patriarchal society. Both of those are gender-stereotyping tropes. The truth is, with all men, but discussing gay men in particular here, is that we have both emotional and sexual needs, and discussing both of these in turn can be very validating. CNM in gay male relationships, even in the early stages, seeks to satisfy a very pervasive desire for sexual variety with still preserving another natural need for bonding and security; they are not necessarily mutually-exclusive, and yet too often they are framed to be by a generally sex-negative society that says, “Well, you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” It’s time to really challenge these pervasive assumptions that have a deep-rooted history in sex-negative, anti-gay Puritanism. Anti-sex and anti-gay voices really have a history of a certain sadistic control over others that needs to be challenged, even if, ultimately, that gay couple chooses to be monogamous, for whatever reasons. It’s the idea that they have options that is important.
Remember, the sexual arrangement that you make with your partner(s) at any phase of your relationship doesn’t have to appease your parents, your peers, precedent, or the Pope. It only has to work for the two of you.
If you’d like help forging what kind of arrangement might work for you, consider therapy or coaching. Having these discussions facilitated by a professional who is somehow qualified in these areas is important. I hear this idea often when I work with either individuals who are single and dating, or in relationships, or with couples, that they “get more accomplished” in a facilitated and somewhat structured discussion than they ever could discussing these things on their own, especially when emotions can run very strong on these sensitive topics. For more information on my services, or to make an appointment, email Ken@GayTherapyLA.com, or call/text 310-339-5778, for more information. Visit GayTherapyLA.com/blog for articles on gay male relationships, and other topics on gay men’s mental health and well-being, for singles or relationships.