As a gay men’s specialist psychotherapist for over 30 years, life/career/relationship/executive coach, and AASECT Certified Sex Therapist, I hear about a lot of situations gay men face in the course of a week of client sessions in my full-time psychotherapy and coaching practice with gay men mostly in California but also all over the U.S. and the world. One topic that repeats occurred again last week, when one of my clients wanted to work on how to navigate having a a relationship with a new boyfriend while maintaining old friendships. Sometimes it’s easy, but sometimes, it takes some work.
Let’s call him “Pete.” So, Pete described how he’s dating “Tomas,” but the first time Pete brought Tomas to an event with Pete’s friends, it only went OK. Later, Tomas told Pete that one of his friends was being rude to him behind Pete’s back, and later another one of Pete’s friends told Pete that he could “do better.” Pete reports to me he’s being torn by trying to make his whole “system” of people in his life harmonize. So we’ll do some work on that.
Here are some thoughts on this:
- Jealousy – When someone in a friend group starts dating someone, it can feel like a “betrayal of the tribe.” This happened to another client, “Ben,” really badly, a long time ago. Ben was in a “single gang” and when one of them (Ben) finally “got a boyfriend,” it upset the dynamic his posse was used to. They couldn’t just hang out as the single guys on the make anymore. Their schedule changed when Ben had to build in time to see his boyfriend alone. The particular alchemy of the group changed. It was like adding some odd new ingredient to a soup, like putting celery in tomato soup. Ben sensed some good old-fashioned male competition and rivalry there; he “won a prize” that his friends didn’t, and they were pissed they didn’t beat him to it, when they had much more money and prestigious jobs, but Ben had the better physique. They were comparing the “currency” of gay male dating. It really tested Ben’s perspective of his friends that more so than being happy for him, they were jealous of him, which taught Ben that maybe he needed better friends all along. To cope with this, you might have to sit your friend (or friends) down and confront what you think you’re seeing, and ask for clarification. You still might get outright denial, even if you know it’s happening. But if you discuss it, at least it gives everyone a chance to clear the air, and you put your friends on notice about where your boundaries are.
- Prejudice/Racism – With Pete, one has to wonder (since his posse was composed of several other white men) if there was some not-so-subtle racism going on that Pete was dating a Latino. Prejudices of any kind can be insidiously subtle, but if your friends “disapprove” of your new boyfriend, you have to run it through the filter of whether there might be some ugly bias going on – with ethnicity, national origin, race, status of appearance, socio-economic status, prestige of job, where he lives, what he drives, what his hobbies are, etc. Not always, but it happens. That shows a side to your friend that you might not have noticed. Like the jealousy thing, that’s also bad news about a friend you thought you knew. That’s another time to sit your friend down and confront, or at least discuss, what you’re seeing, and why that’s certainly a problem. It’s always kind of ironic when gay men are racist, or sexist, or ableist, or ageist, etc. because we are already a minority group, and it’s hypocritical. Social justice advocacy for gay men includes others in our LGBT+ community, and all “out groups” in order to defend against what is called “the tyranny of the majority.”
- Protection – It can be awkward, but sometimes friends don’t like your new boyfriend if they pick up on this new guy not treating you well. In that case, it’s not jealousy, it’s a certain paternal/fraternal dynamic that they want to protect someone they care about from possible harm, especially if they pick up on the very early signs of domestic violence. These might be things such as seeing your new boyfriend being controlling, criticizing or even teasing you in front of others, talking over you, ignoring you, perhaps flirting with others in that “too much” way, isolating, gaslighting, undermining, splitting information among your friends to cause drama, or just generally invalidating you. This might stand out to them, when you might be distracted by your new boyfriend’s sexy looks or superficial charms – or worse, being so giddy about finding a new boyfriend that you’re ignoring red flags that others see right off.
- Personality – Another client was very shy, and had a really outgoing, opinionated, extroverted best friend. It was like yin/yang. But then he got a boyfriend who was also outgoing, opinioned, and extroverted, and when the best friend and the boyfriend met, they clashed – hard – leaving the shy guy in the middle. Our personal support systems are like a stew that we mix in the people around us. Some of us can be friends with people in our personal chemistry, but not all of our friends will mix well with our other friends unless we are bound together in a common interest or some kind of esprit de corps.
- Interests – For many guys, different people serve different purposes. We might want to go out dancing with one friend, or set of friends, but they aren’t the same friends we might travel with, or go to the theatre with. We might play a sport with one of group of friends, but our other friends don’t like or play that sport. We are allowed to have different friends to meet different needs, where we are the common denominator and we have to allocate our free time in some kind of relative priority to each friend or friend group. In this way, we are cultivating an interpersonal social support system that works for us.
- Referee – We have to be the referee sometimes between our boyfriend/partner and our friends. We have to ask of our boyfriends that relationships with a certain friend (or friends) are still important to us, and we need at least some of our discretionary, non-work time to be devoted to them, even if our boyfriend doesn’t see the same value in them. Similarly, we sometimes have to ask our friends to respect our choices, and while they can express concern if they feel that some guy is exploiting us (or possibly being dishonest in a way that they know, but we don’t), we still have the ultimate prerogative on whether to continue that relationship (not unlike meddling parents who criticize our choice of partner).
- Exes – The abundance of life can include various friends, and a boyfriend who may or may not like those friends. But the entire mix is what’s important to us, and we have to respect that in our boyfriends, too. So if we want to be platonic friends with an ex-boyfriend, or if your boyfriend wants to be friends with an ex of his, it takes discussion so that everyone knows where the boundaries are. We all deserve to feel safe from feeling threatened, but we also have to respect that our partners will understand if being friends with an ex is not truly threatening to the current relationship. Straight women in particular have been known to be especially sensitive about this perceived abandonment risk, to the point where they almost take pride in how much they “forbid” their boyfriend or husband to be platonic friends with a female ex, or any other female they perceive as “threatening,” in this kind of old-fashioned misandrist way that if straight men are just around other women, they can’t be trusted to keep a monogamy agreement. I’ve always found this a little sad, and quite unjust, and gay men usually can give more latitude on this. I’ve worked with guys who have had to learn to evaluate/assess, and manage, their jealousy of their partner’s current/platonic relationships to exes or even “oddly close” friends. We have to work through our insecurities and sense of threat. While sometimes where there’s smoke there’s fire, and there are lingering feelings in your boyfriend/partner for an ex, but I’ve found it’s usually our own abandonment anxiety that has its roots in our childhood. Talking it out can clarify what it is, and helps to really build trust.
- Politics or Culture – We might have friends in different contexts, such as people we grew up with in the culture of our Family of Origin, or the region/place we are from, that clash with our current partner. There might be political differences, relative social values, tastes, and recreational interests. In these situations, you might need to negotiate with your partner about spending time separately with them. You might go out of town to attend a class reunion alone, since a partner might be bored seeing you and your friends share “inside” jokes he wouldn’t get. Or you might have a lunch with a college friend in town from the same field of work as you, and you’re “talking shop” or discussing old colleagues. The purpose of platonic friendships can diversify what you need your interpersonal relationships to be. While we hear a lot about a partner or spouse being our “best friend,” and they can be, we also need to diversity the interpersonal relationships in our lives that fulfill different needs. I see this most importantly about a field of work thing, and also with certain specific interests, like playing a sport or being an enthusiast in something that your partner isn’t into, such as video games or comics fairs or whatever.
- Friends with Benefits – I’ve done extensive work lately with guys have a partner, but are in a Consensual Non-Monogamous or open relationship, which I have a special year-long training program certification in. In some gay male relationships, a guy can navigate between the needs that his primary partner or spouse fulfills, versus what his fuck buddy or paramour fulfills. In true polyamory, all three (or four, if your partner has one, too) men can have a relationship to each other, while in some, you are the common denominator between your partner and your fuck buddy. The nature of the relationship between your partner and your fuck buddy might be a certain casual familiarity, such as seeing them at a distance or briefly, or it can a general social relationship but they aren’t close. In relationships like these, I think it takes a lot of discussion about expectations and boundaries, and a discussion of what any paramour relationship means for each of you, and why it’s important, and why it’s not threatening to your primary relationship, but enhances it. Sometimes it’s a peer/age thing, such as if your partner is older and your paramour is a peer in age (I’ve seen this a lot in age-difference relationships), sometimes this is a function of serious, long-term but still long-distance relationships, and sometimes it’s about a specific sexual interest, such as if your partner is more “vanilla” sex and your paramour shows a kink interest you share. It’s important to discuss why, or both or either of you, having a secondary relationship has a function or purpose that leads to additional fulfillment.
Family of Origin
In addition to navigating the relationship we have with our partner versus our friends, we also have this with members of our Family of Origin. I believe gay male relationships are stabilized by a certain blending of your two Families of Origin, and not to feel like your (male) partner is some “dirty little secret” you hide from your parents or others. It might be awkward, culturally, to be “out” to your parents, siblings, and extended family, but I’ve seen how doing so stabilizes your own primary relationship and can make you feel less sequestered in aspects of your life. Usually, parents who are very wary of you having any male partner, or more specifically the one you have, will warm up over time. Time and again I’ve seen parents who are very leery of gay relationships will eventually see your partner as a member of the family, and if they don’t, you need to set boundaries with them in “negotiating” the adult child/adult parent relationship, if you are even to have one. Sometimes they might not outright like your partner, but they do need to respect your choice of partner, and recognize that he is your partner and not just your friend, which is a subtle form of homophobia: straight people have romantic/domestic relationships as such, but gay relationships are somehow lesser or “just friends” or even “buddies.” With national recognition of marriage equality, this is getting better, and people don’t wince or question the use of the word “husband” being said by a male. I’ve noticed this in recent years scheduling repair people in our home, or with a bank or professional relationships, that more and more straight people (including generally homophobic ones) recognize that your husband is your husband, or partner. Increasingly, thankfully, gay relationships are taken in stride, especially around younger people but I’ve seen it even with much older people, and that’s a nice “movement” toward equality and social justice, even if we still have viciously aggressive bigots out to undermine all that.
The Center of the Hub
I think it helps to think of yourself as the center of a social support system that puts you like the hub of a wheel; the common denominator is you, and you’re navigating the different relationships to you that meet your various needs, and sometimes the criss-cross of one person in your life to another. When they hit it off, it’s great, that means they like you and each other, but if they clash, you might have to make it clear that while you can’t demand everyone in your life to like each of all the others, they do need to act in mature, polite, and respectful ways as sharing roles being in your life, and you in theirs. It’s like the rings of the Olympics symbol that overlap with each other.
If this has touched on some topics, situations, or dynamics that you’re identifying with, that you want some help with, let me know. Consider therapy (for guys in California) or life/career/relationship coaching. There are very important legal and ethical differences between these services that I can explain when we talk. You can email me at Ken@GayTherapyLA.com, or call/text me at 310-339-5778. I would be happy to help!
Ken Howard, LCSW, CST is the most experienced gay men’s specialist psychotherapist in the United States today, with over 30 years working almost exclusively with gay male individuals and couples. He is an AASECT Certified Sex Therapist, and has additional certifications in Consensual Non-Monogamy and Polyamorous Relationships, Psychiatric Clinical Social Work, and HIV mental health. He is a retired adjunct associate professor from the University of Southern California, and works online via Telehealth services from his home office in West Hollywood, California.