Gay Men’s Relationships: Reconciling the Living Room with the Bedroom
In my long career (27 years) working with gay male couples as a therapist and relationship coach, I tend to see the same problems gay male couples have in therapy over and over – but, fortunately, there are often similar solutions. One of the professional services I provide often is helping gay male couples reconcile the non-sexual (“the living room”) aspects of their relationship, with the sexual aspects (“the bedroom”). By training, I’m a licensed psychotherapist (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) in California, couples therapist, and (specifically gay-affirmative) sex therapist. I also teach a course on Couples Therapy to graduate clinical social work students in the MSW program at USC.
Topics that gay male couples might need to have good communication skills and productive dialogue about in the “living room” might include how to share household chores, how to coordinate or manage home repairs (with nary a lesbian with power tools in sight ;)), coordinating pet care (who cleans a cat litter box, who walks a dog(s)), how to observe romantic rituals like “date night” or social opportunities with a partner/spouse, how to manage a social calendar with gay male peers, how to “keep house“, how to navigate differences in income (more on that in my article here), cultural and Family of Origin differences (my article on that here), differences in schedules, academic/professional differences, and the role of each other’s respective families (especially if one partner has family who lives locally).
Topics that are about “the bedroom” often include discussion/negotiation of sexual roles (top/bottom/vers – my article about fears related to those are here (topping) and here (bottoming), vanilla vs. kink sexual interests, solo sex (the role of masturbation and porn use for each partner (a great book on ethical/healthy approaches to porn use is by David Ley, Ph.D,, in his book, Ethical Porn for Dicks), the role of “others” (three-ways, with my article on that here), or group sex, working around sexual trauma for one or both partners (my article on sexual abuse/molestation survivors here), and negotiating expressing and experience with BDSM or fetishes (an article on that here). Other topics might be about sexual fantasies (a fantastic book, Tell Me What You Want, on sexual fantasy research, and its benefits for couples, is by Justin Lehmiller, Ph.D., here). Part of the take-away messages of his research found that couples who discussed – and acted upon – their sexual fantasies reported higher levels of satisfaction in their relationship, which shows the importance of intimate conversations, including erotic ones, on relationship health. As I often say about couples, “shared experience breeds intimacy”.
When you’re trying to balance the “living room” versus the “bedroom” aspects of your relationship, you might think of it dually, like a Jekyll/Hyde thing, where you, yourself, have both sides to your personality and sense of self, and so does your partner, and so does the relationship between you. Gay male couples have to “hold” this duality, and do their best to have conversations that make the best of both kinds of topics, non-sexual and sexual.
Author and couples therapist, Esther Perel, LMFT, wrote book called Mating in Captivity. The original tagline for the book was “reconciling the erotic, with the domestic”; it’s now “unlocking erotic intelligence.” She alludes that while intimacy and close-ness and cuddles and “feel good” fuzzies are great, we must also have a certain “distance” with our partners where eroticism, mystery, desire, and allure take place. The longer we are together, the more challenging this becomes. We get older and change as gay men through the lifespan, gay men’s relationships go through rather predictable stages as well, and sometimes it is the role of the gay men’s couples therapist to educate, validate, and reassure a gay male couple about what research shows these predictable phases are. As my mentor, the late Michael Shernoff, LCSW, used to say, “an initial period of hot sex cools into a lifetime of warm sex”, or even just a certain physical affection.
Don’t we all have this challenge? We might have domestic aspects to our relationships like sharing a home, its chores, maybe pets/kids, a social life, and being “friends”, and in love, but we have to reconcile the business of everyday living with our very sexual selves, our erotic side. Sigmund Freud called this the Ego/Superego (our personality/conscience), along with the Id (our more primal desires and functions). Success in one area without the area can leave us feeling frustrated in one way or another. Successful partners in successful relationships recognize that it is our “task” as partners to do the mental/cognitive, behavioral, and social work of “reconciling” the sometimes competing aspects of ourselves, our lives, and our relationships, particularly over the (hopefully) long term, as we grow and age, together.
Think of yourself for a moment: In your current level of stress, is this caused more by “living room” or “bedroom” issues? What topics need attention, or resolution? Are these perhaps topics that you and/or your partner could bring to a therapist/relationship coach for help?
Understanding how we balance these roles in gay men’s relationships helps support a long-term, satisfying, enduring, intimate, happy relationship, and discussing the issues (sometimes with the help of professional facilitation to improve communication, identify options, and evaluate options) is a way to achieve balance.
If you or your partner, or your relationship, could benefit from couples therapy or relationship coaching, please let me know, and I (or one of my Associate Clinicians at GayTherapyLA) would be happy to help. Call/text 310-339-5778, or email Ken@GayTherapyLA.com for more information, or to book your appointment. As an old saying goes, “it works, if you work it.” We would be happy to help!