Improving Gay Men’s Relationships: Meeting Three Needs: Emotional, Sexual, Interpersonal

In a previous article (here), I cautioned single gay men about their dating skills and avoiding the all-too-often seen pitfalls of putting the emphasis in dating on the wrong things, such as Cash, Connections, and C—k.  As someone in a 19-year gay relationship with my partner/husband, I always say to clients that the things that seem important during dating aren’t really the things that are important that hold up in long-term relationships.  Being single and dating can be filled with all kinds of romantic fantasies, idealizations, and just a shift in priorities that don’t necessarily play out over time.  The most fundamental function of an interpersonal, domestic relationship with a partner/spouse is to get your needs met.

Your needs, and your partner’s needs, can vary widely.  In my 29 years (in 2021) of providing individual and couples therapy as a gay men’s specialist, I’ve certainly seen the variety of styles of gay men’s relationships, and they are all over the map (literally, when I work with guys all over the world) in terms of relationship style, personalities involved, and what those needs are.  But as I often joke, the older I get, the stronger my opinions get, because I see the same mistakes gay men in relationships make that undermine their health, mental health, and overall well-being, but I also see the same fundamental strengths that tend to serve a couple well over many years of domestic bliss (or close to it) by following certain universal practices.

Here, I’d like to share some observations on how gay male couples succeed with relationships that are both long and enduring, as well as with high levels of reported satisfaction, which are often the two criteria we use to evaluate relationships:  duration and quality.

Your needs that need to be met for your relationship to be both enduring and satisfying usually come down to these.  Let’s discuss:

1.  Emotional

Getting your emotional needs met from a partner/spouse is probably the most important, because this is a factor that would be relevant from the time you first meet – even having a good first date together in the bloom of youth – all the way, if you make it, to an old age and sharing your lives until literally death do you part (I’ve worked with gay widowers, and that’s a whole different topic).

Just like in straight relationships, gay men’s relationships really start with meeting your emotional needs on an everyday, routine basis.  One somewhat antiquated term for a same-sex partner (just like “lover” used to be) is “longtime companion.”  So, at the very least, your partner is a companion, usually (but not always) to share a home with: apartment, condo, house, ranch, farm, trailer, etc.

Having a companion for your daily routine of sleeping, meals, and the domestic life outside of work is fundamental.  However modest versus however luxurious, you’re forming a home with this person for you to go to when you’re not at work.  It is the stable foundation for your life, which is why cities that have problems with homelessness focus on “housing first” as the primary stabilizer in an adult’s life.  In addition to having someone to share a bed with, it’s also about sharing meals together, which enhances food and well-being.  It’s about having a confidante, because there is a time and place for where we say things; we have to censor ourselves so much in the workplace and even with friends to some degree, that it’s behind the closed doors of our own home, with our partner, that we can be the most frank, candid, honest, vulnerable, silly, and uncensored.

Partners provide emotional support just for companionship first, and then perhaps as a source of feedback or advice when you have questions about work, family, or life.  They can be your sounding board for ideas, questions, dilemmas, and frustrations, and can help provide what therapists call “reality testing” for your perceptions so that you can check yourself from being depressed, anxious, paranoid, or unreasonable.

Partners provide inherent financial stability to the society at large.  Back during the George W. Bush presidency, he pushed for federal money to simply “support marriage”, the rationale being that married people who supported each other stabilized people, and therefore communities, and this led to decreased draw on public, taxpayer-funded aid programs, which Republicans never like to fund, anyway, even for those in need.  Having a partner can mean still having a roof over your head even if you are sick or injured, or investing for the long term by going to school full-time, raising children as a stay-at-home parent, or getting a small business off the ground in its earliest (unprofitable) stages.  It’s the basic adage (which is generally true) that “two can live as cheaply as one.”

Partners can encourage, troubleshoot, support, and advise on your role at work, giving you a way to process what’s going on with situations and personalities in the workplace at home so you can go back to work well-prepared to deal with whatever is going on.

Louise Hay, a motivational speaker/author who first became famous in the 80s, used to lecture on many important topics, and one of these was the importance of providing for yourself a stable, safe, comfortable, joyous home to live in.  And this was more than just about the dwelling itself (she liked very “light and airy” spaces), but it’s about the home that you create with a partner, which is more of an emotional structure than a brick-and-mortar one.  Being able to come home from the cruel, cold world, shut the door behind you, and let your hair down is a way to find safety and a sense of sanctuary that’s all about your sense of self, and opportunities for your self-expression by how you decorate the space with images, objects, colors, and materials that are somehow uplifting for you.

Heinz Kohut, PhD, a therapist and author/theorist, said that humans benefit psychologically from a sense of “mirroring,”, seeing ourselves reflected in other people.  This is why similar people (such as gay men) tend to hang out with one another, to form groups that are mutually validating from a sense of affinity.  While small groups of friends or colleagues can be this way, partners can, too.  We tend to partner with people we find profoundly compatible, either because of our similarities, or sometimes because of our yin-yang contrasts.

When we partner and share a relationship (and usually a dwelling), it’s an opportunity to have our healthy narcissistic needs met.  We all know about the unhealthy “needs” of someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (Donald Trump), But there is such as thing as getting our healthy narcissistic needs met, such as to share our feelings, receive validation for our basic worth, to feel loved and appreciated by another, to be admired or cherished in healthy, nurturing ways, to feel heard and understood, to feel comforted and worthy of being comforted, to feel desired for our mind/heart/body/spirit, and to feel like we are living lives of meaning and purpose.

Esther Perel, LMFT, a therapist in New York, author, and media sensation, has a well-deserved popularity for her entertaining and insightful writing/speaking about relationships.  She makes the point often that our partners/spouses have a big job because they are “expected” to meet all of these needs – confidant, friend, colleague, roommate, lover, etc. – when we live twice as long as in generations ago!  Getting our needs met can require the presence, essence, and efforts of others besides our primary partner, but they are usually the ones at home with us, and so much of these roles fall to them for us, and of course, us for them.  And that’s just the emotional needs set.

2. Sexual

The second great set of needs, sexual, can be especially fraught.  Not only because sexual needs combine the physical, emotional, domestic, and social, but also because it’s a constantly-evolving dynamic between two (or more) domestic partners and our relative strengths, vulnerabilities, thoughts, feelings, and situations, as well as our changing bodies over a lifetime, our changing environment in which we live socially/economically/historically, and as our hearts, minds, and other organs change over the course of a human lifespan.

Getting our sexual needs met in the context of relationships is not a “set it and forget it” kind of thing.  We have to accept – even expect and embrace – that where will be changes over time, and to make that OK.  When I work with gay men in their 20s who are forming relationships, I know (probably more than they realize) that the things they think, feel, and say today are probably going to mortify them if we record them and play them back in 20 years.  Attitudes about sex, work, finances, health, friends, family, and romance itself are very likely to change as people (gay men) progress through some very predictable adult phases of life.  Part of my work with gay male couples who are this young includes guiding them to embrace principles and skills (such as commitment, communication, and compromise) that will serve them hopefully in the same relationship but a later stages of life, long after our work together is done (I love seeing couples I treated 10 or 15 years ago in the supermarket, and they laugh at seeing me and say, “Hey, Ken, I guess it worked, huh?” as I see their graying temples and midlife dad-bods from what once was the twink ideal ruling West Hollywood).

As an AASECT Certified Sex Therapist, helping gay male couples in sex therapy is a big portion of my weekly work.  Getting your sexual needs met is sometimes a challenging alchemy of working with your body, his body, and your respective emotions, strengths, and challenges.  The COVID pandemic was one such environmental challenge that was the great equalizer in affecting so many people regardless of their other demographics.  Getting your sexual needs met is a moving target because our sexual needs can change depending on our level of physical health, our hormonal levels, varying natural “set-points” of desire/libido, physical capabilities, erotic interests/tastes/styles, and the function of how our sexuality is part of a larger well-being.  I see so often how environmental issues (such as workplace stress) can have such an impact on your sex life, or other things like illness, substances, or emotional/psychological/psychiatric disorders (or their related medications) can affect both desire and functioning.

Like other needs, sexual needs can be met through honest and frank communication with your partner(s) on what feels good to you, emotionally and physically, being validated for what you say, but also taking your turn in listening to your partner and validating what he says.  The art of compromise is never so necessary as when negotiating how to approach mutual sexual needs, and while some couples learn to do this on their own, having a (sex) therapist help you is often needed.  Sex is such a private thing, that one job of the (sex) therapist can be to educate you on how other (gay) couples in treatment have handled these same (or similar) issues (just with no names or identifying information, for confidentiality) which you wouldn’t know unless you were consulting an experienced (gay men’s specialist) (sex) therapist.

Sexual needs can vary from an ambitious need for off-the-wall sport sex to the very gentlest of cuddling and spooning.  Often, gay male couples need the validation and education that an initial period of “hot sex” is often followed by a lifetime of “warm sex.”  Sometimes the “hot sex” punctuates your life together occasionally, with each other and under certain conditions (vacations are known for this), and sometimes the brief instances of “hot” are achieved through the presence of others, with or without your partner present (the couple that does the hot three-way on vacation, or the Consensual Non-Monogamous (CNM) or “open” couple that plays separately and then turns on their partner by sharing the details later (or not).

Getting your sexual needs met can involve the usually strong, robust, and frequent desires of the young man, but these needs, while still present, might change through the lifespan.  Things that you or your partner liked or didn’t like at one phase of your relationship can easily change at another phase, and this takes discussion, communication, and healthy compromise skills if you find yourselves with different perspectives.

3.  Interpersonal

One aspect of gay male relationships that I think is often overlooked is the role, function, and influence of other people, such as your respective Families of Origin, your separate and shared sets of friends, colleagues, and your role as a couple in the community in general and the local LGBT community in particular.

We all could probably name the local “gay power couples” in our community, the ones with the party house, or the ones who are present at the fundraisers, or the ones with some kind of social or political influence.  When it comes to people who “surround” the gay male relationship, they each exert some kind of influence on the relationship.  Your friends.  His friends.  The friends you share.  There’s the saying that you don’t just marry a person, you marry family (which has been true as long as marriage has been around).  You and your partner can get along great, but with so many players among friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, and peers, that’s a lot of personalities in the soup that can create both supportive alliances and areas of friction.  You both probably have friends or relatives whom your partner doesn’t like, or who don’t like your partner, leaving you sometimes feeling caught between them (which is often a source of arguments in couples).

So, getting your social needs met in a relationship, beyond each other, is yet another area that needs – these again – communication and compromise.

The social role your partner plays means having a “plus one” for events like weddings for friends or family.  You become part of a social structure by joining together your family trees, which have a cultural and historical aspect.  You have a dance partner for events.  You have a game partner.  You have a travel companion.  You have an extra pair of hands to share household chores with.  Being partnered in a way that speaks to that “companionship” has been associated with, factoring in with other variables, health and longevity.  Conversely, loneliness has been discussed recently as a public health issue and a detriment to one’s physical and mental health in and of itself.  It pays to partner up, but only when it’s right.

Social workers like me teach the “person in environment” theory.   That means we don’t all just exist in a vacuum; we are who we are by the historical, geographic, economic, social, and cultural context that we find ourselves.  Relationships can have the illusion of appearing in isolation among two (sometimes more) people, but they really form, endure, and exist in a broader context, and we’re not always consciously aware of how much we are influenced by this context. Sometimes, couples therapy or relationship coaching can be about becoming consciously and mindfully aware of these influences (good or bad), and how to deliberately develop adaptive coping measures for them.

Putting It Together

Being mindful of how we approach relationships to get our emotional, social, and interpersonal needs met goes a long way to feeling confident and satisfied in our relationships.  We do this, while realizing that our partners can’t meet every need.  We might need platonic friends for certain hobbies, interests, or topics.  We might need professional colleagues who can “speak the language” of our chosen field.  We might need others from our own culture for certain needs (such as a spiritual, ethnic, or language compatibility).  We might need mentors, scholars, coaches, or teachers who have perspectives and skills outside of our partner’s.  Straight people have it easy because it’s so gender-focused; straight women might have their “circle” of platonic girlfriends to hang out with, and straight men have their poker buddies or whatever.  But with gay male relationships, sometimes we need gay men who are not our partners to be our friends to meet different needs our purposes.

Part of the very rapid social acceptance of marriage equality (from majority “disapproving” to majority “approving”) in a short time is because it is the nature of human beings to form relationships, usually in dyads, but not necessarily (I work with polyamorous gay male relationships in my practice).  While only recently achieving milestones like domestic partnership or marriage equality, gay relationships have always been thereThe recent proliferation of books or memes that feature historical photos of (likely) gay male couples validates this.  We’re here, we’re queer, we’ve actually always been here; you should be used to it by now (despite how recent Right-wing politics try to imply that being gay, trans, etc. is somehow a “new” (and unwelcome) phenomenon).

Forming long-term (or even short-term) domestic relationships is not in the existential cards for every gay man.  One societal ill (of the many) that needs more attention is this idea that coupled/partnered or certainly married people (of whatever gender) are somehow “better” or more “mature” or “evolved” than single people.  Single people, gay or straight (or bi, etc.) seem to often get the short end of the social stick, whether it’s national tax policy or social status (same thing with childless people, of any gender).  In these cases, sometimes it’s not a domestic partner, but long-term platonic friendship bonds that form the social structure, and those kinds of relationships can help single people get their needs met, too (especially emotionally and interpersonally).

So as you approach dating if you’re single, or progressing in your relationship if you’re already partnered/married, try to focus on the key things that tend to be especially important over the long term, which include getting your needs met in these important areas.  And if your needs aren’t being met, this framework can give you a structure of what to focus on, and can help shape the agenda if you’re reaching out for help from therapist or coach.  Identifying problems (or unmet needs) is the first step toward solving them, and rallying the resources you need to change your thinking, behavior, or environment so that your fundamental needs can be better met for your long-term well-being, and that of those around you.

For this kind of help, consider therapy or coaching. My colleagues and I at GayTherapyLA.com would be happy to help.  Call/text 310-339-5778, or email Ken@GayTherapyLA.com, for more information or to book an appointment.

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