Problem-Solving in Gay Men’s Open Relationships: Special Topics
In a number of previous blog articles on gay men’s relationships in general, and gay open relationships in particular, such as How to Have An Open Relationship Without Hurt Feelings, Part One and Part Two, I’ve discussed how research shows that about half of gay male couples are some version (with many variations) of open or non-monogamous. Since then, many others have written on this topic, and it’s a frequent discussion (perhaps the leading topic) in gay men’s couples therapy.
But I’ve found that no matter how much has been written in articles, or discussed in therapy rooms, I still see sub-topics about gay men’s open relationships arise in my practice every week. Once a gay couple decides to open their relationship, it’s a process, not an event. It takes ongoing monitoring, exploration, communication, and maybe some compromises to endure in the long term. Here are some of the topics I’ve seen, and some advice on how to approach them:
1. Jealousy – I tell my clients that even though you might be comfortable having an open relationship, or at least “comfortable enough” that you prefer that to the various pressures of monogamy, and things are cooking along pretty well, I still see some partners struggling with jealousy, and I don’t think this ever completely goes away. I think you have to accept that. If you love your partner/spouse, and you’re invested in him emotionally, the idea of him having sex with another guy is probably never going to be 100 percent comfortable. But as I often say, “Can we make that OK?”. In other words, if it’s that agonizing to think of your partner being sexual with someone else, and it’s a source of daily or weekly torture that undermines your quality of life, then having an open relationship might not be for you, and you might need to revisit the arrangement and communicate your feelings to your partner and re-negotiate how you live. However, if it’s a discomfort, but not truly painful, you might have to accept that feeling as a part of the deal. You might really dislike other parts of other deals – let’s say you hate Monday morning staff meeting at work, for example – but you don’t necessarily quit your job over it. Yet, you can’t make yourself like staff meeting. There is a certain element of “suck it up” as an adult that means there is no way to have all the advantages of a monogamous relationship, and all the advantages of an open relationship, with the disadvantages of neither. Whichever model of relationship you and your partner choose, you have to be OK choosing the disadvantages that come with it. That’s just part of adult, mature thinking; only children think in immature, idealized, “I want both without having to make choices” thinking. Grow up and understand that life’s choices are often complex and nuanced, and avoid black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking.
How does one cope with that jealousy? Especially when you find out somehow (either he tells you, or you can just “tell”) he’s recently had sex with someone else? I think validating your own feelings goes a long way. Of course you might feel jealous. The man you love just had sex with someone else who wasn’t you, and you might feel left out. It’s a natural part of your being emotionally invested (profoundly, as in being love and committed) in him. But at the same time, you might have had many discussions about why opening up is good for your relationship for each of you and your respective sexual health and satisfaction. Remember that if you’re jealous when he has sex with someone else, he gets to take a turn at feeling that same jealousy when you do, too. If part of your commitment to each other means you can each cope with that, then you’re being compassionate and letting each other have the fun you want, or get the special sexual craving fulfilled that you want. You can have a few pangs of jealousy and you can still have a successful open relationship. You can hate staff meetings and still have a really great job.
2. Worry and Assigning Meaning about His Actions with You vs. Others – Some guys “assign meaning” to their partner’s actions in sex with others. For example, a guy can get insecure about a partner who doesn’t like to bottom for him, but will bottom for others, and he can be left with a, “What am I? Chopped liver?” feeling. This is understandable, and it might mean you need to sit your partner down and talk about it, and ask for what you want in sex with him regarding top/bottom roles for variety’s sake. But it also can mean that one function of your open relationship is that your partner might want one kind of sex from you, and another kind from his outside encounters. Again, can we make that OK? It’s not necessarily a statement about your shortcomings, but merely how your partner likes to “arrange” his sexual activities. Try not to take it personally, but let your partner do what feels most satisfying to him. Then, it’s your turn. Be careful not to interpret his choices and actions as a commentary on you, because he’s really not trying to hurt you, and it’s not really about you when your partner has his outside experiences, so let him have that in a spirit of compassion and generosity.
3. Keeping Score – Avoid the urge (and I see it often) to want to “keep score” with outside hookups. You hear about your partner hooking up with someone, and you immediately want to hook up with someone, just so that you don’t feel your partner has a one-up on you in the open relationship. While equality is a good thing (and especially important in male-male relationships, because men have a strong sense of competing with one another, including male partners), this is one time when you want to let go of the pressure for everything to be even-Steven. There is no law (and shouldn’t be a rule) in open relationships that you each have to have an equal number of outside encounters in the course of a year. Work schedules, sex drive, interests, opportunities, and convenience are all variable factors. Accept that one of you might have more encounters than the other, and that’s not a negative statement on either one of you, or on your relationship.
4. Managing Health and STI Risk – One of the risks in open relationships (and one reason couples opt for monogamy) is the risk of any of the STI’s. PrEP is ubiquitous nowadays, which takes care of drastically reducing the risk of HIV transmission, but it’s important to self-monitor and get tested however frequently you need to manage other STI’s like chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis. If you’re HIV-positive or if you’re on PrEP, you’re probably getting tested for everything regularly (every few months) at a your doctor or clinic, but it’s just mathematical probability that more partners means possibly more exposure. At the first sign of any symptoms (burning when you pee, penile discharge, spots, discomfort), speak up and get medical attention from a provider, and discuss it with your primary partner to see if both of you need to be checked. We can’t prevent all STI incidents, but regular monitoring of getting checked and receiving treatment when necessary help to protect the collective gay male community public health, and keep you comfortable. Good self-care when it comes to monitoring for STI’s is a sign of robust sexual health, and it’s even a component of a healthy self-esteem.
5. Privacy from Friends/Relatives/Co-workers — Having an open relationship is a private matter between you and your partner/spouse, and if that doesn’t jibe with other relationships in your circle of friends, gay or straight, or doesn’t fit with what your (straight) parents or other relatives might see as “proper” for relationships/marriage, then don’t tell them. Your adult sex life is your prerogative, and it’s nobody else’s business but yours and your partner’s. Be especially careful with any discussions at work; these days, even subtle sexual discussions can be seen as creating a hostile, sexually harassing environment for your colleagues. But even among friends, opinions about how you and your partner build your life together will vary from full support to a severe judgmental disgust (unfortunately). I had a gay male therapist colleague say once, in response to severe online comment criticism of his “monogamish” relationship, “Our arrangement doesn’t have to work for you; it only has to work for us.” Big difference. If you want to share the particulars of how your relationship operates in a way that might help other gay male couples who ask for your advice, maybe give it then, but remember that are as many ways to have a relationship (open or monogamous) as there are relationships themselves. Everyone has to work out the details for themselves, in privacy and with compassion for one another.
6. Keeping the Sentimental Sacrosanct – If there are aspects of your relationship with your partner/spouse that you want to keep sacrosanct, assert them. There are gay male couples who have tons of sex with outside partners, but keep their own bed in their own home for each other only. Others will have an active outside sex life, but keep their weekly “date night” sacrosanct. When you’re open in some ways, such as sexually, you build a sense of intimacy and things are special just for the two of you in other ways. What are those for you? Ideally, you should be able to point to things that you and your partner keep just for each other, in a way that makes the interaction between you different from any interactions with other guys. This is part of the “glue” of commitment. For monogamous couples, it’s their sexuality; for non-monogamous couples, it has to be something else – but I always recommend that you identify something to hold special and unique. I find the best open relationships have some element where among all other guys, your partner holds you special in some specific way.
We can’t always keep problems in open (or any!) relationships from happening. Challenges arise over time, even when we thought our feelings about having an open relationship where resolved. We can be triggered by certain situations, memories, interactions, states of mind, or periods of life. If these feelings come up, talk to your partner/spouse about them. Sometimes closing the relationship during a crisis can help a partner feel more secure to face a temporary hardship (work, illness, stress). Accept that it is never going to be ideal, 100 percent of the time, and make that OK, but if you’re actively coping with feelings as they arise, you’re well on your way to making it work well most of the time. And when you and your partner feel like you could use some help from someone who works with gay male couples issues all the time, for over 25 years now, reach out to me or one of my associates at GayTherapyLA (310-339-5778 or Ken@GayTherapyLA.com). We are here to help.