Top 10 Reasons Gay Couples Break Up and How to Prevent Them: My 30 Years as a
Gay Men’s Couples Therapist
As a gay men’s specialist psychotherapist, life/career/relationship coach, and AASECT Certified Sex Therapist, my clients sometimes ask about my perspective from having such a long career (31 years in 2023) working with gay men as individuals, couples, and polycules. With some frequency, they ask what I’ve seen in terms of when gay male couples break up, what are the reasons? What do they need to “watch out” for if they want their relationship to endure, and to be happy? Even if they’re single, they ask what some of the “big” risks are going into a relationship.
Every couple/relationship is different, which is why even with my long-term perspective, having worked with hundreds of gay male couples, it’s hard to make broad generalizations. However, I have seen patterns, and I actually look for them. I have this joke, “The older I get, the stronger my opinions get,” because I see the gay men making the same “life mistakes” over and over – but then I also see very similar solutions to problems work, as well, over and over.
So, for the list of “common reasons for breakups” in gay male relationships, below, I want to describe the problem I’ve observed in practice, but also recommend some potential solutions, or “adaptive coping strategies” that might salvage the relationship. However, we also have to practice what Dialectical Behavior Therapy calls “Radical Acceptance,” that some relationships are beyond saving, because there is a fundamental incompatibility that makes a relationship simply untenable, and it’s then that the most compassionate, humane thing the partners can do is to release the relationship, let it go, end the conflict and heartache, and allow themselves and their partner(s) to go out and find a new partner where that fundamental incompatibility isn’t an issue. This is why gay men can have several (or more) partners in a lifetime, and not from being widowed, but from breakups that happen sometimes for very good reasons.
That said, let’s look at some common breakup situations and how sometimes the breakup can be averted by a Coping Strategy I’ll discuss for each one:
1. Kids – While we often think of straight couples having the decision whether to have kids, gay male couples do, too, when they consider options such as foster care, adoption, or surrogate parenting. I’ve worked with gay male relationships who have done each of these, and there are pros and cons to each option. But that is after the partners have decided they want to have children, somehow. When one partner does, and the other doesn’t, that situation can be the reason for a breakup. (This was portrayed on TV for a fictional lesbian couple on “Supergirl,” produced by the prolific gay writer and producer, Greg Berlanti, who has woven LGBT-affirmative story lines into his many superhero shows. In this story line, Supergirl’s lesbian sister ends a relationship when her partner doesn’t want to have children.)
Coping Strategy: Whether or not to have kids, or at least a general interest/overview of the question, should be a part of not very early dating, but perhaps at a time when the partners feel that the relationship is “getting serious” (which may, or may not, include a monogamy agreement sexually, but might have a monogamy agreement emotionally), and certainly before cohabitating or getting engaged/married. Sometimes, the reluctant partner can get some exposure to being around kids through the couple doing some short-term foster care, becoming involved in a local “gay dads” group for actual or prospective dads, or doing some child care for friends or relatives. Other times, the couple discusses very “existential” long-term life goals together, and whether raising a child (or more) fits with that. Some gay couples find that “too heteronormative”, while others want to fulfill a natural parental/paternal instinct with just as much right to do that as straight people. It can be a very meaningful conversation to consciously allow the “ship to sail” of the option of parenting, and it can involve psychological phases of life throughout the lifespan. It can also just be a practical thing: in my observation, it can be a very awkward reality to observe that options like having children through surrogacy is a hallmark of not all gay couples, but specifically affluent gay couples, who can afford about $150,000 that it takes to do that. Plus, there is the consideration of hiring a nurse/nanny/”manny”/au pair, if both partners have busy (often executive) jobs that don’t allow for stay-at-home parenting, even if many/most companies today offer “paternity leave” for men just as they do “maternity leave” for women. Often, gay couples will utilize couples therapy for sorting this out, and candidly working through the decision, with the promise that whatever they decide, they agree (as much as one ever can) not to hold resentments about the decision later.
2. Relocation — For many people, home is home, and where they live is where they always want to live. They might have grown up there, they might have Family of Origin nearby that they don’t want to leave, they might align with a city’s or state’s values (such as being LGBT-affirmative in their state/local laws and protections), they might have a job they don’t want to leave, they might have a strong affinity for the climate (such as being in the “Sun Belt” of the United States to be warmer and more comfortable, or to have mild weather in part for coping with Depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder). So, if one partner gets the “chance of a lifetime” job, that fulfills a long-term dream or “bucket list” item, the couple might break up if they reach an impasse on whether to uproot and relocate. I’ve seen both of this: some guys put where they live first, and the job they have has to fall in line with that, while others “move around to move up” to build their title and salary history in their chosen field, and relocation is synonymous with upward mobility (and standard of living).
Coping Srtategy – Again, when a relationship gets serious, it’s important to talk about values, and whether the partners agree that their home city comes first, or their professional opportunity for advancement comes first, and also which partner we are referring to. Straight couples, without realizing the inherent sexism in this, usually relocate for the husband’s job, not the wife’s, with some exceptions, especially if he earns more and is the “primary breadwinner” of the couple/family. This sounds antiquated, but I’ve seen many examples of this. With gay men, you don’t have the gender pay gap, so either partner could have professional opportunity among, for example, two high-level executives. Executive Coaching (which I also do) can help with this, to clarify your professional values and your work/life balance, as can couples therapy/relationship coaching to clarify the stakes of your emotional life together versus a reasonable desire to have professional growth, opportunity, and achievement. (The classic film musical, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” deals with this (directed by the gay Vincente Minnelli and co-starring lesbian actress Marjorie Main, with the “boy next door” actor also a gay man). When the patriarch (lawyer) is given a chance to relocate the family to New York; he/they ultimately decide to stay “right there in St. Louis,” site of the World’s Fair, but in reality, the author of the original book (Sally Benson) did, indeed, move to New York.)
3. Unaddressed Drug/Alcohol Problem – During my career, helping guys (single or in relationships) overcome severe problems with drug or alcohol use has been a common reason for their seeking therapy, or wanting relapse prevention coaching. Sad as it may seem, when one partner has such a drug/alcohol problem and the other does not, and there are many chaotic and unhappy dynamics going on, the situation can frequently become, “either the drug goes, or I go” from the (possibly co-dependent, enabling) partner. And, more sadly, sometimes the partner with the drug/alcohol problem chooses the addiction over the relationship, and they break up.
Coping Strategy: I have had rewarding experiences, though, serving as a couples therapist to help couples in this situation, and helping them to identify what the “work is” for the person with the direct substance problem (most commonly “crystal”, (I can’t spell CM out without social media sites and Google/search engines declaring this kind of content verboten) or alcohol). We discuss what role, if any, the remaining partner has in this without it becoming a co-dependent/enabling thing.
Recently, I had an email from a partner in such couple, from years ago, and just “for my information” wanted to thank me for the help I provided, telling me that his partner was still sober, and that their careers and family life were thriving. And that partner got “clean” (I hate that term) and sober through couples therapy and individual therapy, and not being involved in the Twelve Steps program (AA/CMA) which can be helpful, but in my experience, is not required. Professional help of some kind(s) is required, but not necessarily the peer support help of AA, although that can make the process from “messy” to stable go a lot more smoothly, and a lot faster.
It’s a sad dilemma when a couple has to face breakup rather than live with the daily drama of the effects of a partner (or both partners) being in the throes of a powerful substance abuse problem. But sometimes, a breakup is what it takes for the remaining partner to be safe/happy, and for the partner with the substance problem to understand the gravity of how that behavior affects others, such as in the case of an “intervention.”
It’s a tough situation, and I’ve seen couples (and polycules) in this situation with both happy/successful outcomes, and sadder outcomes where everyone goes his separate way. Part of it is about willingness and motivation to “do the work” needed to change and recover to get out of a substance’s grip.
4. Monogamy versus Consensual Non-Monogamy (CNM) – This is perhaps the most common gay male relationship challenge that I see in practice. This issue is common among gay men, and I’ve helped gay couples with this thousands of times in thirty years, not only as a gay men’s specialist therapist, but also as an AASECT Certified Sex Therapist and taking a year-long course (from Sexual Health Alliance) on Consensual Non-Monogamy and Polyamorous Families, with Eli Sheff, PhD.
Emotions run high on this topic, and previous articles and podcast episodes have examined various components of this. But in relationships, the emotions of whether to “be, or not to be” monogamous can run high, based on personality, Family of Origin dynamics, previous relationships, social outlook, religious or spiritual beliefs, sensitivity to abandonment, trauma history, personal vulnerabilities, OCD, ADD, generational, or national/ethnic cultural considerations. While we tend to see Monogamy as “fidelity of the heart and the genitals/body sexually,” CNM usually involves a “fidelity of the heart, but not the genitals/sexuality.” Polyamory would involve both emotional/social/domestic considerations of a relationship, along with sexual activity. It’s up to each couple (or polycule) to determine somewhat early on what “style” of relationship they want, but this can change over time, with some gay male couples becoming CNM after a period (short or long) of being monogamous.
There are pros and cons to each relationship style, and you can’t have all the advantages of both; you have to choose the “set” of both pros and cons that come along with each option, and its many variations (such as “ground rules” and how the relationship even “defines” monogamy, which can vary widely between relationships). But a firm impasse, often driven by a very strong “fear of engulfment” or a very strong “fear of abandonment,” can be the impetus for a breakup, with each partner wanting to move on to find a partner who shares his outlook.
Coping Strategy – I have found that the high emotions (especially anger and abandonment) about this topic are different from what the couple actually experiences later. Guys who start out with a high commitment to monogamy can become ambivalent about this over time, and can have “secret” hookups that are really not advised because going down that path of dishonesty is enormously risky, as your partner nearly always finds out, and not because they are “snooping”. If you are supposedly a monogamous couple and you don’t want to be anymore, then talk about it with your partner first before acting on it. Express to him your reasons for your ambivalence, even if it’s fairly recent, and describe your emotional, sexual, or social feelings about why you want to revisit the topic of monogamy versus its many iterations of alternatives.
Guys who are non-monogamous but feel almost tortured with insecurity, anxiety, and jealousy because they feel they were pressured into being non-monogamous when they really didn’t want to be also need to revisit the issue with your partner, and talk about your feelings and what they mean to you. Ask your partner to discuss it, or even to experiment with a time-limited period of monogamy, and see where that takes you in your sex life and your relationship overall.
If you’re both interested in non-monogamy but you’re very scared that it will change your relationship irreparably, trust that you can have a discussion about your respective needs, and then experiment, again perhaps for a limited time, being non-monogamous, and discuss why that might be fun/fulfilling for you, and discuss how you see possible risks/benefits and your feelings about your hopes/fears. Often, what non-monogamy is really like for a couple in reality is different (usually easier) than they had originally feared, because the basic attachment between the partners is still there. It is important to discuss “ground rules”, though, about who, where, when, how, how often, and why sex with outside partners is to happen. Do not agree to a ground rule that your heart (among other organs) isn’t into.
This kind of event in a relationship is very hard to do without having either a gay or gay-affirmative therapist who understands specifically gay men’s cultural issues, and how they differ greatly from straight relationships. Straight, female therapists (especially religious ones) can have extreme prejudicial feelings against gay open relationships, as they don’t really “get it” – even if they attempt to. Part of gay-affirmative therapy is being gay-informed and “culturally competent.” If you mention things like PrEP and the therapist doesn’t know what you’re talking about, they are not culturally competent to work with gay men, no matter how of an “ally” they say they are. This is a big deal; gay men experience a pretty serious invalidation and disservice by practitioners who have a conservative, insidiously (as in not even consciously acknowledged) religious bias against non-monogamy. Even gay male therapists can have a bias against this that is their issue, not yours, especially if they are influenced by covert (unconscious) religious or socially conservative thinking, practicing from a still-heterosexist lens, have not processed their own trauma being the victim of a previous partner’s dishonesty, or are indoctrinated with the “pseudoscience religious bigotry wrapped in clinical garb” of “sex addiction” or “porn addiction” models, as far too many gay-identified male therapists do lately.
I have worked successfully with monogamous gay couples, non-monogamous gay couples, and especially those who are on some kind of spectrum between the two. Happiness is possible when this issue comes up, but it takes lots of support and lots of discussion to resolve.
5. Disagreement Over Household Chores/Money – While this might seem petty, I have seen gay couples break up over the resentment that can come from imbalances in “who is doing household chores” or if there is a great difference in the partners’ incomes (a previous blog article and podcast episode addresses this in detail). Since there is no “wife” in gay relationships, the domestic chores that women were “expected” to do for centuries (until modern feminism, and even then, women tend to do more domestic chores than men) have to be done by either of the two (or more) men. Men who feel they are doing more than their fair share of chores can feel emasculated, even unconsciously, about doing “women’s work” (a term their father might have used in their Family of Origin), or even resentments about the spectrum and balance of Entitlement versus Deprivation.
No one likes to feel objectified as “the housekeeper” or the “daddy with money” stereotype. Usually, couples therapy or relationship coaching can help to re-balance the burden of regular household chores, or the balance of income and money issues. But there are times when a couple will break up over these items, more from the state of chronic resentment.
Coping Strategy – Household chores are a fact of life if you don’t want to live in squalor. While some guys hire a housekeeper, if resources permit, there are still chores that even guys tired from full-time jobs still have to do. It’s part of “adulting” and a necessary evil in running a home. If one partner (or both) feel that there is an unfair imbalance of chores, or who is paying for what, it’s critical to air your grievances, talk it out, and propose/implement/evaluate/re-adjust practical compromises (such as working from a written “who does what chores” list posted on the refrigerator. Often, couples therapy reveals that resentments about chores or money are actually about something else, such as jealousy of other men or sexual dissatisfaction. Therapy can help uncover the “real issue” before it erodes goodwill in the relationship, breeds resentment, and leads to a sad and unnecessary breakup.
6. Family of Origin and Conflicted Loyalty – Some gay couples are at risk of breaking up if they violate the basic commitment between the partners. In other articles and podcast episodes, I’ve discussed how the basic building blocks of enduring, rewarding relationships are Commitment, Communication, and Compromise. Mastering those skills will go a long way in fortifying and sustaining your relationship, and they are remarkably reliable for solving many problems.
But the commitment part has to be clear. While some straight men can feel conflicted between loyalty to their wife and loyalty to, say, their mother or their parents, it is more rare than with gay men. Gay men sometimes fail, themselves, to treat their own gay relationship with the seriousness and validity they do straight relationships. This is a form of internalized homophobia. When a gay partner is putting the needs of his mother (most frequently) or anyone in his Family of Origin long after he has grown up, left “home”, and created a home with a partner, over his partner, he is undermining and devaluing his partner in a way that seems to say that gay relationships (including his own) are not as important as straight ones. I’ve seen gay partners throw their partners under the bus way more than straight men would. If it has to be a choice, between loyalty to your parents/Family of Origin and your partner, it is critical that you choose your partner (except in cases like crime or domestic violence). I’ve seen gay couples break up because a partner doesn’t feel that his partner values him as much as he does his Family of Origin, and this is sad, because it signals that his partner is not yet really “grown up” and gone through the Separation and Individuation stage from child to adolescent to adult. This is especially true if the partner is doing something to appease his parents and “dis” his partner due to financial dependence or a fear of “being cut out of Mom’s will.”
Coping Strategy – If you feel that your partner is not committing to you, and demonstrating loyalty to you (within reason, of course) “forsaking all other,” then your relationship needs support and work to survive. Couples therapy can help this, but it starts with proposing to your partner that you have and demonstrate a commitment that puts your partner first – much like the text of wedding vows. If a parent is disabled or somehow dependent on adult children for things like financial support or caregiving, this is something the partners must discuss to determine what they can and cannot do. They can’t have one partner giving a lot of money to his parents if it undermines the couple’s long-term financial security in their retirement plan, for example. A gay-savvy Certified Financial Planner can help with this. It’s also important to discuss possible unconscious resistance or devaluation of a partner due to covert, internalized homophobia or even a sense of guilt about being that the partner feels he has to “make it up” to his parent(s) or Family of Origin.
7. Pathological Jealousy and Control Issues – Another very common reason for breakups that I’ve seen a number of times in practice is that the couple comes to an impasse when one partner simply has so much pathological jealousy of his partner, and his partner’s even casual attention to other guys, that he just can’t stand it. When a partner stifles his partner’s sense of privacy, independence, autonomy, self-agency, self-efficacy, and basic Right to Self-Determination, the resentment from his partner for being mistrusted, infantilized, undermined, and controlled can lead to the only “escape” from this being breakup. I’ve especially seen this in older partners toward younger partners, who seem to be jealous and anxious about their younger partner’s contact with any other peer gay men. That way lies madness, because pathological jealousy, control, and demanding “accountability” of your partner’s time and whereabouts is a dramatically efficient recipe for breakup.
Coping Strategy – Assuming that there isn’t any actual “infidelity” or dishonesty going on, a partner who can’t seem to control and self-soothe his own abandonment anxiety and fears of loss needs to see a therapist to learn emotional self-regulation skills, self-soothing skills, cognitive reframing skills, and communication skills on how to build intimacy with a partner and have your partner want to be with you, instead of feeling like he “has” to be with you. A severe sensitivity to “real or imagined abandonment” is a hallmark symptom of the Borderline Personality Disorder, and this needs treatment (often Dialectical Behavior Therapy). A Narcisisstic partner might also have the point of view that only his needs are valid, and might ignore his partner’s respective set of needs. A partner who is a trauma survivor might have difficulty being alone, or trusting those he loves not to hurt him, and this would need therapy for healing from traumatic experiences.
It’s about recognizing that even in a close relationship, each partner still has a right to autonomy, privacy, and the latitude to have their own friends, interests, hobbies, and social roles, even if it’s all still non-sexual with others. Guys with extreme jealousy are likely survivors of some kind of traumatic loss who don’t expect their partners (or anyone, really) to really “be there” for them unless they are contracted, coerced, and practically imprisoned. If guys like that want to sustain their relationship, they need to “negotiate” some room for mutual independence and “breathing room” in the relationship, including the most intimate relationships.
8. Sex – Couples can and do break up over sexual boredom. In the gay-icon sitcom classic, “The Golden Girls,” the story line for Bea Arthur’s character, “Dorothy,” was that her husband, Stan, left her and divorced her after 38 years of marriage because he “wasn’t happy in the sack” and then had a (brief) relationship with a much-younger flight attendant (in real life, by the way, Bea Arthur’s husband, Gene Saks, who directed her in “Mame,” left her after many years of marriage to be with a younger man, which might have been the inspiration for Dorothy’s backstory; the other three roommates were widows.)
It is extremely common that in both straight and gay relationships, sexual excitement can wane over time. If lucky, the couple experiences “a brief time of hot sex that cools to a lifetime of warm sex,” as my cherished mentor, early gay men’s specialist therapist Michael Shernoff, LCSW, in New York, has said.
Coping Strategy: When sexual boredom settles in, or, conversely, sexual interest in others increases, it’s time for the partners to discuss their options. Sex Therapy (which I also provide, as a trained, AASECT Certified Sex Therapist) can help a couple/relationship find ways to renew and invigorate their sex life either between the partners, or by adding others together (such as three-ways or four-ways), or negotiating some kind of Consensual Non-Monogamy to address simply sexual needs, but without undermining the emotional, romantic, and domestic life they have together.
Couples who have sexual problems who don’t reach out for help are at risk of being overwhelmed by their powerful sexual feelings (either their drive/desire for better sex, or their resentment at deprivation of it) and break up. That’s kind of an unnecessary outcome, because with help, often this kind of frustration or impasse can be overcome, or at least partially mitigated. Plus, there is the importance of accepting that “hot sex” is inherently time-limited (physically/neurobiologically) and it’s only natural for a man’s body to crave “novel stimulation”. Even if the “novel stimulation” does not come from a new partner, it’s possible in monogamy to create novel stimulation, but from your existing partner.
9) Domestic Violence – This one is short: if there is domestic violence, it is extremely likely that the relationship is over, and needs to be. Domestic violence can be (and for a certain number of people (men and women) per year, is) lethal. Couples counseling is not “indicated” or recommended for couples where violence is present. Domestic violence in gay men’s relationships is especially dangerous, because men can be strong and do a lot of damage to their home or to their partner’s person, just due to strength, especially if they are also disinhibited by alcohol (as is often the case) or stimulant drugs (cocaine, crystal).
Coping Strategy: This is a big topic, and it needs its own discussion to adequately begin to address it. But the primary topic is safety first, which means being away and protected from the dangerous behavior of the perpetrator, or each other, if the violence is mutual (which it can be, between two men, who have been “socialized” to be physical fighters, with children growing up seeing prize fights on TV or “bar room brawls” or action-movie hand-to-hand combat). If you are experiencing domestic violence, it is important to seek out and search resources (community organizations) who have competence and willingness (not a given, by any means) for specifically gay male victims of domestic violence. Part of the misogyny of society is that domestic violence against women is a global pandemic and overwhelming, grave injustice in nearly all cultures for all history; part of the misandry of society is “assuming” that “big men” can “never” be victims of domestic violence (or sexual assault) when they can; I’ve worked with dozens of these guys. The most important dynamic is safety, usually through separation, and in these cases, a clean break via permanent (key word) breakup is the best option. I’ve only seen gay couples survive any kind of domestic violence when it is a one-time thing, and even that needs lots of intervention support, before “one time” becomes dozens of times, and the “trauma bond” makes it hard for the victim to leave later.
10) Widowhood – This isn’t really a “breakup scenario,” but it is a scenario where a relationship ends. If you lose a spouse to death, that’s not a breakup or a divorce, but you are single again after that, when you didn’t want to be. Michael Shernoff, whom I mentioned above, was the editor of a book called Gay Widowers, with a lot of stories about gay men who lost partners to AIDS, but also to other causes. Gay widowers have the double challenge of not only having to deal with the catastrophic loss of their partner, but also can have their grief undermined or invalidated by not being recognized by society as on a par with the loss of a straight spouse or partner, but “just a friend, and that’s different.” Horrifying.
Coping Strategy: I’ve worked with several gay widowers, and it’s a familiar pattern about mourning the loss, processing the grief, and moving on with life, including coming to terms with the loss in a way that allows for the healing necessary to be available to a next relationship. It is sad work, as losing a spouse has been long considered the worst experience a human can go through, rivaled only by the loss of a child. And, yet, it is not uncommon, especially among older gay men. The coping is an emotional, existential, and even social experience. If we use our “Golden Girls” example, the three widows went on to form a certain “platonic intimacy” and sisterly love with their roommates, despite being straight, and their fictional situation is not that unlike real-life examples, as women tend to lose husbands more often than the other way around, possibly due to lower life expectancies in men who have endured, overall, a lifetime of more work stress in high-demand jobs (although this might change as more women have been in the workforce for decades). It’s especially difficult, because the partners did not voluntarily or mutually break up, the permanent separation was thrust upon them, often in unexpected, sudden, and unjust ways. Coping becomes an existential life exercise, again aided by a therapist and/or a support group.
These listed here are not the only reasons for a breakup; there are perhaps as many different causes of breakups as there are breakups. But I’m hoping by discussing the most frequent ones I’ve seen in my long period of clinical practice, I can offer hope if you are facing one of these (or more) of these situations, and perhaps can run some “pre-emptive interference” that might avert a breakup. We also need to challenge this idea that relationships “must” last, no matter what. Sometimes, it is a humane and healthy thing to recognize that a relationship has just run its course, and moving on is about an opportunity for personal growth. I admit, I have a bias somewhat against this, because I generally believe couples (gay male couples) want to have both a long and happy life together, and I believe they deserve to have the help and support they need from an external support source (like a therapist, or relationship coach, two somewhat overlapping but still distinct professional services).
If you need support for any of these situations, or others in your relationship, or even challenges you face as an individual, please consider therapy (for residents of California, where I am licensed) or coaching. For more information on how to become a client through Telehealth from anywhere in the world, email Ken@GayTherapyLA.com, or Ken@GayCoachingLA.com, or call/text 310-339-5778. I would be happy to help.
Ken Howard, LCSW, CST, is the most experienced gay men’s specialist in the United States today. He is in full-time private practice via Telehealth from his home office in West Hollywood, California, where he lives with his husband of 21 years (in 2023). He is a former Adjunct Associate Professor of the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, where he taught courses in Couples Therapy, Evidence-Based Psychotherapy Models, and an LGBT+ Social Work course. He is a former non-profit organization executive in LGBT and HIV/AIDS service organizations in Los Angeles. He has been living with HIV for 33 years in 2023, and is an outspoken LGBT rights activist, dog daddy, motorcyclist, and composer for musical theatre. His musical’s concept album, “On the Boulevard,” about gay life in West Hollywood, is available on all music streaming services.