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The Tools for a Successful Gay Male Relationship: The ‘Three C’s’ of Commitment, Communication, and Compromise

[This is from 2014, so some of the references are outdated like the evolution of marriage equality laws.  We’ve come a long way!]
No More 'Cheating' Part I: How Gay Men Can Have an Open Relationship Without Hurt Feelings
The rights of gay men in relationships evolve over time – IF we work for them.

What an amazing turn of events for marriage equality in a relatively short time this year!  For a terribly long time, gay couples have pleaded, waited, marched, lobbied, and battled for the simple right enjoyed by heterosexual couples to knit their relationship into the legal fabric of our society. The agonizingly slow progress finally paid off in that marriage equality rights became legal in 19 states this year. Just a month ago, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider the issue, allowing federal court rulings supporting equal access to state civil marriage to stand.  With that, marriage equality is now legal in 24 states. Soon, the legal process will make it 30 states.  We are all now starting to see how marriage equality in all 50 states is probably an inevitability, as it should have been in the first place. 

Are you and your partner ready to take that joyful walk together? “Of course!” I hear you shouting, but here’s the thing – finally having the right guy doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ready. For so long, so many of us have been focused on the bigger picture, the political injustice of a system that denied our equality. Now that the battle is very close to won, it’s time to concentrate on the very personal process of preparing to live together happily for the rest of your lives.  (For another article about a counseling program I offer on premarital counseling for gay male couples, visit here.)For over 20 years, I’ve specialized in working with gay men — individuals and couples.  And over that time, I have worked with individuals and couples who are struggling to maintain a long-term, successful relationship. My experience has led me to identify what I believe are the three essential elements of a really strong relationship, with both longevity and high levels of reported satisfaction.  These include: 

Relationships when you’re a grown man take commitment. You must be clear on what you want, and what you’re willing to put work into.

1.  Commitment

Well, of course, that’s what relationships and marriage are all about. It’s “I do,” not “I might.” You are preparing to make a promise to yourself and your partner and, now, to society at large, that you are in this for the long run. You will pledge to:

  • Care for one another when hard times come such illness, accident, layoff, or hardship (seriously, no wimping out or “I’m over this, dude”)
  • Be honest with one another about your past and your hopes for the future (no reality-show style “reveals” after the fact)
  • Treat one another with respect, no matter what your differences are (respect each other’s social class, nationality, family culture, etc.)
  • Fall back into one another’s arms trusting that you will be caught (really invest emotionally; don’t trust friends over your primary partner)
  • Accept one another’s family and friends, flawed as they might be, as your own (we all have an upbringing and we all need our buddies)
  • Spend your years finding renewed joy in one another’s company (go through each developmental stage of life in partnership, as things change — think about the long straight relationships in your family, such as parents, grandparents, or even siblings)

If you plan to have children, the commitment stakes are even higher (there is more on this in my article on gay men satisfying the paternal instinct, here). You will have a dependent little person counting on you both to protect your family and face obstacles together.

Gay Couples Therapy Challenges:  “My Partner Isn’t Contributing Equally!”
Taking turns asking and answering questions helps reduce inequality in gay relationships.

2.  Communication

You talk. Of course you talk, about everything – what happened at work today, how your families are getting along, who’s coming for dinner next week, whose turn it is to take care of that annoying noise the refrigerator makes at night. That’s all necessary, of course, but communication is something much more intense. It requires you to:

  • Pay attention to what your partner is saying, and what he isn’t saying (one of the most frequent skills learned in couples therapy)
  • Ask questions you may not want to know the answer to (communication takes bravery,  frankness, and patience)
  • Tell things you’re afraid to share (giving in to shame and lying in order to save face is nearly always disastrous)
  • Shut up when all you can say are angry or hurtful words (learn affect regulation, tact, restraint, and discretion on what/how you say things)
  • Apologize (own your own “stuff”, consider what YOU bring to conflicts, and be generous to meet your partner AT LEAST halfway)
  • Speak in more than words – a touch, a selfless action, laughter (actions speak louder than words — so, what are you saying non-verbally?)
  • Be silent together (just being attuned together is actually quality time)
Compromises for gay men come from exchanging ideas on “what could work for us?”

3.  Compromise

If you want to be 100% autonomous without having to regard anyone else, you can be 100% single.  Being part of a couple means you don’t always get to win. In fact, it means giving up on the importance of “winning” or “being right”, and instead focusing on finding what works for both of you. Compromise asks you to:

  • Consider first what your partner needs (emotional safety, feeling validated, feeling respected, getting emotional/physical/social needs met)
  • Express clearly what you need (learn to speak in “I” statements and put feelings into words, another skill that can be learned in therapy)
  • Work together to find a solution to your disagreement (be creative; identify and evaluate various “We could _______” options)
  • Say “thanks” often (validating your partner, including when you don’t agree with him, goes a long way in good-faith negotiations)
  • Be open to doing things differently and thinking differently (don’t be so “OCD” — you can make changes sometimes and live to tell the tale)

If you get the three C’s down, you’re well on your way to having the tools to build a life together. This is something to tackle before ordering the tux and curtailing the guest list.  And, a little help in cultivating and improving the Three C’s skills in your relatinoship is a wise idea. This is where I come in; working with a therapist who specializes in gay male relationships (and there are differences in types of relationships; for information on how gay and straight relationships differ, see my article, here) can help the two of you iron out any problems before they have a chance to intensify over time.

Relationships do take work; I won’t kid you there.  But they also don’t have to be unhappy, full of drama, exhausting, demoralizing, or even a struggle.  In a lot of cases, you can look as far as your own grandparents or parents and see examples of how couples can be overall pretty darn happy over the long term.  You have the option of cultivating your life and relationship to be one grand adventure; learn how to do it better than anyone else you know.

For help with these or other skills for a rewarding life as a gay man, call/text me at 310-339-5778 or email for more information or to book an appointment.  For more information on gay men’s couples counseling, visit here

Ken Howard, LCSW is a gay, poz (24 years), sex-positive, LGBT-affirmative, licensed psychotherapist who has specialized almost exclusively in working with gay male individuals and couples for over 22 years.  He provides counseling, psychotherapy, or coaching sessions in his office in Los Angeles (near Beverly Center), or via phone or via video platforms, nationally and world-wide.  Ken is available Monday through Friday, including evenings, and associate clinicians are available on weekends and weekday mornings.   

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