In a previous column, I offered some contrasting perspectives concerning the question of monogamy and non-monogamy and asked you to tell me how you approach it. Like I said in a previous column, talking about this issue is a bit like hitting the "third rail," so let the sparks fly. The topic comes up often among gay men, so it was no surprise that I heard most from them. Here's what "Joe" ( not his real name ) wrote:
When I was less developed emotionally, … sex provided validation, temporary "love," a feeling of power, a feeling of self-worth, virility, and satisfied an undeniable need. These are all things … I had to go through to learn and grow. If someone approached me about a relationship I would have said no.
If I was in a relationship now and had the urge to be with someone else, or my partner had the urge to be with someone else I would have to ask myself and my partner a series of questions to determine what to do. Lots of talking would be necessary. Pure honesty would be necessary.
Joe takes what I call a developmental perspective. He views the desire for a relationship as part of his own maturation. He does not dismiss the possibility of an open relationship, but predicates it on honest communication with his partner.
Most of the gay men I've known who've had any success with open relationships emphasize the deep level of honesty required. I have also observed several other factors that, taken together, create a set of guidelines that can work. I list them here not because I necessarily prescribe open relationships, but because I recognize the fact that many gay male couples consider this at some point or incorporate it into their lives. So, here's what I hope male couples inclined toward non-monogamy would consider:
—The decision to open the relationship should be a function of the strength of the relationship, not of its weakness. For example, while it is true that the frequency or intensity of sexual pleasure between partners can wax and wane naturally over time, diminished sexual frequency or pleasure may also signify other problems in the relationship. Is some conflict not being addressed? Are other sources of stress ( family, financial, illness ) affecting the relationship? Are one or both partners feeling sexually inhibited or turned off by particular sexual practices? If there is an underlying problem, define it and address it.
—The decision to open the relationship must be mutual. Partners should have equal power in the relationship, and no partner should feel coerced into going along with another. Open relationships don't seem to work when only one partner wants it and the other accommodates for fear that the relationship will end if he doesn't. Indeed, I'd say that's the kiss of death for the relationship. If you're doing this because you think you have to, don't.
—Any agreement to open the relationship should contain within it elements that recognize that the relationship comes first; that's why it's called a primary relationship. I've encountered a range of such elements, including: a ) agreeing to have sex with others only when it's determined mutually, or prohibiting "pairing off" during a three-way; b ) being emotionally monogamous, i.e. agreeing to avoid becoming emotionally involved with any third party ( sometimes translated into agreeing to never hook up with another person more than once ) , c ) limiting sexual activities with third parties so that certain forms of sex are reserved only for the primary couple. There are many other variations, depending on the needs of the relationship and the individual partners.
—Any agreement should be time-limited and subject to periodic, routine discussion and review. This allows a built-in opportunity to connect, assess, and address potential conflicts before they do damage. It also recognizes that the agreement may no longer be effective or helpful. If non-monogamy does not enhance the primary relationship or if some damage to the relationship occurs as a result, couples can return to a monogamous agreement and address the injury.
—Partners should agree to do nothing that could expose each other to danger or harm, such as sexually transmitted diseases, drug use or interpersonal violence. Safety, particularly in anonymous situations, is paramount, and if either partner feels unsafe, activity must stop. Furthermore, decision-making should not be made under the influence of excessive alcohol or drugs. Partners must be willing to tell each other honestly what they've done sexually with others and both HIV-negative and -positive partners must agree on the level of risk of exposure to HIV that is acceptable. If one of the partners has risked exposure to HIV, he should inform his partner and, if partners are HIV-negative, both must get tested. And, to be on the safe side, non-monogamous partners should agree to practice risk reduction with each other and determine and implement any necessary changes to their own sexual practices.
—Most important, both partners should have already established a high level of trust in each other. The relationship should have a proven capacity to foster honesty and to deal with conflict, jealousy, competitiveness, hurt, or other types of vulnerability.
While this list of suggested guidelines may not be complete, it creates a sound basis for determining whether an open relationship is desirable and insuring that it's viable. In subsequent columns, I'll address the underlying question: "If neither monogamy nor non-monogamy in and of themselves makes for a healthy relationship, what does?" As always, I welcome your comments.
Bruce Koff, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and COO of Live Oak, a group of psychotherapists and consultants who provide counseling and educational services that enhance the emotional and psychological well being of individuals, families, organizations and communities. Bruce specializes in clinical practice with LGBT individuals and their families. E-mail email@example.com or visit www.liveoakchicago.com .
© 2009 by Bruce Koff, LCSW