How to have an open gay relationship
Is it possible to have a successful open gay relationship? Absolutely! But it will take deliberate work, intentional conversations, trust and time.
Now I know that everyone has their own personal beliefs about what relationship structure (monogamous, non-monogamous, open relationship and everything in between) works for them. In this post I will define some terms, offer insight and then give you questions to consider so that you can make your own decisions.
After all, the only person who can decide what type of relationship structure is right for you- is you!
Before I dive too deep into this topic, I want to define some terms that I will use in order to make sure we’re all on the same page. There are many different types of open relationships.
In the United States, like heteronormativity, monogamous relationships are the unspoken norm. There are very few examples of successful open relationships depicted in mainstream media. Name one popular romantic comedy about an open relationship. You probably can’t. Sex outside your relationship is often called cheating or it’s deemed immoral and assumed to be the end of everything wholesome and romantic.
I don’t know about you, but for me growing up I didn’t even know that open relationships were an option. My family certainly didn’t talk about it. And that chapter was nonexistence in sex education in my high school. However, there are lots of options for how to structure your relationship.
Consensual non-monogamy is an umbrella term for a non-monogamous relationship that is mutually agreed upon, honest and transparent. It’s consensual because all parties are in agreement about the boundaries and structure of the relationship. Often times there are agreements, guidelines or parameters that couples will put in place to ensure that things feel safe and secure.
This is a term for couples who are mostly monogamous, except in certain specified instances when they may choose to add partners. For example, a couple may have an agreement that they only bring in a third. Or they can only play with others when one person is out of town.
A completely open relationship is often a relationship with few boundaries, guidelines or restrictions around sex, intimacy and relationships outside the primary partnership. Anything goes, so to speak. There is still a foundation of honesty and transparency, but no one is going to get in trouble for breaking the rules. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be hurt feelings or jealousy, though. This is often an umbrella term that people throw around when talking about non-monogamy.
Now that gay marriage is the law of the land, it is more common to hear about couples being part of an open marriage. This typically means that a pair of primary partners is married and they have some form of sexual openness outside their relationship.
Understanding and exploring power in a non-monogamous relationship is paramount. In hierarchical non-monogamous relationships there’s often a primary partnership that is given more importance than other relationships. For example, a married couple may put their relationship above other people that either person may be dating outside the marriage.
How many people have open relationships?
Depending on the study you read, and to date there aren’t many scientific studies on the topic, as many as 50% of gay men are in open relationships. It’s certainly a topic that comes up often in couples therapy and can be difficult for some folks to navigate. Though it would be great to have more scientific data to back up the statistics, ultimately it’s up to you what kind of relationship you want.
As you’re reading this post, are you noticing any judgements come up? There can be a lot of judgement around the topic of non-monogamy. Some couples feel judged for being open, some feel judged for being monogamous. As gay men, we’re no strangers to being judged.
Most of us know the feeling of walking into a gay space and being evaluated. Why do we do it to each other and ourselves?
Instead of being supportive of those in our community who choose to have different relationship structures, some of us are being judgmental, mean and even slut-shaming our fellow gay friends.
What is slut-shaming?
Think Hester Prynne and The Scarlet Letter. Typically, slut-shaming is used in the straight world as a way to control and restrict women. Women are shamed and humiliated for being open and comfortable with their sexuality. Hypocrisy at its worst, because men are usually celebrated for the same type of behavior.
However, this concept is creeping its way into the gay community.
Talking openly about your relationship
If you’re going against the relationship norms in our heteronormative, mainly monogamous society, you’re going to come up against pushback. Whether from family or friends, someone is bound to give you a negative reaction.
However, just like coming out about your sexuality, it’s important that you’re able to live freely and openly as your authentic self. Like coming out of the closet, start with those you think will be most supportive and expand from there. The more we can talk openly about our relationships, the easier and more normalized they will become.
There was a time, pre-HIV and AIDS when many members of the gay community were more sexually free. After years of being oppressed and persecuted for having sex and being gay, the 1970s and 80s brought about a freedom of sexual expression that was politically and psychologically important.
After the AIDS crisis hit, sex became a dangerous thing for gay men. An entire generation of our brothers was wiped out. The bathhouses closed and the sexual revolution was quickly extinguished. Sex became linked to disease and dying.
Enter PrEP, or Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis.
In 2014 the FDA approved PrEP, a once daily pill to prevent HIV infection in people without the virus. While PrEP is not recommended to replace condoms, it can provide extra security and protection when engaging in sexual activity.
Cue another sexual revolution.
An entirely new generation of gay men can take a daily pill and have less fear around sex. This has dramatically increased the number of men having sex with men without condoms, which has spurred an increase in STI numbers, but that’s another topic.
I’m not a medical doctor and make no claim to be one, however, using or not using condoms is a personal choice and we must respect and honor an adult’s right to make choices about their body and sexual health.
How couples therapy can help with exploring open relationships
A beautiful thing about LGBTQ+ relationships is that we don’t have to blindly follow heteronormative coupling constructs. We can create relationships that work for us. Along those lines, there is a spectrum from monogamy to ethical non-monogamy open for gay couples to explore.
Often times couples or a member of a couple will come in to see me with a curiosity about how to successfully open up their relationship. Changing the structure of your relationship is a big step. It can trigger all sorts of insecurities for some people and it can embolden others. While this article is geared towards LGBTQ+ relationships, the same basic principles apply for most couples. Before reading any further, it’s important to reality check expectations. This won’t be one simple conversation. It will hopefully be the beginning of an open dialogue about your relational needs and wants with your partner.
Negotiating Your Monogamy or Non-Monogamy
Joe Kort, a well-regarded sex and relationship therapist in the community, often encourages all couples to negotiate their monogamy. What I like about this approach is that he’s setting a level playing field and encouraging all couples to talk more directly about their wants, needs and desires. For example, some monogamous couples have issues if their partner watches porn, and others are fine with that. Some monogamous couples have issues if their partner sends pictures to another guy online or flirts with someone outside the relationship. We think we know what monogamy looks like, but in fact it’s different for every unique couple. What I’m going to suggest is that it’s not the relationship structure that’s the problem, it’s a couples’ level of differentiation.
What is Differentiation?
One of my teachers, Ellyn Bader, has built an entire framework for working with couples around the idea of differentiation. What is differentiation? In a nutshell it’s a process that allows space within a relationship to explore both partner’s different wants, needs, feelings and desires more openly. Let’s use the example of monogamy versus non-monogamy to illustrate this concept.
Differentiation in Monogamy vs. Non-Monogamy
Take a couple, Rob and Steve, let’s say Rob wants monogamy and Steve wants an open relationship. On the surface it may seem like this is an impossible situation. But if you think about most relationships, there are impossible situations that come up all the time. Getting married, not getting married. Moving, not moving. The skill is learning how to talk about these differences in a way that doesn’t turn into an all-out screaming fight where nobody is listening and respecting the other person’s perspective. And the solution is not avoiding the topic all together.
Learning About Yourself First
One of the teachings that resonates with me in Ellyn Bader’s work is that before we can make space for our partner’s different perspectives, we first must fully understand our own. We must do the internal work of exploring our wants, needs, feelings and desires before we can even begin the process of sharing those with others.
Going to Problem Solving too Soon
Think about a couple that has been together for a really long time and they make the choice to open their relationship without really talking about why it’s important to either of them. Let’s assume they move to solving the problem too quickly, with the problem being their sex life. They are both horny and want sex, but they don’t know how to talk about this topic together and so they haven’t had sex together in months. So, they decide to open the relationship without understanding why they each want this more fully and it backfires. In our culture, many of us who were socialized as men were taught to solve problems quickly and move onto the next issue. Unfortunately, that’s not always what’s called for in a given situation and moving to problem solving without fully understanding the complexity of the situation can have very painful results.
What do I do when jealousy comes up?
One of the main questions that comes up about non-monogamous relationships, is what to do when jealousy creeps in. Here are some tips and tools to help you begin to deal and process the jealousy that may come up.
Sit with the feeling. Try and understand it without judgment. Are you scared that you may lose your partner? Are there ways your partner could make you feel more secure? The first step is understanding what’s going on inside you and then you’ll be better able to ask for what you need.
Take a moment before you react. In primary attachment relationships, small actions can sometimes cause big reactions. Take a moment to calm and soothe yourself before beginning a tough conversation with you partner about your needs or fears.
Give yourself a pat on the back. Open relationships take a lot of work! They require trust, honesty and communication on a level that can be pretty intense. Take a moment to validate the progress that you have made so far.
Communicate with your partner. Make a pact to only communicate about sensitive topics when you’re both feeling calm and grounded. Make sure you know what you are feeling or needing before you begin making requests from your partner.
Turn toward each other. This is a technique often spoken about by John and Julie Gottman, leaders in couples therapy research. When your partner does reach out to begin processing or looking at tough emotions, make space for them. They’re more than likely making a bid for connection and putting themselves out there in a vulnerable way. Turn toward them, instead of turning away and making the situation worse.
What kind of relationship do you want?
The first step is setting aside some time to go inside. Putting your partner’s needs aside for a moment, what do you want sexually and otherwise from your current relationship. Are there things you are missing? Are there sexual parts of yourself that have been neglected? This is hard work, but the self-exploration sets the stage for having the more in-depth conversation in the future. And it’s not really fair to go into a tough conversation without doing the personal prep yourself first. It would be like showing up for a work presentation without having done any work on the slide deck. It probably won’t go very well.
How to suggest an open relationship
So you’ve decided you want to open your relationship and explore some version of non-monogamy. Maybe this is your first time in an open relationship? Below you’ll find some ideas for how to bring the topic up with your partner.
1. Find a Good Time to Talk
Whenever you’re planning to have a tough conversation with your partner, I encourage you to be intentional about it. Don’t bring up the idea of opening up your relationship when you’re out at a bar with a bunch of other friends or right before you’re both about to fall asleep. Let your partner know you have something important to talk about and ask them when they have time to speak. It may seem obvious, but this is a step many couples tend to overlook.
2. It Probably Won’t be One and Done
It’s important to be realistic about your expectations for a given conversation. If you’re planning to talk about opening up your relationship, it probably won’t be a one and done conversation. Plan to have a series of talks about an important topic like this. Most couples will not be able to have a tough conversation like this in one sitting and then be searching for new partners online by the next day. When opening up a relationship, it’s important to go as slow as the most reserved person so that both people feel safe.
3. This Tough Talk May Bring up Lots of Feelings
It’s perfectly natural for a person to have all sorts of feelings after a tough conversation. With opening up a relationship there may be jealousy, excitement, relief, fear. All of these are valid and tough feelings don’t necessarily mean that the conversation is over, and the outcome will be bad. The more space and curiosity you can have for your partner’s feelings, the better.
4. Go Slow
Take your time. Like I said above, this will probably be a series of conversations. Give yourself plenty of time and space to find the best option for both of you. If you’re feeling pressured or impatient, be curious about that. There’s probably more to explore there.
5. Be clear and specific
While you may not have it all figured out yet, be clear and specific about your wants and needs. If you’ve already spent some time on self-reflection it will be easier to be clear and specific about your wants and needs. Before you can start negotiating agreements, boundaries or rules you must first know what you want and take the risk to share that with your partner.
Figuring out the agreements that will work best for you will take exploration. This is an exciting and scary part of the process. Sometimes you won’t know that you have a limit until you feel pain. For example, in theory you may be ok with the idea that your partner wants to go for a drink before a hook-up, but in reality that may be too much for you. Use exploration as a way of finding your limits.
It’s going to take trial and error to figure out what the best agreements will be for your relationship. Like I described above, in the process of exploration you will become more aware of your limits. And that’s a good thing! For example, maybe you’ll feel less jealous if you meet the people that your partner hooks-up with. Or maybe that will make it worse. There is no rule book for this, so you have to experiment and find what works for you.
8. Be clear about boundaries
Pain is an excellent indicator of where your boundaries lie. Through exploration and experimentation you will find your pain points. When those become clear to you, respect your boundaries and communicate them openly to your partner. It’s important to note that boundaries will change over time. While you may just want sex at first, maybe you’ll want to explore polyamory in the future. Hence this will be an ongoing dialogue and not one simple conversation.
9. Be honest, always
Open relationships can not work successfully without honesty. If you don’t trust each other, things will not feel safe. And without safety, all bets are off. The train has left the tracks. While it can be uncomfortable at first to be honest about sex with others, it is the foundation for a successful future together. And if you break a rule or an agreement, while it will be scary, always tell the truth. We’re human. We all make mistakes. You can heal from a mistake. Lying will rock the foundation of your relationship.
10. Have fun
Yes, open relationships take hard work, open communication and some discomfort. They can also be fun and exciting. Make sure that you remind yourself of that when you’re feeling jealous that your partner is off enjoying connection with another man. Don’t ignore your feelings, but give yourself permission to have fun in the process.
Set aside time to revisit this conversation
While it can seem daunting to think about having tough relationship conversations, they are key to long-term success. You don’t need hours and hours, but it is very useful to have regular check-ins. I often recommend weekly, if possible. Just a simple: “Hey, how is this open relationship experiment going for you?”
Always consider your sexual health
While I’m not a doctor, it’s clear that opening your relationship will also increase your risk for exposure to STIs. Schedule regular sexual health check-ups and be mindful of your body. When you do get an STI, make sure to tell your partners and seek the proper treatment. Again, honest and open communication is key to long-term success in open partnerships.
There are a number of resources for couples looking to open up or change the structure of their relationship.
If you want to read more about this topic or do some research, here are a couple of books that can be useful. The Ethical Slut is a fantastic primer for those interested in learning more about non-monogamous relationships. Another strong book for navigating non-monogamous relationships is Sex at Dawn. It explores the history and evolution of relationship structures in our modern world. Polysecure is another fantastic book that help explored polyamory through an attachment lens.
Hopefully this article provided a brief overview of some different relationship structures and how to begin talking about this topic with your partner. Be sure to reach out for support if this is causing conflict or pain in your relationship.
If you live in the states of Colorado or California and want to set up a free video consult, please do.