Marriage equality is, and always will be, one of the greatest touchpoints of LGBTQ history. But not everyone in our community rejoiced about having our unions federally recognized. For some gay men, the push for same-sex marriage has been nothing more than conformity to heteronormative ideals. “I’ve been to some lovely gay weddings but aping the traditional heterosexual wedding is weird and I don’t understand why anyone wants to do that,” writer Jonathan Soroff said, in a 2013 interview with BBC News. An alternative to traditional marriage? Open relationships.
Gay men have historically been more open-minded when it comes to love, sex, and relationships. Guys like Soroff want to preserve this openness, both within and beyond the confines of monogamy.
The Advocate suggests that most of us will end up in open relationships or marriages anyway—even if we enter a union with the intent of staying committed to one person. “Many of our relationships start off monogamous. However, because sex is so important to a lot of us, it is my experience that about half of our relationships—over time—are not monogamous,” writes Michael Dale Kimmel, author of The Gay Man’s Guide to Open and Monogamous Marriage. “Whether married or not, many gay relationships begin to ‘open up’ after the first few years.”
The upsides and downsides of open relationships
For a relationship or marriage with double the testosterone, sex is more important than with our straight counterparts. Thus, we have license to create our own version of marriage while satisfying our sexual appetites. That’s the greatest draw and benefit of an open relationship.
“We get to fulfill our desire of having sex with other people. We avoid cheating and the resentment that comes in monogamous relationships when you can’t pursue sexual urges,” says Toph Allen, who was interviewed by the Guardian last July. There are some obvious upsides.
But open relationships can also threaten your relationship quality. Some studies have shown that gay men in open arrangements have more resentment toward and less favorable views of their partners. And there’s the possibility of developing an emotional attachment to another person. So, there are some downsides, too.
Asking for an open relationship
If you’re thinking about initiating an open relationship with your partner, broach the topic with care. This is sensitive territory, and there’s a lot to consider.
- Test the waters: Don’t just dive right in. Ask if this is something your partner would even consider. If he vehemently rejects the idea, it may not be an option for your relationship.
- Emphasize the good: It’s easy for your partner to immediately assume you’re not happy. Let him know what you love about your relationship. Reiterate those things he does well, and talk about what you enjoy most. It’s important for him to understand this desire isn’t a manifestation of unhappiness.
- Address the problems: If you are unhappy, opening your relationship in place of resolving your issues could spell disaster. Make sure you’re being honest about your relationship climate.
- Avoid the labels: Terms like “swingers” and “polyamory” can have negative connotations, and you won’t know your partner’s reaction to them until you bring them up. Avoid these words and focus on what you want instead. Don’t trivialize your efforts.
- Be open and honest: Communication is key here. If you want sex more often, say so. If you’re opening your relationship, you’ll only succeed with trust. And that begins in the initial conversation.
How to navigate an open relationship
If he agrees to it, that’s just the first step. Open relationships can be a complicated web of missteps and mixed emotions. You need ground rules. But not necessarily the rules you’re thinking of. Some couples agree to play with a third wheel together. Others set limits on what they can do sexually when they’re apart. There’s the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach. Every couple will have their own set of rules that works for them. Through trial, error, and conversation, you’ll figure out what works best. But generally speaking, there are some tips that can help all couples, regardless of how liberal or conservative their rules are.
- Go slow: There’s no race to see which of you can notch the most marks on the bedpost. This is unfamiliar territory, and you’ll both need time to adjust.
- Expect mistakes: It’s hard to remember specific rules when you’re in the heat of the moment. Don’t expect your man, or yourself for that matter, to handle non-monogamy perfectly. You’ll both make mistakes, and you’ll both need to forgive one another.
- Let him go first: Even if you’re the most devoted husband, you’ve probably spent most of this time thinking about how you’ll feel when you spend time with someone else. You probably haven’t thought about how you’ll feel when he does it. Let him start the process so you can get a handle on your feelings.
- Enlist support: Whether it’s another couple with a similar arrangement or a therapist, seek the help of someone who can help you through this. Learn how to avoid the minefields while still reaping the benefits.
Open relationships offer gay men the opportunity to pursue marriage in a unique and authentic way that doesn’t conform to heteronormative expectations. But they’re not right for everyone. If such a relationship is on the table for you, weigh your options first and decide if it’s appropriate to expand your definition of monogamy.