We're taught from a young age that a "regular" relationship involves a man and a woman enjoying a monogamous bond. As LGBTQ people grow up and get to grips with their sexuality and gender identity,
they learn to reject this heteronormative construct of what a relationship should look like. But the idea that our "soulmate" is someone we should be completely faithful to, 100 percent of the time, can be trickier to shake off.
When I came out at 18, I'd never have thought an open relationship could be right for me. Now, after 15 years of boyfriends and break-ups, I know it's a conversation I'd want to have with any potential partner. I've always been fascinated by the different ways in which people, often queer people, can tailor a relationship to make it work for them.
And yet, open relationships are still tainted by an unfair and often ill-informed stigma. Some people say they're less stable, less committed, and even less loving.
Here, a gay couple from Atlanta—23-year-old Tyler and 31-year-old Mark—share the story of their open relationship. There's no right or wrong way to have an open relationship, but Tyler and Mark have created one which makes both of them very happy.
I met Mark on Grindr—he was the "visiting top" in town on a work trip. We spent the night together and hung out the next day, but then he had to fly home. A couple days later, he called me and said, "I can't stop thinking about you." I think we clicked because we were both getting out of unsatisfying relationships.
I'd been dating a closeted conservative pastor's kid, so I always felt like I was towing the line between "out" and "not out." Mark and I started chatting on the phone or FaceTiming, like, every available minute, but at first we weren't committed to one another. We'd gladly talk about guys we were dating or sleeping with.
We visited each other a few times, and after about six months I packed up my stuff and drove from my hometown, Spokane, to live with Mark in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. We became monogamous as soon as I moved in, but after about a year, we realized that I'd kind of inserted myself into Mark's life and didn't have many friends of my own.
We downloaded all the dating apps again and started engaging in threesome-type situations. But the end game was less about sex, and more about making new friends on a more intimate level.
A few months later we moved to Atlanta, and Mark started traveling with work more often. One night, we were in different cities and both of us ended up meeting a guy we found attractive.
We both wanted to take things to the next level sexually, but knew we couldn't. So I ended up going to the bathroom and reaching out to Mark via text. He said to me, "Let's both just do it."
After that we sat down and set the parameters of our open relationship. "No sleepovers" is probably our number one rule—Mark can't have someone stay over in his hotel room; I can't have a guy stay over in our loft.
I just think it could lead to a level of intimacy that would make me feel uncomfortable. For us, it's not about replacing your partner; it's about having a new experience that your partner can't necessarily fulfill.
And I think that's partly because of the age difference. I'm 23 and only came out three years ago, so I'm relatively young in my sexuality. Mark is 31 and has been sexually active since he was 15, so he already has a range of sexual experiences and stories to tell.
We're very frank about our open relationship on Grindr and people can be nasty. They say things like, "If you were happy, you wouldn't be here." But being in an open relationship isn't "selfish" or "slutty."
We're in love, we're happy and confident, and we have total honesty—communication really is the key in our open relationship. And it sounds cheesy to say, but when it's just the two of us, we still have the kind of passionate sex we had on our first date.
Because we'd kind of started off in a long-distance open relationship, it felt like a natural segue to go open again. Before I met Tyler, I was married for six years and it ended because my ex-husband cheated on me multiple times, which led to so much jealousy and negativity.
I feel like part of the reason Tyler and I have this open relationship is to stop jealousy from having a seat at the table. We often share pictures of guys we meet on solo adventures, but Tyler's go-to type is a little different from mine, so there's never really any fear of missing out.
Straight people just have a really tough time understanding how it all works. I think my mom sort of knows we have an "arrangement," but she doesn't need to know the nitty-gritty details.
I mean, if I were single I wouldn't be texting her saying, "Mom, you won't believe this super-sexy guy I met last night—and he had a giant dick, too!”
I'd say most gay couples we know are in an open relationship. But Tyler gets asked about it more on Grindr, and I think it's because of his age. Back when I was younger, the idea of having an open relationship didn't even cross my mind.
When you grow up gay, you try to conform to straight norms so you can "normalize" yourself, and part of that is picturing yourself in a traditional monogamous relationship. But as you get older, you open your eyes to other kinds of relationship.
Because I'm clearly a little older, I don't think a 20-year-old twink would be daring enough to message me with some of the shit that Tyler gets.
I can't really imagine us ever going back to a closed relationship. For me, it's an important release and a reminder of my commitment to Tyler. No matter how much I have in common with another guy, or how great the sex is, I always have more fun with Tyler.
I think if both people in a relationship can look at the hottest guy on Grindr and say, "You know what, I'd rather be at home on the couch watching the worst YouTube video with you," you can make the open thing work.
But if there's a hint of jealousy in your relationship already, tread lightly. Don't try to force an open relationship. If it doesn't happen naturally, I don't think it's ever going to feel right
A new study says non-monogamous couples can actually be closer, even as critics of open relationships argue humans are unable to separate love and sex
ugh McIntyre, a 26-year-old music writer, and Toph Allen, a 28-year-old epidemiologist, are in love and have an “amazing” relationship of two and a half years. One of the keys to their success: sleeping with other people.
“We wouldn’t change a thing,” says Allen, who lives in New York City with McIntyre. “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.” Their relationship is not unusual among gay men.
In 2005, a study found that more than 40% of gay men had an agreement that sex outside the relationship was permissible, while less than 5% of heterosexual and lesbian couples reported the same.
McIntyre and Allen say the strength of their bond is built on clear and open communication. And while that assertion will be perplexing or even taboo to many monogamous couples, a new study into gay couples in open relationships suggests that this skepticism is unjustified. In fact, the study says, non-monogamous couples can actually be closer than their more faithful counterparts.
In June 2015, Christopher Stults, a researcher at the Center for Health, Identity, Behavior, and Prevention Studies at New York University, launched a qualitative study of 10 gay couples in open relationships. He conducted 45-minute, individual interviews with each of these men and their partners, who ranged in age from 19 to 43.
The study, funded by the Rural Center for Aids/STD Prevention at Indiana University, had multiple aims. “We wanted to see how these relationships form and evolve over time, and examine the perceived relationship quality, relationship satisfaction, and potential risk for HIV/STI infection,” says Stults,
who finished coding the interviews this week at NYU and hopes to have the study published early next year. o far, Stults says his finding is that non-monogamous relationships can lead to a happier, more fulfilling relationship.
“My impression so far is that they don’t seem less satisfied, and it may even be that their communication is better than among monogamous couples because they’ve had to negotiate specific details,” Stults says.
And open relationships “don’t seem to put gay men at disproportionate risk for HIV and other STDs,” Stults says. “To my knowledge, no one contracted HIV and only one couple contracted an STD.”
But despite Stults’s findings, there’s stigma associated with these kinds of relationships. In 2012, four studies from the University of Michigan found that participants’ perception of monogamous relationships were “overwhelmingly more favorable” than of open relationships.
“Gay men have always engaged more often in consensual non-monogamous relationships, and society has consistently stigmatized their decision to do so,” says Michael Bronski, a professor in the department of women, gender and sexuality at Harvard.
McIntyre and Allen say they’ve experienced the stigma themselves but that an open relationship is the most honest way for them to be together. “We’ve run into gay and straight people who have assumed our relationship is ‘lesser than’ because we’re not monogamous. I think that’s offensive and ridiculous,” McIntyre says.
So what makes an open relationship work? Participants in Stults’ study emphasized that success is predicated on creating rules and sticking to them. For McIntyre and Allen, two rules are key: “Always tell the other person when you hook up with someone else, and always practice safe sex,” Allen says.
For David Sotomayor, a 46-year-old financial planner from New York, sticking to specific rules is fundamental to the success of his open marriage. “They’re built to protect the love of our relationship,” he says. “We can physically touch another man and have oral sex, but we can’t kiss, have anal sex, or go on dates with other guys. We attach an emotional value to kissing – it’s special and unique.”
But sticking to the rules isn’t always easy. Sotomayor has broken them multiple times, which has caused conflict. “It creates a sense of doubt of whether someone is telling the truth,” he says.
Brian Norton, a psychotherapist who specializes in gay couples and an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s department of counseling and clinical psychology, says: “Sex is an emotional experience. There is emotion at play, and even in the most transactional experience someone can get attached.”
Norton believes that going outside the relationship for sex can lead to emotional insecurity. “I think it is a difficult pill to swallow that we cannot be all things to our partners,” he says. “A relationship is a constant balancing act between two conflicting human needs: autonomy and the need for closeness.”
Allen says: “It’s true that love and sex are intertwined, but they aren’t the same thing. Love is about so much more than sex. [There’s] intimacy, friendship, mutual care and respect.”
That gay couples are leading the way in sexually progressive relationships shouldn’t be surprising, according to Bronski. “Because they’ve been excluded from traditional notions of sexual behavior, they’ve had to be trendsetters and forge their own relationship norms,” he says.
Norton believes the facility with which gay men engage in open relationships may be related to a fear of intimacy. “The experience of coming to terms with your homosexual identity can often be associated with emotional abandonment, shame and rejection,” he says.
“So our experience with love and intimacy at an early age is often broken and compromised, so when someone tries to get close to us as an adult, defenses go up,” he says. “It’s human nature to avoid revisiting feelings of abandonment, and open relationships may be a way of keeping a distance between another man.”
But Allen says that being open has strengthened his relationship with McIntyre and brought the couple closer together. “I feel a greater sense of connectedness with Hugh because I get to see him explore his sexuality with other people and I feel gratitude to him for giving me the same leeway,” he says.
All the experts in this story say they believe open relationships can work when they are built on honesty and communication.
Some gay men really don’t like the idea of open relationships. I’m not talking about the guys who are like, “It’s not for me, but I don’t care if other people do it.” I don’t think anyone would have a qualm with those folks.
They are of the “live and let live” variety. I’m talking about the men who are vehemently opposed to open relationship for both themselves and for others. I reached out to find men like this, because to be honest, it’s very foreign to my way of thinking (I could see how you think it’s not for you,
but I don’t quite understand the anger when it comes to other gay couples.) There were four things that came up repeatedly when speaking with these folks, and now, I would like to address each one.
The argument here is that with the growing number of men is open relationships (and the growing societal acceptance of ethical non-monogamous relationships), it is more difficult to find men who want a monogamous relationship. The dating pool is already so small for gay men, and if you’re exclusively a bottom, there’s the issue of trying to find a good top to date,
because God only knows the pickings are slim. Of all the arguments I heard, this one has the most merit. It’s also something I can empathize with because gay dating is hard as all hell.
Here’s the deal: If these men are in (or pursuing) open relationships, that means monogamous relationships weren’t right for them. Otherwise they would be in them. There’s a silver lining to this: You’re filtering out the men who don’t want the same things you do.
You don’t want to be in a relationship with a guy who’s constantly looking at other men, thinking about screwing guys (or just cheating on you). If monogamy was the norm, these guys would be forced into unhealthy relationships with your monogamous self. You wouldn’t want to date them.
I was pretty surprised by this response to be honest, and think this is a pretty ballsy argument. The gay and queer community should not have to abide by traditional, heteronormative notions of relationships in order to make it easier for straight people to accept us because they’re more “comfortable” by the fact that we’re similar to them.
According to you, but clearly it is for them. Also, what exactly, does this have to do with you? This only reeks of bitterness, pettiness, and jealousy. Why do you feel the need to comment on and publicly judge the status of someone else’s relationship?
Of course it’s a real relationship. A relationship can take many forms. Is it a real monogamous relationship? No, it’s not, but they still can love and care for another equally.
Similar to the last argument, my response is again, “Okay, but how does this affect you?” Also, there are plenty of open relationships – both gay and straight – that have worked out long-term.
Maybe not many you know of. Also, due to stigma, many couples – especially straight married couples – don’t speak about being in an open relationship even though they’re in one. Also, not to be the bearer of bad news, but the vast majority of relationships don’t work out long-term.
Half of marriages end in divorce and think of all the folks who were never married, but still madly in love, that didn’t make it in the long run? Relationship success shouldn’t be married in longevity.
longevity. You can date someone for three months, a year, or 10 years, and still have a meaningful and incredible relationship. A relationship doesn’t have to end with one of you dying in order to be a success.
You can date someone for three months, a year, or 10 years, and still have a meaningful and incredible relationship. A relationship doesn’t have to end with one of you dying in order to be a success.
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