Monogamy or an open relationship… it’s a decision almost every gay man has found themselves weighing up at some stage in their life.
It’s also a topic which can provoke strong reactions. Some find the idea of sex with others outside of their relationship to contradict their notions of commitment and romance.
Others think maintaining lifelong monogamy is unrealistic or even unnatural.
‘A lot of relationships are quasi-monogamous’
With the advent of same-sex marriage, the challenges gay people face in maintaining long-term relationships in a heteronormative world have come into sharper focus
We’ve spent a long time campaigning for the same marriage rights as heterosexual people without asking whether the opposite-sex model of marriage is right for all.
That’s one of the assertions from San Diego-based psychotherapist Michael Dale Kimmel. He has just written a book, The Gay Man’s Guide to Open and Monogamous Marriage.
Kimmel has been counseling couples for 20 years and says one the reasons he wrote the book was from observing how few gay male couples are 100% monogamous.
‘From my own observation, I’d say about 50% are monogamous and a lot of relationships are quasi-monogamous. They’ll be monogamous but they’ll take home someone from a bar one night, or one guy will do things on a business trip.
‘The other thing is that I started doing workshops around five years ago, called “Monogamy or open relationship?” I’ve been doing workshops for a long time but this is by far the most popular workshop I ever did.
‘And people kept saying, “Where’s the book where we can read about this?”
Kimmel would recommend to them The Ethical Slut. However, the 1997 work is written from a women’s viewpoint and some of his gay male clients felt it wasn’t relevant to them. Still, he was initially reluctant to work on a book, thinking it would be hard to find a publisher.
‘Eventually I met somebody who knows an agent. This agent called me, and her son had just come out. She said, “I hear you wanna write a book about gay marriage?”, and I said, “Er, I’m thinking about it.” She put [the proposal] out there and it sold pretty fast. There’s interest in books about gay marriage now.’
‘Heterosexual marriage isn’t working for around 50% of heterosexuals’
Kimmel suggest gay men should not rush to always base their relationships on heterosexual marriage.
‘Heterosexual marriage isn’t working for around 50% of heterosexuals. So, it’s not like heterosexual people are doing really well in their marriages.
‘That said, I see a number of straight couples too, and they struggle with the same things: sexual boredom, getting on each other’s nerves as people over time, wanting to change the other person, power struggles.
‘We’re not unique in facing these issues. I ask everyone – straight, gay, bi, trans – to question the institution of marriage. Ask what really works for you and your partner, and what really doesn’t work.’
The double testosterone marriage
He believes gay men are particularly challenged by issues regarding sexual fidelity – whether driven by testosterone or other factors.
‘I do think two men have more interest in sex than a straight couple or a lesbian couple,’ he states boldly. He says he showed the book to two of his closest friends, who are both heterosexual, ‘kinda conservative’ men.
‘They said, “You know, straight men would love to have open relationships but women would never go for it.” So I don’t think it’s just us.
‘The original title for this book was the Double Testosterone Marriage … two men together have a lot of testosterone and I think for us, on a biological level, there’s more of a drive for sex.
‘If you go back far enough, there’s that primitive, biological aspect of being a man, to have sex with as many people as you can to help the race continue. And I don’t think that’s completely gone. I’m not a biologist. I’m not a scientist, but I think there’s a vestige of that strong drive to have sex with a variety of people, and marriage is a structure to modulate it.’
‘We were monogamous and I didn’t feel I was missing anything’
However, he’s quick to clarify that he doesn’t believe monogamy is impossible. In fact, his longest relationship was monogamous.
‘For some, it’s really easy to control that desire. “I really want to be monogamous and yes, I’m attracted to other men but I don’t want to do anything about it.” And that was the structure of my longest relationship, which lasted about 17 years.
‘We were monogamous and I didn’t really feel I was missing anything or lacking anything, so I’m not somebody who’s putting down monogamy. What I do ask is for people to ask the question: monogamy or open relationship?’
But what if one half wants to be monogamous and the other wants to explore sex with others? Some people reading this might be wondering is if there is a resolution to this common conflict.
‘Yes, there is a compromise that can be reached and I’m not sure it necessarily plays out in behavior as much as it plays in attitude,’ says Kimmel.
‘For example, imagine you and I are a couple and you would like to have sex with other men and that makes me really nervous. We have a conversation and we don’t get anywhere, so we go to a workshop or therapist and talk about what is it you’re missing in our relationship. “What is it that I’m not able to give you? What is it you need more of?”
‘And in turn I tell you my fears: “I’m worried you’ll fall in love with someone else; I’m afraid our sex life will die and you’ll focus on other men.”
‘The the more we talk about what’s really going on in the relationship, the more we can come to some sort of agreement.
‘In some case, the agreement is, “Let’s change our relationship and see if the monogamy will work if we make some changes.” In other cases it’s, “OK, well let’s consider maybe bringing someone home with us and see how that goes.”
‘It just depends on what works for the couple. But it can be a really good question, because if we are a couple and we don’t agree, we can start to talk about it in a way that tells us more about each other: “Oh, David, I didn’t know you felt this way about X, Y and Z.” You can say, “I didn’t know you were so afraid of A, B, C.”
‘And then you and I have a better chance of being a happy couple, whatever we decide.’
Find what works for you
In short, opening up a relationship is not the only solution.
‘I think what’s important is asking the right questions. So every section of the book has a set of questions.
‘There are questions about perfectionism in your relationship, and there are questions you can ask yourself, then your partner. The questions are designed to stir up conversations you might not normally stir up with your husband.
‘They are designed to help you get to know each other better, and that whatever you and your husband decide, it’s going to make you happier.
‘I don’t care if you’re monogamous and don’t ever look at another guy. I don’t care if you’re in an open relationship and have sex with three guys a day. It’s not my business what you do. It’s in my interests to help you figure out what makes you and your husband the happiest. To make your relationship last.’
The Gay Man’s Guide to Open and Monogamous Marriage by Michael Dale Kimmel is out now. lifebeyondtherapy.com