Can Open Relationships Actually Work for Gay Men?

Male couple holding hands outdoors at sunsetThe question of whether open relationships can be as healthy, satisfying, and fulfilling as monogamous pairings pops up in advice columns and psychology magazines from time to time, but the answer always seems to be different. This lack of consistency is curious because the issue has been thoroughly studied. With regard to relationships among gay men specifically, decades of research back up the assertion that open and closed relationships have similar levels of satisfaction (Blasband and Peplau, 1985; Kurdek and Schmitt, 1986; Wagner, Remien, and Carballa-Dieguez, 2000; LaSala, 2004a; LaSala, 2004b; Hoff et al., 2010).

If open relationships can work, then why are many experts convinced that nonmonogamy is a sign of dysfunction or a recipe for disaster? The answer is not entirely clear. However, many researchers and authors on the topic commonly cite two early studies that seem, at first glance, to suggest people in open relationships are less happy.

One study commonly cited appears in the 1973 book Male and Female Homosexuality: A Comprehensive InvestigationThe book, written by researchers Marcel Saghir and Eli Robins, does not actually include a comparison of open and closed relationships. Instead, it reports that single gay men who had previously experienced or committed an act of infidelity were less happy than gay or straight men who had not cheated or been cheated on in previous relationships.

The other study usually cited in support of the idea that closed relationships are superior to open ones was conducted by Drs. Alan Bell and Martin Weinberg in 1978. It was published in the book Homosexualities: A Study of Diversity Among Men and Women. This study is problematic because the definition of “open-coupled” used has almost nothing to do with consensually nonmonogamous couples. In the book, men were classified as “open-coupled” if they were in a relationship with a man and reported higher numbers of sexual partners, higher numbers of sexual problems, or higher amounts of “cruising” for sex. (“Cruising” refers to the practice of hanging out or passing through areas known to be frequented by men looking for casual sex with other, often anonymous, men.)

Aside from a misunderstanding of research in this area, a number of other factors may contribute to the notion that open relationships (especially among gay men) are unhealthy. Studies have shown gay men are more likely to be in nonmonogamous relationships than straight men (Blumstein and Schwartz, 1983; Solomon, Rothblum, and Balsam, 2005; Gotta et al., 2011). Many proponents of same-sex marriage worry the acknowledgment of this fact detracts from the message that all types of relationships are equally valid. Those concerns are outside the scope of this article, but it is important to point out how politics can intrude into the therapy room.

Tips for Seeking Therapy in an Open Relationship

If you are in an open relationship and considering therapy for yourself or for you and your partner, you might find it helpful to ask therapists about their views on nonmonogamy. Many people seeking a therapist do not recognize that an initial consultation or intake session can serve multiple purposes and does not always result in the start of a therapy relationship. Good therapists typically want to work with individuals with whom they can do good work, and generally refer those seeking services outside their scope of expertise to trusted colleagues who will be able to do a better job. For that reason, therapists should welcome direct questions about their professional experience and potential personal biases.

It may be helpful to ask some of these questions during your consultation or first session:

  • Do you have experience working with individuals in nonmonogamous relationships?
  • Good therapists typically want to work with individuals with whom they can do good work, and generally refer those seeking services outside their scope of expertise to trusted colleagues who will be able to do a better job. For that reason, therapists should welcome direct questions about their professional experience and potential personal biases.If you do not have experience with people in relationships like mine, do you have a supervisor or consultant(s) you might look to for guidance?
  • Do you believe open relationships can be successful?
  • Do you have any moral beliefs that would make it difficult for you to work with me or my relationship?
  • Do you know of another therapist by whom I might be better served?

Some of the the following warning signs may indicate a therapist is not providing the best care in the discussion of an open relationship:

  • The therapist seems defensive when you ask questions about his or her level of education and training on nonmonogamy or any other aspect of your care.
  • All or almost all of the time in session focuses on the sexual aspects of your relationship.
  • The therapist is unwilling or unable to discuss the sexual aspects of your relationship at all.
  • The session focuses solely on those problems believed to be more common in open relationships.
  • There is a refusal to acknowledge there are problems unique to or more common in open relationships.
  • The therapist proposes or reinforces the idea that jealousy in one partner always means the other partner is doing something wrong.

Many online resources can help you find therapists and other service providers who have knowledge and experience with nonmonogamy and other relationship configurations. GoodTherapy.org, for example, allows therapists in its directory to indicate if they specialize in working with people who practice nonmonogamy.

References:

  1. Bell, A.P. & Weinberg, M.S. (1978). Homosexualities: A study of diversity among men and women. London: Mitchell Beazley.
  2. Blasband, D. & Peplau, L.A. (1985). Sexual exclusivity versus openness in gay male couples. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 14, 395-412.
  3. Blumstein, P. & Schwartz, P. (1983) American Couples: Money, Work, Sex. New York, NY: William Morrow and Company.
  4. Gotta , G., Green, R., Rothblum, E., Solomon, S., Balsam, K., Schwartz, P. (2011). Heterosexual, lesbian, and gay male relationships: A comparison of couples in 1975 and 2000. Family Process, 50(3), 353-376).
  5. Hoff, C.C., Beougher, S.C., Chakravarty, D., Darbes, l.A., & Neilands, T.B. (2010). Relationship characteristics and motivations behind agreements among gay male couples: Differences by agreement type and couple serostatus. AIDS Care, 22(7), 827-835.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jonathan Smith, PsyD, LPC, therapist in Chicago, Illinois

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Sullivan

    Sullivan

    January 13th, 2016 at 10:23 AM

    Call me old fashioned but I just think that if you are with the definite right person for you then this desire to have an open relationship would never even cross your mind

  • Alex

    Alex

    January 13th, 2016 at 2:59 PM

    For this to work in any relationship, gay, straight, or whatever,this has to be something that both people in the relationship can agree on. I think that if there is any hesitation about it then this could never work no matter how much one member of the relationship wanted it to. I understand that there are probably more couples than what we know who choose to keep their relationships open, so there has to be something about it that works for them. I would not judge how they lead their lives, but I do think that it would be so important for both people to always be on the same page.

  • Steve

    Steve

    January 14th, 2016 at 6:01 AM

    It is understandable that couples in closed and open relationships have made a choice to have that special someone in their lives. I have a wonderful partner and we have what I like to consider an open with friends relationship. Communication is key to maintaining the success of the core partnership. Both must communicate their feelings, their emotions and what each wants with the other and their friends with benefits as well. Each needs to agree on boundaries, safety and the fact that”fun” will not interfere with the commitment that each made with the other to keep the foundation and love for one another strong. With any relationship the communication and collaboration is key. We make a concerted effort to discuss potential”fun” with other couples and only play together. This is what works for us, and the importance of communication is not without saying should work for any couple. Share your thoughts, feelings, desires and even fantasies with one another, then each can enjoy with one another…..don’t let emotion get in the way of your relationship….we don’t. Enjoying life daily is important, and enjoying life with that special someone is even more satisfying than trying to alone.

  • andrew

    andrew

    January 14th, 2016 at 10:30 AM

    I have been in both types of relationships and honestly I never felt all that secure in what we had when we both said that we could date or be with other people.
    Ultimately I just don’t think that that was what I wanted from that person. I wanted something that was more monogamous and one on one. He did not, he liked the open relationship concept. But for me I think that I only did it because I knew that that was what he wanted and to even be with him on any level that was what I would have to agree to.

  • Sean

    Sean

    January 14th, 2016 at 1:31 PM

    Why would anyone just naturally think that this is what gay men would want?

    We are more monogamous than any other group, but I still think that there is this assumption that all we want to do is sleep around with other guys.

  • Normandy

    Normandy

    January 14th, 2016 at 5:12 PM

    Most gay couples have an openness at one time or another so the question is actually moot since millions of gay people have successful relationships. Truth is, monogamy is not natural to human beings so honesty about natural human desires is always a plus.

  • BethAnna

    BethAnna

    January 16th, 2016 at 5:08 AM

    Shouldn’t the question be can open relationships really work for anybody?
    My initial feeling is no, that’s not really a relationship, that is dating around and not what I would want.

  • Racine

    Racine

    January 18th, 2016 at 9:34 AM

    to each his own

  • Ginger

    Ginger

    January 18th, 2016 at 3:10 PM

    These kind of relationships can work and they do work for a great number of people. We might not even know that they do it, but they do and somehow they manage to keep it all together. It might not be for me right now, but that might change at a certain point in my life. I feel that we just have to let what works for others be for them and well, stay out of it.

  • Rowena

    Rowena

    January 19th, 2016 at 10:30 AM

    if you are strong together
    why even take a chance?

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