The 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 Investigation. The 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.
- Bell, A.P. & Weinberg, M.S. (1978). Homosexualities: A study of diversity among men and women. London: Mitchell Beazley.
- Blasband, D. & Peplau, L.A. (1985). Sexual exclusivity versus openness in gay male couples. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 14, 395-412.
- Blumstein, P. & Schwartz, P. (1983) American Couples: Money, Work, Sex. New York, NY: William Morrow and Company.
- 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).
- 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.