Does ‘sexual minority stress’ cause gay men to fear emotional commitment and pursue open relationships?
I worked with a gay male therapy client—let’s call him Jim—who came in for individual therapy because his partner refused couples counseling. He was distressed because he felt “strong-armed” into an open relationship, leaving him with a sense of insecurity and anxiety. I soon realized that one thing this couple didn’t try was having an open, heart-felt communication about their struggles with intimacy and trust.
There have been a number of studies suggesting that many gay male couples who negotiate open relationships report satisfaction and fulfillment. But for some, does the decision to open the relationship reflect mistrust and a fear of intimacy and emotional commitment?
While gay men desire and create meaningful, loving relationships, their traumatic experiences growing up in a heteronormative culture—like homophobia and rejection—lead some to refuse conventions in heterosexual relationships (monogamy, marriage, children, etc.).
Like straight men, gay men are socialized away from intimacy. Expressing a need for intimacy and closeness is often viewed as weak. Sometimes, entering into a relationship with a man comes with worries about their promiscuity—will they cheat?
Gay men not only internalize negative cultural messages about being men—and about what it means to be gay. The fear about vulnerability might partly be due to shaming experiences during early development, such as bullying and harassment for not conforming to gendered expectations.
Ilan H. Meyer, Ph.D. and other researchers use the term “sexual minority stress” to refer to manifestations of sexual orientation stigma. Gay life often includes a variety of stressful emotions and worries resulting from familial and societal rejection, discrimination, and stigmatization.
Sexual minority stress begins during youth when boys are learning how to develop relationships. During this development, the template for creating adult relationships is formed.
Many older gay men report that when they came out, they accepted the idea that their future would be a string of sexual encounters without marriage, children, or family. While this is reported less frequently in younger gay men today, some gay men still refuse to consider that they might meet someone and want to have a long term, loving, and exclusive relationship with another man.
Today, families and society are more likely to support straight youth as they undertake sexual and social changes. They are given guidance on how to date, how to initiate and maintain love, and how to heal from rejection. Typically gay adults who struggle significantly with romantic relationships didn’t receive this support.
Gay men also share with women the harms of sexual objectification. Indeed, we can say this of all men given the inevitable media stereotyping of men. What messages are given to gay men in magazines, billboards, social websites like Gay.com, and other advertisements? Being attractive and free sexual beings is well regarded, overshadowing messages of long-term monogamous relationships, family, and interdependence.
What does the internalization of these messages look like? My client, Jim, is one example. Common psychological symptoms from internalizing negative messages about men and homosexuality are low self-esteem, self-deprecation, depression, anxiety, fear of showing vulnerability, hypermasculinity, difficulty letting go of mistrust, and keeping an emotional distance.
Relationships work if a couple can walk the fine line of closeness and separateness, intimacy and autonomy. Relationships are strengthened by societal recognition and an identity as a couple.
Entering into couple’s therapy, incorporating family and friends into the newly formed system, advocating for marriage, and forming a partnership and family are all examples of ways that the relationship is legitimized. Allowing for the other to maintain a sense of autonomy and individuality requires trust. Affiliation and dependency require comfort with vulnerability, shared decision making, and working to keep the relationship exciting and resilient through disappointments.
This article isn’t intended to pathologize gay men in open relationships, but to consider if open relationships are a way to minimize or even avoid the need for mutual commitment, vulnerability, intimacy, and emotional closeness. Clearly, many gay men desire meaningful and loving relationships. But monogamy is a deal-breaker for some.
Researchers for The Couples Study recruited 86 gay male couples in long-term open relationships. It included mostly white men aged 33-81 (average age was 51). The researchers, also in an open relationship, believe they have destroyed the myth that opening the relationship is the beginning of the end. Several participants reported that their open relationship honored autonomy, personal freedom, and alleviated the frustration of being with the same person. This was especially endorsed by couples who agreed on an open relationship from the start.
Some couples who opened the relationship at a later time reported struggling with disagreement and tension, knowing how much communication was necessary, understanding the differences in need for sexual freedom and exploration, and uncomfortable feelings. Often, a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was enacted to deal with insecurities and stress.
Undoubtedly, some couples in open relationships are fulfilled. Whatever the relationship, good partners are open, honest, and willing to negotiate the terms of their relationship.
The gay male couple will serve their relationship best by healing their insecurities, confronting their fears of failure, challenging societal assumptions about gay couples, and understanding that boredom may be a manifestation of fear and doubt about one’s ability to love. A willingness to be vulnerable while looking at what is behind their view of love and intimacy will likely lead to successful, loving relationships, in whatever form they take.
Joshua Matacotta, M.A. is a fourth-year doctoral student at the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University in San Francisco, California. His research interests are in the area of health psychology and the examination of factors contributing to the physical and mental health of LGBT individuals.
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John DeVore: Multiple Inches of Love
Joshua Matacotta: Do Gay Men Fear Intimacy?
Hugo Schwyzer: Mythbusting Bisexual Men