Michael Radkowsky responds to the question, “Can two gay men really have a monogamous relationship?”
“Can two gay men really have a monogamous relationship?”
This recent question to my advice column echoed what I hear from many of my gay psychotherapy clients. “My boyfriend and I have wanted to be monogamous, but neither of us has been able to totally stop the occasional hookup. It’s taken a toll on our relationship in terms of hurt feelings, trust and closeness.”
Noting how he frequently sees other coupled gay guys playing the field, my letter-writer poignantly asked: “Should I just accept that gay men and monogamy don’t mix, and stop feeling bad?”
My answer: Gay men are by all means capable of having monogamous relationships. We do not “have” to have open relationships, even if that sometimes seems standard for gay relationships. There are, however, some powerful reasons why so many gay men, including those who embrace monogamy and marriage, are often pulled toward non-monogamy.
If we want to have more volition in how we live, it’s essential that we understand why behaviors that may have negative consequences can seem irresistible.
First, as gay men, most of us grew up feeling bad and hiding our true selves from our closest family and friends, fearing rejection. When children and young people don’t get a sense that they are loved for who they really are, it’s difficult to develop their own positive sense of self-worth. As a result, they keep looking for that love as adults.
I believe that many of us are still seeking the validation we never really got, through our ongoing pursuit of sex. But once we’re adults, validation from others doesn’t actually have much lasting impact on our self-esteem; so one hookup leads to another as we keep seeking something or someone to help us feel good about ourselves.
Second, the heavy stigma around being gay denies many of us the opportunities to date and romance other guys early in life. Instead, we have our first experiences in anonymity, shame, and secrecy, learning how to be sexual before we learn how to be close.
As a result, we can have a hard time connecting sex and emotional intimacy. That combination can be unfamiliar and even uncomfortable, so we often seek out the familiarity of anonymous hookups instead. Moreover, our early experiences can condition us to be most aroused by risk rather than by connection.
Third, gay male culture has tended to put sex and hooking up on a pedestal, for the reasons I mentioned above, and as a reaction against gay sex having been so taboo and forbidden to us, growing up. And men in general are socialized to have few qualms about pursuing sex. The emphasis on sex among gay men puts a lot of pressure on us to define our success by our desirability and conquests.
Keep in mind that these three factors meld together in a seductive and addictive swirl, so we can wind up compulsively using sex (and porn) like a drug to release stress, improve mood, and feel good about ourselves. And of course, internalized homonegativity may lead us to think that our relationships and our partners are not worth treasuring.
All of this makes it challenging to be a monogamous gay couple, much less an emotionally or sexually healthy gay man. And I’m not even touching on the reasons why monogamy is hard for just about everyone, including, of course, heterosexuals.
Gay men who want to be monogamous but feel like they can’t stop hooking up, or who simply want to feel better about themselves and have a healthier relationship to sex, have a tough road.
As I tell my clients, it is thoroughly possible to move beyond the negative messages and self-damaging behaviors that most of us learned as we grew up. And it’s also possible to move beyond other people’s definitions of what it means to be a successful gay man.
But this is not easy and can be lonely. A lot of my clients talk about how isolated and “different” they feel for wanting to buck what they see as the norm. Most of us grew up without a real peer group, so we aren’t eager to repeat the experience of feeling like we don’t fit in.
It’s like coming out all over again. You have to decide whether it’s worth pretending to be someone you aren’t, in order not to feel alone.
The good news is that if you’ve been able to come out, you actually have what it takes to choose your own path. The same skills that help a person come out—a belief in yourself, a desire to live with integrity, and a thick skin—are vital in making the decision to live your relationship by your rules.
So if you’re a gay man and want a monogamous relationship, do it! You just have to be prepared for an endurance swim against an ongoing strong current. Difficult but doable, and certainly a life journey that will help you build your resilience.