As a gay male couple, we had been in a non-monogamous relationship for 36 years and were curious about the experience of others. There wasn’t any roadmap and we assumed long-term couples might offer valuable perspectives and hard-earned lessons. To be more transparent, even though we both clearly desired an open relationship, honestly discussed our concerns and experiences, and consistently ‘played by our rules’, being non-monogamous was often a source of tension. We fought fairly and neither of us ever fell in love with an ‘outsider’, but we did get insecure, jealous, and sexually compulsive. Over the years, we modified and updated ‘our rules’, continued to try and understand and meet our respective needs, and eventually we arrived at place where non-monogamy was less difficult.
We had made peace, but we wondered about other couples’ experiences with non-monogamy. Both out of curiosity and the desire to share lessons learned, we initiated a study of long-term non-monogamous male couples. The biggest challenge of this study was finding willing respondents. Couples had to be long-term (8+ years), have agreed upon non-monogamy, and be comfortable enough with their relationship to talk openly to two strangers. It took us 3 years to find and jointly interview 86 couples, and another year to analyze and summarize the data. Beyond Monogamy, Lessons from Long-term Male Couples in Non-monogamous Relationships, was the result.
The feedback we received suggested the Study was quite helpful to couples trying to navigate this terrain. Four years after publishing, the Study summary is still being downloaded approximately 250 times per month from our website: www.thecouplesstudy.com.
Because of our own age, and the fact that the couples had to be long-term (16 years was the average length of time study couples had been together), our Study respondents tended to be older. The average age was 50. This left us wondering about the experience of younger gay men, who sometimes told us they weren’t as enamored by ‘open relationships’ as their elders.
We decided to embark on another study – this one quantitative. We sought out younger (18-39 years old) single gay men and couples in monogamous, as well as, non-monogamous relationships. We had no trouble finding respondents on Facebook with an advertisement that only had to run a week.
The Study results surprised us. Of 576 respondents, 85% of single men were seeking monogamous relationships, and there was an overwhelming preponderance of monogamous couples (93%). In fact, there were so few non-monogamous couples that we had to run an additional advertisement in GRINDR, a gay hook-up site, in order to include enough non-monogamous couples to adequately describe them in the study.
Clearly there was a trend toward greater monogamy among younger gay men. (Previous research reports an average of 50% of gay male couples as non-monogamous). However, we were confused when a number of respondents claiming to be in monogamous relationships made reference to their occasional ‘three-way’ in the ‘open comments’ field. We decided to conduct a second arm of the Study – this one being primarily qualitative. Couples were asked to identify as monogamous, ‘monogamish’, or non-monogamous.
The results were intriguing. 18% identified as ‘monogamish’; 6% as non-monogamous; and 76% as monogamous. This suggested two trends: A trend away from non-monogamy, toward monogamy. But also a trend toward holding that monogamy ‘a little loosely’. For those unfamiliar with the term, ‘Monogamish’ has been popularized by sex columnist Dan Savage. He describes it as “mostly monogamous with a little squish around the edges.”
In addition to a shift towards greater monogamy and the emergence of ‘monogamish’ relationships, the Study reports that among younger gay men, marriage is definitely becoming the norm: 92% of single gay men expect to marry. 62 percent responded that most of their coupled friends are married or likely to marry.
Interestingly, only half of respondents equated marriage with monogamy, and non-monogamous couples were as likely to be married as monogamous couples.
The new study, Younger Gay Men’s Perspectives on Monogamy, Non-monogamy, and Marriage is both quantitative (576 respondents) and qualitative (222 respondents) and provides descriptions and profiles of monogamous, monogamish, and non-monogamous gay male relationships.
Other study findings:
- Monogamous couples espoused the need to make monogamy a ‘conscious choice.’ They didn’t consider it their only option and felt it required on-going communication. Many monogamous couples described the importance of acknowledging their attractions to others, while re-affirming their intention to remain monogamous. The Study authors hypothesize that this may be different than the norms of typical heterosexual couples who tend to consider monogamy as a ‘default’ and might be reluctant to discuss their attractions to others.
- Non-monogamy is still common in the gay community (6% identified as non-monogamous, in addition to the 18% identifying as ‘monogamish’). Non-monogamy is more likely to be an agreement couples come to over time (In our first study of long-term male couples in non-monogamous relationships, seven years was the average time before couples ‘opened’ their relationship).
- Both monogamous and non-monogamous couples saw their relationships as healthy and stable (98% and 92%), satisfying (98% and 91%), and likely to continue for the next five years (98% and 86%). The myths that “it’s impossible for gay men to stay true to a monogamous commitment” or that “non-monogamous relationships don’t last” are clearly untrue. (In the study of long-term male couples in non-monogamous relationships, couples had been together an average of 16 years.)
- Monogamous, monogamish and non-monogamous couples all emphasized the importance of honesty and frequent communication about their relationships.
- Both monogamous and non-monogamous couples felt misunderstood and unsupported by the larger gay community. Couples from both camps talked about the topic being “undiscussable” and the need for greater information.
We are excited about these new findings, not only the trend toward monogamous and monogamish relationships, but a greater consciousness about choice. In the new study, younger respondents share how the possibility of gay marriage, the viability of hetero-normative relationship models, and the integration of LGBTs into the larger society has shaped their thinking. They have the option of replicating heterosexual norms, but also an awareness of the more non-monogamous norms of previous gay generations. And they have permission to create their own version, which may be ‘something in between’.
As a final point, we want to share what may seem cliché, may be obvious, or may sound ‘Pollyannaish’ – In both studies and the many interviews we conducted, we were consistently struck by the uniqueness of each relationship. In our first study, we expected to find a few instructive models, but what we found was a panoply of approaches. Not only was each relationship different, but they evolved over time. In the summary of the first Study, we list our Top Ten favorite rules, which included, “You can only have sex with the terminally ill” and the ‘Sauna Clause’ – “Sex at the gym doesn’t count”. In the second Study, we see that even as mainstream models become options, there is still great invention, the need for creativity, thinking for oneself, and a recognition that one size may not fit any couple.
For more information or to download a summary of either study, visit: www.thecouplesstudy.com
In addition to being found on the website, both studies are part of a recently published compendium, Choices: Perspectives of Gay Men on Monogamy, Non-monogamy, and Marriage.
You can find Choices, which also includes the article, Creating Healthy Open Relationships, at Amazon.
- About the Authors:
- Lanz Lowen, MS, MA, is an independent organization consultant and executive coach. Data collection through confidential interviews and surveys is a core element of his work. Lanz has Master’s degrees in clinical and organizational psychology and has worked with individuals and groups in various mental health settings
- Blake Spears, MBA, is a marketing research consultant to the healthcare industry. He is founder and principal of Insight Healthcare and routinely conducts focus groups and individual interviews with physicians. Blake has an MBA from Stanford University and serves on the boards of three HIV-related non-profits, as well as three other non-profit organizations.
Photo: Getty Images