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    Can We Make an Open Relationship Work?

    tomQ: My boyfriend and I have been monogamous for four years, and now we’re considering having an open relationship. We’re both a little worried about it. Could this endanger our relationship? When I talked about it with one of my friends, he said flat out, “Well, that’s the beginning of the end.” But other guys say, “What took you so long? No male relationships are monogamous for long.” What do you think?

    A:  This is a subject on which everyone seems to have a passionate opinion. I don’t agree with either of the statements of your friends. I’m personally acquainted with many gay men who are thriving in long-term, successful relationships, some open, and some monogamous. Both kinds of relationships can work, as long as it’s what both parties really want, and provided that the basics of honesty, mutual respect, trust, and affection are there.

    Which brings me to my first question: Do you both want an open relationship, or is one of you considering doing it to accommodate the other? In my experience, some men seem made for monogamy and some for non-monogamy, and both camps have a hard time understanding the other. Some people only enjoy sex within an intimate relationship, and have a hard time not seeing their partners’ outside sex as betrayal and abandonment, no matter how much the partners assure them that “it’s just sex.”

    On the other hand, those who prefer non-monogamy tend to feel confined and straitjacketed when they agree to be exclusive with their partners, no matter how sincere their commitment. Many of the men I’ve seen in couple’s counseling come in because they’re essentially mismatched on the issue, and their struggle is over who’s going to accommodate the other. In my admittedly limited experience, most couples with this basic disagreement have ultimately separated. This is an issue where it’s best to be sure you’re both on the same page before you make a commitment.

    But assuming you both want to open the relationship, the next question is: What do each of you mean by “open relationship?” If, for one of you, it means an occasional hook-up and, for the other, it means having other boyfriends, you might be headed for conflict. I would suggest that you both write out a detailed description of the kind of arrangement you think would work best for you, and then compare notes. See how much overlap there is.

    If you want to have a look at what has worked for others, you can access a great 2010 study by Blake Spears and Lanz Lowen at www.thecouplesstudy.com Blake and Lanz have themselves been in an open relationship for close to forty years, and they wanted to see how non-monogamy was successful in other long-term relationships. Their study is an intimate look into the lives of 85 couples who have each been together for a minimum of 8 years.

    It’s a fascinating read because the authors avoid speculation and let the participants speak for themselves. One finding concerned the many varieties of “openness” that the couples practiced. Some only played together, some only separately, and some did both. Some only allowed anonymous outside encounters, while others allowed “friends with benefits.” Still others built polyamorous families with multiple partners. Some (about ten percent) had no rules at all governing outside sex, while at the other end of the spectrum, the couples created detailed ground rules and contracts. Every imaginable kind of “openness” seemed to work for someone.

    This study will reassure you that, as the authors state, “…it is reasonable to conclude that non-monogamy for gay male couples is a viable option. When partners find enough common ground in their inclinations and perspectives toward non-monogamy, sanctioned outside sex is a sustainable and satisfying possibility. If a couple is willing to be forthright and to problem-solve as needed, non-monogamy isn’t by nature de-stabilizing. In fact, the results of this study would suggest the opposite—many study couples said non-monogamy enabled them to stay together. The average length of relationship for interviewed couples was 16 years—double our minimum requirement…it destroys the myth that opening the relationship is the ‘beginning of the end.’”

    Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. His website is tommoon.net