A Fascinating Look at Long-Term, Non-Monogamous Gay Couples

Last week, I attended the conference for the Western Region of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality and among the amazing presentations, there was one called Beyond Monogamy: Lessons From Long-Term Non-monogamous Gay Couples, by Lanz Lowen and Blake Spears. With all of the information by and about polyamory that focuses on folks in m/f or f/f relationships (in various combinations), it’s worth getting a different perspective. I was especially impressed because the folks presenting aren’t sexologists- if I recall correctly, one is a therapist and the other does market research, which I think gives them a really fascinating perspective on the topic.

So of course, after the conference, I dropped them a not to ask about their project.

1) Tell us a little about your project and what inspired you to do it.

We started out as a couple in the mid-70’s when things were quite open.  We’ve maintained a non-monogamous relationship for most of our 35 years, but it hasn’t always been easy.  Through trial and error, we figured out what works for us.

Although non-monogamy is prevalent in the gay community, information about how couples navigate this terrain is surprisingly lacking.  Research hasn’t been conducted, and it’s a topic that seems easier for the community to avoid.

Since we learned a lot along the way, we figured other couples had as well.  We were curious to hear how other couples approached things “ what they had discovered that might be of benefit to others.  Even though we weren’t professional researchers, we decided to do a study to make this information available to the community.

2) Were there any interesting moments during the project?

We under-estimated the difficulty we would have finding long-term couples where both partners were willing to talk to us about their relationship.  Often one partner was really interested and the other reluctant.  This could have been for any number of reasons, but it certainly spoke to both partners needing to be very comfortable with the topic.  We had two couples call the morning of their interviews saying they needed to cancel because they had discussed our questions and realized they weren’t as clear on the topic as they thought.

We figured this skewed our sample toward couples who were probably having some success with non-monogamy.  Since we wanted to discover what helped, this seem to work in our favor.

3) What did you find out about gay men in open relationships? Any surprises? Did you discover anything that helped you in your relationship?

We were very surprised by the amount of diversity and difference we found in how couples handled being open.  We had imagined we might find several models that most couples followed, but that was not the case.  There was great variety and the norms and approaches often changed over time.

One theme we heard from a number of couples was how they ˜just wanted their partner to be happy’.  They were non-competitive and quite generous in their approach.  This sentiment impressed us and we found ourselves aspiring to be more like these couples.

4)  What were some of the tips that men said made open relationships work for them?

Honesty was essential even for couples who agreed not to share their experiences and good communication was mentioned by most.  There weren’t any universal rules.  In fact, norms were often where couples were the most creative. Injunctions are typically serious and impersonal but given we’re gay men, negotiated agreements often had a playful edge or matter-of-fact bluntness. We made a list of our Top Ten Rules, These weren’t the most common, but they delighted us and joyfully reflected gay sensibilities.


Ms. Manners’ Top Ten List

10. You can see him as many times as you want, but you can’t schedule it

9. If they’re in our bed when I get home, they’re fair game

8. If you’re in love with the guy, you’re not allowed to fuck with him one-on-one

7. You can put him in the sling, but no cuddling

6. If you bring him home and he’s cute, you have to let me join

5. You can fuck whoever you want, but you can’t take him to dinner

4. If you’re in the mood to fuck someone else, but I’m horny, you have to do me first

3. You have to spend twice as much time with me than with any of your tricks

2. You’re only allowed to date the terminally ill

1. “The Sauna Clause: Sex at the gym doesn’t count as sex

5) What are some of the challenges that the men faced around open relationships? What are some of the rewards?

The most common challenge revolved around a partner becoming too emotionally involved.  Couples also dealt with jealousy, although this was not as prevalent as we imagined it might be.  Surprisingly, in a number of relationships, one partner wanted strictly anonymous sex and the other wanted more meaningful connection with outsiders.   Figuring this out and learning how to accommodate both partners required some effort.

Couples valued having a sanctioned sexual outlet.  They could meet their various needs without ˜sneaking around’ or threatening the relationship.  Couples that played together with outsiders or who shared the details about their outside adventures, often felt like being open created greater trust and intimacy at home.

6) San Francisco has a thriving polyamorous community, but there aren’t many gay men in it even though plenty of gay men are in open relationships. Any thoughts on why that is?

Only about 6% of our couples defined themselves as polyamorous.  However, 13% of couples reported having ˜a boy’ or taking on a third for a period of time. Some of these couples clearly had restrictions against involvement, but their norm was over-ridden by their shared interest and enjoyment. Several couples stated this was an anomaly and didn’t expect it to happen again whereas some couples had a number of ˜boys’ over the years.

We’re not sure why there isn’t more interest in polyamory in the gay community.  Perhaps because its not as hard for gay men to get their outside sexual needs met, there’s less interest in the hard work that polyamory requires.

7) What’s next for the project? Where can people find out about it?

We think what would be most interesting to study next is the differences in generation.  We are very intrigued by how younger gay men approach this topic.

You can easily access the study by visiting our website:  www.thecouplesstudy.com The site allows you to download the full article which has statistical findings, but also multiple verbatim quotes that give you a good idea of how couples handle the various challenges.


Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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