Beyond Monogamy:lessons from Long-Term Male Couples in Non-Monogamous Relationships

Article excerpt

Study Overview

Although non-monogamous relationships are very common in the gay community, little research has been conducted and information about how couples navigate this terrain is surprisingly lacking As a long-term couple (34 years), this was a journey we had taken together, without a roadmap. The lessons we learned along the way were often hard-earned and we found ourselves wondering how others dealt with this. How common or peculiar was our experience? Were there models we hadn't considered? What worked or didn't work for others?

While recognizing the uniqueness of each relationship and assuming a wide diversity in approaches, we still imagined it would be valuable to hear from couples who had 'been there'. We initiated this study to hear directly from those couples

Study goals

The purpose of the study was to better understand the experience of non-monogamous couples and glean valuable lessons. Study goals were:

* Gather basic information about how couples handled 'outside sex'

* Identify and describe typical models and approaches (to the extent they existed)

* Identify common themes, patterns, challenges and benefits

* Record what couples had to offer in terms of 'learning'

Participant selection

We chose to focus solely on non-monogamous couples. Although the similarities and differences between monogamous and non-monogamous couples interest us, we didn't feel we had the capacity or inclination to adequately investigate both

Participants were recruited based on two criteria. Participants needed to:

* be in a long-term committed relationship (which we arbitrarily defined as 8+ years), and

* have some type of 'outside sex' or an agreement for such

Recruitment was haphazard We realized we had no way of methodically putting together a random sample or even recruiting a diverse population We found participants by word-of-mouth, canvassing gay events (Pride, Folsom Faire, etc), and 'advertising' through articles and flyers in the gay press and gay venues

Study population

As a result of our personal recruiting, we ended up with a majority of participants that looked like us--older, white, middle-class Americans--many from the Bay Area. In 19% of study couples, one or both partners were persons of color (primarily Latino or Asian).

The Bay Area was by far the most represented geography (35 couples). An additional 13 couples were from CA (outside the Bay Area). Other American couples were from FL (6), NY (5), NV (3), WA (3), IL (2), TX (2), CO (2), PA (2) and NE, TN, LA, HI, WI, DE. Nine couples resided outside the U.S.: Australia (2), UK (2), Canada (2), Mexico, Sweden and Netherlands.

Our population was also skewed in terms of age Our youngest participant was 33 and our oldest was 81 Average age was 51 Surprisingly, almost 25% of the couples had significant differences in age. Seven couples had age differences of 20+ years and 13 additional couples had 10+ years difference in age The average difference in age of all 86 couples was 7 years.

Partners had been coupled from 8 years to 42 years The average length of time together was 16.2 years.

[GRAPHICS OMITTED]

Reluctance to participate

We found recruitment of participants difficult We encountered a pronounced reluctance, resistance, or disinterest on the part of many 'eligible' couples for participation in such a study. We found long-term non-monogamous couples rather easily, but very few were willing to participate. Many declined immediately; some agreed, but didn't follow-through (probably typical in any study); and many reported back that their partner was unwilling In a few instances, some couples got 'cold feet' (e g calling the morning of the interview to cancel; acknowledging the questions had raised unresolved issues, etc.). We can imagine all kinds of hypotheses for this reluctance, e g wanting to maintain privacy, lack of trust in us/the study, disinterest in the topic, as well as discomfort in talking about these issues

Clearly our study population is not representative of all non-monogamous couples, but rather of couples secure enough to select into an interview process where they would be asked to openly focus on their relationship and the way they handle non-monogamy Since we primarily wanted to find out what works, we figured this skewed us in the right direction--e g away from couples with deep unresolved conflicts, poor communication patterns, and horror stories of what doesn't work

The interviews

86 couples participated Each partner was interviewed separately using a consistent set of questions (see sidebar). …

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