CASE STUDIES; Monogamy and Gay Men: When Are Open Relationships a Therapeutic Option?
Shernoff, Michael, Family Therapy Networker
There is nothing that confuses heterosexual therapists more than working with male couples who are exploring the option of nonmonogamy, because it challenges the most fundamental clinical assumptions that "affairs" are symptoms of relationship trouble. Some therapists assume that gay men are avoiding intimacy by triangulating other men into their relationship, and others are concerned about health risks such as HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. There is often the intrusive whisper of homophobia telling the therapist--and perhaps the clients, themselves--that gay men are constitutionally unable to be monogamous, even though substantial research shows this isn't true.
As a gay therapist who has seen hundreds of gay couples in a vast range of unconventional, loving and sustaining relationship configurations--including monogamy, semi-open relationships (Thursday nights off), three-partner relationships and more--I have grown to respect the fluidity and customized relationship forms that can work well for gay men. However, the gay culture's support of nonmonogamy doesn't mean that therapists should immediately jump to encourage their clients to open up their relationships or accept at face value a couple's desire to become nonmonogamous. Good therapy means not jumping to a conclusion about what would be best for the couple, but helping them explore what they want, including why they might want to become nonmonogamous, their underlying beliefs about how it will change their lives and relationship, the impact it will have on their intimacy and the ethical considerations of emotional safety, physical health and honesty.
Luis and Peter came to see me one evening after work. In their early forties, the men sat comfortably together on my couch, hands folded in their laps. I found it sweet the way they were careful to look at each other before they spoke, to make sure they weren't interrupting the other. Luis, an oncologist, had dark, intense eyes and a warm smile. Peter, a store manager for a large retail chain, had a shy, impish grin. He towered over Luis by a good six inches. They told me they had started dating 10 years ago and moved in together a year later, settling into a satisfying, loving, monogamous relationship. Both were HIV-negative, prosperous and well-integrated as out gay men in their workplaces, with their extended families and in the community. They described a good balance of time together and apart, equitable distribution of housework and financial responsibility and a strong network of friends. I found myself waiting for the other shoe to drop--perfectly happy people don't come to therapy.
When I asked how I could help them, they both tensed up. Peter shot Luis a look and said, "The thing is, I still find Luis really sexy, but we're not having sex as often as we used to. I mean, we still have sex, but it's not like it was, and it seems to be getting, you know, even more . . . I don't know . . . I guess I worry that maybe he's not as turned on to me. Am I beginning to lose him?"
Luis's eyes widened. "It's not you. It's me. I mean, I don't know what it is, but it's not that." Both of them felt their sex life was becoming increasingly stale and boring, but neither one had felt safe or comfortable talking about what was happening. "It's too loaded," said Peter. "I'm afraid of hurting his feelings or hearing something I don't want to hear from Luis. But it's starting to make us--or me, anyway--wonder if we're really going to last as a couple. That is so terrifying."
Not only do gay men have to live up to patriarchal notions of virility, but also to the gay culture's ideal of the ever-ready, sexual superstar man. I've worked with many gay couples who come to therapy to find out if their sex life is "normal," and so I responded to Luis and Peter first by normalizing the fluctuations in their sexual energy. I explained that frequency and intensity of sexual interactions change and often diminish as the years go on, and that additionally there are cycles to most couples' sexual passion during the course of a long-term relationship. …