CASE STUDIES; Do Open Relationships Work?: Gay Couples and the Question of Monogamy

By Greenan, David | Psychotherapy Networker, May/June 2003 | Go to article overview

CASE STUDIES; Do Open Relationships Work?: Gay Couples and the Question of Monogamy


Greenan, David, Psychotherapy Networker


As a family therapist, I believe that a successful couple's relationship requires mutual commitment, emotional intimacy, and a sense of partnership that acts like an invisible boundary between a couple and the outside world. As a family therapist who's gay, however, I know that conventional norms of long-term commitment and sexual exclusivity are often highly controversial relationship goals for many male couples. The traumatic experience of most gay men in growing up in a homophobic culture, along with their conscious struggle to liberate themselves and forge new kinds of relationships, have led many to reject the conventions of heterosexual couples. Indeed, many gay couples openly break the most hallowed of these conventions by espousing and living in "open relationships," in which either or both partners are free to explore and enjoy outside sexual encounters. This disregard of convention can be looked upon almost as a source of pride and liberation.

Within the gay community, as a therapist who questions the meaning of non-monogamous ­relationships, I believe this stance can be con­sidered akin to political betrayal. To suggest that sexually open relationships are not necessarily only a lifestyle choice, but may reflect fears of intimacy and commitment, is regarded by some as tantamount to dismissing gay relationships or, even worse, pathologizing gay men.

Men in our society, regardless of sexual orientation, have been raised to feel more reticent than women about revealing a need for intimacy and tenderness. This fear of appearing emotionally vulnerable is exacerbated in gay men by widespread social attitudes that, in their formative years, have labeled them "effeminate" or "sissies." Many gay men have experienced shaming experiences during the early course of their gay identity development, most often from other males--either father figures or peers. When gay men finally acknowledge their desire for a partner, the joy in the experience is often tempered by a fear of repetition of earlier traumatic rejections. An open relationship can be a way for a gay man to defend against exposing his need for closeness and nurturance from his partner, and to protect himself from possible rejection.

Nonetheless, I'm convinced that all successful couples--gay and straight--must learn to balance their need for closeness and distance, intimacy and freedom. And for a couple to survive the developmental milestones of their relationship they must have an ability to accept and express vulnerability, commitment, and mutual trust. This does not mean that I believe my role is to express a dogmatic stance categorically opposed to open relationships. I consider it part of my task as a therapist to help a couple explore what needs, sexual or otherwise, are not being met in the relation­ship, and to determine whether the interest in an open relationship is a response to those unfulfilled needs. I take a nonjudgmental stance about the kind of relationship they construct. If neither is endangering himself or others, I do not define my role as cop but as "provocateur." Rather than focus on the issue of sexual exclu­sivity, my goal is to reflect the dynamics I observe and introduce novelty into the couple's ways of relating. For gay men, given our history of trauma, this often means introducing behavior that promotes emotional openness. Couples therapy is often gay men's first opportunity to have their relationships legitimized. It can be deeply moving to see a gay couple experience for the first time what it means to openly express needs for closeness and the desire to nurture and be nurtured by another man. Therapy can help two men learn how to feel safe with each other, express for perhaps the first time desires to be close, and feel a profound sense of validation in the eyes of another.

Sam and Luke, both in their early thirties, had been together for 8 years when they came to see me. …

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