Blake Spears and Lanz Lowen have been together for over 34 years. They told me that they still have great sex, contradicting the common belief that sexual interest inevitably wanes in a long-term relationship. How do they do it? âOne reason,â Lanz said, âis that weâve been in an open relationship from the very beginning. If we hadnât been open, we wouldnât have been able to grow individually or as a couple.â But, they write, this was a journey they took âwithout a roadmapâŠInformation about how couples navigate this terrain is surprisingly lacking. We were curious about the experience of others and assumed many long-term couples might offer valuable perspectives and hard-earned lessons.â So, a few years back, they decided to use their combined training and experience in research and psychology to do an independent, in-depth study of other long-term open gay male relationships.
They hoped to provide the community with an accurate picture of what non-monogamy actually looks like in the lives of gay men. Their study has now been completed. Itâs an intimate look into the lives of 86 couples who have each been together for a minimum of 8 years, and it can be accessed at www.thecouplesstudy.com.
This study is a fascinating read because the authors largely avoid speculation and let the participants speak for themselves. One finding that fascinated me was the many varieties of âopennessâ that the couples practiced. Some only played together, some only separately, and some did both. Some only allowed anonymous outside encounters, while others allowed âfriends with benefitsâ and 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 others created detailed ground rules and contracts. Every imaginable kind of âopennessâ seemed to work for someone.
The study includes a summary of previous research on non-monogamy, in which the authors report that âMost research shows that approximately two-thirds of long-term male couples who have been together for five years or more are honestly non-monogamous,â and that âMultiple studies have found no differences in relationship quality or satisfaction between samples of sexually exclusive and non-exclusive male couples.â Despite those findings, they had a hard time recruiting participants. They had no trouble finding non-monogamous couples, but relatively few who wanted to talk about it. One man who chose to participate said âHaving an open relationship feels like a funny way of being in the closet again. Family and friends expect that weâre monogamous, and we donât tell them weâre not. Itâs like a secretâŠ.In our community and society, it feels like something huge isnât being talked about or studied or understood.â
Itâs no wonder. Non-monogamous relationships may be common in our community, but I still frequently hear gay men criticize them as pathological, immature, and destructive. Iâm sometimes confidently assured, as if itâs self-evident, that open relationships are less healthy, loving, responsible, or honest than monogamous relationships; that if youâre having outside sex, something must be wrong with the love or the communication in your partnership; that outside sex causes you to lose your focus on one another other; and that once you âstart strayingâ itâs âthe beginning of the end.â
Blake and Lanz came to different conclusions. While they concede that ââŠwe had a study population skewed towards the positive,â they believe their work shows that â... 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 isnât by nature de-stabilizing. In fact, the results of this study would suggest the opposite â many study couples said non-monogamy enabled them to stay together. The average length of relationship for interviewed couples was 16 years â double our minimum requirement. Given the difficulties we had in recruiting participants, this figure suggests a positive correlation between longevity and non-monogamy. At a minimum, it destroys the myth that opening the relationship is the âbeginning of the endâ. â
On the other hand ââŠfor most couples, there was a price of admission. Non-monogamy came with risks and required maintenance.â Most participants found that making it work required âclarifying values and making certain they are mutual; appreciating and accommodating differences; holding steadfast to agreements and a commitment to honesty; growing greater capacity to process and manage their own emotional reactions; learning to voice their desires, concerns, and uncomfortable feelings; becoming increasingly vulnerable, trusting, forgiving, generous; partnering to constructively problem-solve and find resolution for unforeseen and possibly highly charged issues.â
Wow! Thatâs a tall order. As I read this, it occurred to me that this may help explain why non-monogamy gets a bad rap from some gay men. Too many men go into open relationships expecting that it will be a lot easier than monogamy, providing them, more or less effortlessly, with âthe best of both worlds.â That may be one of the most important myths this study destroys. It provides a much-needed dose of realism: successful open relationships require commitment, patience, and hard work.
Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. His website is www.tommoon.net.