Although some gay men idealise monogamy, particularly in the early stages of a relationship, couples often become non-monogamous over time, Australian researchers report in an article published online ahead of print in Culture, Health and Sexuality.
Men often saw non-monogamy as realistic in gay relationships, due to social and cultural norms in gay communities. But shifting the ground rules of relationships could be challenging for some couples, especially when the partners had different values about monogamy and non-monogamy.
For this qualitative study, Steven Philpot and colleagues conducted in-depth interviews with 61 Australian gay men. The interviews explored issues of intimacy, relationships and monogamy with men who were either single or in a couple at the time of the interview.
HIV is frequently transmitted within committed relationships, so a better understanding of relationship dynamics is important for HIV prevention.
Many men, particularly younger men, implicitly expected monogamy to be the basis for long-term relationships. They felt it created stability, security, intimacy and trust. It was seen representing a more moral way of life than non-monogamy and promiscuity.
“We never discussed being completely exclusive: it was just a given that we would only see each other.” (Single, 21 years).
“Even though I’m gay I still believe in the whole stable family thing. So, I do want a husband and kids.” (Coupled, 22 years).
Nonetheless, men did not necessarily think that monogamy would last. It might be thought of as most important at the beginning of a relationship:
“I think it’s important to have monogamy for at least the first three years of your relationship because it creates emotional connections and a spiritual connection. And because in the first three years of your relationship, that’s all new and you don’t want to rip that out and have that strain put on the relationship.” (Single, 29 years).
Many men expected relationships to transition to non-monogamy over time. While some men explained this by talking about the ready availability of sex on the gay scene, others gave biological explanations:
“When you’ve got two hormonally driven men sometimes they just need an outlet if they don’t want to self-destruct.” (Single, 24 years).
The same man also said that social contact with other gay couples had led him to expect a non-monogamous relationship, even if he struggled with this expectation.
“Most people in relationships I know that have lasted are open so even though I don’t like it, I am aware that if I want a lasting relationship, there’s a good chance that’s the key to success.”
In contrast, other men aspired to non-monogamy. They might idealise older couples whose relationships were secure, successful and open:
“They’re deeply in love and they’ve got a home together. And they’re in a completely open relationship… That’s something I would like as well. It’d be nice to get to that point in time where insecurities have gone and you don’t worry about who’s sleeping with who, so long as you love the person you’re going home to… If [partner] and I do stay together long-term, that’s where I see our relationship going.” (Coupled, 28 years).
Most often, relationship expectations shifted from monogamy to non-monogamy, over a period of time. This man’s expectations changed several years into his relationship:
“I wanted a heterosexual version of relationships, and monogamy was important. And then, I can’t remember thinking too much about that in the first few years, but probably five years into it we started talking about a threesome and that occurred. And that worked well for us.” (Coupled, 49 years).
The most common motivation for moving from monogamy to non-monogamy was sexual dissatisfaction. Some men were more interested in sex than their partner, had sexual interests that their partner could not accommodate, or were less attracted to their partner than before.
Non-monogamy offered a practical solution to the issues they faced in maintaining a regular and satisfying sexual life without the risk of losing their primary relationship.
“The physical side of our relationship was an issue. I had a high libido and my partner didn’t… We tried different things, and one of them was there was tolerance for sexual activity outside of the relationship.” (Coupled, 27 years).
In making changes, a number of men felt that rules could be helpful.
“I would ensure there were rules and a common understanding. And for me, the only way that any open relationship would work was if both parties understood what certain actions meant, both emotionally and ideologically. Is it okay to sleep with this person under this condition? Do we need permission from each other before we do this?” (Coupled, 30 years).
Many men in non-monogamous relationships emphasised the importance of emotional commitment. They described non-monogamy in ways which reflected the emotional and romantic centrality of their primary relationship, while contesting the idea that they should only have sex with that man.
They also challenged the idea that being in a non-monogamous relationship meant their life was a frenzy of casual sex.
“As it turned out, I wasn’t constantly thinking about it. It was like the freedom to have sex with a third party made me less inclined to think about it.” (Coupled, 47 years).
“There’s nothing wrong with us going out and having fun with somebody else, but it’s not like we go searching for it.” (Coupled, 41 years).
A number of men described flexibility in their relationships. They saw their desires and needs as changeable and emphasised trust, communication and a willingness to compromise. They did not describe a linear movement from monogamy to non-monogamy:
“It’s a fluid thing. It really opens, and closes, and maybe opens again.” (Coupled, 26 years).
And other couples shifted from non-monogamy towards monogamy:
“In the early days we were more open and adventurous with other guys but that drifted and we said, ‘What’s the point? We’re happy with each other’, and that just fizzled out.” (Coupled, 62 years).
The sociologist Anthony Giddens has described gay men as “emotional pioneers” in pursuing non-monogamous relationships. He portrayed these relationships as egalitarian, with few differences of power, and allowing both partners to maintain personal autonomy.
However interviewees’ accounts of making changes to their relationships sometimes revealed power imbalances and tensions. A number of men who preferred monogamy acquiesced or reluctantly accepted their partner’s desire for an open relationship.
“I don’t think I was ever happy with it but I was like, ‘I’ll give it a go.’ And at the time I didn’t think it’d be quite as non-monogamous as it was… We were equally free to do whatever we wanted outside the relationship but I took little advantage of that whereas my partner took lots of advantage.” (Coupled, 43 years).
“He said he didn’t care if his partner goes off and sleeps with some else. But he would never do it. I don’t like that because that means that I would have an upper hand in the relationship. I would have the balance of power. I like a relationship to be equal and on equal terms. If I can do it, you can do it too, and you shouldn’t feel like you shouldn’t be able to.” (Single, 22 years).
Men who acquiesced generally did so for fear of losing their partner, thus making the relationship inherently unequal. They often remained dissatisfied, for example feeling jealous, envious or distrustful. In a number of cases, the relationship broke down.
Social norms within gay communities could also have an impact on partners’ negotiation. Some partners who preferred non-monogamy were able to suggest that it was a more progressive option or one that was informed by a better understanding of how gay relationships can work. As a result, men who preferred monogamy could be positioned as more conservative or less experienced, therefore holding less sway in the discussion.
Some men, who were generally older, described guiding a less experienced partner towards acceptance of non-monogamy.
“He took it differently than I do because he was so young and I was older… There’s been a few instances where I’ve helped him push his boundaries because I’ve had more experiences in things like sex clubs. And some of them he was terrified. We went earlier this year and I said, ‘I’d love you just to experience a sex club. You don’t have to do anything.’ And we went to one and he was pleasantly surprised.” (Coupled, 41 years)
The less experienced partners often appreciated such guidance.
“One of the revelations of living with [partner] is that from the beginning he was completely supportive of an open relationship. In fact, he introduced me to [the] concept. He said, ‘It’s impractical to expect you to be faithful to me and vice versa.’ I guess I admire his lack of jealousy.”
Steven Philpot says that the findings shed light on how gay men deal with changing expectations of fidelity within their relationships, and the tensions and opportunities that change produces for couples.