The Non-Monogamous Male Couples study
Open committed relationships are much more common and understood in the gay world than in straight society, though same-sex marriage campaigners are sometimes embarrassed to say so. Such arrangements can often work very well, according to a recently completed study of non-monogamous gay couples.
What factors make for success? Members of long-term open gay couples in the study often cited communication, honesty, transparency, respectful negotiation about needs and boundaries, and various forms of conscious relationship work. Sounds familiar.
The study included 86 couples who had been together for at least 8 years (the average time together was 16.2 years) and who were currently non-monogamous. The two authors themselves fit this category. They have posted a comprehensive summary, "Beyond Monogamy: Lessons from Long-Term Male Couples in Non-Monogamous Relationships" (78-page .pdf document), and have set up a website with overviews.
The San Francisco Bay Times reported on the study Thursday:
Long-Term Non-Monogamous Male Couples
By Tom Moon, MFT | March 4, 2010
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? “One reason,” Lanz said, “is that we’ve been in an open relationship from the very beginning. If we hadn’t been open, we wouldn’t have been able to grow individually or as a couple.” But, they write, this was a journey they took “without a roadmap… Information 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.”
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....
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 “openness” that the couples practiced. Some only played together, some only separately, and some did both. Some only allowed anonymous outside encounters, while others allowed “friends with benefits” 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 “openness” seemed to work for someone.
The study includes a summary of previous research on non-monogamy, in which the authors report that “Most research shows that approximately two-thirds of long-term male couples who have been together for five years or more are honestly non-monogamous,” and that “Multiple studies have found no differences in relationship quality or satisfaction between samples of sexually exclusive and non-exclusive male couples.”
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 “Having an open relationship feels like a funny way of being in the closet again. Family and friends expect that we’re monogamous, and we don’t tell them we’re not. It’s like a secret….In our community and society, it feels like something huge isn’t being talked about or studied or understood.”
It’s 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. I’m sometimes confidently assured, as if it’s self-evident, that open relationships are less healthy, loving, responsible, or honest than monogamous relationships; that if you’re 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 “start straying” it’s “the beginning of the end.”
Blake and Lanz came to different conclusions. While they concede that “…we had a study population skewed towards the positive,” they believe their work shows that “...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 isn’t by nature de-stabilizing. In fact, the results of this study would suggest the opposite – many study couples said non-monogamy enabled them to stay together. The average length of relationship for interviewed couples was 16 years – 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 ‘beginning of the end’.”
On the other hand “…for most couples, there was a price of admission. Non-monogamy came with risks and required maintenance.” Most participants found that making it work required “clarifying 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.”
Wow! That’s 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 “the best of both worlds.” 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.)
Here's the original article (March 4, 2010).
Lowen and Spears point out that the study participants are a skewed sample because they were willing to talk about their open relationships; most non-monogamous gay couples that the researchers approached declined. But with that in mind, here are some interesting statistics:
Beneficial Impacts Key Themes
(percent of all study participants naming this as a significant impact)
78% - A sanctioned sexual outlet
48% - Stimulates our sex life, e.g. titillating, energizing
40% - Different needs met
34% - Brought friends, new experiences into relationship
33% - Encourages & reinforces honesty
27% - Provides variety, sense of freedom
26% - Brought perspective & greater appreciation
24% - Encouraged sexual growth (expertise, repetoire, awareness)
23% - Increased intimacy & commitment
20% - Encouraged personal growth
15% - Wouldn’t be together without it
Most Commonly Mentioned Difficulties
21% - Jealousy (markedly less than what is often assumed in the research)
20% - Getting too emotionally involved
12% - Becoming comfortable with non-monogamy
9% - Dishonesty
8% - Issues related to drug/alcohol use
7% - Lack of sensitivity
20% - “Nothing has been difficult.”
Update, July 2010 Here's a conservative response.