Most gay men have open relationships. This is not a new thing. Far from it. Maybe the fact so many gay men are even in committed relationships in Western society is what is actually relatively new.
Traditional marriage, at least in a Western context, was essentially an economic unit based on the division of labour. A man and a woman brought different strengths, literally, to a relationship. We can underestimate just how difficult life was before the post-modern age with all of our technologies. But traditionally men did more physically arduous tasks in the fields while women did more home tasks – raising children, cooking food (including stoking the fire for hours on end), cleaning (scrubbing for hours on end) plus some outdoor tasks during peak periods. Each had full time jobs – and by full time, that’s 18 hours a day for 6 days a week with no time to relax except on Sundays.
Monogamy was enforced on women. This was to protect the man’s property, women could not independently own property, so that it only went to his natural offspring. Monogamy was not enforced on men. Laws prohibiting prostitution are relatively new. Even in the depths of the religious middle ages, there was prostitution for men to satisfy their sexual urges outside of marriage.
But what about the traditional gay relationship? Gay men are mostly hidden from history, our heads popping up mostly when we interacted with the justice system. Therefore, little is known besides the occasional love poem or glimpses from court cases convicting gay men for their sex lives. It’s safe to say committed relationships between men were rare though. If a man tells you he’s looking for a traditional relationship, ask him if that means going down to the docks and giving a quarter to a sailor for a fuck.
Of course, relationships today, gay or straight, have changed vastly. Technological and social changes have made women more free and altered how we think of relationships. Many Churches and other religions are having difficulty on how to change to reflect this. These days, marriage is but one form of relationship. Common law is much more prevalent, boyfriends and girlfriends exist, some couples now live apart, and of course there’s non-monogamy – for both men and women.
With all these changes, why do we even have relationships? After all, the traditional division of labour has been destroyed and many relationships don’t include children. There are many reasons. Societal pressure to maintain the traditional order, the need for security in a fast changing world, a partnership based on love and mutual interests, or just habit.
Why is this relevant? It illustrates that the way we form relationships are not natural but shaped by the cultural, social, economic, and technological factors of a particular time. We rarely question why we make the choices that we do but often just imitate the norm that we see around ourselves. As gay men, we traditionally had and should still have the ability to form relationships that fulfill our own individual needs rather than the need to conform to societal expectations.
Open relationships, or non-monogamy, come in many different varieties to suit the unique needs of a particular couple (or triple, etc.). Some play together; they’ll only have sex with another guy if they’re together such as in a threesome or group play. Some play apart; they go off and fuck around with other guys with various rules often in place. Some are polyamorous; more than two people will be in a relationships at once (a thruple) or one person will have more than one relationship (similar to polygamy). Some people will have a primary relationship that takes precedence over a secondary relationship. The list is endless.
But why do people have open relationships? The central reason for most is that a single person just can’t satisfy all of our sexual and/or emotional needs. And that’s okay. These days, our needs are more complex than putting food in the belly and having a roof over our heads, at least for most people in Western society. These could be kinks or fetishes that only one partner is into. Both may be tops or bottoms. They may have different libidos. Let’s face it, some just want to have lots of sex with lots of men or even just with a few more men than just one. That’s completely ok, and normal.
How do you go about opening a relationship? That’s the tricky part. Oddly enough, the business world has something to add here. The plan-do-check-act cycle.
- Plan: approach your partner, communicate, and set boundaries.
- Do: Play and fuck.
- Check: evaluate what is working and what is not, followed by a lots more communication.
- Act: put the new boundaries in place and get back to playing and fucking. Repeat for the duration of your relationship, even if you both decided to try monogamy again.
Here are six steps broken down.
Approaching your partner. Maybe you’ll have this discussion before you’re even dating. Or once you’re already in a relationship, there’s been a series of brief discussions or hints. Everything depends on the particular dynamics of your relationship. Set aside some time to have an initial discussion and advise them ahead of time that you want to have an important and meaningful discussion – don’t drop the issue while you’re cooking dinner or out at the pub. You want to be prepared by having enough time set aside and so that there’s no distractions – people coming over, phones going off, etc. Most importantly, continually assure them that you love them and that this doesn’t affect how you feel about them. You don’t need to have the full conversation that day – you’ll need to set aside more time later after you’ve both had time to think about this – especially if this is a new idea for your partner.
Communicate. This means both speaking from your heart and listening with your heart. Discuss what your needs are and what your partner’s needs are. Be aware if your needs, sexual or otherwise, clash. Discuss how you are both feeling. But importantly, examine why you each feel the way you do. Sometimes we project our past experiences on our current relationship and they are not grounded in current reality. Sometimes we feel the way we do because society has told us that’s how we are supposed to feel. And sometimes, this can bring up deeper issues beyond just your relationship such as insecurities from our childhood. With your needs and emotions expressed, you can then set boundaries. This could be not wanting to know your partner is penetrated by someone else. Or it could be no anal outside the relationship. It could be that you don’t want to hear about your partner’s escapades, that they can’t sleep over at another person’s place, or they cannot fuck a person twice. Write these down so you both agree! If you need help with this part of the process, don’t be afraid to seek out a counsellor that can act as a neutral facilitator and help you work through your thoughts and emotions.
Sexual health. This is about communication as well but it’s particularly important for gay men. It’s tricky because what you get, your partner may get. First you need to educate yourselves. STIs are not all the same. There are several of them, each with their own mode of transmission, each has prevention methods that are of varying effectiveness, each are treated differently, with some treated easily and some not easily treated at all. You face different options, depending on what level of risk you are each willing to take. Also, have you heard of PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV?
Play and fuck. This is the fun part. Go have some fun. But try and stick to the rules that you’ve agreed to and hopefully these are nice and clear.
Evaluate. Set aside more time to discuss what’s working and what’s not. If you’ve failed to adhere to these rules, examine the root cause of this. Is it a need that wasn’t properly addressed? Your and your partner’s needs may change. You may experience emotions that you weren’t expecting. That is normal. This is a never ending cycle. Be open to change and continue to communicate. It is possible that you may need to end the relationship because you have conflicting needs and boundaries – it’s not having an open relationship that ends a relationship, it may just end sooner because you were open with your partner and that is actually the sign of a healthy approach to relationships. Not all relationships will last forever.
Repeat. Once new boundaries have been established, get back to playing and fucking. And continue this cycle of communication and having fun.