Should I Open Up My Relationship?

Illustration by Kevin Truong
Illustration by Kevin Truong

“Dear the Gay Men Project,

I’ve been with my partner for three years, and he recently suggested we open up our relationship. I don’t know how I feel about this. I was hoping to get some advice from others who have opened up their relationship or are considering it.

From New York”

From the Gay Men Project:

Hey there,

Many thanks for writing in. This is a subject that I have a lot of interest in, but right off the bat I should make the disclaimer that I’ve been single for many, many years. So this isn’t really a subject I can speak to from personal experience.

That said, I have photographed and interviewed hundreds of gay men around the world these past few years, and this is a subject that came up a lot. Mostly because I developed a personal interest in the many ways gay men have chosen to pursue and define their relationships. So the question of whether one was in an open relationship was something I asked many of the men I met, assuming they had a partner.

So instead of giving you advice, I’m just going to share a few of the things I’ve learned and observed from my many years of asking about the subject. Keep in mind, I’m only sharing the stories of the gay men I’ve met–which I feel is a pretty representational group of gay men around the world, but of course, I don’t speak for everyone.

First off, many gay men are in open relationships. I can’t say the exact numbers, but I would say of the hundreds of gay men I photographed all over the world, of the ones that were in a relationship, a large number of those relationships were open. What that means, of course, is very different to each relationship. One of the things I found most interesting is that everyone defines the boundaries of an open relationship differently. Some people will bring in other people into their sexual activities, but only as a couple. Meaning a couple will invite a third or a fourth to join, and will only “play” together. I’ve met others who will engage in sexual activities outside of the relationship, but only in the absence of their partner. One person said it best: “I can’t imagine watching someone else kiss my husband.”

I think it’s interesting that every couple (or throuple, as I did come across one polyamorous relationship) has a unique set of rules that they abide to when opening up their relationship. Some don’t allow their partner to kiss, or sleep over, or bring someone into their home if they are not there. Things like that. Others are only open in their relationship when each partner is in different cities.

What I found most striking is this. Of the people that have been together extremely long-term–and I’m talking thirty, forty, and even fifty years–a majority were in open relationships. One of the couples I met who were very long term didn’t have sex with each other anymore. They engaged in all their sexual activity entirely outside of their partnership. Sex became less important than the other things that make up a relationship i.e. companionship, comfort, history, friendship.

On the other side of the spectrum, I did notice that the younger gay men I’ve met (I’m talking early twenties) tend to be more monogamous then men my age (I’m 33) and older.

I have a few theories on this. First off, most people open up their relationships a few years in. So perhaps younger gay men just haven’t been in relationships long enough to want to consider options outside of monogamy. But I think the bigger factor is that gay men are coming out a lot younger nowadays. I’m talking, like fourteen or fifteen-years-old. (personally, I can’t imagine having come out at fourteen!)

As such, when these young gay men are coming out they’re still living at home and under the guidance and authority of their parents. Add to that the fact that LGBTQ couples are more embedded in our pop culture (in the West at least), and in many places marriage is now an option, and it seems that the younger generation is more often modeling the foundation of how they approach relationships on the model most readily available to them when they first come out, that of their parents. And most likely this is a model perceived to be a monogamous relationship that results in a marriage. Because this is a model that young gay men are told they can now participate in, that’s what they are doing. Whereas many gay men my age felt this was a model that they were excluded from (specifically with regards to marriage) and therefore took the freedom to design their own set of parameters.

Anyways, these are just my thoughts. I’m far from being an expert on relationships, hence the reason I’m still single. I will say, from what I’ve gathered, if you are going to open up your relationship, communication and trust is key. And safety! I really encourage anyone who has first-hand experience on the subject to offer their insight for the benefit of the rest of us, and the larger community. I’m sure some people have very strong opinions one way or the other, and I want to hear them!

Thank you!

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12 comments

  1. Pingback: seems it will be the hottest day today | alifesgayventure
  2. MAXIME LAUWENS

    Hello Kevin, hello friend from NY ! Kevin says that all the people in long term relations he met had an open relation. Well, we have been in a relation for 46 years, lived in a half open relation for 5 or 6 years at the beginning and since then, since the beginning of aids in fact, have lived in an exclusive relation (with sex up to now). I should say it depends on the personality of both parts of the couple. The chemistry is so personal that it’s impossible to give advice. Both parts must be happy and if you love, you think of the happiness of the other person. Good luck ! Maxime & Henri (Belgium)

    • thegaymenproject

      I forgot about you two! (At least when writing this post) Though let me ask, you added the caveat that you live in an exclusive relationship, with regards to sex. What does that mean? Are you open in other ways? bisous. Kevin

      • Ra

        I think what he means by that is that he still has sex with his partner, as a response, I think, to what you say about men his age (i.e. “Of the people that have been together extremely long-term–and I’m talking thirty, forty, and even fifty years–a majority were in open relationships. Some of these partners didn’t even have sex with one another anymore.”). Personally, I think you’re spot on when you observe that: “the younger generation is more often modeling the foundation of how they approach relationships on the model most readily available to them, that of their parents. And most likely this is a model perceived to be a monogamous relationship that results in a marriage. Because this is a model that young gay men are told they can now participate in, that’s what they are doing.” I’ve been in a monogamous relationship for almost four years now and my boyfriend and I agreed from the outset that we would be completely monogamous. And to the best of my knowledge, all of my friends are, too, including the ones who are now married. Old-fashioned is new again, I think, thanks to increasing visibility, social acceptance, marriage equality, and ever-expanding rights including and especially adoption. Far from destroying marriage, the new generation of gay men might very well turn out to be its savior for the reasons that you’ve alluded to yourself: growing up with the idea and now reality of having access to marriage, we value it as the basic family unit, as the inviolable form of relationship, and nothing quite embodies the slippery slope argument that homophobes like to trout out ad nauseam like open relationship which is basically polyamory.

      • Ra

        Oh, and to the questioner, I would say you do you, but do educate yourself on some basic facts. For instance, 72% of new HIV infections occur in gay men, who only make up 2% of the population — and that is obviously disproportionately high — not to mention other STDs (http://www.advocate.com/health/2016/7/05/gay-bi-men-frightening-health-officials-skyrocketing-std-rates). And in a new study published recently, although researchers were “unable to find any viral transmission in over 40,000 sexual encounters without condoms when HIV positive partner was on antiretroviral treatment,” they nonetheless “noted that 11 individuals did become HIV positive during the course of the PARTNER study. However, from studying the DNA of the virus, they concluded that these individuals had not become positive from their long-term partners but from other sources (i.e. from possibly having condomless sex with other people). Liverpool University’s Professor Anna Maria Geretti, said: ‘The HIV virus can be divided into several sub-groups, each with its own genetic characteristics, and this makes it possible to see whether the virus is genetically similar to a partner’s. In all cases the results showed that the virus came from someone other than the partner under treatment’” (http://www.gaystarnews.com/article/hiv-treatment-successful-virus-condoms/#gs.JwBijGA).

      • MAXIME LAUWENS

        Well, the next participant answered. We still have monogamous sex with one another. Open in other ways ? Here I don’t understand what you mean. We have lots of friends, gay and straight, and a busy social life. We don’t live isolated if it is what you mean. We love seeing our friends over a good meal.
        Only for holidays, we mostly prefer to travel together, only the two of us. We are not so fond of travelling with other people or to stay at other people’s houses, at least for more than a few days. But we like meeting our friends wherever we go in Europe or elsewhere. Kisses. Maxime

      • thegaymenproject

        Hey Maxime, what I meant was, I have a friend for example (who is straight and female) who goes on romantic dates with other men. Her husband is on dating websites and goes on dates with other women, but I don’t think they necessarily have sex with these dates. So maybe that’s not necessarily an open relationship, and I’m working too loosely with the term lol.

  3. Joffrey Thin-Gris

    The important is not to lie to ourselves.
    Work on yourself to know what do you want and what would make you happy as an individual. Then make the same work as a couple.
    Honesty & communication is the key.
    We are all different. We all have different need and we all love differently.
    Do what would make your relationship last.

  4. Mark

    Good morning Kevin. We are a bi racial, multi generational couple (27 years difference) and started out in a monogamous relationship but have progressed to a more open one, but one defined as respect. Since we spend a good part of our time in different countries, Brazil and the United States, when we are apart we can play. When we are together we play with other men, but together. If anything this has strengthened our relationship, since sex with the third party is just that, sex. Is the next step polyamory us? Who knows. What we do know is that after 15 years we are still very much in love.

  5. jem

    I was in the closet most of my life. I’m 67 and only been out about 4 years. I married and had children and now grandchildren. My wife and I were in a monogamous relationship and only when I came out more publicly (in these last 4 years) have I had sex outside of marriage, with men. My wife has since died and I now have a partner, many years my junior. Because of many things I have had difficulty adjusting to the intimacy of a gay sexual relationship and am exceedingly inhibited. As a result I felt I was not being fair to my young partner and encouraged him, against his will I might add, to seek a sexual outlet, or sexual outlets, in other casual relationships. He tried to do so, but failed, I’m glad to say. It made me suddenly experience extreme jealousy, so I’m glad he failed. I don’t think, after this, I could handle an open relationship, so am determined to work on my inhibitions to become more active sexually and satisfy my partner as best I can. I must say though, that friendship, companionship, respect, trust and love are so very much more than sex. Sex is fun and can add some zest, but it’s not everything by any means.

  6. alberto25lc

    I find open relationships very interesting —I guess, the reasons behind them, really. I am, as well, a single man of many years, so I do not talk from experience —probably the best source of intel for such matter— but reflection. This issue starts with the concept of relationship. Besides the obvious, a monogamous and polyamorous relationship provides different individual needs that come from specific patterns of behavior. The search for an open relationship is more than sexual; it is psychological —the person’s psyche — and/or sentimental. A relationship is a connection, of any kind, between two or more individuals, that provides comfort, happiness, and fulfillment. Regardless of the choice, it is important to consider the emotional repercussions of the type of relationship you are willing to have, while also taking into account your health, and the underlying compromise to coexist as two individuals trying to be one. This is not, by any means, saying that one type is better than the other, or that one is wrong; it is, as others have said, a completely personal choice, based on not only love, but boundaries.

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