No More "Cheating" – How to Have an Open Relationship Without Hurt Feelings

Perhaps no word in relationships, including those between gay men, is as inflammatory as “cheating” – the slang to denote one person in a relationship having sex with someone outside of that relationship in a way that too often results in feelings of anger, betrayal, and disappointment in the remaining partner. Yet some would say this dynamic simply borrows from an antiquated heterosexist paradigm, where a “helpless” woman, dependent on her husband for economic and social sustenance, is “scorned” by a philandering man unable to control his lustful desires, and can only regain social standing and dignity by punishing the man in a bitter divorce and alimony arrangement.

In gay male culture, however, more variations on the monogamous relationship are common. A study from 2002 in The Advocate magazine reported that only one-third of gay male couples are sexually exclusive (Advocate Sex Poll, 2002), and that the AIDS epidemic has not changed this basic statistic from previous years. Many circles of gay male friends would casually suggest this percentage is much lower, with a common phrase being, “Do you know any gay couple that is truly monogamous?” Perhaps this somewhat cynical perception is right.

Legendary psychotherapist Michael Shernoff, LCSW, who has been an author, professor, and therapist specializing in gay men’s issues in New York City for over 30 years, wrote about “Negotiated Nonmonogamy and Male Couples” in a recent article for the academic journal, Family Process (Vol. 45, No. 4, 2006, pp. 407-418). Shernoff offers a possible explanation for nonmonogamy in gay male couples in that it is related to gender: that men tend to be more oriented than women toward a recreational approach to sex. He cites researcher Michael Bettinger, who suggests that this trait may be genetically hard-wired in men because it is evident in all human cultures throughout history. Additionally, he cites author Dominic Davies who suggests men may be more able to separate in their minds love from sex, and that gay men (who already defy heterosexist notions just by coming out) develop their own values system, refusing the “patriarchal and capitalist notion of a partner as a possession.”

Shernoff categorizes gay male couples in four subtypes:

1) the sexually exclusive couple (monogamous);

2) the sexually non-exclusive but unacknowledged couple (“cheating”);

3) the primarily sexually exclusive couple, also known as “modified monogamy” (those that perhaps participate in occasional three-ways or group sex together);

4) the sexually non-exclusive acknowledged couple (the open relationship), and

5) non-sexual domestic partners. He describes how for some gay male couples, “fidelity” is defined by the emotional primacy of the relationship, and abiding by whatever rules the couple has agreed upon for how sex outside the relationship should manifest; while “infidelity” means not sex outside the relationship, but breaking the set rules, such as engaging in unprotected sex outside the relationship when it was agreed condoms would be used, or having sex locally when it was agreed they would play with others only while traveling.

Very often in my psychotherapy practice, my gay male clients discuss various concerns about getting their sexual needs met, including the gay couples I see. These couples describe how while their emotional commitments to each other are solid, some long for fulfilling a sexual need that lies outside the desires or even capabilities of their primary partner. This tension brings the couple to conjoint counseling to explore the issues and identify some options to resolve their dilemma.

Others are in counseling because the relationship has been harmed by one or both partners “cheating” on the agreed-upon monogamous arrangement, and they seek help to understand why outside sex was desired. Sometimes this can be about power dynamics or unresolved emotional conflicts between the partners, while other times, perhaps more commonly, it is only about a natural male desire for sexual variety after the initial excitement that characterizes early relationships predictably wanes.

In identifying the possible options, much discussion revolves around how each partner is influenced about sex early on from teachings from his family of origin, culture, religious upbringing, and past relationship experiences, and exploring how the two partners differ in these areas. Understanding how each partner came to his conclusions about preferences, desires, and fears regarding love and sex is a first step toward identifying what new options might work as the couple seeks to make changes that lead to additional emotional and sexual fulfillment.

To explore options for non-monogamy that feel safe and minimize jealousy or threatening feelings, we assess the relationship in general, including items such as domestic chores, work life, finances, routines, shared pastimes, individual health issues, friends and social support, and relationships with the “in-laws.” Next, we explore each partner’s view of the couple’s current sex life – the type, frequency, duration, sexual roles, and levels of satisfaction.

Next, we brainstorm the fantasies of each partner that lead them to consider the desire for opening the relationship to outside partners, including what activities are desired and why, and the characteristics of desired partners (race, size, build, age, even “endowment” or sexual “style”). The positive fantasies of desired activities are considered along with the fears that each partner has about exploring the options, such as jealousy, fears of abandonment, personal safety, HIV/STD risk, and even practical time management of how to play with others while still saving free time to share activities in the relationship.

Part of the work is assessing if the couple is ready to consider a non-exclusive arrangement. Author J. Morin (In the Family, Vol. 4, pp. 12-15) has suggested that a gay male couple is prepared to adjust to non-monogamy as long as

1) both partners want their relationship to remain primary;

2) they have established a reservoir of good will;

3) there are minimal lingering resentments from past hurts/betrayals;

4) the partners are not polar opposites on the monogamy issue;

5) the partners are feeling similarly powerful/autonomous as equal partners in the relationship;

6) each partner has friends and support other than his partner,

7) the partners have a higher-than-average tolerance for change, confusion, anxiety, jealousy, and other uncomfortable feelings; and

8) the couple is merely sexually bored but very secure and loving with each other. When these items are mostly satisfied, a safe exploration of options can begin.

The next step in the counseling process is to discuss the Ideal Proposed Scenario, a time to start the new arrangement, and a time set to evaluate, discuss, make changes, and re-evaluate the arrangement. The final step is having each partner fill out a written exercise called the Outside Sex Contract Agreement. After some time to experiment with the new arrangement, perhaps a couple of months, the couple evaluates their experiences and makes additional changes if necessary, with each partner being careful to be responsive to the concerns of the other to preserve a sense of safety, intimacy, and trust.

With these steps completed, the couple moves forward confidently that they have worked through the conflict regarding outside sex with open, safe communication and confidence that the love they share for each other is secure, while embarking on exciting changes that lead to increased fulfillment and satisfaction in the relationship for each of them – with no more “cheating” dynamics to detract from their quality of life.

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