“While there are lots of books about how to plan your gay wedding, there are virtually none that address what to do after the honeymoon is over,” begins author and psychotherapist Michael Dale Kimmel. After seeing hundreds—maybe a thousand—gay couples wrestling with the institution of marriage, he came to recognize that two men in a marriage have different needs and different dynamics than heterosexual and lesbian couples. “There are a lot of aspects of heterosexual marriage that don’t work particularly well for us. If we adopt it wholesale, I think we lose,” he says. But he disagrees with the other extreme—the belief that marriage is a “horrible heteronormative institution that has no place in the gay community.” After all, there are many beautiful elements of marriage worth celebrating (“Who’s going to argue with love, respect, caring, and compassion?” Kimmel says). And it’s not just gay couples who find the traditional model for marriage inadequate, so it’s a good time to interrogate the current model. He poses the question: “Why can’t we take the best of the institution of marriage and make it into something that is uniquely our own?” This question led him to write The Gay Man’s Guide to Open and Monogamous Marriage.
“There are a lot of people in the gay community that didn’t want me to write this book,” he says. Gay men are already stereotyped as sex-crazed, and people feared the book would imply that gay men don’t take marriage seriously. But, “Loving somebody doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to be sexually monogamous,” Kimmel asserts. He knows this sentiment is controversial, especially among straight couples. But given the high divorce rate and the 2015 Ashley Madison scandal, he hypothesizes that straight couples struggle with the expectation of monogamy, too.
About half of his clients are in monogamous relationships, and the other half are in open relationships. All couples, regardless of their sexual orientation, experience similar benefits and challenges in monogamous and open marriages. For instance, boredom, jealousy, and insecurity are universal responses tied to closed and open relationship boundaries. But Kimmel also observes that two men want to have sex more than heterosexual and lesbian couples, and for this reason, an open relationship can be a good fit. “There’s so much shame in the gay community about not being monogamous that nobody is talking about it,” he says. One of Kimmel’s clients told him, “We pretend to our friends that we are monogamous because they would judge us; they would invalidate our relationship.”
Open relationships are a brand new concept for many people, and gay marriage is still stigmatized in many parts of our country, so the combination is far outside of the societal comfort zone. Kimmel says that the dominant paradigm is that “sex is basically bad, and the more sex you are having, the worse a person you are.” He’s from a small town in Ohio where the mentality is “if you can’t make traditional marriage work, there’s something wrong with you.” While the evidence is there that the traditional model for marriage is largely unsuccessful, the fear of change is great.
Because the stigma around open relationships is so huge, Kimmel has observed among his clients that opening a relationship is often a privileged phenomenon: “They tend to be people with money, they’ve traveled, are educated, and they are questioning the mores of their society. If you are struggling to make your rent, polyamory probably isn’t high up on your priority list. It may seem frivolous if you are dealing with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But if life is going well, you may have the luxury of being able to talk about opening up your relationship and the education to know that people do.”
For couples in open relationships, the benefits can be amazing. An open relationship necessitates hard conversations “about stuff that most couples are terrified to discuss, and that can make your relationship stronger.” Open relationships are also a lot of work, Kimmel says. “It’s a lot of stimulation, it’s complicated, and every relationship has jealousy and insecurity.” Furthermore, an open relationship will not solve core marriage issues, and frankly, “if your relationship is not going so well, it’s a terrible idea.” If your primary relationship has some fundamental issues, it’s best to work those out first. And Kimmel warns, “your sex life is a reflection of the rest of your relationship,” so if you’re unhappy with your sex life, there may be some deeper issues that need to be addressed before opening a relationship. Sometimes it’s challenging to discern if the solution to boredom is to work on your sex life or open your relationship. Kimmel says it’s not always either/or; rather it’s both/and. “If a couple is bored sexually and they open up their relationship, their sex life improves because they learn some new things.”
So how do you know if an open relationship is right for you? Kimmel suggests looking at your previous sexual history. If you’ve managed more than one sexual relationship at a time before and you enjoyed it, then an open relationship might be a good fit. If you and your partner find it an interesting idea or have hypothesized about it in the past, it may be something you want to explore down the road. On the flip side of the coin, “for people who are easily overwhelmed or overstimulated, it’s probably not a good fit.” And remember, most open relationships do not stay open forever. In times of stress, “the last thing you want to do is make your life more complicated. You need to focus on the basics.” It’s okay to fluctuate between opening and closing your relationship’s borders in order to prioritize your individual and relationship needs.
The bottom line is communication. “If you can talk to your partner about almost anything, then sex is going to be part of that conversation.” Regardless of whether a marriage is open or monogamous, what’s important is that two people are committed to each other, they respect one another, and they can talk honestly about sex. Kimmel summarizes, “There’s no right way to do marriage—just the way that works for you and your partner. If it’s monogamous, great. If it’s open, great. If it’s a combination that you made up, then that’s great as long as it works for the two of you. No one else may understand it, but if it makes you happy, that is what matters.”