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Real Talk: Play Well with Others? Open Relationships and Our Health

, by Reilly O'Neal

“Success in relationships—whether they’re for an evening, or a season, or a lifetime—has a lot to do with communication: What do we agree we’re going to do? What do we assume we’ve agreed to that we later find out wasn’t a shared understanding? It starts with agreements.”

—Steven Tierney

Moderator Steven Tierney and panelists (all photos: Reilly O’Neal)

What motivates couples to open their relationships—or not? How do men in open relationships (and their outside partners) protect their physical health and emotional well-being? And is the marriage equality movement changing expectations around gay relationships?

These questions and others were posed to panelists and audience members at the latest Real Talk community forum, “Play Well with Others? Open Relationships and Our Health,” hosted January 30 by San Francisco AIDS Foundation and Stop AIDS Project. The answers were eye-opening and the discussion lively.

Panelists included psychologist Ramon Martinez, post-doctoral psychology fellow at Psychological Services Center in Oakland; health educator Alan Guttirez; Stuart Gaffney, media director for Marriage Equality USA; Colleen Hoff, principal investigator for the Gay Couples Study; and Geoffrey Benjamin, who is currently working on a start-up to help couples (and their admirers) meet. The discussion was moderated by Steven Tierney, professor of counseling psychology at California Institute of Integral Studies.

Summarized here are highlights from the evening’s discussion and the audience and panelists’ perspectives on navigating relationships—whatever form they take.

What motivates partners to open their relationship (or not), and how do they form those agreements?

“The take-home in our study is that couples want to have a healthy, satisfying relationship. Agreements are typically made to support the relationship.”

—Colleen Hoff

“There’s a long—and, some might say, very proud—tradition of open relationships among gay men, particularly here in San Francisco,” San Francisco AIDS Foundation CEO Neil Giuliano observed in his opening remarks. The audience agreed: When asked by anonymous text poll how common open relationships are in San Francisco, the vast majority (98%) of participants responded “very common” or “common,” and most (88%) affirmed they had, themselves, been in an open relationship and/or been intimate with someone who was in an open relationship.

What motivates couples to open their relationships? Panelists’ experiences varied. For example, Ramon Martinez spoke of counseling sessions with his long-term partner during a rough patch: “One of the things that spoke to both of us was the desire to actually engage sexually with other people outside of this relationship. We were really honest about it.”

Martinez and his partner agreed to open their relationship, and found strength in the change. Two and a half years later, he said, “It’s the most intimate and meaningful relationship that I’ve ever been in, and it continues to improve, challenge, and inspire me every day.” By contrast, Stuart Gaffney’s marriage includes an agreement around monogamy. “I guess this is my coming-out moment as not being in an open relationship,” he laughed.

Geoffrey Benjamin’s work doing street-based HIV-prevention outreach for Stop AIDS Project in the 1990s inspired him to approach his own boyfriend—who is now his husband—about the possibility of having sex with outside partners. “I heard of a lot of men cheating in monogamous relationships,” he explained. “I thought to myself, ‘Well, I’m never going to put my partner in a position where they’re going to have to lie to me.’”

Offering a research perspective, Colleen Hoff shared findings from the Gay Couples Study and the You & Me Study, two ongoing projects examining how the agreements couples make about sex with outside partners, as well as their relationship dynamics (including communication, sexual behaviors, partners’ HIV status, and HIV testing patterns), affect HIV risk behaviors.

At the start of the research, Hoff acknowledged, “I had the assumption, mistakenly, that a lot of motivations for having an agreement would be about HIV prevention.” Instead, study participants’ top reasons for forming agreements have included sexual enhancement, the ability to accommodate a partner’s health changes (such as illness or decreased libido), providing structure to the relationship, reinforcing gay identity (as opposed to following a straight relationship model), and demonstrating and fostering trust. “We’ve had [participants] say, ‘…I feel really good about being able to trust my partner to have sex with other people and have it not threaten my relationship,’” shared Hoff.

In terms of negotiating agreements, Hoff continued, study participants have taken varied approaches: “Some couples talk very explicitly about the agreement in a lot of detail; some have very implicit understandings—‘We’re open’ or ‘We’re closed.’ Some have ongoing, fluid discussions about their agreements: They’ll set an agreement, they’ll try out a new thing, they’ll talk about it and process it, make changes and accommodate. It’s very fluid.”

One audience member shared his own experience negotiating a monogamous agreement after, as he put it, having been “rather outspokenly promiscuous.” His agreement with his partner is part of an ongoing discussion: “It’s something that we talk about a lot, and we both recognize that communication is really important. We’re both human. We’re both going feel attraction to other people…but we talk about it.” Communicating so frankly has only strengthened their agreement: “Having that open, honest discussion about our relationship and about attraction seems to bring me closer to him and makes the relationship more solid and have a better foundation.”

Communication is key, Gaffney agreed, to the health of his own monogamous relationship with his husband: Sharing a life together for nearly 26 years “is actually a huge commitment…and that takes a lot of communication. That’s the name of the game.”

What “rules” do partners incorporate into their agreements to protect their own and each other’s physical and emotional health?

“Being intimate with men who are in open relationships is very fascinating, especially exploring the kinds of boundaries and agreements that these guys are making with their partners.”

—Alan Gutirrez

Panelists Ramon Martinez and Alan Gutirrez

So what are some of the rules and boundaries that partners set as part of their agreements? When, where, and how often are they “allowed” to have sex outside the relationship? How much do they tell one another about their intimacy with others? What safer-sex precautions do they agree upon, and how do those differ for sex within and outside the primary relationship?

Launching the discussion, moderator Steven Tierney recalled following the “three-river rule,” which held that a partner could have sex outside a monogamous relationship as long as he crossed three rivers to do so. (“Happily, I lived in Boston, and going from Boston to Cambridge, you did in fact cross three rivers,” Tierney quipped.)

One audience member described the rules agreed upon with his two concurrent boyfriends, some of which focus on making time for each other and prioritizing their three-way partnership: “We’ve set very clear boundaries,” he explained. “If we plan time together, then that’s it; we’re not going to have a date with somebody when we’ve made an agreement to be together.” He added, “I don’t want to come home and find there’s somebody else in bed just being sprung on me.…Beyond that, we don’t really have any rules about anything else.”

Panelist Benjamin admitted that, after agreeing to open his relationship with his then-boyfriend, “It was a little weird the first time he went out to a bathhouse and came home and wanted to tell me all about it….I sat there and thought, ‘Wow, this is odd.’” But his perspective changed pretty quickly: “Then I thought, ‘Wow, this is really hot!’”

“We have all kinds of boundaries and rules,” he continued. “Just because it’s open does not mean ‘anything goes.’” For example, he and his husband set a rule specifically to minimize their risk for HIV: “We agreed that we wouldn’t bottom for others anymore. We just took the highest-risk behavior off the table.”

HIV risk is necessarily a consideration in the rules and expectations in his open relationship, Martinez shared. “I am HIV positive and my partner is HIV negative, so I am really concerned about him maintaining his HIV-negative status. I do my part toward that end and have the expectations in our agreements that he’s going to do what he needs to do to maintain his safety.”

How do agreements change over time?

“Relationships are dynamic things….If you build it right, then it opens up the possibilities.”

—Geoffrey Benjamin

Over their 18-year relationship, Benjamin observed, he and his husband have frequently revisited and revised their agreement—sometimes in response to challenges within their marriage. “Often in those moments, we’ve closed the relationship. We stop focusing on other people and we say, ‘Okay, at this moment, we’re going to focus on each other.’”

“Agreement drift” can happen over time when partners don’t communicate about their rules and expectations and end up with different understandings of their agreements, Hoff noted. In her studies, “We’ve had couples come in and one will say, ‘Yeah, we’ve been together ten years. We talked about being monogamous early on, and nothing’s changed.’ And his partner will come in and say, ‘Yeah, we’ve been together ten years. We made an agreement to be monogamous early on, and of course we’re not monogamous anymore—it’s been ten years!’”

Gaffney added that, although his agreement around monogamy has not changed over the years, the relationship has evolved: “I think part of the question is, ‘How does a couple grow and change over time? How do you grow and change together, if that’s what you want?’ And that is, I think, a challenge for any of us.”

“The agreements haven’t really changed in the past two and a half years, but we do talk about and review them probably every three or four months,” shared Martinez. “It tends to come up when one of us has travelled, because that tends to be the time that we have our little extra ‘affair.’”

Hoff stressed that, in her studies, tending to agreements and ensuring that both partners are satisfied with them have been essential to both healthy relationships and physical health. “Couples who are more satisfied and invested in their agreement tend to be less risky than those who are not,” she said. “It’s really important that couples are on the same page and both feeling satisfied about the agreement.”

HIV/AIDS has not affected the popularity of open relationships, Hoff noted, explaining that studies from the 1970s and 1980s and research conducted today have found that roughly half the participants were in open relationships. “AIDS has not really affected that—but the big difference is that the stakes are higher now,” she said. “If you allow unprotected anal sex outside your relationship or you break your agreement and are in a risky situation, the stakes are higher.”

What happens when agreements break?

“You can talk about your agreement and be satisfied with your agreement but, let’s face it, sometimes things happen.

—Colleen Hoff

When asked by anonymous text poll whether they had ever “slipped up” and broken their agreement, 70% of respondents answered “Yes.” Of those, 57% told their partner about it.

“I have a lot of lovers who are in open relationships,” shared Gutirrez, who said it easy to recognize when one of his sex partners is on the verge of breaking an agreement. “I find that my partners tell me things like, ‘I shouldn’t be doing this, but I really want to do this.’ Or some people are like, ‘Oh, I really shouldn’t be doing this,’ but then they just straight-up do it.” His experience as the outside partner informs how he plans to approach his own future open relationships: “I would want, the next time I am in such a relationship, to be really satisfied with the kinds of agreements that we set, because it’s really not fun to have sex with someone who is feeling anxious about what they’re doing.”

Why do partners break their agreements? In her research, Hoff shared, the reasons most frequently given are “I was horny” and “He was really hot.” (The audience laughed at another common statement: “Most men who found themselves in the same situation would have broken their agreement, too.”)

What strikes Hoff about these reasons for breaking agreements is that they are “individual reasons; they’re not relationship reasons. It’s not, ‘I was pissed at my partner.’” Although roughly half of her study participants have chosen not to disclose broken agreements, for fear of hurting their partner and damaging the relationship, “We also found that those who didn’t disclose a broken agreement were then harboring a secret, and that secret really created a wedge and distance in the relationship.”

Benjamin recalled times in his own marriage when he and his husband each disclosed having taken risks they regretted with outside sex partners. “It was a very, very hard conversation,” he said, but it prompted them to create a new rule in their agreement.

In Hoff’s studies, some couples have had a clause in their agreement that required disclosure. “No matter how difficult, no matter how painful, no matter how much they didn’t want to do it, they promised each other that they would disclose,” Hoff said. “And those couples, for some reason, have tended also not to break their agreements.”

The language used to discuss broken agreements is also important, the panel and audience agreed. When asked what he thought of language like “whoops” and “slip-up”—terms that appeared in the evening’s text-poll questions—one audience member responded that, while those particular words seem benign to him, stronger words like “cheating” are shaming and he sees no place for them in open relationships. “I definitely think that we need to communicate in ways where we’re not pathologizing one another—especially if this is someone that we love and care about—for wanting to have sex.”

Another audience member agreed that the words used in those hard conversations can either help repair a relationship or damage it further: “Not to minimize the potential consequences of [broken agreements], but we need something that doesn’t set the house on fire.”

Benjamin offered a different take: While the discussion of language around broken agreements had been focusing on sexual rule-breaking, he said, “The greatest wrecks to my relationship have been people who have had emotional involvements with one of us that go beyond sex, that may feel romantic or more emotional….And that is a violation, that isn’t a ‘whoops’ or a ‘slip-up.’”

How is the marriage equality movement changing norms and expectations about gay relationships? And does “married” mean “monogamous”?

“Our marriages are what we make of them, just like our relationships are what we make of them.”

—Stuart Gaffney

Panelist Stuart Gaffney

According to further text polls, 68% of respondents were already married or interested in marriage, and three-quarters said marriage equality is altering expectations about and norms around gay relationships.

Members of the audience expressed their concern that the concept of marriage does not align with their gay identity or their experience of gay culture. As one man put it, “What the gay movement, I think, has been about is expanding relationships and having different types of relationships, and the traditional marriage option doesn’t give us that.”

Another added that, “Growing up, to me being gay meant I didn’t have to get married. I don’t have to do what my mom and dad did.” Gutirrez, who shared that marriage isn’t a goal for him personally, had a similar take: “There are many people who have paved the way for people like me to be young and queer and having amazing sex in San Francisco.”

One man expressed his fear of a backlash against marriage equality in the next few years, “when we start seeing statistics about gay marriages and how well they work out compared to straight marriages.” He continued, “Marriage is not an institution that was created for us…It’s not something that we’re really adapted to, and I’m just afraid we’re going to fail at it and we’re going to look like fools.”

Hoff, who shared that she is straight and has been married for many years, responded from a personal perspective. “I just don’t think the straight community has much up on the gay community when it comes to relationships,” she said. “As I talk to gay couples and lesbian couples who want to get married, they are doing it because they want to. It’s not just expected;they’ve really given it a lot of thought….Straight people don’t always do that.”

Gaffney turned the marriage equality conversation to the issue of citizenship equality: “The movement to deny us marriage, as we saw in Prop 8 and so many other places, is a movement to deny us our full citizenship,” he said. “When John and I first exchanged vows in San Francisco City Hall in 2004, and we heard the words ‘By virtue of the authority vested in me by the state of California, I now pronounce you spouses for life,’ that was the first time that we felt that we were being treated with the full dignity and respect that everyone else is.”

Gutirrez offered a different perspective on the connection between marriage and citizenship, one that drew on conversations about the legal rights of immigrants. “I’m from a Latino family, and I used to work in HIV services for Latino folks,” he said, “and arguing that it’s important for gay people to get married so that they can legally immigrate is atrocious to me. I think people should be able to have access to great health care, various benefits, and in particular immigration rights. I think it’s important to consider the kinds of privileges that are granted and why they are only granted to people that are in marriages.”

Another audience member expressed pride in his own part in the movement for marriage equality, but also suggested that the option of marriage should not devalue other ways of partnering: “As long as we remember that the conscious commitments we make have some inherent value in the way we wish to live our lives, we will always be able to enjoy and create our relationships.”

Gaffney agreed. Speaking of an upcoming LBGT reunion at his alma mater, he shared that while some of his former boyfriends are now legally married, “My boyfriend from freshman year met his current partner on Grindr, and they expressed their commitment to each other when they mutually deleted their Grindr apps.”

An older audience member told his story of becoming a self-described “serial nuptualist” and marrying his partner three times over the last 13 years, in Vermont, Canada, and San Francisco. “I have to say that even though I never thought it would happen, I am truly, truly grateful,” he concluded. Benjamin empathized: “I love getting married. We have gotten married seven times!”

Benjamin pointed out that the meaning of marriage has evolved from its origins in property law, when it referred to “a man’s live properties: livestock, his wife, his children, his indentured servants, his slaves if he had them.” Here and now, Benjamin said, “marriage ain’t that, and it’s not what it was 50 years ago. And 50 years from now it may be something very different.”

In his view, gay marriages can be just as varied as other kinds of gay partnerships: “We make it what it is, so I don’t have any problem being in an open relationship and having two children with my husband and being married all those seven times, and wanting lots more times to get up and declare my love for him and ask my community to support that.”

Resources

The evening concluded with a description of San Francisco–based organizations supporting LGBT sexual and mental health, as well as moderator Steven Tierney’s suggestions for improving communication in your relationships, whatever form they may take. (As he summed them up himself, “You can’t get what you want and need if you don’t take time to figure out what that is and feel good about it.”)

Follow the links below to benefit from these resources yourself.

  • Five Ways to Improve Communication in Relationships: Scroll to the bottom of this post to see Tierney’s practical suggestions for identifying, talking about, and changing things that may be getting in the way of your own healthy and satisfying relationships.
  • Alliance Health Project: Individual therapy and group counseling services. HIV testing is also provided, as well as support for people living with HIV or trying to stay HIV negative.
  • SF Therapy Collective: Psychotherapy services for individuals, couples, families, children, teens, and groups.
  • Gaylesta: The LGBTQ Psychotherapy Association, offering mental health services, therapist referrals, education, and consultation.
  • The Stonewall Project: Harm reduction–counseling, treatment, and support services for gay men, transmen who have sex with men, and other men who have sex with men who are having issues with drugs and/or alcohol.
  • Magnet: HIV testing, sexual health services, and gay men’s community center.

Reilly O’Neal is a freelance writer and former editor of BETA.

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