“Couples often fight over contracts they've never made.” — Mary Klein, sex therapist
One of the phrases we often hear in these chaotic times is “the new normal”—in other words, what was once considered an unquestioned standard has evolved into something we couldn’t have imagined before. Especially when it comes to sexual matters, among the general public there are numerous layers of mistaken assumptions about what is “normal” and acceptable. We sex therapists, however, quickly come to understand that there are dozens, and perhaps hundreds of sexual behaviors that are “normal” in society but seldom openly discussed.
What is “normal” monogamy?
Take, for example, the notion of monogamy. We are taught that monogamy is the gold standard and anything that strays from that is problematic or flat out wrong. Thus, people who are not monogamous nor want to be are judged and often seen as having something off about them.
The irony here is that most monogamous couples I see have never talked about or negotiated what monogamy actually means for them—something as vague as “being loyal to one another.” But when you begin to ask about specifics, one partner may believe that looking at pornography is cheating. For another, masturbating feels like a betrayal. And for another, engaging in sexting or cyber sex without ever meeting each other or even being in the same country is cheating.
Just like any other relationship agreement, then, monogamy demands a more detailed discussion about its meaning.
Sometimes my clients even surprise me. For instance, I began working with a gay male couple who told me that they were monogamous. After several months, however, they informed me they had had a three-way. When I asked if they had changed from monogamy, they said, “No.”
I was confused. Maybe I hadn’t gotten the correct information in our initial consultation? I told them, “I thought you told me you were monogamous,” and they said, “We are.” Now I was REALLY confused! “But you just told me you were monogamous.”
“We are monogamous,” they said. “We only have three-ways together and are never sexual with others apart from each other.”
Okay, now I was slowly getting it.
Let’s take a deeper look, then, at some of the nuances that exist within “monogamous” relationships and try to offer some language that can help couples determine what is “normal” for them.
Here, both partners agree—openly and honestly—about keeping their relationship monogamous and have a mutual definition of what that means. Both partners should discuss and agree on what monogamy means to them—usually sexual and emotional intimacy with each other, and no one else. If either or both want to open the relationship to others, it’s with the understanding that they’ll both discuss changing the contract through intentional dialogue and both agree on it. This is something that could take many conversations. One hesitant partner should never agree, and the other partner should never push too hard.
Books on affairs have been exploding in the self-help market in the past 10 years. This appears to acknowledge the lack of conversation and openness amongst couples—gay or straight—that leads to a rupture in the relationship and exits from intimacy. Attitudes about monogamy are slowly showing signs of changing.
For instance, at a recent talk I gave on gay marriage, a group of Caucasian CEOs challenged me on the concept. One man, in particular, asked, “If we open the doors to gay marriage, then what’s next—polygamy?” Another man in the group looked at him and asked, “How could you be against polygamy? You’ve divorced three wives and are looking for a fourth!”
For an open sexual and/or emotional relationship with others, mutual consent of both partners is essential. Here, each agrees to open the relationship in ways satisfactory to both. Some partners prefer not to know about their partner’s sexual behavior outside the relationship. They have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy; others want to know, and many insist on knowing. Rules are important here. I have heard male couples say, “We only do it on vacation,” or “only with people we don’t know.” It is imperative to work this out.
While “sleeping around” and “casually dating” are fairly normal in today’s dating world, open relationships and polyamory remain controversial to be sure and are still hard for most of society to accept—though millennials are catching on pretty quickly. Research shows that around 50 percent of gay male couples manage open relationships successfully. On the other hand, heterosexual couples that have “assumed” monogamy can find their lives torn apart because of affairs and cheating. Only rarely do these couples talk openly about their sex lives before the infidelity. This is far worse than a couple talking openly and honestly with each other about a sensitive topic like sexuality from the beginning.
A common misconception is that people who have open relationships or are poly are “sex-hungry” and just want to constantly be having a good time. The truth is that these types of relationships actually take hard work and a lot of honest communication. Whether it’s a straight couple that are both flirting and/or openly sleeping with people on the side, or a lesbian “throuple” (a poly relationship with three people) where all three women have emotional and sexual relationships with each other, there has to be a lot of trust, open conversation, and safe sex occurring for these relationships to thrive, and they can and do.
Historically, the belief has been that if a couple was open to bringing in others for sex, that was the beginning of the end for their relationship. Judgments about open relationships are changing, however. Too many happy and successful relationships, both gay and straight, have open contracts around sex.
Here are some essential elements of making contracts in relationships.
Staying True to Contract
Never assume there’s a contract on sexual exclusivity. Any couple should understand that by itself, being married and/or in a relationship isn’t enough to ensure monogamy. Each may have different ideas about what “marriage” and “relationship” means. It’s vital for the couple to mutually agree on a contract stating their agreement about monogamy, or non-monogamy.
Breaking the Relationship Agreement
This occurs if one or both partners stray from the agreed-upon contract. The relationship would not be in trouble over the affair as much as about the contract, consciously and intentionally prepared by both partners. I’ve noticed that for gay male relationships, cheating has less of a negative impact than for heterosexuals—or even lesbians, for that matter. My concern is that gay men may think that cheating is a “natural” part of any gay relationship and therefore, a foregone conclusion—which is not the case.
There is no such thing as safe sex unless it is with yourself! We now say “safer sex” to help people remember that whenever you engage in sexual activity with another person you are at risk for contracting an STI. When sexually playing outside their relationships, couples need to be cautious about STIs. The idea is to assume that everybody else may have a sexually transmitted infection or disease and act accordingly. It’s neither appropriate nor realistic to hope the person you’re with is telling you the truth—or how recently he’s been tested. Play safely, no matter what.
Fidelity without Sexual Exclusivity
In their book, The Male Couple, David P. McWhirter, M.D., and Andre M. Mattison, MSW, Ph.D. (1984) write that among male couples, “Sexual exclusivity … is infrequent, yet their expectations of fidelity are high. Fidelity is not defined in terms of sexual behavior but rather by their emotional commitment to each other.”
More recently in 2010 researchers at San Francisco State University revealed a study where they followed 556 male couples for three years where 45 percent of the couples were monogamous, 47 percent had open agreements, and 8 percent were discrepant (partners reported different understandings).
I find this to still be true today in my clinical practice with gay male couples. In fact, research shows repeatedly that around 50 percent of gay male couples have consensual non-monogamy. Gay male couples often report that what works best for them is to engage in sexual encounters based on sexual attraction only and not emotions or affection. It is about sex and nothing more. They avoid getting to know temporary partners at any deep level, to avoid turning the encounter into something emotional that might develop into a full-blown relationship. In other words, any sexual inclusion is simply behavioral in nature, not relational.
Many straight couples—especially millennials—are now doing the same thing.
Renegotiating a Contract
Another thought that couples have found helpful is to not make any contracts in stone! Theirs can be a living relationship that is open and closed at various points in time, with no hard rules about it. It’s more important to know when and how to discuss desired changes in the contract.
Maintaining Intentional Dialogue
Effective dialogue is the best thing couples can do to ensure safety and trust. The best form of communication I have found is called the intentional dialogue, developed by Dr. Harville Hendrix and explained in his book Getting the Love You Want. One partner is the receiver, and the other is the sender. One partner at a time speaks, and the other listens actively by reflecting back what was heard. This guarantees there won’t be any judgments, interruptions, interpretations, or reactivity and defensiveness during a partner’s sharing. The sender should speak only in “I” statements and talk about personal feelings and judgments, never presuming to know what the other person thinks. This kind of respect and communication is essential for any open relationship.
Jealousy with Consensual Monogamy/Non-Monogamy
Whether couples are in closed or open relationships, jealousy is bound to rear its head. I’ve heard couples, gay and straight, voice their anxiety that their partner liked the other person more, enjoyed some sexual behavior from the other person more, and so on. Resolving this, again, requires dialogue and safety between the partners. Knowing in advance the kinds of issues that an open relationship may present can help prevent some of these conflicts in the first place.
You might think that having multiple romantic partners would elicit more jealousy than being in a monogamous relationship. But according to a 2017 study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, that’s not necessarily the case. The study, which surveyed 1,507 people in monogamous relationships and 617 people in consensual non-monogamous relationships, found that people in consensual non-monogamous relationships, including those who engaged in polyamory and swinging, scored lower on jealousy and higher on trust than those in monogamous relationships.
“People in monogamous relationships were really off the charts high on jealousy,” says one of the authors. “They were more likely to check their partners’ phones, go through their emails, their handbags. But people in consensual non-monogamous relationships were really low on this.”
Another of the co-authors who is a couples’ therapist says that she’s observed monogamous couples avoid addressing jealousy altogether, whereas consensual non-monogamous couples might be more vocal with their feelings. “In consensual non-monogamous relationships, jealousy is expected,” she says. “But they see what feelings arise and actively work to navigate them in a proactive way.”
To sum up, “normal” remains in the eye of the beholder—the individual and the couple. Especially for therapists, it’s not appropriate to judge couples for behavior that society does not believe to be “proper” for any relationship. The therapist can question the couple about open relationships and share their thoughts and concerns. However, if the arrangement is working for them, then the therapist needs to stand back and let them make the final decisions.