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Gay Men, Parenting, and Open Relationships: Making It Work

Do gay men with kids want open relationships?

Yes, they do.

Research shows that approximately 50 percent of male couples are creating open relationships with their long-term partners. While we don’t know how many of these couples have children, in my national group practice specializing in therapy for gay men, we find that this 50/50 ratio holds true.

But doesn’t having kids make it difficult?

Yes, it does.

Open relationships are difficult. In fact, all relationships are difficult. Most good things are difficult.

Successful open relationships require an advanced level of communication skill and a lot of careful scheduling and planning.

Open relationships, like parenting, are a lot of work.

Dads, are you thinking about opening your relationship? Here are some things to consider, based on our work with hundreds of gay male couples.

How Can an Open Relationship Work for Gay Dads?

Successful open relationships have common themes: Both partners feel inclued; nothing is hidden or secret; there’s lots of pre-event discussion to make it happen; and there are limits in terms of what they do and when.

If couples don’t commit to this, the relationship will flounder.

Open relationships that work require couples to spend more time “processing feelings” (as we say in the psychotherapy world) and talking about their relationship than most couples do.

If this kind of conversation makes you squirm, I understand. Most men are not socialized to embrace the sharing of intimate and vulnerable emotions. Open relationships increase the possibility of waking up the more vulnerable parts of ourselves. If you both have not had practice in comforting each other in vulnerable emotional places, then consider developing this skill first before opening the relationship.

And of course, sex is not an easy topic for most people to discuss honestly. When I talk to couples, I ask them: Do you know how to talk about difficult subjects and end up closer at the end of the conversation rather than further apart? If you open your relationship before you have developed this skill, you could be headed for trouble.

Why Would Gay Parents Open the Relationship? 

Why do you want to open the relationship? Over the years, I have seen clients look to open relationships to resolve common sexual problems. This is a red flag that can often end in a crisis.

Be wary of the impulse to give up on improving your current sex life with your partner by turning to an open relationship. Are you open to the possibility that with some imagination your current sex life together could grow even as you explore an open relationship? If so, you’ve greatly increased your chances of open relationship success.

Are you longing for an open relationship because your sex life has fizzled? Before embarking on an open relationship it’s important to understand, and discuss, why the sexual chemistry between you has declined.

Sometimes, couples seek to open the relationship to avoid the difficult conversations about poor sexual communication. Sex between couples often declines over time when they neglect to bring creativity to their sexual routine. If you do anything the same way over and over it gets boring.

Some couples declare they aren’t sexually compatible because they want different things in bed. You two may not agree on everything, but where could you have fun meeting in the middle?

Set Guidelines for Your Open Relationship

Once couples do decide to move forward, it is important to have boundaries, i.e., expectations about what each person can expect from the other. Consider these questions:

  • Can you fully hear and accept your partner’s guidelines even when they are different than your own?
  • Are you able to track yourself and know when you are getting close to violating a guideline?
  • Are you comfortable telling your partner about the limits you need him to respect?
  • Can you enter into an open relationship with a real commitment not to hurt your partner’s feelings?
  • Can you commit to sincere and patient emotional repair if by accident your partner’s feelings are hurt?

If you answered “no” to any of these questions, then maybe you are not ready for an open relationship.

Couples need to talk about what kind of sex is acceptable and what is not OK. These rules will require negotiation. A classic book on this subject is called The Ethical Slut, written by Dossie Easton and Catherine Liszt. Another good book is Opening Up by Tristan Taomorino.

In the Gay Therapy’s Center research involving 517 men we found that the most common couple guidelines are as follows:

  • We only have sex with others outside of our home.
  • We only have sex with others when my primary partner is also in the room.
  • We only have sex with others when we have discussed the potential partner first.

How Gay Dads Can Prepare to Open their Relationship

If this is something that you and your partner are committed to creating, consider giving yourselves six months to prepare. Use this time to practice talking about the tough issues in your relationship: discuss your sexual history together; explore the unresolved hurts that have accumulated over the years; look at any of your unproductive communication cycles, and consider how you emotionally hold, protect, and express love for each other.

When these discussions bring you to a place of feeling closer rather than an unpleasant fight, then you may be ready for a fulfilling open relationship.

What About “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”? 

In a word, don’t.

From what I have seen, it ends in disaster. If you are not talking about your hook-ups then one of the important aspects of your life—your sexuality—is off limits for discussion. Your sexuality becomes a secret. As gay men we have spent plenty of time keeping our sexuality a secret, and for many, it started a lifelong pattern of hiding.

Sexual secrets can be hot, but they also keep us separate and disconnected from people we love.

Then there is the practical issue. You can’t keep a secret from your husband without lying. When your husband asks you, “How was your afternoon?” and you say “Fine” instead of “I had an embarrassing or exciting or weird hook-up,” you are lying.

Hook-ups are not necessarily dangerous for relationships. But lying always is. There is no more lonely feeling in the world than being lied to by someone you love. It can damage your soul for years. Couples counselors like me get an up-front view of this every day. It isn’t pretty.

What If I Want an Open Relationship, and He Doesn’t? 

If you are strongly attached to the idea of an open relationship and your partner isn’t interested, then this could be a deal breaker for you guys.

Some people want kids, some don’t. It’s like that for open relationships. It comes down to core values and interests. Core values rarely change.

However, if you are not deeply attached to the concept of an open relationship, perhaps there may be a path to the sexual experiences you desire. A key issue here is your mindset: can you enter into a process of inquiry with your partner and be okay if his ultimate answer is still “no”?

For many guys, a three-way is the most comfortable way to begin exploring sexual experiences that involve other men. If, over time, your partner starts to show curiosity in a three-way, you’ll be given an important opportunity. You can increase the chances that he’ll continue to be interested in future sexual experimentation if you take good care of him during that experience.

If you can detach from your goal of changing his mind, your “failed” experiment could still create a relationship where your partner deeply feels your love. And that would bring a kind of intimacy you’ve only dreamed about.

Remember Why You Want a Long-Term Partner

Most of us enter into long-term relationships because we want to feel special to another person. We want that experience of being No. 1 in the eyes of our partner. We want the comfort, satisfaction, support and meaning that can come from spending our lives committed to another individual.

Additional sex partners can be perceived as a threat to the safety we long for in our long-term relationships. Some of us may not feel threatened on a conscious level, but I believe most of us do feel it unconsciously. And in some manly circles, it is not cool to admit that.

So if you want the experience of an open relationship that works, you will need to continually tell each other how much you love each other, how deeply committed you are to the partnership, and how glad you are to see him. Lots of hugs and kisses will need to be exchanged.

These principles are easier to say than to do. They take practice and risk, with lots of missteps along the way. Monogamous couples can sometimes get away with avoiding this work and do okay. Not great, but okay. But couples in open relationships won’t do well in an autopilot relationship. To be successful in working through the inevitable hurt feelings, these couples need to lead the way on relationships based on intentional communication.

I’m not for or against open relationships. We all must make that decision for ourselves. I’m for intimate and vulnerable communication, closeness, connection, and honesty in our relationships. That’s what I’m fighting for.

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