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In defense of gay monogamy

In defense of gay monogamy

In defense of gay monogamy
PeopleImages.com/Yuri A via Shutterstock

In a time when polyamory is trending, Out's Last Call columnist asked gay couples about the virtues of exclusive pairings.

Sometime after college, during a tough breakup, I found the word “nonmonogamous” in an article. I never found an easy word for my sexuality — I’m somewhere between gay, pansexual, and fluid — so it was odd to feel seen by a label for the first time. That’s why language matters.

I knew this label was me, and I knew I had to be honest with myself. I could not do monogamy. Its attempts were too painful. Monogamy made me feel broken, incapable, maligned. I failed those I loved. Monogamy is considered the standard form of love, so it should be easy, right? If it’s natural human behavior, it should come easily.

It doesn’t. Experts like Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá — coauthors of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality — have proven just how hard monogamy is for humans and how little we’ve truly practiced it. Most animals are not monogamous. Our closest animal relatives, chimps and bonobos, are so sexually libertine that they rival gay men at Folsom. This is a reality I stressed in my past writings — defensively, unkindly, to say, “This is why it doesn’t work, idiots!”

It seems the culture changed with me: Nonmonogamous and polyamorous folks are everywhere now. They were always among queers as the world’s vanguard of nontraditional relationships. Now the heteros are catching up. Films like Challengers signal a needle shift on how straight people see “alternative” dating: as a novelty. But in the juiciness of three-way trysts onscreen, people will find themselves as I did. The web is filled with hot takes on how Gen Z is dating (and not) and what relationship styles are trending.

Honestly, I hate it. Maybe I contributed to this. I would never want a queer person to feel left out. Besides, relationships are not trends. They are work. They are tough choices and hard lessons, and they are the best part of life.

So now feels like a good time to listen to monogamous gay men — because they do feel like a rarity now. I don’t know how monogamous gays do it. So I asked.

Shawn and John live in Wisconsin and have been together for a year. Shawn’s previous monogamous relationship lasted 14 years. Among other gay men, “there is an assumption that I am interested in sex with guys who aren’t my boyfriend,” Shawn said.

But the commitment he made to his boyfriend is “a core part of my person, so when someone makes an advance on me despite this, it’s disrespectful. This happens often and it is a reason why I don’t have a large gay friend base.”

“I want the gay community to know that I am not against open, poly, or nonmonogamous relationships,” he said. “I have just decided the monogamous style is best for me.” But “on the flip side, I have been judged a lot for not being more open.”

That tension — between a broader gay populace embracing free love and the monogamous men who feel like outliers — was palpable in messages with Jimmy and Bobby, ages 42 and 50, who live in Atlanta.

Jimmy defines monogamy as “a commitment to one person emotionally, romantically, and sexually.” They’ve been together 10 years and married eight. They were monogamous from day one.

“My other serious relationship was with a couple, for about a year and a half,” Jimmy said. “I guess it was polyamorous but still monogamous.” He then clarified something crucial: Poly relationships (involving more than two people) can and often are sexually monogamous.

He said the hardest part about monogamy is finding other practitioners. “A lot of gay men aren’t interested in it, and that’s OK. It means you have to be patient until you find someone on the same page. Learning to be happy while single was one of the best things I did for myself.”

Bobby offered this advice to monogamous gay men who are looking: “Don’t be nonmonogamous, poly, or open if that’s not what you feel or because everyone else is. That said, allow yourself to explore different relationship setups. I tried some before this one.” His sentiment echoed Jimmy’s: “Love should feel easy. Finding it is the hard part.”

The couple with the most years together — over 16 — was Paul and Dave, ages 50 and 42. Paul is from Syracuse, N.Y., and Dave is from Brussels, Belgium — but was raised in Italy, Hong Kong, and London. Today, they live in Savannah, Ga.

They offered a different definition of monogamy: “We sometimes visit a sex club or gay campground, and that will often lead to group sex or sex with a third,” Paul said. “But we have strict rules. We only play together, safely and coherently, and only when we both feel like it.” They feel monogamy shouldn’t refer to sex when it “really refers to love and trust.”

“I love my husband enough to let him experience things he wants that I can’t give alone,” Paul said.

I pointed out that his relationship was what Dan Savage calls “monogamish,” existing on a spectrum between fully monogamous and open. But he countered: “There is a different definition of ‘relationship’ for every relationship. It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks about the bond you’ve made or what they call it.” His words were illuminating: Monogamy is not a monolithic approach.

Most couples I spoke with did not share their occupations, and most wanted their names changed. Lucas Keller did neither. Keller is the founder and president of Milk & Honey, a music and sports management company. Eye the Billboard Hot 100 any week and you’ll likely find a song written or produced by a Milk & Honey client — from Benny Benassi and David Guetta to Dua Lipa and Doja Cat.

Keller is a gay man in Los Angeles — not a monogamous-leaning city, or so I remember from my years there — yet he is happily cuffed. “I’m 40 and my boyfriend is 28,” Keller says with a laugh, “so there’s an age difference too. I’ve known him eight years and we’ve been dating for three.”

How does he do it? “In business, I have clients who have been with me a long time, some over 15 years. I tell myself I have to make a new commitment to them every year. I have to make them feel they’re still a cornerstone of the business. I use the same approach in relationships. Each year is a new commitment, and the man I’m with needs to feel that. You have to do your part to make someone feel valued, over and over.”

Keller said his parents had a long, happy marriage and they were role models. His partner came to monogamy from a different place. “He lost his parents at a young age and was in the foster care system. He did not grow up with a stable home, so now he wants a family like the one he never had.”

Keller talked about the wait — the struggle common to monogamous gay men hoping to find one another. “Lots of people settle for those who don’t match their values just for the sake of having companionship, or because they’re lonely, or because they are really attracted to someone,” Keller said. “Don’t do that.”

What did he think of the evidence that monogamy is not innate human behavior? “I was once at a barbecue where friends brought their dogs…the dogs met and just started humping each other. That was the first time I thought that maybe monogamy is something we created.”

Finally, I felt it was time to talk to a sex therapist — a gay one. Jon Standish (MS, LPC, CST) works in Atlanta, and most of his clients are cisgender men and young couples of various leanings. “Regardless of their sexuality, I see couples coming out of infidelity, trying to make open relationships work, working through nonmonogamy, and in particular, many straight couples trying nonmonogamy for the first time,” he said.

I asked if there were any shared features among those who were monogamous versus nonmonogamous — socioeconomic status, perhaps. There were none: Couples across the spectrum were sifting through new words and labels. As I did. As I still am.

I asked how he helps couples do monogamy. “First, I ask why they want to be monogamous,” he said. The answers he looks for involve fear: “fear their partner will find someone else, fear of cheating, even fear of their own jealousy.” A healthy monogamous relationship can still happen, but that fear must be addressed, he said. By asking why, they can be more secure in their relationship.

One must understand why relationships (all kinds) fail, Standish said. “Many people think they’re not enough or are afraid of feeling like they’re not enough.… Most couples naturally fall out of compatibility for many reasons, which often have little to do with monogamy or nonmonogamy. And in that case, you are going to separate, or should, and that’s true regardless of what kind of relationship you have.”

Standish said problems also arise for those whose desires conflict. “People who place high value on sex need to sincerely ask themselves if those needs can and will be met in the monogamous relationship they want. Many people have conflicting needs here, so they really need to ask the question. If sex is a high value for you, and that sex will likely not be fully satisfied in a monogamous relationship, you probably need to modify your relationship preferences, not your sex preferences.”

Standish agrees that nonmonogamy, and media about it, is everywhere now — and monogamous folks should pay attention. “The literature being made for, say, polyamorous couples right now is useful for two-person and monogamous couples too, since it’s mostly about managing jealousy, healthy communication, anxiety, fear of loss…” he said. “When people hear discussions aimed at nonmonogamous couples, they shut down and think it doesn’t apply to them. But listen to these. They can help your monogamous relationship be better.”

The other way around was true too. After talking to these brilliant men, I was still not in their monogamous camp — but I saw how all of us at some point felt inadequate and out of sync with our community.

In that feeling, that conflict, all of us had found a course through — guideposts to love that worked for us. There is no great divide, no need to judge, and certainly no need to change someone else, and that is something I must remember going forward. People date differently, and that’s beautiful.

Alexander Cheves is a writer, sex educator, and author of My Love Is a Beast: Confessions from Unbound Edition Press. @badalexcheves

This article is part of Out's July/August issue, which hits newsstands on July 2. Support queer media and subscribe— or download the issue through Apple News, Zinio, Nook, or PressReader starting June 18.

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