After studying 566 gay male couples over a three year period, Colleen Hoff of San Francisco State University discovered that roughly fifty percent of gay male couples choose to be non-monogamous. Blake Spears and Lanz Lowen are a great example of how this works. Spears and Lowen started dating in their mid-twenties with the agreement that they will keep their relationship open. Thirty-four years later the couple is still going strong. In fact, this duo credits their relationship success in part to their decision to keep their relationship open.
Lowen and Spears have taken their interest in non-monogomy a step further by studying 86 non-monogamous, long-term (8+ years) gay male couples. Their research reveals that forty percent of the 86 couples started out with agreements to be open and have maintained this status, while the remaining sixty percent of the couples took an average of 6.5 years to open their relationship. The average length of relationship for the 86 couples in this study is 16.2 years.
While I'm not interested in promoting or discouraging open relationships, I do find it fascinating to consider what makes this arrangement work for so many gay men. Of the 86 couples in the Spears/Lowen research, only one couple is raising young children. This does not surprise me. Raising children is a time and energy consuming experience that will unlikely leave much room for extra play. In an email exchange with Hoff, she explained to me that while they did collect data on parenthood for the couples in their study, they did not separate that data out to examine the relationship between monogamy and parenthood.
I also wonder, does the open option work better for men than for women? Is this really an issue that is rooted in sexual orientation, or one rooted in gender? Traditionally men are thought to be better at separating sex from emotion, which is helpful in an open arrangement. As Spears and Lowen point out on their website:
We found many couples had a somewhat compartmentalized perspective and approach to outside sex. "It's just sex" - a release without meaning, quite separate from the relationship.
The statistics on fidelity among men and women suggests that monogamy is a struggle for heterosexuals too. According to Peggy Vaughan, author of The Monogamy Myth, "Conservative estimates are that 60 percent of men and 40 percent of women will have an extramarital affair." That's a whole lot of cheating. To clarify, infidelity is deceptive non-monogamy, but an open relationship is non-monogamy that occurs with the consent and knowledge of both partners.
Dan Savage, chimed in on the topic recently during a guest appearance on The Joy Behar show, saying:
I believe men can be monogamous. But I believe that it's a difficult struggle. You know, when you're in love with someone and you make a monogamous commitment, it's not that you don't want to sleep with other people; it's that you refrain from sleeping with other people.
The culture says if there is love there is no desire for others and that makes people--essentially puts them at war with their own instincts and leads to lies and deceit because you're lying and deceiving yourself.
In my own practice, having worked with more than 1,000 lesbians over the last decade, I would be very surprised to discover that lesbians choose non-monogomy at a rate of fifty-percent. While my sample of gay male couples is much smaller, it is large enough to support the notion that fifty percent of gay male couples open their relationship to outside "play" or sexual activity.
Some advocates of gay marriage are discouraged by findings such as Hoff's and Lowen/Spears's. I anticipate that norm-seeking gays and lesbians will post about this topic adamantly defending the fifty percent of us who choose monogamy. The inference is that monogamy is better. Seems to me that most people have their hands full just trying to figure out their own relationships. Maybe if we all focused a little more on how to make our own relationships work, and less about how other's are going about it, we would all end up with more meaningful and satisfying relationships.
As a partnered lesbian, in a long-term (10+), monogamous relationship I enjoy the simplicity, comfort, and predictability of our relationship. As co-parents, it is also important to us to prioritize time with our sons and time as a family. By the time I've gone to work, tended to our homestead, done homework with my sons, spent time with them, prepared dinner, taken a family walk, caught up with my partner and how her day has gone, read to and tucked the boys into bed, I can't imagine fitting in to my life an outside liaison or two. This is what works for us. That doesn't mean it will work for or be fulfilling for everyone. That doesn't mean that our way is the best way. Our way is simply the best way we've discovered for us.
What works best for you? At the end of the day that's all that matters.