BY Ari Karpel
July 07 2011 4:00 AM ET
Divulging the bounds of an unconventional relationship can be akin to coming out of the closet. Megan and Colin don’t tell their friends because, she says, “They wouldn’t understand.” Word about one of her dalliances got out when the girlfriend of a man she’d been with came upon an incriminating email. “She then sent an email to his friends and family accusing him of sleeping with me—which was true,” recalls Megan, “but not anything anybody knew, and not when she and he were together.” One of Megan’s friends who received the email could not fathom the accusation. “She said to me, ‘I know you would never do this, you would never cheat on him, you’re not that kind of person, you two are perfect together.’ ” Megan tried to explain that there might be scenarios in which what she did is OK, but to no avail: “She doesn’t see cheating or nonmonogamy as anything other than this horrible thing that a couple can never recover from.”
Even many gay male couples, who Savage describes as having “perfected nonmonogamy,” fear disclosing that their relationship is anything but one-on-one. Gary (not his real name) is out in every area of his life, and his family is completely supportive. “But I don’t tell my family, even my brother—who I’m incredibly close with—that I have sex outside of the relationship with Ben,” his partner of 14 years, he says. “I have never said that to him.”
Gary and Ben, who live in Los Angeles, won’t reveal their real names because Ben has a high-profile career in television. “We have too much to lose,” Gary says. “But we also don’t want people passing judgment on us.” Which is why they don’t even tell most of their friends.
Sex therapist Timaree Schmit says she can understand gay couples’ desire to conform—at least outwardly—to the kind of conventional relationship that society deems “deserving” of marriage rights. “It’s been a big part of campaigning for marriage equality to repeatedly prove the ‘normalcy’ and stability of same-sex couples. People may feel pressure to make their relationship fit into a more acceptable box.”
Blake Spears and Lanz Lowen recently completed The Couples Study (TheCouplesStudy.com), an examination of nonmonogamy among 86 gay couples. A long-term gay couple themselves (36 years), they had found that little research had been conducted on how gay men navigate this terrain, so they embarked on an admittedly limited and self-selective study (they found many long-term couples who fit the bill, but relatively few who were willing to participate), but one that gives a view of the diversity of experiences. In fact, the thing they found most striking is that while nonmonogamy seems to be fairly pervasive among gay couples (though they did not hear from the many monogamous pairs), there is surprisingly little support within the gay population for such relationships.
Spears and Lowen were also surprised to discover such a wide range of kinds of nonmonogamy. “We thought we might find some models that we could slot some couples into,” says Spears, “but people had such a wide variety of approaches to nonmonogamy. And I think it spoke to the amount of creativity in the gay community.” They did identify some key characteristics and outlined the various ways in which couples live out their agreements, including having sex beyond the couple (12% do so together; 56% do it both together and separately; 32% play only independently — stats that seem to shift as relationships evolve), degrees of talking about their experiences together (40% had full disclosure; 40% had varying degrees of it; 20% took a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach, much like Megan and Colin), and kinds of outside sexual contact (34% will only have no-strings, anonymous encounters; 40% have friends with benefits; and some couples in both the aforementioned categories have differing preferences, meaning one likes it anonymous and the partner likes to have sex with friends). Seventy-five percent of the study’s participants put some rules on what constitutes their commitment and what will violate it.
Forty-two percent of the study’s participants agreed to open up within the first three months of their relationship, while 20% agreed on nonmonogamy only after a period of turmoil in which one partner was caught having cheated.