'Monogamish': Two Is Company, but Is Three Really a Crowd?

By expanding our understanding of how a couple can operate together, and maybe throwing away that old saying, "two's company, but three's a crowd," maybe we can actually make ourselves happier and have longer, healthier relationships, even if they are "monogamish."
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When I think about dating and relationships, especially when talking with friends, I tend to come to the same conclusion: Monogamy isn't possible. I feel that in the gay world, no matter how committed a couple appears to be, or how beautiful their life together looks, or even how perfect they seem, there always seems to be the threat of infidelity lurking in the background. Countless dinner parties, nights at bars, Pride events and everything in between suggest one thing to me, over and over again: Most men don't really seem interested in sticking with just one person.

I used to resent this aspect of "the gay lifestyle," as some call it. Growing up I was bombarded with images of gay men as hypersexual and promiscuous. From Will & Grace, with Jack's countless partners, to Queer as Folk, with Brian's countless partners, to, well, you get the point, the media constantly portrayed gay men as always looking for the next great f*ck. I found myself really disheartened by this image, because what I wanted for myself was the traditional life -- one marriage for life, with some kids -- not a life in which I'm constantly in clubs and in the beds of men whose names I don't know.

The other day I was at brunch with a group of friends, and the topic of monogamy came up after one friend revealed that he is having some difficulties with his partner, who recently cheated. The older gay men around the table began to laugh and suggested that he just wait. They told him that once he gets older, he will understand that we men generally can't be monogamous. They weren't arguing that it isn't possible, because there are those rare birds who never cheat in any way, but that monogamy may be too much to ask of anyone, and that everyone will have moments of lust or desire, and that engaging in sexual activities outside the relationship doesn't mean that you love your partner any less.

So is monogamy too difficult, or are my friends just a little promiscuous? Let's look at some data.

Dr. Jeffrey T. Parsons, director of Hunter College's Center for HIV Educational Studies and Training (CHEST), worked with a team of researchers to investigate a relatively unexplored area of social research: monogamy and commitment among gay and bisexual men. After surveying over 800 gay and bisexual men in the New York City area, Dr. Parsons and his team found that "the diversity in types of non-monogamous relationships was interesting.... Typically gay men have been categorized as monogamous or not, and our data show that it is not so black and white." CHEST explains on its website:

CHEST's survey indicated that about 60% were single. Of those partnered, about 58% were in monogamous relationships. Of those that were non-monogamous, 53% were in open relationships, and 47% were in "monogamish" relationships (i.e., couples that have sex with others as a couple such as "threeways" or group sex).

These findings are not unique, and New York City's gay and bi men aren't the only ones engaging in these behaviors. In 2010 researchers at San Francisco State University carried out a similar study that revealed just how common open relationships are among partnered gay men and lesbians in the Bay Area. As The New York Times reported, "The Gay Couples Study ... followed 556 male couples for three years -- about 50 percent of those surveyed have sex outside their relationships, with the knowledge and approval of their partners." That figure is remarkably similar to what CHEST found.

Now, I know what you are thinking: These can't possibly be happy, healthy relationships, right? Well, here's what CHEST's survey found:

Men in fully monogamous partnerships showed significantly less illicit drug use and significantly reduced sexual health risk when compared to all other groups of men (single, open, and "monogamish"), suggesting a benefit to monogamy. But CHEST's findings also indicated that non-monogamous partnerships provide other types of benefits to gay and bisexual men. Men in "monogamish" relationships indicated lower rates of depression and higher life satisfaction when compared to single gay men.

Dr. Parsons added, "Our findings suggest that certain types of non-monogamous relationships -- especially 'monogamish' ones -- are actually beneficial to gay men, contrary to assumptions that monogamous relationships are always somehow inherently better."

So being in a "monogamish" relationship seems to mean that you may do more illicit drugs and take more sexual health risks, but you may actually be happier as a person. Easy enough, right? Not really. It's a little more complicated. Couples in "monogamish" relationships usually don't just spout out one day, "Honey, just go out, have fun and do whatever you like!" There is a lot boundary setting and a lot more talking before these types of relationships happen and are successful.

The Advocate recently put together a great guide to nonmonogamy that lists some basic things to think through before opening up a relationship: the whos, whats, whens and wheres. I think this guide would be a great starting point for any couple thinking about opening the doors of their relationship.

Being "monogamish" works, it seems, but is this arrangement only for LGBTQ folks? Dan Savage thinks not, and he is working to include heterosexual folks in this conversation. Earlier this year he dedicated a spot in his popular column, Savage Love, to "monogamish" heterosexual couples who wanted to tell their success stories. There are rumors that he's even writing a book on the subject. In Mark Oppenheimer's New York Times Magazine piece "Married, With Infidelities," Savage said:

I acknowledge the advantages of monogamy when it comes to sexual safety, infections, emotional safety, paternity assurances. But people in monogamous relationships have to be willing to meet me a quarter of the way and acknowledge the drawbacks of monogamy around boredom, despair, lack of variety, sexual death and being taken for granted.

I agree with Savage: Monogamous folks need to recognize how tough it is to be with just one person forever.

Other great arguments against monogamy have been put forward. For example, men may be incapable of fidelity because we have a biological imperative to reproduce with as many partners as possible to ensure the survival of our genes. And Joe Quirk, author of the bestselling relationship book It's Not You, It's Biology, told The New York Times that "[i]n 1900, the average life span for a U.S. citizen was 47. Now we're living so much longer, 'until death do us part' is twice as challenging."

All this can be, and probably is, worrisome to marriage equality advocates as they fight for access to the traditional options that heterosexual folks enjoy. But should we see "monogamish" relationships as a threat to marriage? I think not. If people are actually happier when they're able to openly and frankly discuss their desires, their passions and what they need from each other, even if that means another partner a few nights a month, wouldn't that help marriages remain strong? It's often said that half of all marriages end in divorce, so the sanctity of marriage is being threatened even without help from the gays. I would argue that marriage is in great need of an intervention or, at the very least, a slight readjustment of what we expect from it, because clearly the way society approaches it now is not working. By expanding our understanding of how a couple can operate together, and maybe throwing away that old saying, "two's company, but three's a crowd," maybe we can actually make ourselves happier and have longer, healthier relationships, even if they are "monogamish."

As for my friend's relationships problems, those will probably continue as he and his partner try to figure out what's next and ask themselves questions like, "Do we want to open up the relationship?" and, "Can we forgive and forget this one instance?" and, "Does cheating mean we aren't in love?" Really, these are questions that everyone should ask his partner. And we shouldn't worry if our partner comes to us with these questions; rather, we should worry about how we both answer them. The answers to these questions may challenge our relationships and potentially change them; they might make some of us realize that our relationship is not as good as it could be. But these questions force us to learn new things about ourselves. And for some of us, the answers may have us realizing that in the end, all those Disney movies may be wrong. Prince Charming may not be charming forever, and we may find ourselves waking up one day wanting to invite Aladdin or Prince Eric or Prince Phillip to join us in our bed, if only a few times a month. And if our relationship is not monogamous but more "monogamish," we can still be happy. Indeed, we may find that monogamy isn't what we wanted all along.

The results of the CHEST study "Alternatives to Monogamy Among Gay Male Couples in a Community Survey: Implications for Mental Health and Sexual Risk," by Jeffrey T. Parsons, Tyrel J. Starks, Steve DuBois, Christian Grov and Sarit Golub, will be published in this February's issue of Archives of Sexual Behavior.

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