R Marc Andrews, LCSW DCSW MS
What do you want your relationship to look like?
Male couples commonly feel intense pressure to maintain a physical connection which is forever fresh, new and exciting because stereotypes tell us that all men are supposed to be innately virile and passionate. Male couples may imagine that other couples are enjoying all kinds of adventurous play in the bedroom however this is often simply not the case. We also often imagine straight couples are happy and active in their intimate lives. Few men who love men have a healthy understanding of the intimate lives of their parents, who are commonly our main model for a heterosexual couple. In my psychotherapy practice I hear many male couples in long-term relationships complain that they haven't been physically intimate with each other for long periods of time - sometimes years. They tell me that they've agreed to have lovers outside their relationship, or they are only intimate with each other when it involves a third man. These partners question if they are really right for each other when it is a struggle to keep passion alive between just the two of them. Many factors can affect a male couple's sexual desire and compatibility over the course of a healthy, loving relationship. A few are: - Decrease in libido due to natural body changes that come with aging. - Change in biochemical and emotional response to one’s partner over the natural course of a relationship. - Natural desire for new partners and experiences. Some of the couples I counsel explain that while their emotional commitments to each other are solid, they long to fulfill a sexual need that lies outside the desires or even capabilities of their primary partner. This tension brings the couple to counseling to explore the issues and identify some options to resolve their dilemma. Other couples come to me because the relationship has been harmed by one or both of them "cheating," breaking their agreement to be monogamous, and they seek help understanding why outside sex was desired. Sometimes "cheating" can be about power dynamics or unresolved emotional conflicts between the partners. In many situations, however, it is simply the result of a natural male desire for sexual variety after the initial excitement that characterizes early relationships predictably wanes. What should these couples do? The model of heterosexual monogamous marriage is sanctioned by society, religion, and the law as the only acceptable type of sexual relationship. As a result most people, gay couples included, have not been exposed to other types of healthy relationships. We are heavily socialized to believe in the ideals of monogamy and marriage. Just remember that the vast majority of gay men come from a home built upon the ideal of monogamous heterosexual marriage. There are, however, many models for a fulfilling and stable romantic partnership. Many couples experiencing sexual issues choose to re-examine their commitment to monogamy. This process can strengthen and maintain their commitment to one another while exploring ways to fulfill each individual's sexual needs. A couple may decide that monogamy feels best to them and focus on reviving passion between the two of them. Some partners may choose to transition into a "polyamorous" or "open" relationship. The most important thing in this process is to be honest with one another and one’s self, and to remember that your relationship is your own and can take whatever form suits both partners best. What do you want your relationship to look like? What are your needs as individuals? How can both of you get your needs met in a way that respects your love for one another? In my next article I will share tools and ideas for exploring these questions and creating a new model for your relationship that works for you both.
Customizing Your Relationship
In a previous article I discussed the sadness and confusion some male couples face when their physical connection with each other fades over time. Some of these couples find that while they are more in love with each other than ever, they are rarely physically intimate. Some men have begun "cheating." meeting their needs outside of their relationship without the consent of their partner. Others have remained monogamous but feel ashamed of desiring a physical connection with someone other than their partner. The question these men are faced with: "How can I meet my needs and still nurture the loving relationship I have created with my partner?" The answer for many couples: "Recognize that you have choices, talk about your options, and make agreements that work for both of you." It's Not Just You The first step to discussing the terms of your relationship in a loving and open-minded way is to realize that what you're doing is not unusual. Research shows that while 75 percent of long term (greater than five years) gay couples are non-monogamous, most shift between monogamy and non-monogamy over the course of their relationships: 42% - Begin monogamous, become increasingly open. 36% - Begin very open, little change over time. 12% - Begin slightly open, become increasingly open. 6% - Begin slightly open, become increasingly monogamous. 4% - Begin monogamous, become slightly open. In addition research assures us that gay couples with exclusive and non-exclusive agreements have comparable levels of closeness, satisfaction, commitment and relationship longevity. Turn Assumptions into Questions Many couples do not discuss their options early in their relationship because they are afraid an open relationship will not develop into a long-term partnership. As a result there are often many assumptions men make about what their partners would be open to and what their relationship can look like. These assumptions must be replaced with questions and open discussion. Are You Ready For This? Before you begin talking about the changes and options available to you, take care to make sure you and your partner are ready to explore the possibilities in a safe, loving and respectful way. Initial questions to ask each other could be: - Do we both want this to be our primary relationship? - Have we established a reserve of good will between us? - Have we worked through any residual feelings of betrayal or resentment we may have ? - Is either of us totally opposed to non-monogamy? - Do we feel equally empowered to make choices about our relationship? - Do we both have friends and support, other than each other, to help with this transition? - Are we good at facing change, confusion, anxiety, jealousy and other uncomfortable feelings? - Do we have a secure loving relationship that could grow even more by discussing our options? When you've answered these questions to your satisfaction, a safe exploration of options can begin. It's Your Relationship After All There is no universal model for relationships. Yours can look however you and your partner want it to. When you sit down together to talk about the possibilities, the following factors can shape the discussion: - ideas about sex learned from your families of origin - your past experiences in relationships - health concerns - personal, political and/or religious beliefs - desire to accommodate your partner - ability to negotiate and accommodate views different from your own - each partner's view of your current sex life - fantasies of what an outside sexual encounter could be like - fears about the negative consequences an open relationship could have You can use your beliefs, concerns and fantasies to help you define the boundaries of what is agreeable to both of you. Here are a few examples of agreements non-monogamous couples have created: - sex with other partners is allowed, but must be kept secret - sex with other partners is allowed, but must be discussed - sex is not permitted with mutual friends - sex is allowed only when one partner is out of town - sex with other partners is not permitted in your home - sex with others is only permitted when both partners invite a third to join them Don't be afraid to set boundaries, they are often very important for non-exclusive partners. Fidelity in an open relationship is often defined by the emotional primacy of your partnership and by respecting and abiding by the rules you have agreed on together. It's a good idea to agree on a time, for example after one month, to evaluate how the agreements are working for each of you and renegotiate if you feel it's needed. The negotiation should be a ongoing process as your relationship changes and grows. This process is different for each couple who chooses to explore the idea of non-monogamy. You may decide to keep your relationship monogamous, or open it up to include other lovers. The beauty of it is that you have the power and the right to customize your relationship and make it really work for you.
Is decreased libido over time in a relationship a problem? Only if you think it is.
Many of the men I see in my therapy practice have concerns about the ways in which their intimate lives have changed over time both in and outside of committed relationships. Men who are in a long-term partnership can find a decrease in desire or what seems to be a loss of compatibility especially upsetting. While some changes in how a couple interacts intimately can be the result of stress or emotional tension between partners, there are also natural changes in the male body as it matures which can decrease or change your experience of desire. We may feel less physically appealing which often leads to sense of decreased social power and a loss of self-esteem. For gay men changes in libido and/or function can cause concerns about the vitality of a relationship. Luckily you can navigate your body’s changes gracefully and with a minimum of heartbreak for you and your partner(s) by recognizing and understanding them and engaging with your changing libido in creative ways. Physical Changes The signs of aging which can be particularly disturbing for gay men are those which affect sexuality. Common changes in sexual function include: - spontaneous erections are less frequent - erections arise less often in response to visual cues or fantasies - requiring more physical stimulation to get hard and to stay hard - erections are generally less firm and don’t stay hard as long - it takes longer to come - ejaculations are less forceful, with less semen ejaculated - it takes longer between ejaculations to become aroused again - some circumcised men report less sensation in the head of their penis Differences in sex drive and how to handle them When one man in a partnership is experiencing a change or decrease in sexual function while the other is still having sex like a 20 year old things can get tense and emotional. Sometimes both partners’ sexuality is shifting, but not in the same ways or at the same pace. When partners’ sex drives don’t match up, whether for a short time or for years, creativity and communication can help to keep the relationship vital and passionate. Talk with your partner about the changes you are experiencing and ask him to do the same. Here are a few suggestions which may help men who have a more active libido than their partner - let your partner know that you need more - masturbate alone and more often - masturbate when you are with your partner - your partner can bring you to orgasm without getting aroused himself - you can have sex outside of the relationship Other ways to improve your sex life with your partner Many couples could use some suggestions for rekindling their sex life after years of partnership. Men who are experiencing the sexual effects of aging may find that putting some effort towards trying new things or looking at sex in a new way can revitalize their sexual connection. Schedule time each week for sex and sex discussion. Most couples - gay and straight - insist they shouldn’t have to plan for sex, which should come naturally and spontaneously the way it did in the beginning of their relationship. But after the first five years, you must make time for it. Planning can help you anticipate being together, making the coming experience more exciting. Do anything except have sex. Perhaps the funniest suggestion I have for couples who are experiencing a low in their sex lives. After a long drought in a relationship, engaging in sex directly may be too tall an order. If so, give each other massages. Take a bath or shower together, lie naked beside each other, kiss, rub strawberries on each others lips and feed each other. But whatever you do, don’t have sex! If you both honestly decide to, fine - but your goal should be to eliminate any pressure to perform. Focus on some detail(s) you find attractive about your partner. Is your partner not quite as attractive as when you first got together? He’s put on some pounds, lost some hair, and doesn’t seem as hot to you now? Then focus on what you do like about him - his genitals, hair, feet, hands? The way he kisses? Focus on the aspect of him that most arouses you. Fantasize about some hot experience you had in the past. It can be an experience and/or fantasy with your current partner, or with someone else. Popular media claims that not being fully present with a partner during sex is destructive and to fantasize about anyone else is like cheating. If that’s the only way you and your partner can enjoy sex, that might be an issue. But doing this every so often can spark sexual excitement in you both. Role-play. Have you and your partner ever discussed your deepest, darkest sexual secrets? Maybe one or both of you like to be spanked? Maybe humiliating someone sexually turns you one? Perhaps you’ve never told him of your fetish of licking his feet or armpit? Fantasy role-play can help you escape daily living and forget about your busy lives, and perhaps even problems in your relationship. Remember, you should only do this when you feel good about each other. The goal is to connect, not disconnect. Open up. Many gay couples open their relationships after five to seven years together. In fact, studies show that 75% of gay male couples have non-monogamous relationships. However, these couples communicate and have agreements with each other so that both know that neither is cheating or doing anything in secret. This frank openness helps partners reactivate sexual desire in one another. Sex is only one part of a fulfilling life and partnership As we mature, other areas of life such as friendships, our careers and our hobbies take on more meaning than physical attractiveness. Remember that sex is not the foundation of a relationship. As a relationship matures the passion may decrease while intimacy and trust grow. If you follow some of my suggestions, or create your own relationship renewal plan, you might not have to walk away from the relationship you’ve always wanted!
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