Although I’m a gay male therapist who’s worked with gay clients for 30 years, I don’t purport to know everything there is to know about sex among gay men any more than a straight therapist knows everything about heterosexual sex. But I do have a certain level of professional experience around a particular area of interest among my friends and colleagues—open relationships, or arrangements in which both partners agree to allow each other to have sex with people outside the primary relationship.
For gay men, open relationships aren’t unusual, but the arrangements vary. Some couples agree only to three-ways with both partners present. Other couples agree they can have sex with other people without the partner being present. Some agree to only a one-time hookup with another person, and others allow repeated hookups. But just because something is common doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone.
When a couple in a troubled relationship considers opening up the relationship as a way to fix their problems, an alarm sounds for me, and I often discourage them from doing so. But even for healthy couples, opening up a relationship in a way that’s not destructive is hard work and requires a great deal of communication around what is and isn’t acceptable. Thus, I invite my clients interested in taking this leap to take part in a contractual negotiation in which they agree to make the primary relationship the priority. They talk out the terms and limitations of the open relationship, attempt to ascertain if the relationship is solid enough to be opened up, consent to safer sex guidelines outside the relationship, think about what to share and what to keep private, and agree to try the arrangement for a specified period of time and then revisit it.
Yet even with these guidelines established, helping couples navigate this territory is a challenge. Often, this new freedom brings unexpected jealousy, communication problems, resentment, and the fear that one partner may fall in love, especially when the excitement of a onetime sexual encounter may be off the charts when compared to the familiar intimacy of a long-term relationship.
Then there’s the therapist’s own feelings in all of this. Not every therapist is willing to consider the option of an open relationship with clients; while some therapists, at the other end of the spectrum, follow theories that support open relationships, no matter what the specific circumstances are. Most of the therapists I know fall somewhere in the middle. They want to be supportive and realistic—and they have a lot of uncertainty when it comes to open relationships. In fact, you, the reader, might be noting how the topic makes you feel as you read about open relationships. A little tense? Anxious?
Here’s what I’ve concluded after several decades of doing this work: rather than me, it’s the couple sitting before me who must decide what’s right or wrong for them. But as therapists, we can help couples explore the landscape. Are both partners secure enough to make it work? How will they communicate vulnerabilities and jealousy? What are their fantasies are about how this scenario will be played out? How does each imagine the other will behave?
Since many couples tend to idealize the possibilities or be vague about the challenges, I ask an array of questions to help them get a reality check before jumping in. How will this affect their sexual life with each other? How will they be able to maintain their current relationship as the primary one? As other partners enter their lives, will the lines become too blurry? What if they develop romantic feeling toward somebody else? Is opening up a relationship truly an exploration or simply a cover-up for what’s broken in the couple’s bond with each other?
For John and Barry, a committed couple whose relationship was centered on mutual respect and care, opening up their relationship was a process of learning to be open on many different levels—for them and for me.
A Surprise Announcement
I’d been working with Barry in individual therapy for just over a year while his partner, John, with whom he’d been living for 12 years, had been seeing a separate therapist. Barry, in his late 40’s, had a high-level job in the medical sales industry, but often struggled with issues around self-esteem and self-consciousness. One day, after 45 minutes of talking about work issues, he hit me with a classic case of doorknob therapy: “There’s one more thing I want to tell you,” he said as the session was ending. “John and I have had a change in our monogamy status.”
Barry and John enjoyed an easygoing connection, living more as best friends than passionate partners. They shared a love of good food and theater and were always kind and respectful to each other, rarely lapsing into conflict. In fact, Barry and I had been working on getting him to feel a greater sense of inner security so that he could feel more comfortable bringing up potentially hurtful issues with John, including their somewhat mediocre sex life. The decision to open up their relationship, however, came as a complete surprise to me. We’d never even discussed it as a possibility, and I could see that Barry was nervous telling me about it, especially since it was after the fact.
With his eyes dropped to the floor and his shoulders rounded, it almost seemed as if he was waiting for me to scold him. Knowing that, like many gay men his age, he carried some deep childhood wounds having to do with disappointing his disapproving father, I wasn’t about to chide him for this decision. Instead, I wanted to listen for the undercurrents that had driven it. I wanted to explore what he and John were really seeking in taking this route so I could encourage thoughtful action and active insight as they moved forward. But we were at the end of our time, so I put him at ease by laughing and said, “There’s so much to discuss here, let’s lead with this next week, shall we?”
The following week, Barry began with the story of how they’d reached their decision. “We were at a bar, flirting with a guy,” he told me, “and the guy suggested that we all hook up together. John and I declined, but on the way home we started talking about how easy and comfortable we both felt with him.” Usually buttoned-up, today Barry seemed excited as he spoke. “The next day, we downloaded Scruff together, a hookup app for gay men, and held hands while we went through the profiles. We both decided on this one guy and met with up him that night. We just chatted, all three of us, got to know each other a little, and then decided to have sex. It was easy and fun.”
At this point, though Barry remained excited, I could see him start to fidget and become a bit anxious as he waited for my response, perhaps imagining my concern that opening up a relationship might not be such a good idea. But I knew that quick judgment wouldn’t be a productive intervention, so I paused and tuned in instead of being reactive. “How did it go for each of you?” I asked. “Were you both comfortable? Will you do this again? Do you want to have a third all the time, or will you have sex on your own with other guys?” I asked these questions deliberately and slowly, so Barry could really hear them and understand that I was honestly interested and that my desire was to support him in this exploration. After all, I knew this man, and I knew that the decision to open his relationship with his partner was an indication of interest in growth and development, even if I felt surprised to hear about it so suddenly.
It turns out that Barry and John had already been working on establishing some ground rules: three-ways only, sharing a profile on Scruff that clearly specifies that they’re a couple looking for a third, and hooking up with a guy only when they both were in agreement. I could feel some of the effect of the work Barry had done in therapy, and was proud of the way he communicated these decisions to me with confidence, as well as the thoughtful way he and John seemed to be working it out between them.
In turn, it was simple for me to share my observations about open arrangements in general. “A lot of couples enjoy the excitement early on,” I offered, “but it can lead to difficulties. Usually I ask folks going down this path to do what you and John seem to have done: consider keeping their relationship primary, be really honest with yourselves about what you’re comfortable and not comfortable with, and set guidelines based on this. For you, this means only engaging in three-ways together. Also, it’s important that you agree that hooking up is for fun, as opposed to something that’s used as a weapon if there’s conflict between the two of you.” He took a deep breath as I said this, and he responded quietly that John’s therapist had made similar points.
The next time Barry came in, he was beaming. He and John were enjoying the excitement of meeting new guys—and more importantly for him, they were now having better and more frequent sex with each other. They’d also begun to talk to each other in a way they hadn’t before, about all sort of things, including what they wanted for themselves and together. It seemed like a sudden growth spurt, actualizing all we’d talked about over the past year regarding the need for deeper communication between them. I continued to be cautious, however, asking questions and encouraging him to track his own ups and downs and to share our conversations with John.
As the weeks passed, Barry and John decided to stretch the boundaries of the relationship even further and allow each other to hook up with guys alone. In other circumstances, I’d have been wary of this decision, wondering whether one or both partners were falling into a lifestyle that might eventually overwhelm them. But since John and Barry had already proved their ability to stay connected, with mutual respect, even as they navigated the new territory, I saw my role as a guide for Barry to help him keep his eyes open, take responsibility for his actions, and stay honest with himself.
“How do you know when it’s okay to go off alone to hook up?” I asked.
“It’s only okay if we talk about it in advance,” he responded.
“How will you feel when you want to hook up with someone and John isn’t comfortable with that?” I pressed.
“Oh, I’ll be fine with that,” Barry said.
Given how much he was enjoying his newfound freedom, I wondered how fine he’d really be. “What about if you’re unsure about John’s safety with the guy he’s hooking up with?” I continued.
“We agreed to text when we arrive,” he explained, “and we give each other the exact address where we’ll be.”
I was glad to hear that they were building in a safety mechanism for situations that were unfamiliar, and I was happy that the couple seemed to be flourishing under this new arrangement.
Barry came to his next appointment looking distressed. “John’s been complaining about feeling invisible and insecure,” he said. “He tells me I’m getting carried away.”
I was glad we’d touched on this possibility already. “Well, what do you think? Is he right?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I feel awful. I’ve been having so much fun, but of course I’ll stop if he wants me to.”
I knew that for the first time in his adult life, Barry’s old feelings of inadequacy were becoming less constricting, being replaced by new feelings of personal strength and confidence. An emotional space had opened in him. Finally, the world was noticing him, and he liked it. But now John wanted to take it all away from him. When I pointed this out, his face lit up a bit. “You’re right,” he exclaimed. “It feels like a loss to have to stop doing this.”
“It must feel a bit like a choice between your commitment to John and your blossoming sense of self,” I said. “Will you stop, and will it really be okay?”
After a long pause, he answered, “Yes.”
I was impressed that Barry was willing to honor John’s feelings, but it was also important that his growth be recognized. So I told him that I thought the confidence, boldness, and energy he’d begun to tap into could continue to enrich his relationship with John and other interactions, and that we’d work on that. He left with a much lighter step. My idea was to celebrate both what he’d gained and how he’d chosen to proceed.
Looking back, I learned something about the sometimes hidden and unexpected possibilities of moving to an open relationship. Barry and John were ultimately able to forge a stronger and more open relationship—with each other. They were able to risk sharing their fears and hopes, no longer so worried that the relationship was too fragile—or that they were—to withstand honesty. Therapy was a gentle guide for Barry, keeping him on course and letting him know he’d have a place to return to.
Even in our highly sexualized society, alternative arrangements such as open relationships may seem alien and intimidating to many people, but as therapists, our challenge is to be less prudish and frightened by potentially negative outcomes. Often, what’s risky about an open relationship is risky about any relationship: the potential for lying, hiding, betrayal, disrespect. Thus, my focus is on those issues and the emotional context in which decisions are made. Therapists sometimes get caught in old images of what a relationship should be, confusing what’s healthy with what’s familiar. Most now accept that a loving couple can be made up of two men or two women, but many still maintain a traditional view that every committed couple needs to be exclusive.
In general, I’ve found that partners who are basically healthy as individuals and stable as a couple may benefit from an open relationship, while for couples struggling with deep personal issues and major challenges in their relationship, the decision to enter an open relationship isn’t well advised. Exploring the freedom of an open relationship offered Barry opportunities to grow that shouldn’t be underestimated or ignored.
By Mark Kaupp
Rick Miller’s case presentation offers a deep understanding of the dynamics, challenges, possible pitfalls, and excitement that couples—same-sex or otherwise—face when venturing into opening their relationship up sexually to other partners. I echo his assertion that the therapist should hear an alarm bell when couples in an insecure partnership want to open up their relationship to fix problems. And he’s right on target when he writes about the need to keep the primary relationship the priority, as well as the importance of establishing safer-sex guidelines.
Where I would diverge from Miller’s work would be recommending a change in the configuration of the therapy from individual work to couples therapy. Coming from an Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy approach, I view maintaining the couple’s secure attachment to each other as the primary therapeutic goal. The decision Barry and John face in opening up their relationship is obviously a couples issue and should be treated as such. Rather than working with Barry individually on issues around self-esteem and self-consciousness, I’d use their relationship as a couple to increase their view of self and others.
There aren’t many interactions between human beings that incite attachment bonding more powerfully than sex—which means, as Miller points out, that insecurities, jealousies, self-doubts, and fears are likely to come up, no matter what. Therefore, getting both partners in the same room at the same time is of paramount importance if a therapist wants to support their relational bond. After all, only with a strong, safe, and secure sense of mattering to one another can opening up a relationship sexually to others stand a chance at being successful.
In working with clients like Barry and John, facilitating vulnerable conversations about the relationship security is more important than making contracts or agreements about what is and isn’t acceptable. There are too many possible scenarios to account for. Instead, therapists should focus on enhancing the couple’s bond with each other so they can turn to one another when inevitable insecurities come up. In other words, the therapist should help couples develop the ability to use their relationship as their primary source of comfort from distress.
Attachment literature and research clearly show that when couples feel securely attached to one another, they’re more flexible and less critical and defensive, have more sex, and solve problems easier. And if they’re venturing into the world of open relationships, they’re going to need the best tools possible: each other.
Mark Kaupp, PsyD, LMFT, is a certified EFT therapist, supervisor, and trainer. He has a private practice in San Diego and lectures on the effective application of EFT with non-monogamous couples and the LGBTQQIAAP populations.
Illustration © Sally Wern Comport
Rick Miller, LICSW, is an internationally recognized inspirational speaker, psychotherapist, and author. He is a pioneer in creating mind/body and hypnotic scripts for gay men, has trained medical and mental-health providers in creating and using them, and wrote the first-ever book on the topic. He is the founder and executive director of Gay Sons and Mothers, a nonprofit organization providing education around the powerful influence mothers have on their gay sons. He’s also created a series for clinicians, Secrets of the Masters, in which he interviews noted authorities in informal settings.