When it comes to opening up a relationship, two men are best served by clear communication and mutually agreed-upon boundaries, experts say.
Mikey Rox and Everett Earl Morrow, both now 30, were committed to monogamy when they met and fell in love. That was five years ago. "After a couple instances of infidelity to which we both confessed, we decided it's not realistic to expect either of us to never hook up with anyone else ever again," says Rox, principal of Paper Rox Scissors Copy and Creative in Manhattan. The legally married couple has had an open relationship for the last two years. "Who wouldn't want to be allowed to hook up with other guys and have their husband be OK with it?" he asks. "Isn't that what most men dream of, and isn't the limitation of sex with one partner in a marriage the reason why so many people cheat?" Adds Morrow: "As two men, sex isn't particularly emotional for either of us. That enables us to separate our love for one another from the occasional physical attraction we may have for another guy."
Matthew and Pablo, married 40-something realtors in Palm Springs, Calif., were monogamous for the first eight of their 15 years together. "We sort of just fell into our open relationship," says Matthew. "It's been a slow evolution. In the beginning, we only played together, which made it feel less threatening." They still enjoy the occasional threesome, but for the last few years have increasingly sought sex outside the relationship.
Jelle and Guido, both 44-year-old ground personnel for an international airline in Amsterdam, have been together since 1997. For 10 years monogamy reigned. But when physical attraction waned, sex fell by the wayside and the relationship soured, eventually hitting rock bottom. The two figured they had nothing to lose, opened up their relationship, and saved it. "I'm really happy," says Guido. "It made our relationship stronger. I'm glad he's my partner, I love him, and I believe it was a wise decision to give each other the freedom we needed." Adds Jelle: "There are so many things keeping us together: love, trust, friendship, security, common hobbies and interests, humor, a shoulder to cry on. Much too much to give up for that tiny but oh-so-important aspect in life that is sex."
Although no one knows for sure how many gay couples are in open relationships, or whether they are on the decline, it's certain these men are not alone. "I would feel comfortable saying that at least four out of five long-term gay male couples are not monogamous," says Beverly Hills sexologist Winston Wilde. "Monogamy rarely does work for more than two years -- for most straight and bi men, as well."
This isn't to say that lifelong fidelity is unattainable. Experts agree that couples who are creative and on the same page can absolutely sustain a vigorously exclusive sex life.
"We are not and have never been in an open relationship," says Doug Hairgrove. He and partner Warren Wood, married septuagenarians also from Palm Springs, have been together 50 years. They're still intimate at least twice a week and see sex and love as inseparable. "We do not understand having one and not the other," says Wood.
John Sovec, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Pasadena, Calif., encourages his clients to form the most powerful and satisfying bond possible. "I believe gay couples have an incredible opportunity to create whatever type of relationship works best for them without the constraints of a societal norm," he says.
When one partner wants an open relationship and the other does not, "one person has to yield," says Loren A. Olson, a Des Moines psychiatrist and the author of Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight, A Psychiatrist's Own Story. "Two cannot live with rules that are mutually exclusive." In such scenarios, Timothy Huber, a clinical psychologist in the New York metro area, prescribes the three Ts: "Talk, talk, talk about it," he urges. "Do not avoid or minimize the issue. For some, that's a setup for infidelity. If conflicts persist, seek professional assistance."
Even when both partners desire nonmonogamy, there are cases when it's not advisable. "Odd as it may sound, an open relationship requires a strong degree of trust and respect in order to be successful," says Didi Zahariades, a psychotherapist in private practice in Portland, Ore. "In my experience, it requires a healthy, loving couple who are able to talk honestly about their individual needs. Open relationships are not a possibility for a couple with a high degree of distrust or jealousy. If a couple is already volatile, then adding another person -- or persons -- is simply not an option."
These specialists agree that for those cleared for takeoff on the journey toward an open relationship, the setting of clear boundaries brings the biggest potential for a smooth ride. Wilde estimates that the vast majority of gay male couples in open relationships have never negotiated the rules. "Being a native Californian and the child of hippie parents, I prefer to communicate and to negotiate," he says. "If they come into therapy with me, they're talking, we're communicating, we're negotiating. But most gay male couples don't talk about sex in therapy. It's OK with me if they don't want to talk about it, but I think they'd be a happier couple if they could talk at least a little bit about it."
"This is about two men making a trusting contract and making sure they're following the same agreement," says Huber. "The more specific they are, the better the outcome." Most importantly, partners should always remember to honor the primary relationship first and sex outside that relationship second. "Your partner needs to know that you're coming home to him, that you're in love with him, that you want a long-lasting relationship with him," affirms Zahariades, adding that, by definition, the covenant to be nonmonogamous is the direct opposite of cheating. "We're not talking about generic infidelity. This is a negotiated arrangement within an interpersonal relationship between two adults. It's strictly about sex. It's not a secret you keep from your partner."
Once two men have agreed to have an open relationship, they must further decide how much information about outside activities is to be shared. Will it be "don't ask, don't tell" or "tell me everything"? "Let's face it," says Zahariades. "Some guys really like to share, others not so much." Brenda Schaeffer, a psychotherapist in the Minneapolis area and the best-selling author of Is It Love or Is It Addiction? believes that "if one partner is not told what's going on, they often begin to obsess about what might be happening. However, the 'tell me everything' option can also bring out any insecurities a person may have and/or cause extreme jealousy or obsessing about what the partner may be doing with someone else."
For each couple interviewed for this article, the one common rule is that safe sex precautions are a given. From there, conventions vary. With Jeff and Joe -- a couple from New Jersey who are 57 and 60, respectively, who formalized their commitment with a civil union, and who have been nonmonogamous for 35 of their 39 years together -- the rules have evolved over the decades. Any sexual activity is allowed, but overnights are forbidden, as is any outside sex that conflicts with the couple's time together. "Passion is short-lived," says Joe. "Love is for a lifetime." The occasional threesome is the chief way the two men still have sex together. There's to be no fooling around with friends, but regular "fuck buddies" are acceptable -- preferable, even. "As long as they're in a relationship or not interested in anything more than sex," says Jeff, who adds, "Whatever rules work for two guys and keep them together are good rules."
"We always ask each other's permission with each hookup," says Matthew, whose agreement with Pablo is staunchly of the "tell me everything" variety. "We always know when the other is going out. This is for reasons of safety. There are crazy people out there." He specifies that neither man is allowed to host one-on-one at home. "If we host at our place, we play together."
Jelle and Guido do not rule out having a threesome in the future, but the opportunity has yet to arise. Their open relationship functions with very few restrictions. Anything goes with anyone at any time, anywhere (except in their bed, and only at home when the other is absent). Both are HIV-friendly, and overnights are allowed. Their arrangement falls somewhere between "tell me everything" and "don't ask, don't tell." "I don't need to know every single juicy detail," says Jelle, while Guido adds, "I do want to know who it is and where they go. I also want Jelle to know where I'll be."
"He's my husband and I'm his husband. We're accountable to each other. There's nothing that we shouldn't know about each other's activities," says Mikey of Earl, explaining that extracurricular intercourse is off-limits in favor of oral sex and mutual masturbation. The men also generally don't see the same guy more than once. "Regular fuck buddies get into dangerous territory where an emotional attachment can develop," adds Earl. "We don't want that drama in our lives."
This brings us to the topic of complications. "STDs are one obvious risk and a significant one," says Olson. "The other primary risk is a shift of loyalty from the primary partner to another." Wilde would add "fights due to misunderstandings, fights due to intentional violations, and condemnation from others" to the list. Indeed, most men interviewed for this story chose to use a pseudonym or true first names only for fear that their loved ones -- both gay and straight -- would misconstrue or disapprove. "Even though my family is pretty liberal, I'm afraid they may confuse an open relationship with endless sex orgies, STDs, etc.," says Jelle. "Only a couple of gay friends know. I don't think I've ever discussed it with any of our coworkers." Matthew and Pablo also favor discretion. "We're not open with our families about it," says Pablo. "The friends who know are those who also have open relationships. We'll talk to them openly about it should the subject come up, but it's not something we go out of our way to discuss. It's private."
Professionals suggest that couples check in frequently with each other throughout the course of their open relationship so that their agreement can be adjusted to the changing needs of each individual, if need be. Should one man become frustrated, he owes it to himself and to his partner to express it. "It sounds simple and ridiculous, but one must understand why the other is dissatisfied," says Zahariades. "No one can read your mind, and if you're not being honest about your feelings, it will come out."
And if someone fails in his attempt to live up to the couple's deal? "There are two steps," opines Olson. "First, dump the anger. Second, attempt to find some empathetic understanding of the other. Empathy is essential to forgiveness, but the anger must be dealt with before rapprochement can occur."
"In setting up the rules in the first place, partners need to discuss this possibility," adds Sovec. "If there's a breach, steps should be taken to pause the open relationship and create an open, nonjudgmental space for the partners to share their feelings and what events brought the rule-breaking into being."
Says Wilde: "If for some reason they can't communicate well, then they should see a therapist or their person of faith."
"The one who breaks trust is always responsible for rebuilding it," concludes Schaeffer. "It will not work unless the partner who violates truly owns what he has done, makes a heartfelt amend, and is willing to work on restoring trust." Only once the two men have healed and are back in a good, safe place should they consider reopening the relationship.
Despite the perils it presents, nonmonogamy can be a source of great satisfaction. "I've actually seen many couples develop more compassion and trust in the course of the relationship when they are open and clear that they really want each other to be free, honest, and happy," says Huber. "Sex is a very powerful, vital source of joy when explored deeply."
Considering opening your relationship? Use this checklist of things to talk about before you do:
Talking Is Rule Number 1: Here are some things to think about when setting the boundaries for sexual activity outside your primary relationship:
No mutual friends
Regular fuck buddies OK
Coupled guys only (no singles)
Watching/showing off only
Mutual JO only
Anal OK (Top? Bottom? Either?)
Safer sex only
No dates -- just sex
Only when one of us is out of town
Only when one of us is at work/not at home
Only when it doesn't conflict with time together
Only when we both agree it's allowed
Only when we're together (in a bathhouse or sex club, in a threesome)
Only in public (rest room, bathhouse, gym steam room, park)
Only at his place
Never at his place
Only at home
Never at home
Never in our bed
This piece originally appeared on Advocate.com.