I had the opportunity to talk with psychotherapist and author, Michael Dale Kimmel, about his new book, “The Gay Man’s Guide to Open and Monogamous Marriage.” Having written a book of my own on modern marriage, I am particularly interested in how Kimmel not only provides a necessarily specific guide for male-male marriages, but also how this wisdom can be utilized by all couples, regardless of gender. Our conversation is below.
MOC: Tell me about The Gay Man’s Guide to Open and Monogamous Marriage.
MDK: I began offering workshops for gay, bisexual, and transgender men about 18 years’ ago, and after a couple of years there were always a few guys who came up to me and said (in whispered tones), “You’ve got to put this stuff in a book.” I had no desire to write a book at that time. But I did start writing my advice column, “Life Beyond Therapy” soon after, for local LGBT newspapers. I asked readers to send in questions. (Boy, did they ever!)
Then about five years ago, a writer friend of mine recommended me to a publisher, who asked me to submit an idea for a book. I did. They liked it. I was in shock.
My editor was very encouraging and wanted me to send him new stuff almost every day. So I worked like a fiend, writing, rewriting, rerewriting (is that a word?) for weeks until, finally, it seemed like we were getting close to something.
One day I got a strange email from the editor, telling me he had resigned from the publisher. Again, I was in shock. It was like being engaged to a fabulous guy, going through all the bridal (groom-al?) showers to get all the toasters and rainbow-colored appliances my future husband and I would ever need, and then being dumped by said future husband just before getting fitted for my tux.
So I pouted. For about two years. Then I woke up and realized: I can still write this book. And I did.
MOC: I love that. You realized the power to create the book was always yours. Not unlike couples who discover they can get married on their own terms. Why do you think there is a need for this book right now?
Because until I wrote this book, there were no “rule books” for how a “double testosterone” marriage could or should work. While there are lots of books about how to plan your gay wedding, there were virtually none that address what to do after the honeymoon is over (literally and figuratively). This book fills that void.
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It is my intention that the book be frank, engaging and full of practical advice. Toward that purpose, you’ll find “Questions to Consider” throughout the book that will give you (and your husband) easy ways to talk about the ideas presented in each Chapter.
It is to be expected that some readers (and reviewers) may find my posing the question of “monogamy or open relationship?” - in regards to gay marriage – to be controversial. This book may even be disliked. The Gay Man’s Guide to Open and Monogamous Marriage dares to ask the question: is monogamy or an open relationship (or a combination of both) the best way to structure your marriage?
Same-sex marriage has been a long time coming – a few thousand years or so - and now that it’s finally here, many gay, bisexual and transgender men may think that it’s a bad idea to “rock the boat” by discussing the kinds of ideas that this book presents. I believe that now is the perfect time to question what gay marriage can, should and will be, while it is still relatively new, fresh and malleable.
For the double testosterone marriage, “monogamy or open relationship?” is a question whose time has come.
MOC: I think those are also really good questions for any couple. But what are some of the particular relationship issues you identified in male/male marriages that you wanted to address with this book?
MDK: I have been giving workshops on “monogamy or open relationship?” for many years, long before gay marriage was legal. While marriage wasn’t a possibility then, the questions in those workshops were basically the same as those in this book: as gay men, do we choose the monogamy of heterosexual marriage as our model, or do we prefer an open marriage? There are pros and cons to each option; in my mind, neither is “better”, but they sure are different.
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MOC: And, just to clarify, by “the monogamy of heterosexual marriage,” you mean in theory, right? Since statistically speaking, a great deal of those marriages end in divorce, and infidelity is typically a big factor there.
MDK: You’re right, when about half of all heterosexual marriages fail, it’s not the greatest model in the world, is it? And yet, most gay marriages emulate it without much thought, assuming that it’s the “right” way to be married.
As a psychotherapist for gay couples for many years’ now, it’s been quite clear to me that “handbooks” for heterosexual marriage don’t really apply to our marriages in several significant ways: our marriages are more “designed” than “assumed”. We don’t have to mimic our straight friends and relatives in their marriages. As gay men, we are used to forging our own paths and defining our relationships on our own terms. So, it’s quite a paradox to be “given” legal marriage as an option, when, for many of us, heterosexual marriage is not a very good model.
The paradox continues: heterosexual, “traditional” marriage has many facets and dimensions. Some of them are bound to be good and helpful for us. It makes no sense to throw out the baby with the bathwater, as my grandma used to say. Why not design our own marriages by carefully and consciously critiquing heterosexual marriage, taking what works for us, and letting the rest go?
That is what this book invites you and your husband (or future husband) to do.
I have also observed that relationships between two men have a lot of conflict and competition between them, in ways that opposite sex and lesbian relationships do not. I cannot determine the exact cause or source of this conflict: there are some who say it is biological (it is, after all, a “double testosterone marriage”), while others claim it’s more cultural, that we, as men, are trained to be this way. We are trained to compete with each other; we are trained to win, to want to be the best. This is how we have been socialized, isn’t it?
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MOC: It is. I found it interesting how you identify some of the specific struggles men have with the concept of masculinity, and how that can create both competition and distress between male partners, but also a unique opportunity to find kindredness, mirroring, and healing.
MDK: Exactly! You’ve hit the nail on the head: two men together have unique possibilities for healing and hurting each other. Many of us were raised to be competitive and “win” at all costs. And yet, when I work with young gay (and bi, straight and trans) men, I see a sea change ahead.
More-and-more often, I’m meeting young men who don’t make all those traditional assumptions about what a man “is” and who we “should” be. I wrote the chapter about “redefining gender roles”, because we have an amazing opportunity as married gay men to determine who we are as two men, married to each other. How do we divvy up the household tasks? How do we decide who is the more nurturing one? The more aggressive one? The more career-oriented one? The more childcare-oriented one?
I am very excited by the possibilities that lie before us. We have the opportunity to redefine what marriage is. And, not just for us. By doing so, we show our heterosexual brothers and sisters that they can do the same.
MOC: Yes, I appreciate your observation that marriage is really evolving for all couples, and that same sex couples have the freedom to be creative in how they design their own marriages, since we have no “rule books” for same sex marriage. I write from the same premise in my book “Modern Brides & Modern Grooms.” It seems we both also feel that there is much that opposite sex couples can glean from us.
MDK: As gay people, we can create new structures and paradigms that serve not only us, but all people. It’s time to take a good look at marriage as a cultural institution; it’s not really doing so well for about half of us, but we’ve just been sort of going along and saying some version of, “Well, let’s give it our best shot and see what happens.”
This book encourages everyone, not just us gay men, to take a good look at that formidable institution and begin to ask some big, meaningful questions, like:
• How do you decide whether to choose monogamy or an open relationship?
• What happens if you don’t get support for your marriage from people around you, important people, like your friends, family and community?
• If you are married, how do you and your mate want to do parenting?
These are not just questions for gay couples, they are questions for all couples: my polyamorous straight clients are dealing with the very same stuff. It’s not just us, my brothers, all people can benefit by questioning the underpinnings of marriage and experimenting with its structure.
I remember living in Paris, in the early 1980’s, and noticing how heterosexuals in the upper classes typically had a wife (or husband) and a lover. This wasn’t unusual; in many circles, it was the norm. I once asked a wonderfully wise and handsome man, with whom I had a wild and passionate affair, why he was still married to a woman. He told me, “You Americans are so conservative, you pretend to love monogamy, but, in your heart, you would love the opportunity to live as we do.”
Well, that pretty much shut me up for quite some time. I kept asking myself, “Is he right?” As someone from a small town in Ohio, I was not raised with the mores of my married French lover, so this was quite a jolt for me. I remember getting very defensive with “Michel” (as I’ll call him here) and saying, “Oh, you French people, you always assume you know everything and do everything better than anyone else. Get over yourself, Mr. Know-It-All.”
It has taken me about thirty-five years to process the questions that Michel posed to me in his lovely flat on Rue Victor Hugo, while his wife was “in the States”, working in Atlanta. In a very long and winding path, this book is a result of my conversations with him. Merci, Michel.
While I considered non-monogamy important to explore in this book, I also was very clear that I did not want to denigrate or invalidate monogamous relationships. I know many gay, bi, trans and straight couples who have solid, loving monogamous relationships. To look down upon them would be foolish and naïve. There is no one form of marriage that is “the best”. Let’s be clear about that. That’s why this book looks at both open and monogamous marriage: each has its own unique gifts and challenges for us. Neither is better.
MOC: Yes, you emphasize throughout your book that there is no one way to have a marriage, and certainly no one way to have a same sex marriage. And so therefore, not all marriages can easily be contained neatly within the categories of “open” or “monogamous,” right? In other words, even if a couple decides to explore variations of sexual openness―fluidly, in specific ways for specific periods of time―their preferences and priorities and decisions can transform, and grow as the individuals in the couple grow. As long as they communicate effectively. And you prepare the reader so well for such communication. Providing self reflective questions about their sexual preferences and histories, and encouraging them to consider context when thinking about their individual sexual desires and anxieties.
What would you say is most important for communication around monogamy and sexual openness in a marriage, from your experience as a clinician?
MDK: Good question: this one really made me stop and think. I believe that it’s crucial to the long-term health of any marriage that the couple be able to communicate honestly and respectfully about almost any subject. This is easy to say, but difficult to do. That’s why I structured the book – and the “Questions to Consider” sprinkled throughout - to facilitate that kind of communication.
In the book, the reader follows two married couples: Tomas and Larry, representing a harmonious open marriage, and Ethan and Jake, representing a fulfilling monogamous marriage. They’re an amalgam of hundreds of real couples I’ve worked with. Each couple experienced the joys and difficulties of their “double testosterone” marriage, showing you and your husband options and possibilities for your own marriage.
A marriage is only as strong as the two individuals. A great marriage – not just a good one – is one where each man does his own inner work and supports his husband to do the same. I’ve seen this kind of relationship in many of the gay marriages – both open and monogamous - that I’ve had the pleasure to work with.
Your gay marriage can be amazing, high-functioning and extremely fulfilling…if you and your husband are willing to do the work. When you and your husband work on your own psychological baggage, you end up a much stronger couple who have more to give each other and are less needy. Two strong, happy men together is a beautiful, powerful thing.
We can set a new standard of what marriage can be – it’s never before been possible to see what a marriage of two men can be. We can do the work, reap the rewards and take the institution of marriage to a new level of happiness and satisfaction.
*This post first appeared on Mark O’Connell, LCSW’s Psychology Today column, Quite Queerly.