Monogamous and Monogamish Gay Couples

August 24, 2011

The most frequent question we receive at our couples workshops and therapist trainings is, “What do you think about monogamy and same sex couples?”

I love this question, and the debate that is circulating right now about the entire topic. On July 3rd, 2011, the New York Times Magazine published a huge article on the topic. The fascinating article included discussion by Dan Savage, one of America’s leading human sexuality journalists, and his feelings on the issue. “Savage says a more flexible attitude within marriage may be just what the straight community needs. Treating monogamy, rather than honesty or joy or humor, as the main indicator of a successful marriage gives people unrealistic expectations of themselves and their partners. And that, Savage says, destroys more families than it saves.”

Pretty fascinating stance, in my opinion, and clearly other people agree. More articles came out about this in Business Insider and then a large article in the Advocate. All are worth reading.

Nonmonogamy seems to be the topic that everyone has an opinion about, but few want to be identified as nonmonogamous by outsiders. Since 2006, Colleen Hoff at the SFSU Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality and the Gay Couples Study have published plenty of research on the epidemiology of nonmonogamy in the gay community (see Beyond Monogamy: Lessons from Long-Term Male Couples In Non-Monogamous Relationships). They estimate that about half of the couples in the study had some version of nonmongamy in their relationship, and cycling in and out of nonmanogamous phases were the norm for such couples.

So back to the original question, “What do you think about nonmanogamy?”

I can tell you what we see, though, as a couples therapy/counseling organization serving around 200 gay/lesbian couples per year. We see plenty of couples who have healthy monogamous relationships. We also see plenty of couples who have healthy nonmonogamous relationships. We see a lot of unhealthy monogamous relationships. We also see a lot of unhealthy nonmanogamous relationships. (We define relationship health as having a Locke-Wallace Relationship Satisfaction score of over 85).

Monogamy versus nonmonogamy does not seem to be the major corollary with relationship health, so we do not make any assertions as to the direction a couple should take in that arena. I can say that when nonmanogamy has been chosen unilaterally, where one partner wants it more than the other, relationship satisfaction declines. I can also say that when nonmanogamy is elected during a period of emotional disengagement, where negative feelings are not being discussed and conflict is being avoided, then the couple usually regrets the decision later.

We welcome your comments about monogamy/nonmonogamy below. You might also consider watching Dan Savage’s interview on the Colbert Report below.


  1. I don’t understand why Dan Savage, an entertainer with loud opinions, is considered such an expert. Not that I don’t appreciate some things he has accomplished, but seriously…isn’t he most qualified to talk about white upper middle class gay male sexuality?

    Lets leave the human sexuality research to researchers. Even if they may not be as cute.

    Comment by pedal — August 25, 2011 @ 7:59 am

  2. I thank you for commenting on the subject of monogamy. As a therapist and coach who works frequently with lesbian couples, I am curious what the percentage of monogamy vs. non-monogamy is in the lesbian community. Are there any studies similar to the one above on gay men for lesbians? Perhaps Savage is correct in saying gay couples will evolve marriage. Heck, haven’t we already started that process!?! LOL. Perhaps gay, lesbian and straights will one day come to look at the issue of monogamy on the same level as issues like arguing over chores and communication…Well, I don’t know about that. My experience has been that because a lesbian relationship is composed of two women, their view on monogamy is often very different from a relationship composed of two men. No?

    Comment by Barb Elgin, LCSW — August 25, 2011 @ 8:11 pm

  3. I love DAN!

    Comment by billybaby — September 27, 2011 @ 9:00 pm

  4. The discussion around monogamy is an important one and requires numerous uncomfortable and direct conversations with both partners willing to share. Again, both partners willing to share their needs and desires. I am a marriage and family therapy intern completing my Masters degree at this time. I have this issue currently in my own 14 year partnership. I tend to be more monogamy oriented. My partner is not interested in monogamy. Our definition of intimacy and fidelity are opposite. For me, genital contact of any kind and kissing as well are considered infidelity. He feels the only definition of infidelity is an emotional attachment to another man outside our relationship- any type of physical contact is not considered infidelity for him. He feels that handling the genitals of another man is akin to a handshake. He does not care what I do with my body with someone else. I do. Just thinking of him with someone else makes my stomach tighten and my heart race.

    Last weekend we decided to try an open relationship as he was leaving town for four days and I felt I had no other option – it was going to happen whether I agreed or not. I thought we might as well be open about it. I had a bad weekend – one awkward experience with another man. I felt I had to at least try. He had experiences with 6 other men in four days that he is willing to admit. He is not very interested in hearing about my experience. I want exact details of every encounter. For the purpose of health concerns among other reasons.

    We seem to have an unsolvable problem regarding our expectations of fidelity. We are seeing a therapist. There is much love between us. The only solution seems to be for me to give in and change my view of fidelity. He is not going to change his. He has had indiscretions in our 14 year history. He does not feel the need to apologize for his behavior and has not asked me to forgive him, so I don’t believe I have and it interferes with my trust and security in our relationship.

    How do I deal with having to change my view of fidelity? How do I do so without emotionally withdrawing from him? This issue causes anger between us. He becomes frustrated and angry when his needs are not met and treats me poorly and then I react and become angry.

    Thank you,


    Comment by Steven — October 11, 2011 @ 11:14 am

  5. Hi Steven,

    Really sorry to hear about your predicament. Unilateral decisions end relationships about 81% of the time; it doesn’t matter whether its “I’m having sex with someone else, whether you like it or not…” or “We’re getting a dog, whether you like it or not…”. Its the “whether you like it or not” that ends relationships. I hope the therapist you’re seeing isn’t tolerating this kind of behavior in the session. We don’t, and we show couples an entirely different way to approach this issue that leads to both of them feeling as part of a team again, rather than adversaries.

    Gay Couples Institute

    Comment by admin — October 11, 2011 @ 11:52 am

  6. Hi guys. I have a similar problem as Steven, but from the other perspective. I have been involved with the same man who I met over 22 years as a 24 year old. He’s basically the only man I’ve ever had sex with. Both of us were young when we got together and had had very little sexual experience prior to that. Now we are in our mid-40s and I feel like I have missed out on the chance to experience other people sexually. I love him dearly and we are both legally married now for almost 10 years in Canada, but I feel this deep, inner pressure to explore sex with other people before its too late. He doesn’t seem to be interested in sex with any other people, and is not particularly sexual at all. I am the one who has been driving our sexual relationship lately, and I am trying to explore all kinds of different sexual techniques which only seems to make him withdraw further, insisting on the old patterns. And so I fantasize about having sex with other people. It feels as if I am being compelled to do it to get some relief. What should I do? I’m at a loss…

    Comment by Dave — October 14, 2011 @ 9:26 pm

  7. Hi Dave,

    Thanks for giving us a sense of what’s happening in your world. First of all, you’re obviously not alone. You can see from the comments that many others are trying to figure out the same issue.

    Second, you’re basically asking, ‘How do couples keep their sex life exciting long term?’ Nearly every couple faces this same question, gay or straight. The answer is to keep your sexual friendship alive and well. This simply involves 1) talking with one another about what feels good and seems fun, 2) sharing fondness about one another, including fondness about physical traits, and 3) not shutting down one another’s bids for physical intimacy.

    If you think that sounds like a tall order, there’s a game the Gottman Institute has created to make all of this easier. Go to http://www.gottman.com, and look at the Salsa Cards under their products page. We have couples who come to our clinic use this, and it does a great job of making the physical relationship fun again.

    Gay Couples Institute

    Comment by admin — October 15, 2011 @ 6:02 pm

  8. Look, sex is purely physical when inviting a third to join in our bedroom antics. There is no emotion attached as there shouldnt be. Even when my partner and I venture out on our own, its not for the sake of emotion. It is a purely physical WANT, NOT NEED, for sex. It is not that we dont completely satisfy eachother either. Its that curiosity thing. It enhancs both of our self esteems. Knowing that others still find us desireable is a good feeling. We often talk about how much better our sex is than with others. The hunt is more exciting than the kill. It is also a huge turn on to see eachother playing with another dude. Its Hot. It did take us a few years to build that kind of trust and to know that no matter what, there is no one out there who we would want to spend a lifetime with. Again, purely physical. Both people in a relationship have to be the non jealous types. That is a must. I am not going to say that it has NEVER caused conflict but mostly it is no problem. Anyone reading this knows that they have cheated or at least felt some type of disappointment when you see someone you desire. This open relationship eliminates cheating which is the number one reason for break ups. Hey it simply isnt for everyone, just keep in mind that we are practically the only species on the planet that does have monogamous relationships. We on the other hand have been together for 14 years on December 1.

    Comment by jim — December 6, 2011 @ 8:19 am

  9. Thanks for posting this, Jim. Really well said, and congratulations on 14 years.


    Comment by admin — December 6, 2011 @ 8:26 am

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