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.”
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.