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Why Some Gay and Lesbian Open Relationships Work Well (And Others Don't)

Every year, we at the Gay Couples Institute see many gay and lesbian couples asking for help around open relationships.

Sometimes the couples demonstrate a success story of how an open relationship can work positive benefits into both partners' lives.

Other times, we've seen how an open relationship can be destructive.

We did a lot of research on the subject so that we could understand exactly what makes an open relationship successful.

We'll get to what our research reveals in a moment. But first, let's define what we mean by an open relationship.

What is an open relationship?

An open relationship simply means that you and your partner consider one another your primary partner - and that both of you may have other sexual partners outside the relationship.

Are open relationships more common in gay and lesbian communities?

It does appear that gay and lesbian communities more frequently enjoy open relationships as compared to heterosexuals.

One study found 65% of American gay men and 23% of their lesbian counterparts were in some form of non-monogamous relationship. (This compared to 15% to 28% of heterosexual couples (Blumstein and Schwartz, 1983).)

In a 2006 study, Adams interviewed gay men in Canada. 26% reported being in an exclusive monogamous relationship, with most of those relationships being newer than 3 years.

He noted that those in open relationships distinguished between recreational sex with outside partners and emotional physical intimacy with a primary partner.

Adams' research also revealed that couples tend to implement different kinds of rules in open relationships, with some of the more common ones being:

  • A shared understanding between the partners prior to engaging in non-monogamous behavior.

  • The prohibition of a second sexual encounter with the same outside partner.

  • The prohibition of sleeping overnight at the outside partner’s house.

  • The prohibition of using the primary couple’s bed for outside partner encounters.

  • An agreement to enjoy outside sexual activity only while visiting other cities.

An Australian study found that 52% of the gay couples they interviewed reported being in an open relationship (Modesto, Ramirez, and Brown, 2010).

Importantly, there were no differences in relationship satisfaction between the closed and open relationship groups.

What's more, those couples in open relationships that had explicit rules in place were ultimately more satisfied than those without explicit rules.

Finally, in another large study conducted in 2010 in California (Spears and Lowen), both primary members of the partnership were interviewed and followed over time.

Generally, open relationships fared quite well. This was particularly true where couples would:

  • Periodically "close" the relationship if and when one primary partner was experiencing any conflict.

  • Create a greater sense of security for a primary partner dealing with issues of jealousy or other relationship turbulence.

So do open relationships really work?

Yes, according to the research, some open relationships work well, just as some monogamous relationships work well.

What separates those open relationships that are successful from those that fail is really whether appropriate rules are put in place when it comes to outside sexual activity.

What does the Gay Couples Institute recommend to its clients on the issue of open relationships?

We believe that in order to be successful and happy in an open relationship, each primary partner must be able to:

  • Assert boundaries without reprisal from the other.

  • See the open relationship as beneficial from their individual point of view.

  • Be able to access the tools needed to manage conflict productively.

Is the desire for an open relationship waning in the gay community?

Spears and Lowen made another significant finding we wanted to share with you.

A whopping 90% of gay men reported being in monogamous relationships.

And 81% of the 325 single gay men recruited to the study via a Grindr ad reported that they were seeking monogamy.

This may be the start of a huge cultural shift.

Do you find yourself wanting to explore an open relationship? Or perhaps you're currently having problems as a result of an open relationship...

We'd love to hear from you.

We can help to train up you and your partner on the conflict management tools you need to achieve the healthiest, happiest, and most fulfilling relationship possible (open, or not...)

Sources cited:

Modesto Ramirez, O. and Brown, J. (2010) Attachment style, rules regarding sex, and couple satisfaction: a study of gay male couples. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 31: 202–213.

Spears, B. and Lowen, L. (2010) Beyond Monogamy. Lessons from Long-Term Male Couples in Non-Monogamous Relationships. The Couples Study.

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