Lessons from Long-Term Male Couples in
86 non-monogamous, long-term (8+ years), gay male couples participated. Each partner was interviewed separately using a consistent set of questions.
Participants were recruited by word of mouth and at gay events, which led to a population that was predominately professional, white Americans. The authors had no trouble finding long-term couples (couples were together an average of 16.2 years), but getting couples to actually participate proved difficult. Consequently, the study reflects the views of couples secure enough to openly discuss their relationship and the way they handle non-monogamy. This clearly skews results, but seems appropriate since the study was aimed at discovering what works.
An overview of statistical results are presented below. However, the real meat of the study is the verbatim quotes which are woven throughout the comprehensive study summary. We strongly encourage you to look at the full report to get a much richer appreciation of what is merely headlined here. Download the PDF file
Impact of Non-monogamy on the Relationship
§ 75% of participants described solely positive impact. 21% described both positive and negative impact, with the positive aspects out-weighing the negatives. 4% described primarily negative impact.
§ 78% offered that being ‘open’ gave them a sexual outlet without having to lie or hide their actions. Participants reported it stengthened and helped relationships survive by providing honest options and minimizing deceit, tension, and resentment.
§ In addition to providing a sexual outlet, non-monogamy enriched and deepened relationships in the following ways:
Beneficial Impact – Key Themes
(percent of all study participants naming this as a significant impact)
78% - Sanctioned Sexual Outlet
48% - Stimulates Our Sex Life, e.g. titillating, energizing
40% - Different Needs Met
34% - Brought Friends, New Experiences into relationship
33% - Encourages & Reinforces Honesty
27% - Provides Variety, Sense of Freedom
26% - Brought Perspective & Greater Appreciation
24% - Encouraged Sexual Growth (expertise, repetoire, awareness)
23% - Increased Intimacy & Commitment
20% - Encouraged Personal Growth
15% - Wouldn’t Be Together Without It
Opening the Relationship
§ 40% of study couples had opened their relationship from the outset. Couples not open within the first year, took an average of 6.5 years to open their relationship.
§ When couples described the degree to which their relationship is currently open (on a 1-10 scale), there was little difference between couples who were open from the outset and couples who opened their relationship much later.
Characteristic Look of a Couple’s Approach
§ Three key variables seemed to most define the ‘characteristic look’ of a couple’s approach to monogamy:
o Whether outside sex was conducted jointly, independently, or both
o The degree to which partners disclosed information and integrated experiences back into the relationship, and
o The amount of connection and involvement with outsiders that was sought & permitted
Study Couples: Joint vs. Independent
32% - of study couples chose to play independently (28 couples out of 86)
12% - of study couples chose to only play together (10 couples)
56% - of study couples chose to play together AND separately (48 couples)
31% – of the couples that did both, primarily played together and only occasionally played independently
Disclosure & Integration
§ Of the couples who played independently,
o 40% routinely disclosed the details
o 40% had varying degrees of disclosure (reported but no details, offered if questioned, depended on situation)
o 20% had a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ norm re: disclosure
§ 35% described using the details to juice their own sex lives together; 20% reported bringing back new sexual techniques and greater expertise
Connection & Involvement
§ 34% - of study couples generally had anonymous outside sex
§ 66% - allowed and often preferred some type of connection
o 40% - typically had fuck buddies and/or friends with benefits
o 20% - had deeper connections – more than friends, but secondary to partner (includes ‘above board’ affairs and couples who take on temporary ‘boys’)
o 6% - have emotional commitments (triads, polyamorous families)
§ One of the most striking study findings was the large percentage of couples (35%) where one partner preferred anonymous sex, while the other only enjoyed sex with friends or people with whom he felt connected. These couples learned how to accommodate both partners, but 20% found this difference to be challenging or a source of tension.
§ 75% of study couples had rules or norms that precluded or limited involvement. However, within this group 15% reported experiences of having gone ‘too far’ and needing to pull back.
Rules & Norms
§ We found that having explicit rules was much less prevalent than what is presumed in the literature. Only 32% of study couples relied on rules. However, 43% described having at least a few norms – spoken or unspoken, that provided a framework from which to operate.
§ Many couples reported their rules evolved or became unnecessary over time.
§ Honesty was seen as foundational. Other common norms were around limiting involvement, practicing safe sex, and being considerate/courteous.
Most Commonly Mentioned Difficulties
§ 21% - Jealousy (markedly less than what is often assumed in the research)
§ 20% - Getting too emotionally involved
§ 20% - “Nothing has been difficult.”
§ Communicating openly and honestly was mentioned by 65% of participants. Communication was a skill that couples learned over time. Being honest was an on-going practice. Both were seen as critical to success and had positive impact on other aspects of the couple’s relationship.
§ Trusting each other and/or the relationship was helpful to 52%. Interestingly, trust was seen as both an action and an outcome. As partners proved trustworthy, trust grew and deepened.
§ Other helpers included: reassurance & appreciation, respecting differences, learning to deal with jealousy and utilizing support from therapists or mentors.
Couples’ Own Sex Lives
§ An important finding was the number of couples (15%) who no longer have sex together, but are affectionate, loving and totally committed to each other. For these couples, sex was seen as rather inconsequential in comparison to their relationship and the life they had built together. Another 10% of study couples described their own sex as waning or infrequent. These couples were adjusting to the loss but didn’t see their lack of sex as a threat to the relationship continuing.
§ Equally important was the finding that 75% of study couples still have vibrant sex lives together. This is after an average of 15.3 years together. 30% of this group expressed concerns about keeping it alive and saw outside sex as a helpful contributor.
The study illustrates and validates the experience many couples are having with non-monogamy. Further research is definitely warranted to describe the similarities and differences due to age, race/ethnicity, class and geography. We hope this study will open the door to more candid discussions of responsible non-monogamous relationships in all their various forms.
Copyright 2010. Blake Spears & Lanz Lowen