Sex likes novelty. Most men report that their orgasms are more intense in novel situations than in their typical sexual situations. Whether the partner is novel or the partner is familiar and the sex is non-standard in some other way, the libido and body appear to respond positively to the novelty. It is well understood that genetic diversity increases the sustainability of a species, and therefore men are said to be biologically programmed to want to have multiple sexual partners.
Recent research has emerged that shows women also have higher levels of arousal in novel sexual situations. Perhaps female sexual arousal favors genetic variety, even while the demands of childrearing favor having a stable partner. In fact, no species has been shown to be exclusively monogamous. Although it is commonly assumed that birds mate for life, they are not monogamous. Many bird species have also been shown to have affairs on the side, and the same might be said for human monogamous couples.
Humans are clearly a more complex species, so comparisons to other species—and even to other primates—have limitations. While there are many successful monogamous human couples—including monogamous gay male couples—research has also shown that for somewhere between 65 percent and 90 percent of heterosexual couples, at least one member has had an affair. Similarly, research suggests that for 66 percent of gay male couples, at least one member of the couple identifies as non-monogamous. There is not, as of yet, a reliable figure for the frequency of non-monogamous lesbian couples.
Research has shown that human brain chemistry appears to “desire” sexual novelty, as neurotransmitter activity is different in the presence of sexual novelty. However, having a novel partner is not the only way to stimulate the libido. The brain (and consequently the body, it seems) can be fooled into thinking that one is with a novel partner through other forms of novelty. Adding a “naughty” element to sex appears to increase the level of arousal and intensity of orgasm. This can include role-playing, including sexual toys, atypical positions, or having sex in ways or places that are not socially sanctioned. But within the gay community, non-monogamy appears to be the novelty of choice.
The statement above, that “at least one member of the couple identifies as non-monogamous,” speaks to at least one of the problems in many gay male couples. I have found that one member of the couple frequently assumes that they are non-monogamous, while the other may assume that they are monogamous. Even when both members assume that they are non-monogamous, that term does not always mean the same thing to each of them. The assumptions that a couple makes about the non-monogamous or monogamous nature of their relationship often become a source of conflict.
Very few of us grew up with openly non-monogamous parents. Few of us were ever exposed to models of non-monogamous relationships. Few of us were ever taught to talk about sex with our partner, since our parents rarely talked about sex in front of us as kids. Furthermore, many of us had to struggle to become comfortable with our sexuality and are now not particularly open to the idea of defending or negotiating our sexual lives. Additionally, sex likes spontaneity almost as much as it likes novelty, so talking about the mechanics of sex can be a real turn-off. However, talking about sex with one’s partner can greatly improve one’s sex life and relationship with that partner in the long run.
The foundation of a healthy and successful non-monogamous relationship is having a strong mutual understanding of what qualifies as commitment and what behaviors would be considered disrespectful. Establishing common expectations of boundaries will help avoid conflict and can help with resolving conflict.
While commitment is a word that in our culture usually connotes monogamy, it more accurately implies intent to maintain the current relationship and a sense of loyalty. Friendships have commitment, but they are rarely monogamous. Related to the idea of commitment is the idea of what makes the relationship special or sacred. Demonstrating love can also be an important part of commitment.
How does one’s partner know that there is a special shared feeling about the relationship, and that he or she is not just one in a line of tricks? Living together can be as much about convenience as it is about a special relationship, so that seems inadequate as a marker of commitment. Consider how an outsider would determine if partners are more than roommates. Being explicit in what it means to be committed to each other will help when opportunities with blurry boundaries present themselves. It is important for each partner to think about what commitment would look like to him or her before having the conversation about expectations.
I frequently encourage clients to designate an activity or two as sacred to their relationship—things that they only do with each other. It could be as simple as wearing particular clothes or a fragrance only with one’s partner. Perhaps selecting a particular act of sex or affection and agreeing to only do those with each other is what allows there to be a sacred element to the primary relationship. Or a simple checklist of forbidden activities, such as no repeat tricks, no sleepovers, or no sex with tricks in specific places, might also define the primary relationship and help make it sacred.
Reminding one’s partner that he or she is special may also be important. Being affectionate, or doing special things for your partner for no apparent reason, helps demonstrate that one is thinking about one’s partner. Maintaining the romance in one’s primary relationship helps make that relationship feel special.
Sometimes having rituals that regularly occur before or after tricking can be helpful. Anticipatory rituals are actions that take place prior to the extra-relationship activity and are intended to foster a sense of connection. They act as a symbolic tether joining the partners during the outside activity. Reclamation rituals happen after the extra-relationship event and serve to reactivate the bond between partners. These rituals can be sexual, romantic, or even simply domestic.
Different people have different boundaries that they consider acceptable in their partner’s behavior. One person may think it is fine to have sex with numerous people at once in a “public” venue (like a sex party or bathhouse), while another may think that sex should take place only in private. If one simply assumes that his or her partner “feels the same way” and neglects to discuss expectations, there is a real risk for a partner to feel disrespected. Talking about expectations of what the extra-relationship sex might entail, or under what circumstances it may occur, could prevent hurt feelings.
In the early stages of a non-monogamous relationship, it may be helpful to have debriefing conversations about how each person is feeling after an extra-relationship event. This can be a safe, calm time in which to express what each was feeling during the incident. How did you feel being apart, or how did you feel seeing your partner have sex with someone else? Was it exciting or anxiety-inducing? How would you like it to go differently next time? If the agreement is that all extra-relationship sex is discreet and partners do not know about each other’s activities, then the debriefing conversation may be about how each person is doing with not knowing what the other is up to.
It is important to remember that part of not disrespecting your partner is to not judge him or her. A frequent reason for non-monogamy is because of different sexual interests. Remember that for many of us, having to defend our sexuality is offensive. One’s relationship will work more smoothly if each partner can be honest about the type of sex each likes to have. Insecurities can be alleviated by understanding your partner’s sexual interests. When he or she then engages in extra-relationship sex that feels awkward, you can put that behavior in context. Putting behavior in context often makes it easier to avoid feeling threatened by it.
Since the boundaries of non-monogamous relationships can be inherently fuzzy, being prepared for lapses can also help things go more easily. Knowing that the pushing of a boundary will not end the relationship can help facilitate conversation about slip-ups. Trying to understand the circumstances of a transgression can assist in preventing it from occurring again. Ideally, partners would feel willing, but not obliged, to tolerate indiscretions and use them to better define expectations. Similarly, it is important to be willing to re-negotiate the terms of the non-monogamy. As the relationship develops, the need for certain restrictions are sometimes no longer necessary—or partners might discover the need for new rules. A certain degree of flexibility promotes longevity while still allowing for novelty.
Woodja Flanigan, MS, LPA, is a Houston-based psychotherapist and career counselor specializing in counseling for people in non-traditional lifestyles and relationships. He frequently speaks on gay and lesbian experience and mental health, transgender concerns, and body-modification issues.