Can two gay men really have a monogamous relationship?
My boyfriend and I have wanted to be monogamous, but neither of us has been able to totally stop the occasional hookup. It’s taken a toll on our relationship in terms of hurt feelings, trust and closeness. Lately, Jim isn’t even trying to hide it and I really don’t like seeing him on Grindr out of the corner of my eye or having him suddenly disappear for two hours.
We’re wondering if we should just accept that this is how things are supposed to be and stop feeling bad? For what it’s worth, none of the gay couples we know are really monogamous, either (though sometimes one of the partners thinks they are).
I think that gay men are capable of having monogamous relationships. But there are some powerful reasons why so many gay men endlessly chase sex, even when they would rather not.
Most of us grew up feeling bad and hiding our true selves from our closest family and friends, fearing rejection. When children and young people don’t get the sense of being loved for whom they really are, they aren’t able to develop their own sense of self worth. As a result, they keep looking for that love as adults. I think a lot of gay men are still seeking the validation they never really got. Finding another man who wants to have sex with us can seem like a great way to get it, although once we’re adults, validation from others doesn’t actually have much lasting impact on our self-esteem.
Another reason why monogamy seems so scarce among gay men is because of the heavy stigma around being gay, most of us didn’t have opportunities to date and romance other guys early in life. Instead, we had sex when, where and with whomever we could, often in shame and secrecy, learning how to be sexual before we learned how to be close. As a result, it’s hard for many of us to connect sex and emotional intimacy. That combination can be unfamiliar and even uncomfortable, so we often seek out the familiarity of anonymous hookups instead.
Gay male culture also tends to put sex and hooking up on a pedestal, for the reasons I mentioned above, and as a reaction against gay sex having been so taboo and forbidden to us, growing up. And men in general are socialized to have few qualms about pursuing sex. The emphasis on sex in our community puts a lot of pressure on us to define our success by our desirability and conquests. Keep in mind that all of these factors meld together in a seductive and addictive swirl, so that many of us wind up using sex (and porn) like a drug to soothe and feel good about ourselves.
All of this is doesn’t make it easy to be a monogamous gay couple, much less an emotionally healthy gay man. And I haven’t even delved into the reasons why monogamy is hard for just about everyone, including non-gays.
If you’re a gay man who wants to be monogamous but find that you can’t stop hooking up, or if you simply want to feel better about yourself and have a healthier relationship to sex, you’ve got some important work to do. It is absolutely possible to move beyond the negative messages and self-damaging behaviors that most of us learned as we grew up. And it’s also possible to move beyond other people’s definitions of what it means for you to be a successful gay man.
All of this is hard work and can be lonely. A lot of my clients tell me how isolated and different they feel for wanting to buck the hypersexual norm. Most of us grew up without a real peer group, so we aren’t eager to repeat the experience of feeling like we don’t fit in. Just like coming out, you have to decide whether it’s worth pretending to be someone you’re really not in order to not feel alone.
If you decide that you want to work on these issues, I strongly suggest that you seek out a therapist who has an expertise in working with gay men. This stuff is not easy to untangle. I wish you and Jim good luck going forward.
Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D, licensed psychologist, specializes in gay couples counseling and individual therapy in D.C. He can be found online at personalgrowthzone.com. All identifying information has been changed for reasons of confidentiality. Have a question? Send it to Michael@personalgrowthzone.com.