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The gay relationship dilemma

Building something lasting with your partner takes work

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monogamy, gay news, Washington Blade
monogamy, gay news, Washington Blade

Monogamy can be a path to rich connection.

Why bother with sexual exclusivity? So many gay men ask this question, given all the attractive guys and erotic experiences out there to enjoy.

But I think the allure of sex without limits leads a lot of us to too easily reject monogamy as just a puritanical, deprivational, outdated construct, ignoring that it has something powerful to offer us: the possibility of developing a deep bond with your significant other by shutting the door to distractions and making a commitment to collaborate on keeping sex between the two of you interesting.

And while multiple partners are the easy (and fun) fix for sexual boredom, we’re apt to go for non-monogamy without considering the cost. Opening a relationship frequently leads to hurt feelings, jealousy and distance, no matter how carefully we go about it. And when hot times can be so easily had, why put sustained energy into keeping our primary relationship interesting?

It’s true that non-monogamy is attractive to people of all genders and sexual orientations, but several factors make it almost irresistible for gay men: our general ease of finding willing partners, the tendency to pursue sex separately from emotional intimacy since we didn’t get to date and discover romance growing up, our tendency to define ourselves by our sexual desirability and conquests, our lack of role models and also homonegative feelings many of us absorbed that can lead us to disrespect our partners and sabotage our relationships.

Another universal appeal of non-monogamy: sex with a long-term partner is different from the thrill of hot sex with a new man. It leans more toward closeness and connection and less toward sizzle.  Because of all the hype and glorification that sizzle gets in the gay world and in our larger culture, many of us don’t know that it’s unavoidable and normal for sex to change in this way over time, nor do we see the warmth and attachment of long-term sex as “hot.”

As a result, we’re apt to believe that something is wrong when the passion and intensity of sex simmer down. When things get monotonous, we wonder: “Is it because I’m getting older? Is my partner no longer attracted to me? Is my sex life pitiful compared to the fun my friends are having?”

To feel better about ourselves, we’re likely to start looking for the high of a new experience.  Meanwhile, we don’t consider the possibility of developing something different but pretty wonderful with the guy who’s been right next to us for a long while.

There’s a popular myth that great sex should just happen automatically without any effort. Truth is, if you want to maintain a passionate sex life with your partner, you do have to work at it, just as you must put forth effort for so many things to go well in life. You need to find ways to nurture romance and affection. You need to find ways to keep sex interesting. Rather than lying around waiting to be “turned on” by your partner, you have to take responsibility for igniting your own desire.

We’re all human; the easiest route is always tempting, including when it comes to sex. And gay men are especially vulnerable to being hijacked by the allure of multiple sex partners. The monogamy route can be difficult and more work. It can also be a path to rich connection, and to desire that transcends simple physical arousal and is also stoked by emotional intimacy.

 

Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D, licensed psychologist, specializes in gay couples counseling and individual therapy in Washington, 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 [email protected].

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Advice

Gay son resentful after caring for ill parent

Busy straight brother not pitching in to help

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Dear Michael,

My dad died a few years back and lately my mom, who lives alone, is in frail shape. She lives about two hours away and I’m doing the bulk of the caretaking. This includes visiting her weekly, grocery shopping, managing her medical appointments, and arranging/monitoring her home health aides. I love my mother but I am getting overloaded with the responsibilities.  

I have a brother, Jeff, who actually lives a lot closer to mom than I do. He’s straight, married, and has three young-ish children. And he’s not doing a lot to help.

My mom doesn’t ask Jeff for much because she “doesn’t want to bother” him. He doesn’t volunteer to do almost anything, and I’m reluctant to push him because I know he works insane hours (typical lawyer) and has lots of family responsibilities.

I’m not straight, I’m not partnered, I have no kids, and I didn’t choose a demanding career. But does this mean I have to do the lion’s share?

It seems like my family thinks my life isn’t as important as Jeff’s.

I have great friends whom I love to spend time and travel with. I’ve had a lot less time to do that for the past 18 months. Also, I’ve been single for a long time. I want a relationship, but I don’t have time to be looking when I’m spending most weekends out of town taking care of mom.  

I keep putting my needs aside, because if I don’t, my mom’s going to suffer. But I’m getting increasingly resentful.  I don’t see a great way out of this situation. Do you have any suggestions?

Michael replies:

Yes, I have some suggestions to help you stop feeling so helpless and resentful.

First: Maybe your family thinks your life isn’t as important as Jeff’s, and maybe they don’t. But you definitely treat your life as less important, by not setting any kind of boundary. 

Waiting for your mom and Jeff to honor a boundary that you aren’t setting is not a great idea. You can’t expect other people to do more for you than you are willing to do for yourself.

I get that you don’t want to upset or guilt your mom, or put too much pressure on Jeff when he has lots of family and job responsibilities. But sometimes you’ve got to choose between possibly upsetting others, or feeling resentful and not having time to live your own life. Not an easy choice, and not an avoidable dilemma.

If you do ask your mom and Jeff for what you’d like from them, keep in mind that your power to influence other people is limited. In other words, while you can definitely ask them for what you want, you can’t ensure they will do what you ask.  

If your mom and Jeff don’t change their behavior, you’re not out of luck, not a bit. Because there is one person whom you can greatly influence to improve the situation. 

Of course, I’m talking about you. This is your life to live, and you get to set a boundary around what you are willing to do for others.

Just for example: Maybe you don’t want to visit mom every weekend, so that you have some time for yourself. Maybe you want to leave some things undone some of the time, such as a grocery run. Would mom survive if you missed a weekend visit here and there? Would Jeff (or one of your mother’s aides) step up if you weren’t available to buy the groceries occasionally?

If I were working with you in therapy, I have a sense that at this point, you would argue with me that it isn’t possible for you to stop doing any of the things you’re doing. 

If I’m right about this, you’ve likely got some things to figure out before you can tolerate making changes. This brings us back to the interesting question of why you might believe that your life isn’t all that important.  

A few questions for your consideration: 

  • What might be difficult or scary about setting a boundary?
  • What would you think about yourself if you did put yourself first? 
  • Do you think that only you can/will make sure everything gets done right?
  • Is putting aside your own needs a familiar behavior?
  • What might be appealing about doing so?
  • Why might you believe you are “less than”?

One more point: Don’t stop doing things for your mother just because you’re angry or resentful. You don’t want to act merely out of strong emotion, because then you’re not really in charge. It’s always a good idea to thoughtfully choose how you want to behave. 

So, one more big question to ask yourself, here and always: What are your own standards for yourself, and how do you adhere to them so that you live your life in a way that you respect? 

(Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who works with couples and individuals in D.C. He can be found online at michaelradkowsky.com. All identifying information has been changed for reasons of confidentiality. Have a question? Send it to [email protected].)

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Advice

Am I the only gay man who doesn’t sleep around?

Seeking friend group less interested in drugs, partying

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Feeling isolated because your friends don’t share your values? Time for new friends.

Dear Michael,

I am a 22-year-old man and I am starting to hate being gay.

It’s not that I feel bad about being attracted to men. I would love to date a guy, get married, and spend my life with him. My problem is that the values of the gay men I am meeting have nothing to do with what I want in life.

I’ve been living in D.C. for almost a year now and pretty much all I come across are guys who want to have sex with as many hot men as possible.  

Relationships, commitment, and honesty don’t seem to mean anything, as far as I can tell. I’ve had guys in long-term relationships hit on me or propose threesomes with their partners.  My ex-boyfriend was hooking up on Grindr multiple times per week after we had agreed to be exclusive. When I found out, he told me that it’s impossible for a gay guy not to sleep around.

What is it with gay men? Everyone seems to predominantly focus on sex. Whenever I go out to brunch with my gay friends, people are showing pictures and sometimes even X-rated videos of their latest hookups. Sex isn’t something special, just a recreational activity/competition.  
None of my straight friends act anything remotely like this.

Also, pretty much every gay man I spend time with seems to love getting trashed. I’m not anti-alcohol but I don’t see the fun in getting completely drunk regularly. I’m wary of recreational drugs but guys around me use them nonchalantly all the time. What kind of connection can you have with people around you when all of you are drunk or high on something?

I’ve tried to talk with my gay friends about how I feel but they respond like I’m from another planet, as if I’m questioning why they want to breathe oxygen.

I just think there’s a lot more to life than hooking up, that people should treat each other as more than just potential sex partners, and that sleeping around when I’m in a relationship doesn’t make for a great relationship. But I seem to be the only gay man I know who feels this way.

I don’t want to live the kind of life I see all around me. But I worry that unless I give up my values, I’m going to be lonely.  

Michael replies:

What kind of life will you have if you give up your values? Could you respect yourself or create a life that is meaningful and that you would enjoy?

We all face pressure to conform to those around us so that we will fit in. Doing so is understandable. As you describe, it can be lonely to be on the outside. But betraying who you actually are is a high price to pay for acceptance.  

This is why people come out. And this is why, despite the peer pressure, you are the only person who should decide the kind of life you want to lead as a gay man.

There is little point in discussing the many possible reasons why many gay men dedicate so much time and energy to sex. Everyone is free to choose how they want to live and what they want to focus on. And this includes you.

You can’t change other people or a community. But I’m hopeful you can find a community of friends with whom you are a better fit. I know you are far from alone in feeling as you do, because I regularly hear stories similar to yours in my practice. So rather than settling, keep looking, and look beyond the ways in which you’ve made your social life so far. The friend group you develop may not be as large as your current circle of acquaintances. (Or it may be larger!) In any case, you’d likely find it far more nurturing, and a lot more fun, to spend time with others who are more like-minded.  

It is not easy to feel like the odd man out. And when you want a different life from what most of your peers are seeking, it’s easy to doubt that you are OK. I’m sure you already know this from having grown up gay.  

When we come out, we have the hope that we will finally have a real peer group and won’t feel so different anymore. But that’s not always the case. Gay men are not one homogenous group and many of us have to do some searching to find some people with whom we really connect.  
You are doing important work in thinking about who you are and how you want to live. I hope you will make the choice to honor your time on earth by living it authentically.

Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who works with gay couples and individuals in D.C. He can be found online at michaelradkowsky.com. All identifying information has been changed for reasons of confidentiality.

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Advice

Working from home is taking over our lives

We need to create boundaries and return to offices

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working from home, gay news, Washington Blade

Back in the late 1980s when I was a young financial analyst at a New York bank, I’d leave the office at five and go home to my little Upper West Side studio. With no cable, internet, or cellphone, a landline was my only connection to the outside word till I went back to work the next day.

What was it like? Tranquility is the word. Surrounded by Manhattan, I was as isolated as a monk in a cell, with uninterrupted hours to read a book, cook, or listen to an album. And of course I could go out on the town without a work crisis reaching out to ruin my plans.

I’ve been thinking back to those days a lot, lately. Working as a psychologist, I’m hearing more and more clients complain lately about how much time they’re putting into their jobs. Folks have been working from home for a year now, and as the months have gone by, many of us are spending more and more hours on the job.

What’s going on? I hear a few justifications.

First, many people tell me that they don’t feel they have an excuse not to reply when they get a text or email from a boss or colleague after normal work hours. After all, what else would they be doing? This is especially true of my single clients who don’t have children. Even dinnertime isn’t off limits.

Second, as the pandemic drags on and most of us have so few sources of fun and stimulation, people are turning more and more to their jobs for something — anything — to keep them occupied.

And, of course, there’s the reality that we’re working from our homes. There’s no physical boundary keeping work at work.

So while it’s great not to have to commute or wear pants, working from home is making it even easier for our jobs to take over our lives than they already were. Put bluntly, this sucks.

We all need a break from work. Every day. Your job likely isn’t paying you for 16-hour days. Even if it is, you need to have some fun, rest, and recharge your brain.

Of course we can’t shut ourselves off from the world as completely as I did in those pre-internet/cellphone days. But we need to draw a boundary, even if it means disappointing our employers and colleagues by doing so. I’m not talking about not doing your job. I’m just talking about setting a limit on how much of your life you are willing to give to your work.

Standing up for your own well-being can be scary. There may be real risks in terms of job security and compensation. Only you can decide for yourself when it is vital to say “no.” But advocating for yourself is necessary at times. To quote Hillel, an ancient Jewish sage: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?”

Taking action on your own behalf is also a skill you want to develop, because it will help you in all areas of your life. If you can’t say “no” in order to eat dinner uninterrupted, watch a movie you’d like to see, spend time with someone you love or get a good night’s sleep, you’re going to get chewed up and spit out by others, quite a lot.

Recently, I’ve been reading that D.C.’s downtown is in danger of financial ruin. As many people may not be be returning to the office after the pandemic, some believe that the whole web of service businesses may collapse.

I’m hoping that the doomsdayers floating this theory are wrong, and that as the pandemic ends many of us will head back to the office, at least much of the time. We need to get back to setting a stronger boundary between work and the rest of our lives.

Yes, we’ll be helping our city rebound. And we’ll also be making a big step toward taking care of ourselves, by re-constructing a life that’s about way more than work.

Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who works with gay couples and individuals in D.C. He can be found online at michaelradkowsky.com.

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