Open relationships

  • by Ramon Martinez
  • Wednesday January 23, 2013
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Ramon Martinez, PsyD (Photo: Courtesy SFAF)<br><br><br><br><br><br><br>
Ramon Martinez, PsyD (Photo: Courtesy SFAF)

Some of the most meaningful and satisfying clinical work I've done has been helping gay couples build and maintain intimacy, increase authenticity, co-define their relational values, and celebrate their relationship with pride and intention. Some of the couples I worked with just happened to be in open relationships. My own current relationship has transformed from being monogamous after our first six and a half years together to being open for the past two years. This is my first open relationship, and it happens to be the most satisfying, intimate relationship I've ever had.

"Open relationship" is a general term that encompasses many relationship structures that aren't monogamous, where boundaries are agreed upon and honesty about sexual behavior is preferred, and most always practiced. don't typically involve issues of infidelity or sexual deceit because partners have already agreed on their sexual boundaries. Many myths persist about open relationships (which have been practiced for centuries), including that open relationships aren't satisfying, lack true intimacy, and are simply promiscuity, and that although love may exist, partners must not be "in love" with each other. None of these myths are true based solely on the designation and practice of open relationships; certainly no more so than they are for monogamous relationships.

Recent estimates from the gay couples study show approximately equal numbers of gay couples in the San Francisco Bay Area have open and closed relationships. This statistic appears to affirm the experience of many gay men who live, work, or play in the Castro �" it seems like an even mix of couples I know tend to go one way or the other.

The reasons why gay couples decide to open their relationships are as varied as the colors of the rainbow on the pride flag. Some guys have the capacity to love and be intimate with more than one person at the same time. Some couples do it to spice up their sex life because they enjoy sharing pleasure with other guys, couples, or groups. Others choose open relationships as an expression of their rejection of heterocentric biases, which gay men have historically experienced as repressive.

The "rules" of gay male relationships �" or agreements, as I prefer to think of them �" are equally varied. Some couples only play together, others only play separately, and some mix it up. Some couples love to share details with each other about their solo hookups, while others prefer not to talk about it. Some couples have regular fuck buddies, while others prefer to connect with someone new for each encounter. Some couples have condomless sex within the confines and established safety of the primary relationship, and agree to engage only in safer sex outside of the relationship.

In other words, there isn't just one way to conduct an open relationship. What might work for one couple may not work for another. There are common themes regarding all open relationships that are worth exploring, which may positively impact physical and mental health at both the relationship and the larger community level. These issues will be discussed in depth at the next Real Talk forum, hosted by San Francisco AIDS Foundation, on the evening of January 30 at the LGBT Community Center.

At the core of any successful open relationship is communication. Maintaining open dialogue is essential. As relationships mature, needs and desires often change. My partner and I find it valuable to check in with each other regularly to ensure we're still comfortable with our open agreements. This allows us the opportunity to reaffirm the agreements that continue to work for us, and it gives us a chance to renegotiate those that don't.

I encourage couples in open relationships to be mindful of and to communicate about their physical, sexual, and mental health. As a magnetic (HIV serodiscordant) couple, my partner and I have developed and maintain shared agreements that support our overall health goals. We engage in safer sex practices, both within and outside of the relationship. I take HIV medications, which suppress my virus to undetectable levels, improving my own general sense of wellness, and minimizing potential risk to others. Neither of us uses drugs, and we prefer potential sex partners to be sober as well, as using substances can lead to unwanted alterations in decision making. We talk about our respective HIV statuses with prospective partners. We both get tested for sexually transmitted infections regularly. We understand that there are always risks, but we work to minimize the potential risk to each of us, and to the relationship itself through our continued pledge to reevaluate, renegotiate, and recommit to the beautiful relationship and life we have created together.

For some men, an open relationship can be a wonderful and beautiful thing. I recognize it's not for everyone �" even for me prior to my current relationship. But for guys who choose to be open, it can reignite passion in their relationship and create an intense, intimate bond. It can also be challenging and can sometimes lead to the demise of a relationship, which is why honest communication is so important.

I'm not an open-relationship advocate. I am a relationship advocate. My clients have made their own decisions to be in monogamous or open relationships. Each can be equally meaningful and satisfying for those who choose them. If you and your partner(s) are having a difficult time defining and negotiating a shared understanding of your relationship, know that there are conscientious, sex-positive, informed, and skilled psychotherapists and organizations available to support you.

Although this opinion article primarily focuses on gay male relationships, I have the utmost respect and concern for all LGBT and queer-identified relationships. I honor our community, in the broadest sense, for creating and sustaining intimate and meaningful relationships, often in the midst of great sociocultural and political hostility. I leave you with this quote from Audre Lorde: "Without community, there is certainly no liberation."

Ramon Martinez, PsyD, is a post-doctoral psychology fellow at Psychological Services Center in Oakland. The Real Talk forum on open relationships happens Wednesday, January 30, from 6 to 9 p.m. at the LGBT center, 1800 Market Street. The forum is free and open to the public. Learn more at