Saturday, August 02, 2008

Are gay male relationships different from straight marriages?

About two weeks ago, the fascinating email below arrived in my inbox:

Dear GB,

I came across your blog a few months ago when I was planning a relocation from the U.S. to London for work and have enjoyed reading your thoughts ever since, particularly as they relate to gay relationships. You have some very refreshing views that are a stark contrast to the mid-western U.S. hyper morality that I was raised with. Surprisingly, these conservative traditional values, which have their roots in puritanical Christianity, seem to apply even in the gay community here in the Midwestern U.S. While I am including the expectation of monogamy, I am also talking about an expectation that as long term partners, my boyfriend and I should behave just as a married couple might. Both of us seem to have (mostly) worked through the monogamy thing and have played around with others occasionally (mostly by adding a third person). However there are other aspects of our relationship that, in my opinion, have suffered recently as a result of following expectations that we act like a married straight couple. My partner is a bit less adventurous than myself and also has a successful career here. Consequently, he was not at all interested in coming to London with me, nor was he interested in exploring the possibility of a re-defined relationship that would allow us both to pursue different career paths in different locations, but remain together as meaningful parts of each other's lives.

Who knows if the long distance thing would have worked in the long run, though I figure that since we are, and always have been absolutely crazy for one another that we could figure something out, at least for a few years. Under pressure from my partner, some of our family members and a number of our friends, I did not follow through with my plans to re-locate for the sake of preserving our relationship. Unfortunately, the feelings of frustration I am experiencing at having felt pressured or backed into a corner on this issue are starting to make me question what my actions in this case actually preserved. While I need to respect my boyfriend's prerogative to make the decision he made, and take responsibility for my own decision not to leave my boyfriend to pursue this opportunity, I am aggravated that well meaning straight (and sometimes gay) friends and family members insist on framing our homosexual relationship in heterosexual terms. It feels to me like this pressure to honour the straight relationship paradigm has caused us to act differently than we might otherwise do.

About two years into the now eight year relationship with my boyfriend, I concluded that dynamics between two men in a relationship are different than that of a man and woman, therefore different approaches need to be taken for the relationship to be successful. First, I think most men, straight or gay, were not biologically intended to be monogamous. Our sex drives often prove this. Fortunately, some gay men who are secure with themselves and in their relationships can work things out when they realize that their partner loves them dearly but also fantasizes about other men on a regular basis. In such cases, arrangements can be made for additional playmates, things on the side, or at the very least some kind of understanding when one or the other messes around. However that doesn't seem to be a realistic expectation for most straight couples, especially if children are concerned. Also, in my own experiences two men, even in a loving, long term relationship can be very competitive. I think unlike our straight friends in relationships or marriages, more often than not we need to step out of the way and allow a long leash for each other and trust that our partner will continue to love us even if this means being apart occasionally so that we can realize career or life goals. Again, this is perhaps more difficult in a traditional heterosexual relationship and more so in marriage where a family (children) are often a concern.

I guess what I am getting at is that we have greater opportunities to approach our relationships differently. Allowing straight people, or other gay people to define how we ought to behave, or caving in to pressure to do so, seems to fly in the face of progress gay people have made in achieving better treatment through the years. Maybe asking to be treated, "just like straight people" isn't an appropriate request. Maybe we ought to be asking to have our differences respected. I am curious what you think about all of this GB. I ask because, even though it would make me very sad to walk away from my boyfriend, were such a wonderful career opportunity to present itself again I am not sure if I will be able to make the same decision I recently made. We had a long discussion about this and while my boyfriend acknowledges my points, he does not understand why I cannot just be happy with my work and my life here. This makes me wonder, why should I be the one to compromise?

Reading this reader's email, I can't help thinking that he might have made the wrong decision about the job in London because he didn't anticipate the feelings of resentment that he now feels in relation to the missed opportunity. The result now might eventually be the end of his relationship anyway, but without the shiny new job in London as some kind of compensation. Of course, decisions are always easier in hindsight. It's worth bearing in mind that in all areas of life, the best decisions take into account all the possible outcomes, the decisions that one might make in reaction to all the different outcomes, and with this process being repeated as far as one can see into the future!

Having thought about this a bit now, I think that all modern relationships between well educated people in the Internet age need to be more flexible than the traditional heterosexual blueprint allows for. I think that both gay and straight relationships need the flexibility, although gay relationships probably need it a lot more. As the reader says in his email, even in a loving relationship two guys can be very competitive, so both guys need sufficient space for their careers. Even for straight couples, the settling down in one's early 20's and having kids and living happily ever after was only designed to last into one's 40's. In the developed world, thanks to modern medicine we can all expect to live much longer than that these days!

One of the problems is that different people have different attitudes to life as they grow older. It's usually not possible to see this at the start of a long-term relationship, so incompatibilities can arise if the attitudes turn out to be significantly different. The reader who sent the email is clearly the type of guy who still enjoys new challenges, and perhaps having exhausted the possibilities where he's currently living, he's now looking further afield. But as the reader says in his email his boyfriend is a less adventurous type, and if he's achieved a sufficient level of comfort, perhaps he has no further ambitions and is happy living out his life with as few disturbances as possible.

In fact, I don't know why the reader's boyfriend was so unprepared to try a long distance relationship, for a while at any rate. These days technology makes such relationships much easier, because thanks to the Internet there are so many ways to communicate. Apart from good old phone calls (which can be free using e.g., there's email, txt msgs, webcams and even blogging! Although I miss my boyfriend P, we communicate most days in some form or another, so even when we're apart we still know exactly what's going on in each other's lives.

My experience is that in the long term it's counter-productive to try and keep people confined when they have aspirations beyond their confinement. I think this applies just as much to the old communist governments, who used to try and control their populations, as it does to people like this reader who feels constrained by his relationship. I'm sure my readers here are bored of my views on monogamy, which is another example of a pointless constraint of course, but I have a work-oriented example of this from when I was in charge of a team of about a dozen people a few years ago.

I became fed-up of all the calls that my team members would get from head-hunters and recruitment consultants, because I didn't want to lose any of my staff. So I devised a plan for one of the secretaries to answer all the phone calls which came through on the general enquiry phone number. The plan was never implemented because my boss hated the idea.

"You can't do that GB," he said, "imagine our liability if a phone call about some family emergency for one of your team members fails to get through!"

"Everyone's still got their direct phone lines, as well as their mobile phones for that," I replied.

"Yes but even so, you're missing the point! It's much better to keep your team happy, so they won't want to resign because they know that working for you in their current role is the best choice for them. They actually need to be in touch with the job market to know that!"

I didn't fully appreciate his argument at the time, however I now fully accept that he was right. Constraints on people's behaviour are counterproductive in the long term. Looking at the big picture, I think the only legitiamte constraints relate to thinks like murder! Alcohol prohibition, drug control, bans on prostitution etc all end up as failures.

Back to the reader's situation and one of the problems is that the grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence, even though the reality can often be very different. An employee who doesn't realise that might make the wrong choice regarding his job, and in a work context the decision is probably not reversible. But in the context that the reader described in his email, he might have quickly returned to his boyfriend in the USA if the new job in London didn't live up to expectations. Now though, unless he can find some new challenges locally, or unless he can find another distant career opportunity but this time with his boyfriend's blessing, his relationship probably won't survive.

Do any other readers have any thoughts on these matters?

1 comment:

Tapak said...

I can relate very much to it as I am going through similar situation. I use to fight strongly about monogamous relationship with other gay friends when I came out 5 years back. Born in a very conservative family where even drinking was a bad habit it was difficult for me to accept an open relationship. But I realized that I am not the monogamous type.

But I know friends who have pride in their monogamous relationship. What is important is that you have to be happy in your life and honest with your partner. It is more difficult when one of the partner is different type. And there are gay people and straight people who like to be single. It is their choice if it makes them happy.In Europe I know straight couples being in open relationship. It is not that gay people are different or something. It is accepted more in the gay community. There are many straight guys and girls in Europe having an open relationship because it is more accepted. But cant imagine something like that in Southern India.People behave in a particular way because of external forces around you.

Talking about long distance relationship, I am going through a similar situation. I thought it was easier for me to be away from my partner for just one year. But now I am in a situation, I want to finish what i am doing now and go back. Everyday I think about it. I am not sure if it is due to the external stress I have now which made the situation worse. May be if you have lot of good friends around you and enjoy the work you are doing, you wont feel that much bad in a long distance relationship. I didnt had much problem being away in the first 3 months. But when you are away you also learn how much you miss your partner. That way it helps to strengthen the relationship when you are away for sometime. But not for more than a year.

Gay Banker, Nice to see that you are still blogging and helping lot other people.