Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Difficult conversations

I think everyone would agree that clear and honest communication is very important in long term relationships. However, most people find certain subjects are very difficult to discuss. Anything that significantly changes the dynamic of the relationship would certainly come into that category, and an obvious example of that would be if a guy in a monogamous gay relationship wants to change the rules to make the relationship more open.

One reader of this blog recently left a comment wondering how to start such conversations. He jokingly suggested that in such a situation, a guy might say to his boyfriend "By the way, seeing as we don't screw each other any more, what would you say to us screwing other people"! But as the reader implied, there must be better ways of approaching the subject.

Given that this subject has arisen here recently, perhaps it's no co-incidence that I've also received an email about precisely this topic. The email was as follows:

Dear GB,

I'm in my early thirties and have been with the same man for almost ten years. He's slightly younger than me. When we first met, we learned all about each other - what we were in to, what we liked etc, and we learned all about each other's dirty little secrets.

It was very clear that I was entering in to a monogamous relationship. I said that I'd be up for things like threesomes - he said absolutely no. I enjoyed going out on the scene - that wasn't allowed any more (not prohibited - just not something he ever wanted to do). We ended up having to spend a few months apart early on in the relationship and I said that if he needed to get his rocks off I wouldn't mind, provided he still loved me and wanted to be together - he said definitely no, and said he thought that was my way of saying I wanted to sleep around. So parameters were set very early on - and these have been followed ever since.

We're happy now. I think we're very happy really. I have everything I every wanted on the home front. He is great in every single way - but there's one thing that has been playing on my mind for years - that I have no idea how to approach - sex.

We hardly ever have sex any more. Once a month maybe. Even in the old days when it was regular, I'd always have to be the bottom (which I didn't mind at first, but never got the chance to change as I was, and still am, 'too big'). Now it doesn't happen at all. We just go to bed and sleep. I have to resort to sorting myself out when I can... We never discuss it either... It never comes up. I get the feeling that he thinks this just happens with old couples and that it's part and parcel of married life.

I'm a bit surprised as he used to have a crazy sex drive - and I wonder if this has really dried up. Most of me thinks it has, but part of me wishes he was getting it somehow somewhere else (which would make me feel less guilty for wanting what I want, and ideally change the dynamic slightly).

I've toyed around with the idea of playing around with other people - without him. I used to travel a lot so could have done it regularly - but he still checks my emails sometimes (big trust/insecurity issues) and nearly caught me out once or twice. I also think that I'm too old now for the dishonesty of doing this. I'd rather not lie and dream of some hypothetical lifestyle we could live.

Another big issue I have is that another product of this insecurity issue is that we are totally non-scene. He hates it. We don't have any gay friends at all. All our friends are straight. It kind of feels like I'm back in the closet and I hate it. I want to go out to places like Fire. I want a circle of gay friends (even ones I don't sleep with - which I don't think he thinks is possible).

I guess I really wish we could have some kind of open relationship - like I know some other old couples seem to do. I just don't think he would ever go for it - and I could never bring it up because he'd freak out and accuse me of all sorts.

I also wonder about the logistics of it. It's not that I want to go around screwing other people without him - I want to do stuff with other people with him (from time to time you understand, not daily/weekly!). It'd be awesome and would satisfy my needs... But moving from where we are now to that seems impossible.

So I suppose I have two questions about the same thing... How on earth do I bring this up, express myself and move things on? I keep waiting and waiting, getting older and older. I only get desperate like this and lose sleep over it once every couple of months when I begin to question what we have. 99% of what we are and what we have is perfect - but maybe I'm wrong. Maybe that 1% is actually a lot bigger of an issue than I think.

I do love him and know he loves me. I want to spend the rest of my life with him. I just feel that the roles we've assumed need to change. We need more honesty. I need to stop being made to feel like I'm the only one who could screw things up - like I'm the only one who has sexual urges and desires beyond what we have. I just don't want to get much older and regret things.

Apologies for the mind-dump. I hope you can make some sense of it all. Any advice welcome - before I explode and potentially risk losing a person I care too much about.

Thanks as always.

Thinking about this email, it seems almost impossible to me that the reader's boyfriend could have gone from having a "crazy sex drive" when he was a bit younger to no sex drive these days. Sex is a natural human need. Although one's sex drive decreases with age, these guys are still under 35 so if they're healthy they should still be having lots of sex!

The working assumption for this reader should be that his boyfriend still needs sex and may even be getting some from elsewhere. If that is the case, a big problem for the reader is going to be getting his boyfriend to be open about his desires, because given his original views the boyfriend won't want to lose face. If the reader wants to keep his man, he somehow needs to move their relationship on, but avoiding any desire to win the old argument and prove that his boyfriend's original ideas don't work any more.

Probably even harder than having a difficult conversation is getting a difficult conversation started. To have the desired effect, and also keep the long-term relationship alive, I think it's important to try and move the thinking forward together, as a couple. So it's a problem that the guy who wants to have the difficult conversation has already done a lot of thinking about the issue, because he needs to help his boyfriend catch up somehow. For this purpose, I reckon that it's best for the guy to first introduce the subject to his boyfriend somehow, and talk around the subject but without actually relating things to their own relationship. Relating it to their own relationship would be the next step, perhaps a few days later. Even at that point, it's probably then best to suggest a future discussion, to give the boyfriend time to prepare himself. Springing a difficult conversation on a guy with no notice is likely to mean that it won't go well.

As an example, suppose Adam and Steve have been boyfriends for ten years, and that Adam would like to have a more open relationship. Suppose they've just finished watching an old episode of "Sex and the City":
"Do you think many women in real life are as promiscuous are the girls in that series?" asks Adam casually.

"Probably not!" replies Steve, not really paying attention.

"But think about it," continues Adam, "even gay guys, how many get as much sex as the women in that series?"

"I dunno," replies Steve, getting a bit concerned about where the conversation might be heading, "I haven't really thought about it!"

"Well, neither have I really. Although sex is a basic need for all of us. I certainly wish I got half as much as those women!"
No need to go any further at that point. Another approach might even be:
"Hey Steve," shouts Adam from in front of his computer, "do you ever read blogs?"

"Not often, why?"

"Well you really should read a bit of this one! It's written by a gay banker and he's got some quite interesting ideas, I'll send you some links to a few of his postings."
In that situation, if he wants to be direct Adam might even consider sending Steve a link to this posting!

Having woken up the subject in quite a harmless way, the next step would be to start relating it to their own situation. So imagine that to avoid a long conversation on the subject, for which his boyfriend would be unprepared, Adam decides to time it so that initially they'll only be able to talk for a few minutes. They're driving to meet some friends in their car, and they're just a few minutes from their destination when Adam starts to talk.
"I've been thinking a bit more about how much sex those women in Sex and the City seem to have compared to me!" starts Adam, speaking very calmly, "Do you ever think about that kind of thing?"

"How do you mean?" asks Steve, immediately worried by the topic.

"Well we're both still quite young, and if we're normal, we should still have quite reasonable sex drives. I think I'm pretty normal. Aren't you?"

Steve doesn't immediately reply. Even though he's driving, Adam looks at Steve briefly and shrugs his shoulders to indicate that this subject isn't really a big deal.

"I don't know," continues Adam, "we are boyfriends after all, shouldn't we be able to talk about these things?"

"I guess," concedes Steve after a brief pause.

"Well anyway," replies Adam, still speaking calmly, "We can't talk much about it now because we're almost there, but if we don't get a chance before, let's try and talk about this next weekend. I'd like to anyway!"
Although this approach puts a tension into the relationship which will last until they do actually talk about things, I can't help thinking that the tension is necessary. If a couple has got used to avoiding this kind of subject, the guy that wants to talk about this needs to force the other guy to think about it seriously, and this approach will do just that. Indeed, guys in healthy relationships are able to discuss these kinds of issues.

Throughout this process, it's important to try and anticipate all the possible responses of the other guy, and even his responses to one's responses to his initial responses etc! The more both guys have thought about things, the easier the process is likely to be. The sample dialog illustrates another important point, namely that since the two guys are in a long term relationship, there's no immediate rush to sort things out. The goal should be to try and make progress together, rather than for one partner to have all the ideas and forge ahead leaving the other guy behind.

My suggestion for the next stage of the dialog would be to find a way to assert that because everyone needs sex, if they're not having it together they must be finding it elsewhere or doing a lot of wanking! Indeed, if they're both wanking a lot in private, even that is something that boyfriends in long term relationships should be able to discuss with each other. There are many ways the conversation could lead on from there, however if a couple reach this stage then the dialogue will have to continue until some kind of understanding has been reached.

A guy called Rob from Sydney left a very useful comment on this subject recently, where he said "I found being fully honest in a sensitive way (i.e. not being angry and abusive) was the best approach. The reality is that it made my thinking clearer and also helped my partner." Indeed, that sounds like excellent advice to me :-).

Do any other readers have any other thoughts on this subject?


Ken Skinner said...

It's probably just me, but if I wasn't happy with our s*x life then I'd stand up and say 'look, I'm not happy with our s*x life, what are we going to do about it?'

I think there are a couple of different issues to sort out here. It's not clear (to me) whether the reader actually wants an open relationship irrespective of the the situation at home or whether he just wants to get getting some decent horizontal-time and that could be with hubby.

My guess is that he really wants an open relationship but initially he was getting enough of the good stuff at home that monogamy was an acceptable compromise.

But the good stuff has dried up (at least for now) and hence the 'psychological contract' of the relationship has been broken.

The reader's trying to figure out what to do next and the desire for an open relationship has reared up again. All the stuff that was put on the shelf because of the imposed constraints of the relationship have started to weigh heavy.

It sounds like (as usual) the reader's doing far too much thinking and not communicating enough.

Be assertive. Rather than stew about all these issues, making them much larger in your head than they probably are, open a line of dialogue. What seems to me to be important here, though, is that whenever you're talking about polarising stuff like this, you need to know what your bottom line is. If you 100% want an open relationship then you have to know what you're willing to give up to get it. Conversely, your 'bottom line' going into the discussion may be that you'd be happy if the 'marital bed' was seeing more action.

I think we all spend way too much time beating ourselves up about what may/may not happen if we say this/that, what the other person is thinking etc without having the balls to accept that something needs to *change* for us to be happy.

Step 1: Know what you want and if you *can't* have that, then what reasonable compromise are you willing to accept as a bottom-line.

Oh, and there's no such thing as a 'too big' d*ck... it's the hole that's too small :-)

Anonymous said...

The guy who wrote you the email may claim to be happy ("We're happy now. I think we're very happy really. I have everything I every wanted on the home front. He is great in every single way - but there's one thing that has been playing on my mind for years - that I have no idea how to approach - sex.") but he is obviously not.

He lists several areas in which his lifestyle has been curtailed (he has no gay friends because his partner is closeted, he has no gay outlets - no scene, etc. - and most importantly his partner is simply not interested in having sex) and yet he believes that his relationship is good overall. Maybe it is, but this guy sounds really disappointed to me.

It seems to me like many of your reader's basic lifestyle requirements are not being met.

This man's partner seems unwilling to entertain the fact that his needs and his partner's needs are divergent. I wonder what happens when your reader tries to discuss it with his partner.

My advice to your reader is that he simply needs to have a frank discussion with his partner. He needs to outline the needs which are not being met and make constructive suggestions as to how this can be overcome.

If his partner is not receptive to his partner's needs which are not being met, then I suspect it is not as rosy as his believes or would like others to.

Anonymous said...

As the poster above mentioned, it really doesn't seem like this guys is actually happy in the relationship - there seem to be a few issues (trust, being back in the closet, sex and obviously communication!) that need to be resolved.
If he doesn't feel like he can broach these topics, perhaps he could suggest to his bf that something seems lacking in the relationship and maybe they should see a therapist to get to grips with and get to the bottom of these issues? Therapy can be a great way to get to discuss things that you might not normally feel you can talk about easily with a partner and I think it's always good for couples to hear someone else's point of view - and whilst most therapists shouldn't take any sides, they can certainly help open up your mind and break any deadlock...
Just a suggestion!

Anonymous said...

Hi all,

I'm the guy who sent in the original email. Let me start by saying that GB is fantastic (although he doesn't think he could do a radio show a-la Frasier!).

All the advice and comments here are really good. You all seem to have picked up on some of the underlying issues which I'm beginning to come to grips with.

John F - you've actually hit a big nail on the head...

I want to write more in response but can't right now. I'll be back later today...

Anonymous said...

i understand the sender. He sounds sure that his bf is the one for him for life. though there are issues and he is right that that 1% is bigger than the 99%. the mere fact that he cant even discuss it with his bf is a sure sign that it occupies a large chunk on their relationship. my 2cents? if you think that he is the guy you want to spend your life with, then talk to him straight as if you accidentally blurted it out. then everything will follow. or to play the devil's advocate, your partner could be getting his sexlife from others and he doesnt want you to have an open relationship coz he thinks that if you do it with others, he will also be hurt. t hat being said, he is selfish. but who knows...

Anonymous said...

"How on earth do I bring this up, express myself and move things on?"

How about sending that email you sent to GB to your bf?

Btw you said you almost got caught out a couple of times ("I used to travel a lot so could have done it regularly - but he still checks my emails sometimes (big trust/insecurity issues) and nearly caught me out once or twice. "). Caught out doing what? You said you never strayed so what were you nearly caught out doing?

Anonymous said...

This does seem to be a mess, however it is hard to be objective to the reader for several reasons.
Emails can, although contain alot of information, still be very impersonal and without being face to face with someone and reading their faces, body language even their tone, one cannot get a true indication of their real feelings.
They are also very one sided! Maybe his partner feels the same? or the reason for not haing sex anymore is that the partner himself has lost interest in him. He say's his partner had a 'crazy' sex drive. perhaps over the years of being 'rejected' for sex he contained his 'drive' to that of his.
The first step is to talk openly and realise that there are problems with the relationship. How they are overcome is for the two protagonists to work out...not commentators here....If 99% is good, then both will want to do their upmost to iron out problems in order for their relationship to continue...

good luck and I truely hope that it works out......

GB how you feeling after your Paris trip? any news?


Anonymous said...

on another note, i hope you guys could give me also some advice. www.amoscamilo.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

The matter at hand has both its cultural as well as personal conotations.

Some cultures value the direct approach, honesty and openness more than other cultures, that would favor a somewhat indirect approach. Within the Central European contest, two men would be culturally more inclined to cut down the chase and discuss the matter at hand very directly. Men here have been raised to believe that it is simply 'manly' among men to spill the beans and grab the bull by the horns. You state your case, trying to be 'reasonable' - another Germanic-Slavonic trait - knowing that the other guy(s) will have to cope with it without being too emotional about it. An indirect approach via 'the Sex and the City' or similar would be deemed simply too effiminate or rather strange, at the best.

On a personal level, your relationship is either some sort of a convenient cohabitation arrangement or a more of a profound bond between two men, who are determined to go through the thick and the thin for each other. Personally, I would find it very difficult or indeed, rather impossible to enjoy a relationship that would not allow me to sit around the kitchen table and put absolutely any subject on debate with my partner. Admittedly, this trait has to do a lot with cultural conditioning, too.

My bottomline here would be to agree with my partner that we cannot have secrets and taboos between the two of us. Everything must be on the table at all the times and nothing can be so 'sacred' that it cannot be discussed, debated and possibly changed, if we agree to do so.

Anonymous said...

well said in the last parargraph silvercloud.... too many couples skirt round or ignore issues that affect them or are part of their self..... honesty and being able to talk over all matters is definately the best...if only my prtner would be able to...but alas upbringings seem to decide if a person can

good feelings to all


Anonymous said...

Reading this was way too familiar. Been there...still there...with some small differences. Kenski and John F were spot on in that the communication barrier needs to be broken and I guess equally important is questioning your actual individual/collective happiness bearing in mind what you're weighing up in your mind.

I tossed up writing to gb about what I was going through when I struggled to find someone I could pour all to and it feels so odd to be reading your story. I guess the only difference is that for me and my other half - it got to a point where I couldn't just go on because the lack of sex was important to me and we had the "discussion". I should point out though that a major difference with us was that it was not just one of us that stopped the sex...it just kinda stopped as we let work and other commitments get in the way. (and no...neither of us went off and got it from somewhere else). I am a bit more liberal and would consider a third or experimenting on the side but my other half was not keen on this throughout our relationship and when we started discussing our issues, I worried that we were at a difficult point and I didn't think that such experimentation would be beneficial to working to save our relationship.

Like you, my other half and I met when we were in our early twenties. The difference is that we have only been together five years. We have always been happy together...are very good to each other and love each other a lot. the hard part is that this being the most significant relationship I have had - I don't know what’s next. I feel like we're growing old together far too quickly. I guess it just feels like we got "married and settled down" and I feel like that’s not all that I want from my life. I want to have a healthy sexual relationship with my partner too. There were lots of significant events going on in our lives and I kept delaying having the discussion and eventually – it just happened. To be honest, I can’t even remember the moment now. But I know I tried to raise it lightly and then it just kept going. We started by discussing our sexual relationship because it was an entry point and you can talk about it without necessarily diving into the deep end and questioning your relationship. If the two of you are truly happy, then I guess the other bits don’t apply to you because you just need to sort out the sexual aspect of your relationship. You could talk about how you feel about your sexual relationship, ask him how he feels, and then work back to when things changed and try to work out why together (that way it isn’t just one of you pointing to a situation).

I don’t necessarily agree that being in a long term relationship helps in that there is no hurry to resolve an issue. It can actually be a negative in that it can drag out forever causing pain while it goes unresolved. We gave ourselves a 6 month timeframe to work on our issues. Also, I figured discussing it often is stressful and can get in the way of having “happy time” and can make things worse. So we tried to work out a time each week so that we could talk about it and then not have to address it. Of course, this wouldn’t apply if you were working out a strategy to liven things up in the bedroom because there would be planning and doing in between discussions.

It’s a bit disconcerting that there are insecurity/trust issues all things considered. Its probably not one of the ingredients of a healthy relationship and something you may want to address. Whether you’re having fun on the side is completely separate from you and you other half being able to trust each other and stay out of each other’s emails.

Same with respect to not having any gay friends. That's just odd. We have lots of gay friends, some of whom are really good friends. They are also particularly handy if you need to discuss a "gay" issue as they are likely to understand and relate better.

This wreaked havoc with my mind for awhile and it was such a relief when we started talking about it. I won’t say it is easy but you don’t sound like you can keep going on the way you are without a great deal of frustration and you need to bite the bullet and open up.

Also, you dropped a comment about the fixed roles as far your sexual relationship goes. Its probably quite hard to maintain a monogamous relationship when both partners are not versatile and the fixed positions are not necessarily desired by both sides. Probably something else to keep in mind during the discussions.

I hope this helps and I really hope it works out for you both.


Anonymous said...

Hi all,

Original question-poster here. Thanks again for all these great replies...

Mark - yours in particular was really reassuring. I like the idea of the timeframe.

Well, I was just away for work for a week, but before I left, quite a lot happened. To summarise...

1. Partner came home from work trip.
2. We immediately started talking (his initiation).
3. I was in my "by myself for two weeks" mindset so was very honest - more than I've ever been.
4. Conversation went beyond absence of sex life. I pretty much said that I love him, want to get old with him, but that I needed some time alone, being single. He called it a "sabbatical", which I guess it could be. Risky, yes - especially if he/I decided that we didn't want to get back together at the end, but at least then I would be ready/sure.
5. Realised that this came as a massive shock to him and that what sounded like a great idea in my head could be taken as rather messed up. He pointed out that I was wanting to risk everything for the unknown - which is incredibly hurtful to him (not what I want). Also realised that I wasn't actually sure what I wanted - or rather that I wanted it all.
6. He nearly left me three days in a row but stayed. We talked a lot. I was more honest than I've ever been.
7. Went through whole spectrum of emotions. Was incredibly draining for both of us.
8. Came to a point when he said he was breaking up with me and leaving. "Knowing what I know about you now, if I met you today then I'd never choose to be with you." So we broke up.
9. He left, but came back 5 minutes later.
10. I think we're giving it another shot, but have fallen back into the exact same place as we were a month ago. We haven't even acknowledged what happened that night.
11. I'm back exactly where I was.

This really is confusing. On the one hand, I do love him and love our life together. He is obviously making a huge effort for us, trying to say and do the right things (bedroom is much more active than before). However, given that he now knows so much more about me, I feel like such an arse. Also concerned that he hasn't brought it up at all, but I expect that could be how he's dealing with it.

So, back to square one... Kind of.

Should I wait for him to bring it up?

Anonymous said...

You need a hug.
Should you wait for him to bring it up? From your comment about how the two of you are now back where you were and that you're concerned about him not having brought it up at all, it seems like you feel further discussion is required. If you have something to say, then perhaps you need to raise it. It seems fortunate that your partner initiated the original discussion but based on your comments about how surprised he was when you said much of what you said, you're the one who has done a lot of the thinking and i suppose has things to say...and you probably need to initiate the discussions and get the communication between the two of you going.

You said you were honest - if the two of you plan on being partners life...can/should it be any other way. You said you feel like such an arse...why...because you were open and honest with your partner.

The two of you probably do need to keep discussing. You have been together for a long time. Any issues the two of you are currently going through will take awhile to work out...one painful conversation and/or a few painful days isn't going to resolve all your issues and set the two of you back on a happy path..if that's still what the two of you want at the end of a process. The time-out or sabbatical option you raised is only one option. For you/both of you to want to go down that route, there's obviously some doubt in your mind as to whether you want to continue that relationship. Personally, I would probably go with discussions and trying everything you can before going down that path. If you don't discuss all your concerns and thoughts and take a time-out.. You will either enjoy life on your own and may meet someone new...or you will miss your (former) partner and want to go back. If you do come back, odds are the two of you will still have to deal with many of the same issues.

You said he is making a huge effort which is probably a sign that he really cares about you and wants to save your relationship. Let him know that and that you value any changes he has made, talk through anything that still concerns you and I guess find out what his concerns are.

Sounds like the two of you had a rough couple of days. Going down this path is tricky and you can't be afraid of the consequences. Sometimes people, needs and circumstances change. The two of you have to be happy in the long run regardless so try your best to find out what you think will make you happy and go with that. Don't forget your gut instinct.


Anonymous said...

mm - Original question poster here. Thanks for your advice. We're still together. Issue was brought up, by him. Came to breaking up again but then talked more... So much more came out (from me, which surprised me) which I think levelled things out in a weird way... I'm giving it a few more weeks in my head to see if anything really changes...

Trying my best!

A, London

Anonymous said...

Hey A,

Good luck with that !!! If you need to bounce stuff off someone...you know how/where to find me. Take it easy :)