Above: Vintage Fire Island photography by Tom Bianchi.
Ok, here goes. This will be my first post following my breakup. It will probably be the first of a few “breakup posts.” Sorry in advance.
We split about two months ago. Since then I’ve been driving around L.A. in a daze. This city kills you when you’re depressed. It’s bright and glamorous and perfect and makes you feel very alone.
The 90’s-era donut shops, pho bars, and boutique fashion shops on Melrose Avenue are filled with messages and portents. I left him on the East Coast for this city filled with HBO billboards and plastic surgery centers. Celebrities with massive teeth smile down at me in Hollywood like gods. Do you hear me? I offer up my sorrows to you, Kim Kardashian.
There are many reasons why we broke up — no breakup can be traced back to one single problem — but I feel certain we would still be together if I hadn’t pushed him to expand our relationship limits past his comfort level.
We were not monogamous. Like most gay couples in their first two years, we played together as a couple. We found thirds and occasional playmates.
The relationship started casually. Neither one of us was planning on dating. I was graduating college, he was transferring into college from Venezuela. We knew there would be a span of time that he’d be in school and I’d be out of it, and we knew the possibility of us lasting through that time would be tough.
But we did last through it — longer than we were expecting. I got a job, he kept going to class, and the dates kept happening, and the sex got better, and something incredible happened: We became an adult gay couple. I fell in love with him.
He was understanding and sensitive, gentle and mature. We had great times. Some of them were so perfect that I don’t want to ever write about them. It feels wrong to use them for anything more than good memories I can hold on to. They are too perfect to touch.
Somewhere along the way, my pushing started. I guess “pushing” is a soft word. I was complaining. It got worse after we moved in together. We were arguing every weekend about what I called his “limitations.” His “limitations” became a nasty word, something I held against him.
He made the right decision. He broke up with me.
So this leads me to the discussion of the night: monogamy and nonnonmonogamy.
He and I agreed on nonmonogamy when we started dating. Later, to our lasting detriment, we realized we had different ideas of what “nonmonogamous” means.
In my book, there is a vast grey area between monogamous relationships and open relationships. “Open” means you can do whatever you want — you can fuck anyone at any time without restrictions and you don’t have to tell your partner. In my experience, completely open relationships are less common in the gay world. Even if guys call their relationships “open,” I think most of them aren’t. Most gay couples seem to practice something along the grey spectrum between monogamous and open. These are nonmonogamous relationships.
For some, “nonmonogamy” means you do stuff outside your relationship with certain people, or only on certain occasions. For others, nonmonogamous pairings are ones where you play as a couple — you have threesomes or meet up with other couples (what we did). A lot of kinky gay couples share a boy. If you’re kinky but your partner is not, you may have a Sir, Daddy, Master, Dom, boy, slave, pig, pup — a regular playmate who plays with you in a certain Dom/sub capacity. Many self-described “monogamous” gay couples have regular occasional playmates — which means they are, in fact, nonmonogamous.
The pitfalls of these relationships are many. Jealousy gets involved, as do feelings of inferiority. These relationships require strong communication skills and total honesty (as do, it must be said, all successful long-term relationships). When they’re good, they’re the best — they work, and they work really well. When they’re bad, they fail.
The differences between nonmonogamous couples that make it and the ones that don’t go back to the same rules that apply to all dating: If you’re willing to talk things out, communicate your feelings kindly, and be as honest as possible, the relationship has a significantly higher chance of working. If you don’t do these things, it doesn’t.
Despite the pitfalls, jealousies, and all the different emotions from different people that you are required to navigate, I believe nonmonogamous relationships are better for everyone, gay and straight, because they allow people to meet their own sexual needs without cheating or dishonesty — things that destroy otherwise good and healthy monogamous relationships every day.
The fact is, we’re not meant to be monogamous. As a species, we are not designed for it. If humankind was meant for monogamy, we’d have an easier time doing it. Instead, the divorce rate is insane — so much so that, in our social dialogue, we assume failure. We expect it. All over the world, people no longer anticipate happy relationships.
We are supposed to be happy, and we’re supposed to have happy relationships. The problem is that we need to collectively let go of the idea that happy relationships are ones in which sexual committment and sexual exclusivity are assumed, expected, or required. The healthiest, strongest, most indestructible couples I know are not sexually exclusive to each other. They accept the fact that sex and love are different things and they make allowances for their partners to experience different kinds of pleasures with different people. The people who tout the old-fashioned necessity of sexual exclusivity, equating exclusivity to happiness, so often painfully discover that the opposite is true: sexual exclusivity spells frustration, lack of sexual fulfillment, resentment, and cheating.
Put more simply: Just because someone loves you doesn’t mean they will always want to sleep with you and only you. That’s not how love works. That’s not how our bodies work.
What was the mistake we made? There were many. We may have naturally gotten to a place where we both wanted the same kind of nonmonogamous setup. That is, after all, the common gay relationship narrative. Most gay couples start off monogamous, then gradually open things up as the years pass.
Many of us start playing with others as a couple, do that for a few years, and then try playing solo. You have to build up that trust. You need those years and that time and that communication to go to the next step.
I didn’t want to put in the time. I wanted a specific nonmongamous setup as soon as possible and I wasn’t getting it fast enough.
We had two different ideas of what ideal nonmonogamy was, and we didn’t communicate these views very well. (Be honest. Communicate honestly. Respect your partner’s limits.)
Tips on nonmonogamy: Forget what kind of relationship you want and let the relationship happen naturally. If you’re not where you want to be in a few years, start considering whether or not this relationship is right for you. When you’re new, let yourself be new. Let your relationship figure out what it is before you try to shift it into something else.
Dan Savage started monogamous. He eventually discarded monogamy to become one of the biggest champions of nonmonogamy I know. He’s currently in a “monogamish” (his term, not mine) relationship with his partner of 18 years. They got married in 2012.
“I attempted monogamy in my 20s,” Savage told Out in a 2014 article. “Life is long, and what you want at 25 isn’t necessarily what you want at 35 or 45. Every gay male couple I know in a serious and successful long-term relationship is nonmonogamous, even the ones who were monogamous the first 10 years.”
Nonmonogamous relationships aren’t without jealousy or problems — no relationship is. You’ll have to talk through them.
I wish I had talked through our problems better.
I miss the hair on the back of his neck and what it smelled like when I spooned him. There has been a gap next to me in bed and I’ve been counting down the days until he fills it again. I cannot face the fact that he never will.