Tony Zimbardi: Born-Again Monogamy

Some of you may be familiar with the term “born-again virgin”, a phrase adopted by a small segment of the heterosexual population who had been previously sexually active and have now chosen to save themselves for marriage. Less familiar may be the smaller – but seemingly growing – number of gay male couples who previously had engaged in an open relationship but who are now contemplating re-closing their bedroom doors.

In the seminal book The Male Couple (McWhirther & Mattison, 1985), the authors present research suggesting that 95% of all gay male couples together longer than five years engage in some sort form of non-monogamy (anything from “three-ways only” to “don’t ask, don’t tell” agreements). So you may be asking yourself: What’s this “born again monogamy” really all about? And why would anyone do it? Well, let’s take a look first at how three couples came to contemplate monogamy again, and then I’ll offer some therapeutic tips for those who may be swayed to give it a try.

I’ll call my first couple Ted and Robert (the names and all identifying information have been changed). Ted, 58, Robert, 42, have been together for eight years, and like many couples, noticed that sometime after the two-year mark the sex between them really slowed down. Ted felt it was part of his normal aging process. Together they agreed to open their relationship for a period of one year. Over time, however, Robert began to feel jealous (“When it’s just the two of us at home, Ted never licks my ass with that much enthusiasm!”) and suggested they return to monogamy at the end of the year. Ted, however, feeling his sexuality was renewed by a “variation in partners,” didn’t want to go back to monogamy. At that point, the two contacted me and entered couples counseling.

Rasheed and Tom are a couple in their early 30s, together for six years. They opened their relationship after three years with the agreement of “no second-time encounters” with the same guy. Tom, however, confessed to Rasheed that he had broken their rule multiple times and had fallen for Mark. Tom suggested Rasheed consider allowing Mark to enter their relationship as a third partner. Rasheed agreed to try this temporarily and quickly became very emotionally attached to Mark as well. Noticing this attachment, Tom became jealous and insisted that they end their three-person relationship with Mark immediately. All three felt incredibly hurt by the experience, and Rasheed and Tom each sought out his own therapist to deal with the experience.

Finally, Jose and Ricardo, both 34, came into counseling right after their first anniversary. They had met at a circuit party, both under the influence of crystal meth, had a whirlwind romance, decided on monogamy, and moved in together after one month. Monogamy lasted until the third month, when they were invited to a sex party by their circuit friends. Shortly thereafter, Ricardo was diagnosed with a drug-resistant STD, which ultimately required two rectal surgeries; their sex life died off as a result of the stress. A year later they find themselves emotionally close, but sexually distant.

In all three of these scenarios, drama occurred when couples who started out hoping to enhance their sex lives through an open and honest relationship found that complications such as jealousies, insecurities, and STDs can really take a toll on a relationship; all three decided to give monogamy a try once again.So, if you and your partner are considering closing your bedroom door once more, here are my five tips:

  1. Agree there is a problem: Identify what needs to change, set a trial time period, and then check back with each other.
  2. Fully explore your ambivalence: Weigh the pros and cons of monogamy vs. and open relationship.
  3. Prepare for born-again monogamy: Figure out in advance how you are going to keep the sexual excitement alive (role playing, toys, props, etc.)
  4. Seek support from other monogamous couples: It takes a village!
  5. Normalize a “slip” (someone breaking the agreement): Agree that all is not lost if it happens; pick yourselves up, dust yourselves off, and start over again. Rome wasn’t built in a day – behavior change happens slowly and not always easily, so don’t be too hard on yourselves.

Above all, allow your relationship to be fluid, and get comfortable with the idea of renegotiation. Born-again monogamy may not be the answer for all couples, but clearly can be a logical consideration. After all, as a community, we’ve always been the trendsetters; we can’t sit back and let our heterosexual counterparts be the only ones taking daring new risks in the bedroom, now can we?

About the Author

Tony Zimbardi, PSY.D. is a psychotherapist in private practice in West Hollywood. He held the mental health chair on the L.A. County Commission on HIV and was board president of Being Alive, L.A. Tony Zimbardi can be reached via his website: www.drtonyzimbardi.com

This article was first published in the October 11, 2005 issue of Frontiers (Vol. 24, No. 11, p.49ff). Used here with permission.

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