Monogamy in Gay Couples

Dr. Olson,

I don’t know how to ask this, not even sure if I should, but I will. Given that there is a difference in sex drives between younger and older men, and you are significantly older than your partner, did that ever create conflict for you and/or him, and if so, how did you resolve it?

You may ask me anything—my life’s pretty much an open book—but I also suspect that you are more interested in your own sex life than mine, and I’m guessing you are concerned about differences in sexual desires between you and either a much older or younger partner.

I don’t usually write about my sexual relationship with my husband because it involves unfairly exposing him, so let me address this in more general terms. Although some say that gay men are incapable of sustaining a monogamous relationship, I believe that gay and bisexual people are probably just more open than heterosexuals in speaking about the difficulties of being monogamous.

The majority of people say they value monogamy, but the truth is we’re not very good at it. What we want to do, what we say we are doing, and what we actual do are often quite different.

All couples should establish rules about fidelity early in their relationship. At the beginning, it is easy to be idealistic while establishing those rules, but two people in a committed relationship can have different ideas about what that commitment means. Values that grow out of a religious or cultural tradition are often the most difficult for an individual to resolve, and when those conflicts are brought into a couple’s relationship, it becomes even more complicated. I also believe that gay couples may be better than straight couples at negotiating these rules because straight couples may have a higher presumption than gay couples that the relationship will be monogamous. Gay, straight, and bisexual people are not innately different, but heterosexual couples have a much longer tradition of marital vows that often include “forsaking all others.”

Age and social class also contribute to tension around the rules of sexual behavior. When we’re young, we are apt to be more idealistic about monogamy, but we also cannot assume that an older person’s sex drive will always be lower than the younger partner’s.

Why is monogamy so difficult? As a relationship matures, sex can become somewhat routine and predictable and lose the excitement of a young relationship. The novelty and unpredictable nature of an outside partner holds promise of adding sexual excitement to our lives. If you believe in science as I do, you realize that we are all random descendants of hypersexual ancestors, and religion and culture have created a false narrative that we are something less than hypersexual.

Although we know that the sex drive does diminish with age, an older man’s sex drive and his need to explore his sexuality may be quite high, particularly if recovering from an earlier relationship. (Remember what it was like at age fifteen?) The sex drive is also affected by illness, medications, drugs, alcohol, and stress levels, all of which can vary for each individual over time.

Dopamine is the brain chemical associated with pleasure. The sex drive combines anticipation and opportunity, and social media and swipe apps have driven dopamine levels to unprecedented levels. Throw in an element of risk, and dopamine levels get higher. And dopamine makes us crazy and sometimes causes us to do what we may not want to do. Meanwhile, varying levels of oxytocin, the “bonding hormone,” may create stronger needs to bond with one partner over another.

Should sex outside of a committed relationship be a deal breaker? It depends on who and what you believe, and I can’t advise you on that. For millennia, men have had sex with prostitutes without considering it to be unfaithful to their spouses. Some spouses agree. And many men who have sex with men but are married consider a casual sexual relationship with another in a similar way. They say it’s about only pleasure, not commitment, and they don’t see it as a threat to the security of their marriage and family stability.

All relationships have rules, but rules can be renegotiated as life changes. I’ve started to believe that infidelity is defined by a loss of loyalty, not what one does with his penis. But to experience infidelity in a relationship, fidelity must have preceded it. Some spouses are not jealous because their partner takes a lover but because he or she spends too much time and energy with another person. But these thoughts are a definite departure from the values with which I was raised.

Conflict always exists between who we want to be and who we really are. We need to have values and ideals, but we also need to accept our humanity and realize that sometimes we will fall short. One of the benefits of growing older is that as rational human beings, we can take charge of values and ideals and modify those we inherited.