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What's Monogamy Got to Do With Marriage?
Study Notes and Anecdotes From LGBT People in Committed, Non-Monogamous Partnerships

By Olivia Ford

June 25, 2013

What's Monogamy Got to Do With Marriage?

As marriage-equality wins ignite in U.S. states and nations throughout the world, the question of what makes a family has been drawn into mainstream debate. The vital importance of marriage rights for same-sex couples, whether or not they're "just like straight couples" (whatever that means!) cannot be overstated. However, one can't help but wonder whether the focus on gay marriage left-handedly stigmatize partnerships that don't look "just like a traditional marriage."

What about polyamorous partnerships, open relationships, and other points on the broad spectrum of non-monogamy, in which many people both within and outside LGBT communities have been engaging successfully since time immemorial? LGBT people have been building their own versions of healthy, loving relationships and families for generations, without support or sanction from the state -- and in many families, monogamy is not part of the picture.

This Pride Month, let's take a moment to celebrate and learn from partnerships whose definitions were drawn without a clear social blueprint -- and gather insights that could benefit any healthy relationship.

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Lanz Lowen and Blake Spears

Lanz Lowen and Blake Spears, Longtime Partners and Co-Authors, The Couples Study; San Francisco, Calif.

How did you decide, early on in your decades-long relationship, that you both wanted a committed partnership that was non-monogamous?

At the time, in the mid-'70s, gay sex was considered a political act and there was almost a norm around the more sex, the more liberated you were. Being a couple during that time was unusual, if not actually frowned upon. We wanted to be in a primary relationship, but we were influenced by the ethos of the time. Also, neither of us had been "out" for more than six months; we were in our early 20s, and we felt very inexperienced. It seemed natural, that after about six months together, we began talking about how we might continue to explore our sexuality with others.

Our study wasn't proselytizing non-monogamy, but we do advocate the discussion of how same-sex relationships may be similar and different from heterosexual relationships. Historically, gay couples have had to "invent" their relationships -- to figure out their own road maps. Perhaps for this reason, there is greater diversity in what our relationships look like.

Shawn(ta) Smith

Shawn(ta) Smith, Librarian and Writer; Brooklyn, N.Y.

What does being polyamorous mean to you?

I have often thought of relationships that included one person to another as a stifling act of anti-community -- primarily because I had been involved in relationships that were all-consuming, often prioritizing time with that person over time spent on personal projects and community work. It was difficult to make connections that were real and tangible and boundless when in a relationship. And yet, there was real love to share too; I wanted the flexibility to do all of these things -- have substantial and meaningful boundless connections, both romantic and platonic, while still being open to receiving love and offering love in sustainable ways. ... It is the bond that I have with Jaz, our strength and security with each other, that has led us to embrace the possibilities of stronger connections with others.

Read Shawn(ta)'s full story of her longtime partnership with Jasmine.

(Credit: Katia Ruiz)

Kirk Grisham

Kirk Grisham, Project Director, You & Me Study; New York City

What kinds of messaging do you come across regarding non-monogamy in public health work, and how have you seen those messages challenged in your work?

Research hasn't caught up to exploring the ways that particularly MSM engage in relationships. I'm interested in thinking about people's motivations for monogamy. Historically we've largely been taught that you're just supposed to be with one person and that's just how things work. But for gay or same-gender-loving men, I think because of the relatively unique impact that HIV/AIDS has had on them, it's kind of seeped into how public health, the media and culturally we think about these relationships -- it's safe to say that public health typically encourages fewer partnerships, because statistically you're at less risk with fewer partners; however, I don't know that that's necessarily a good thing -- we don't necessarily tell heterosexual men and women to have less partners because that means less risk -- so I'm really interested in how that translates.

I hear a lot from couples who often associate HIV risk with casual sex, or sex outside of their primary relationship -- they often don't want to have sex outside of their dyad because that means risk for HIV. Choosing monogamy is not necessarily always an issue about intimacy or possessiveness or reflecting traditional ideas of what a relationship "should" look like, but it's a way that I think fear around transmission of HIV has been ingrained into the ways we think about what kinds of relationships men should have, and what can be safe. I think a lot of people in public health will say, "Well that's fine" -- but that's why I'm a little bit more wary about the ways people make meaning of their relationships, and the need to be monogamous just to avoid HIV; it warrants more dialogue and inquiry.

Justin B. Terry-Smith

Justin B. Terry-Smith, Blogger, Husband, Father, Leatherman and HIV Advocate; Laurel, Md.

How did you two originally decide to have an open relationship?

My husband was the one who showed me that being open about your emotional, physical, mental and sexual needs would be the only way you will get those needs met. I believed in monogamy when we first met and he didn't. I asked him about it and I began to understand why he led his life the way he did. So I tried it and loved it. I found out that as long as I was open and honest about the partners and with the partners, I didn't feel disrespectful.

Now let me say that it took some time for me to get used to openness in our relationship, but I wouldn't want it any other way. It took me so long because I was born into a religion that practices monogamy. But in their holy book it says you can execute your wife if she is not a virgin, you can't eat shell fish or lay with a man as if with a woman. That religion was not going to go well with me, so I changed to paganism, which was more consistent with my beliefs. In paganism it is not a bizarre thing to see triads or even more partners.

Sigrid Ellis

Sigrid Ellis, Writer, Air Traffic Controller and Homeschooling Parent; Saint Paul, Minn.

How do you talk about polyamory to your kids?

Jennifer and I have been together about 17 years. Our daughter is 10 years old, and our son is 9. Jennifer and I met when my partner at the time wanted to date her partner at the time. Nothing about that situation worked out the way anyone planned, but I like where I've ended up.

I am always utterly baffled by this question. You talk to kids about polyamory the way you do any other part of your life!

But then I realize that many people perhaps don't bother to explain their lives to kids. My partner and I, we're geeks. We're raising geeky kids. We explain everything, all the time. "Mother and I are partners, and we are a family, and you two are our kids. I am dating Other Person" usually does the trick.

People seem to get squeamish about saying "dating." But here's the thing: My kids, when they were young, didn't care about anything that would make an adult squeamish. Kissing is kissing.

I think most kids take their cue from how weird adults are being about a thing. If poly is normal, it's normal. We had a harder time explaining book-burning to them when it was in the news. People dating more than one person at a time is perfectly normal; censorship and destruction of literature is weird and disturbing.

Lanz Lowen and Blake Spears

Lanz and Blake

In your professional and personal experiences, in light of the current public marriage-equality conversation, has there been an uptick in stigma toward people whose relationships don't mirror the monogamous-marriage model?

Notwithstanding a few "attacks," we've been surprised at how little this has come up. Our expectation was that we would encounter resistance and animosity, and the idea that talking about non-monogamy was counterproductive to the fight for marriage equality. For the most part, this has not been our experience. In general, non-monogamy is not openly discussed in the community, in or out of the context of marriage. This was part of our reason for conducting the study. We heard from many couples that they don't feel comfortable discussing these types of issues even with other couples. Ironically, "open, honest communication" is at the top of everyone's list of what helps.

Shawn(ta) Smith


Why did you and your partner choose marriage?

I believe all homes look differently queer, and it is up to us to build those homes as we see fit. Jaz and I chose each other as home. As long as I have Jaz, I am always home. We chose marriage because we were already connected for life, have a home life together, work together, but finally, want to have a child together. That will mean merging our home with our community and our families. As we begin this expansion of our home life, we felt it important to publicly express our union. This move toward marriage is not just for an extension of community, it is also and primarily for our families. For our grandmothers and mothers and fathers and siblings and our future child, to know and appreciate our love, as much as we do.

(Credit: Katia Ruiz)

Lanz Lowen and Blake Spears

Lanz and Blake

How are gay marriage and non-monogamy operating alongside one another?

A considerable number of our "non-monogamous" couples were either already legally married or were making plans to wed. They saw marriage as a proclamation of their love and the power of their relationship (and secondarily as a political right). Monogamy vs. non-monogamy in terms of marriage didn't seem to enter into their thinking. At least from this side of the fence, it appears that gay marriage doesn't necessarily equate with being monogamous.

Our study was focused on open relationships, but we had great conversations along the way with couples who were in very rewarding long-term monogamous relationships. The espoused myths in our community are clearly erroneous. It's not true that honest, long-term monogamous relationships are non-existent, impossible or unsatisfying. It's also not true that non-monogamy is inevitable or non-enduring. We think it's preferable to support and sanction gay couples and gay marriage within the larger society, but also push for greater openness and communication about our actual relationships and what works for us.

Kirk Grisham


Can you share an example of findings regarding the ways male couples negotiate HIV risk when it comes to outside partners?

Colleen Hoff, principal investigator of the You & Me Study, at San Francisco State University, actually presented at the 2012 International AIDS Conference about how having sex with outside partners, threesomes, was a way for partners to remind themselves and construct boundaries for their relationships but also to negotiate safer sex, because it often involved a conversation and planning.

A lot of times we see in our couples that they have rules or conditions for relationships: "We can have outside partners but you have to use a condom, or we can have outside partners but there's going to be some sort of positioning rule" -- often it reinforces, in a positive way, risk reduction within the couple; but also helps them think about risk reduction outside of the couple.

Justin B. Terry-Smith


What makes your polyamorous partnership work?

Communication is what makes it work. Being honest and open with your partner is the thing that will help it survive. Also making sure there are borders put in place. There have to be "Dos and Don'ts"; without those, life can be like a map that leads you off the edge of a cliff.

Sigrid Ellis


What do you think "makes polyamory work"?

A friend of mine very astutely pointed out that while poly does not create huge amounts of relationship friction and drama, it will highlight and amplify any pre-existing conditions. I think that what makes poly work is being scrupulously self-honest and a good communicator. Everyone already knows about the good communication part. But if you are lying to yourself it doesn't do anyone any good.

Lanz Lowen and Blake Spears

Lanz and Blake

Based on your experiences and study findings, what are some key words of advice you want to leave with people negotiating the openness of their relationships?

  1. You have to come to some kind of agreement about opening or not opening the relationship. If the agreement isn't solid with strong commitment from both parties, it's likely to rear its head repeatedly and in ways that aren't very re-solvable.
  2. You have to find a way that works for BOTH of you and fits your relationship. We were struck by the diversity of models and their tendency to evolve over the years.
  3. Honesty and forthrightness are essential. Anything less quickly begins to undermine intimacy and trust.
  4. Communicating directly and frequently is extremely helpful, although even couples who espoused this sometimes said they didn't do it enough.

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