Everyone is looking for the keys to a successful relationship. Ideas and theories
abound, but few would go so far as to say they have it all figured out. A recent American study
conducted by Dr. Steve Forssell, in co-operation with the University of Denver and the
George Washington University in Washington DC, may not provide all the answers, but it certainly
offers some food for thought - along with some (perhaps) surprising findings, writes
OutUK correspondent Josh Aterovis.
My partner Jon and I actually participated in the Male Couples Relationships Study,
along with 109 other couples from all over the US, and even one couple from the
Netherlands. In order to qualify for the study, couples had to have been together
for at least one year, and both partners had to be HIV negative.
The ages of the
participants ranged from nineteen to sixty-six. The average age was thirty-five. On
average, the couples in the study had been together for six and a half years. The longest
relationship was thirty-seven years.
Due to the rather small sampling, the study is not definitive. The findings clearly state
that more research is needed to replicate the results, and that further study is still
needed in certain areas.
The study broke the couples into three groups in regard to their approach to their
relationship: closed, open, and no established agreement. A closed relationship means
that the couple has agreed that there will be no sexual activity outside their
relationship. Open means that the couple is to some degree sexually non-exclusive.
About half the couples (49%) in the survey described their relationship as closed,
38% were open, and 13% had no established agreement. Of those who were open, the vast
majority of couples had rules about sex outside their relationship.
The study focused on the couples' communication and the effect on their relationship
satisfaction, sexual behaviour, and mental health. To that end, the study was broken
into several sections, some dealing with communication and open-ness concerning sexual
issues, some dealing with sexual behaviour, and others with the differences between the
various types of couples. Some of the findings were predictable and backed up by other
studies, but some of the results were unexpected.
Unsurprisingly, the study showed that the more couples talked about important issues such
as HIV and outside sex, the better relationships they tended to have. The higher the
scores were concerning communication levels, the higher the scores were on measures
of relationship satisfaction, couple consensus, love, commitment, and sexual
satisfaction. Also, the more couples talked, the more likely they were to show
lower depression and lower anxiety levels. Positive effects of talking about outside
sex were especially strong for men in closed couples. The study also found that
the more couples talked about these issues, the less emotionally jealous they were.
However, contrary to expectations, strong couple communication seemed to be unrelated to
less risky sex among open couples and cheating among closed couples, although within
closed couple only, talking specifically about preventing HIV did result in less
risky sex with outside partners.
While on the whole there were few differences between closed, open, and no agreement
couples in most areas, I found what differences there were quite interesting. According
to the statistics, over the course of their entire relationship history, 40% had outside
sex while in an open relationship, while 46% had outside sex while in a
closed relationship. As could be expected, open couples reported the highest rate
of outside sex (86%), but 64% of men in no agreement couples, and 22% of men in
closed relationships reported engaging in outside sex during their current relationship.
What I found surprising was that open couples tended to have
been together longer than closed couples. Open
relationships lasted for an average of 9.4 years, compared to only 4.5 years for closed,
and 8 years for no agreement.
Open couples also tended to be less emotionally jealous than closed
couples and have lower panic anxiety than no agreement couples.
Of course, having no agreement about your relationship might be expected to cause some
stress for some people. As for the jealousy found in closed couples, the better
question might be what came first - the chicken or the egg? Does the closed
relationship cause the jealousy or are people prone to jealousy more likely to
enter into a closed relationship with the idea that there will be less jealousy-invoking
situations? If the jealousy is arising because of the closed relationship, then increased
communication about desire for and temptation of outside sex could be beneficial.
If, however, jealousy is an inherent problem, talking about outside sex would probably
not be an effective strategy to reduce jealousy.
So what does all this mean? Should everyone be in an open relationship? Absolutely not.
An open relationship won't work for everyone. You need to find out what works best
for you and your partner. There were happy, well-adjusted couples in all three
categories. How do you find out what kind of relationship works best for you? There
is some element of trial and error involved, but talking about what you both expect
from the relationship and keeping those lines of communication open as you go are
extremely important. The key to a happy, healthy relationship seems to be communication.
In general, men were less depressed, less anxious, less jealous, and the quality
of their relationships in many areas - couple agreement, general satisfaction,
commitment, sexual satisfaction, feelings of love - were better when couples had
good communication than when they didn't.
There is no magic formula that will guarantee a perfect relationship, but making sure
that you and your partner are able to talk openly and honestly with each other could
solve a lot of problems down the road. If you're already in a relationship that lacks
communication, there is good news. Anyone can learn good communication skills. There
are books, courses, and counselling designed to help couples improve their relationships
through better communication. A search on
Amazon.co.uk for books on gay relationships
will turn up many options, or you can contact your local gay centre, if you have one,
for local resources.
Whatever form your relationship takes, remember to talk to each other - but don't let
it become all talk and no action! Where's the fun in that?
Josh Aterovis, a twenty-something artist and author was born and bred in Maryland and
lives there with his husband, Jon. Aterovis is a Latin pseudonym meaning "black sheep."