Why Do Gay Men Have Problems Forming Long-Term Intimate Relationships?
It’s a big question with no simple answer, but there are lots of reasons that contribute to the difficulties that gay men have in finding a long-term partner.
Chicago therapist Brian Rzepczynski is known as The Gay Love Coach, and he recently interviewed me on the difficulties that gay singles and couples experience.
In this interview, I discuss:
- Why gay men have trouble making their relationships work in the long term.
- Some of the most common issues gay men are struggling with.
- Some of the most common gay couple problems.
- The promises and pitfalls of gay open relationships.
- What ingredients constitute a healthy gay relationship that couples can aspire towards.
- Tips and strategies for single gay men and gay couples.
- How gay couples can confront these blocks to promote relationship success.
Click the play button below to listen to the interview or read the transcript below.
Brian: We are on the air with Clinton Power of Clinton Power + Associates, and he is based out of Sydney, Australia, down under, and he’s a specialist in relationship and couples counselling. Welcome, Clinton.
Clinton: Thank you, Brian. It’s great to be here.
Brian: Great. Well, we’re glad to have you. Thank you so much for joining us. I was wondering maybe if you could just tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and what you do.
Clinton: Certainly, yes. As you said, I’m down under. I’m in Sydney, Australia, and I am a relationship counsellor and Gestalt therapist. My practice primarily works with singles and couples with relationship issues. I’m also the founder of an online counselling directory called Australia Counselling, which is a free directory for finding counsellors and psychologists in Australia.
Last year I wrote my first book. I wrote a book called 31 Days to Build a Better Relationship, which is now available in the Kindle Amazon Store, and it’s been downloaded over two thousand times. I’m very pleased about that.
Brian: That’s great. Congratulations.
Clinton: Thank you. Thank you. And my other specialty is working with gay men, so that’s why we’re speaking today.
Brian: Perfect. Today we’re going to be talking about blocks that can get in the way of gay men being able to achieve success in their long-term relationships. I was wondering if you could just maybe tell us a little bit in your perception about why do gay men seem to have such a difficult time making their relationships last?
Clinton: Yes. This is such a big question, Brian. I’m sure you see this all the time as I do.
Brian: It is.
Brian: We’d be very rich men I think if we could discover the true formula to this.
Clinton: Oh, my goodness. We would. I often feel really sad about the situation, because I don’t know about you, but I work with a lot of single gay men, and a lot of them are very lonely. They’re certainly things that go through my practice around loneliness, or difficulty to find partners that are interested in long-term relationships, and commitment, being in a committed relationship.
I think there are probably so many different reasons for it, but primarily when I reflect on this question it really comes back to that on some level all of us as gay men are injured in some way. We’ve been injured through the process of growing up gay in a predominantly straight world, and I think it’s through being injured that we can have a lot of difficulty in forming intimate relationships, because part of the struggle of growing up different, having to hide your sexuality, having to be someone and try to be someone different from who you really are, really starts to affect your trust in people and your ability to open your heart and be fully ho you are with someone else, which, of course, is the basic building blocks of any intimate relationship.
Brian: Absolutely. We don’t have a template, or a role model, or a socialization process for how to relate with other as intimate partners as our heterosexual counterparts do, so it makes it really challenging.
Clinton: That’s a great point. Yes. I don’t know anyone who grew up with really positive gay role models, and role models of gay couples. Hopefully, that’s changing, because I’ve certainly seen in Sydney that many of my friends are forming long-term positive relationships. Now they’re starting to have babies. It’s a wonderful change, and I’m hoping that the younger generation can see these people as role models.
Brian: Right. And I think, too, because of the fact that there haven’t been any role models, I think it’s been difficult for many of us to develop the relationship skills that are necessary to make a relationship last over the long haul.
Clinton: Yes. That’s another good point. I think what I certainly see is a lot of gay men treat relationships as if they’re disposable. That they’re easy to come, easy go. I don’t need to invest myself in this relationship. I can discard it if it doesn’t really work for me. I can quickly move on and get someone else.
So, there’s this sense of just not really wanting to work through the difficult stuff. And then things start to get challenging. It’s just easier to move on, and I think that’s really sad because a lot of gay couples aren’t discovering the joys of deepening into a long-term relationship.
Brian: Right. And why do you think that that is?
Clinton: That’s a great question. I wish I knew the answer to that as well. I think that one of the things that come to mind for me is perfectionism. I see a lot of gay men that have characteristics of perfectionists, meaning that they strive to be perfect in so many areas of their lives. To have a great job, earn lots of money. Have a flawless body. Be super fit. Change their looks or try to improve their appearance.
And if something is not perfect in their relationship, there seems to be this approach of, “Oh, it doesn’t really work for me. I’m not completely happy, so I’m just going to find something better. The grass is always greener.” I don’t know. Do you see that?
Brian: Right. Absolutely. That’s a real big issue, and it causes a lot of loneliness and pain, and actually, I see this a lot in my own practice, too. I agree, too. I’m not exactly sure what the exact reason for it is, but I think it really goes down to what you were saying earlier with the fact that on some level we all have a little bit of wounding or injury that really hurts our self-esteem in a lot of respects, and that may feed into that whole perfectionism that you were talking about.
Clinton: Yes. I think so. I think, also, I’m seeing with the rise of apps and online dating, and certainly the hook-up sites, which is really big here in Australia. I imagine they are where you are.
Brian: Very much.
Clinton: That seems to sustain this idea that you need to be perfect. You need to have a six-pack so you can put a photo on Grindr or Scruff, or whatever else it is. People are only interested in other people with perfect bodies, and I think it really creates a lot of misery that so many gay men struggle to accept their bodies and who they are.
Brian: And it, also, reinforces what you were saying before about relationships are disposable like that mindset. These dating sites and the apps are kind of like a candy store almost, where you can readily have sex at the push of a button. Unfortunately, that’s a completely different entity from what developing a close and intimate relationship is really all about.
Clinton: Yes. I see that as quite problematic as well, and many gay men go about looking for relationships the wrong way. They’ll often say I’m only looking for NSA, no strings attached. Not interested in a relationship. That they essentially just want to sleep around and have fun.
But when they do start to develop feelings for someone, there’s this sense of wariness, and I’m not sure if it’s the best approach to look for a partner by sleeping around. It’s almost like it’s an auditioning process for some people.
Clinton: I think it’s sad that we seem to have lost the skill of what about just getting to know someone? What about just being friends with someone for a period of time, and really starting to get to know someone on a deeper level before you even have sex. Now, that’s a novel concept for many gay men.
Brian: Right. And this is a very old, dated term, but I’m a really big advocate of courtship, and I think that’s something that has really lost its way in the gay community, and I’m very passionate about having that aspect of relationship development get more attention and air time.
Clinton: I love that. I love it. Yes. I haven’t heard that saying for a while, but yes, of course. Courtship is a beautiful thing, and it can be exciting, and sexy, and flirtatious, and it’s a wonderful way to get to know someone on a deeper level, without jumping into bed and having an intimate sexual encounter.
Brian: Right. And, also, too, I like that internalized homophobia and maybe if you’re not comfortable with your masculinity, sometimes those issues can make it difficult I think for gay men to really commit and fathom the idea of being able to commit to someone in the long term.
Clinton: Yes. I think that’s a huge issue for many gay men, and internalized homophobia is right here in Sydney. It, also, shows that in the online dating arena with people only wanting to meet other people that are masculine. Things like say no fems, really kind of derogatory and discriminatory language that can be really harmful to other gay men is right here.
Brian: It sounds like our two cultures are very similar.
Clinton: I think so. What I’m seeing is because of just the globalization of the world and the internet as they’re getting closer and closer. It’s no surprise that our cultures are quite closely aligned.
Brian: Right. Let’s talk a little bit about couples now. Couples who are already together. I’m just curious if you might be able to share just some examples of some of the common presenting issues that you see with couples who come to your practice looking for help.
Clinton: Yes. Sure. One of the big themes that have been very prevalent this year has been this whole area of “do we open the relationship, or do we keep it closed or do we have some form of ‘monogamish’?” as Dan Savage calls it. And that’s a really tricky area for many couples.
But one of the issues around that is many couples aren’t clearly negotiating with each other about if they are going to open up the relationship, what are the boundaries, what are guidelines we need to adhere to.
I’m, also, seeing couples that are opening up the relationship as a response to, “Well, our sex has become a bit boring, or maybe it’s not working. It’s not as passionate or exciting as it used to be, so let’s have sex with other people,” which I think can really be a huge problem, and just creates more jealousy and trust issues, and really erodes the safety and security of the relationship.
I think that’s a big one. Is that one you’re seeing as well, Brian?
Brian: You took the words right out of my mouth. I was going to say that’s probably the big thing that I’m actually seeing lately, too, is men who are struggling with negotiating that relationship contract, and defining what is monogamy. What is non-monogamy? How do we feel about that?
A lot of times that’s just not even really communicated, or it is initially communicated, but then it’s not revisited, and the people change, and then there are more issues with infidelity occurring because that’s not clearly set with the boundaries. I am definitely seeing a lot of that, too.
Clinton: Yes. You said something really important there, that it needs to be revisited, and I think that’s where problems arise because couples often have a conversation somewhere near the beginning of their relationship. They have some kind of loose agreement. They don’t revisit it, and, of course, things change over time, and I think it’s important to have a conversation that you can come back to, and even to say, “How is this working for us? Do we need to revisit this? Do we need to change anything?”
I think it can work, but my belief is the … It can work in terms of an open relationship, but the relationship has to be really rock-solid, and it has to come from a place of we’re safe and secure. We have a strong foundation, and now we have the flexibility to explore our sexuality with other people within certain parameters and guidelines.
But if it comes from a place of, “I’m not getting what I want here, and I want to go elsewhere,” I think that’s really problematic.
Brian: I agree. I think gay couples face a lot of the same issues that everybody does in terms of squabbles about finances, and household management, and those kinds of things, too. But I think that we, also, have some very unique relationship challenges that can come about more often, and a lot of that does entail things like boundaries around monogamy and non-monogamy. Some partners have a big discrepancy between their level of outness.
Brian: I see that sometimes, too.
Clinton: Yes. That can certainly be an issue. I’ve had that come up with couples I’ve worked with, and one couple was much further out than the other, and trying to drag the other one out of the closet, and he’s not quite ready. That can cause a lot of conflicts.
Brian: Absolutely. We’ve been talking a lot about challenges and difficulties that gay men can have in finding a partner, and in maintaining it over the long haul. But the truth be told, also, there are a lot of gay couples out there who are actually very successful at it. They have the everyday normal troubles that we all have, but there are a lot of I think positive relationship role models out there, and I was wondering maybe if you might be able to speak to what some of those ingredients of a healthy relationship might be so that couples can aspire towards that.
Clinton: Sure. I totally agree with you, Brian. There are many gay couples in successful long-term relationships, and my only sadness about that is sometimes they’re not more visible to the younger generations. What I see are some of the successful ingredients. Certainly, they have strong communication skills, so when they start to experience differences of opinion, perhaps they have different wants or needs, they address issues early on. They’re not afraid of conflict. They actually move into conflict, and they see conflict not as something to be avoided or to run away from, but an opportunity to grow and move together towards each other, to find other common understanding, or even just to understand a different perspective to themselves that they might agree to. So, conflict is an opportunity for growth.
Brian: Yes. I see that a lot, too. A lot of people seem very afraid that a conflict means that, “Oh, my gosh, we’re not compatible anymore,” or this is signaling the end. In reality, I think conflict is a sign that the relationship is actually maturing, and we just have to find productive, healthy ways of being able to bridge the gap to negotiate those differences, because then you can really grow stronger as a couple that way.
Clinton: I’m absolutely on the same page as you with that. Yes. I think conflict is really important. It’s a normal process of healthy couple development, and if you can change your mindset around that, it can really benefit your relationship.
The other thing I think that stands out to me is the gay couples in healthy relationships spend quality time together. They have one-on-one time, which is problem-free time. A time where they enjoy each other’s company and look forward to it. It may be a date night. It may be going away for a weekend. It may even just be a walk in the park.
They don’t lose that enjoyment they have with each other. I think that’s important, because a lot of couples can, also, slip into what I call parallel relationships, where it’s like two individuals that are living under the same roof but have separate lives.
Brian: I totally agree. I think that helps keep the spark alive, too. You’re cultivating experiences with each other, and you’re best friends, and it’s just so important to just put that cell phone away and focus on each other.
Clinton: Absolutely. I’m a big fan of the digital detox. Leave the phone at home, and just go have a walk in the park.
Brian: I like that. Digital detox.
Clinton: The other thing I think is you need to … The couples that I see that are having really successful relationships, also, make time for intimacy. For emotional intimacy and sexual intimacy that is alcohol and drug-free. This is really important because a lot of gay men use drugs and alcohol to have sex, and particularly with the rise of things like crystal meth, it’s just enormously damaging to your ability to have enjoyable sober sex with each other.
I think that’s really important. Sometimes I even encourage my couples to make time, and it’s structured. It may feel artificial, but make time on the weekend to just take thirty minutes, and go into the bedroom and just lay in bed with each other, and look at each other, or stroke each other, and just talk. Kind of lay face to face. That can be a beautifully intimate experience, and you need to create and structure those times, because especially today most people have very, very busy lives, and if you don’t make intimate time, it doesn’t happen.
Brian: Right. There are just so many distractions that I think that exercise really forces a couple to just attend to each other, and that really does fuel the emotional connection.
Clinton: Yes. Absolutely. Some people say, “That feels a bit fake,” or, “I don’t want to structure time for sex.” But the research really shows that even when you create structured time for sex, once you get over the psychological hurdle of, “Oh, wait. We’re making an appointment to have sex,” once the adrenaline and the arousal levels increase, and all the hormones kick in, your sex is just as good, if not better than when it’s spontaneous. So don’t think that sex always has to be spontaneous.
Brian: Right. Exactly. And for those that fear that “Oh, that’s boring.” Yes, it may not necessarily be as sexy as a spontaneous throw you against the wall without expecting it moment, it can, also, feed the desire and the arousal, because you’re thinking about the fact that, “Okay, it’s coming up later.”
Clinton: Exactly. And the other thing is don’t think that you can only have exciting sex with other people. Often the couples that are open with relationships, I ask them, “What are you getting outside of the relationship that you’re not getting in your relationship?” People will say, “I don’t know. It’s excitement,” or sometimes it’s filthy. It feels dirty. It feels anonymous. I said, “Well, why can’t you recreate that in your primary relationship?”
And sometimes people have this mindset of, “I can’t do that with my partner.” But I really encourage them, “Well, yes, you can. You can have exciting, spontaneous …” You can go to a club and pretend you don’t know each other, and cruise each other. You can do all that type of stuff.
Brian: Right. And it’s really helping them understand that commitment is actually very sexy and hot as well.
Clinton: Absolutely. Yes. And this is what a lot of gay men don’t get to experience. What I feel so sad about is that in a long-term relationship, the intimacy and the sex can even get better than it was in the beginning. People think our long-term relationship is going to die. It’s never going to be as good as it was in the beginning. But I think it can get better.
Brian: Absolutely. We’ve kind of been talking about this along the way, but I was wondering if you might be able to speak a little bit about how we might be able to confront some of these blocks so that we can promote more successful gay relationships moving forward.
Clinton: Yes. Certainly. Do you want me to address people who are in a relationship or people that aren’t?
Brian: Maybe a couple for both would be helpful.
Clinton: Okay. Off the top of my mind, if you’re not in a relationship, if you’re single, one of the tips or strategies that I often encourage single guys to do, is to get out into the community and start building real relationships or friendships with people. If you’re stuck in the clubbing and bar scene, take a break from that and join a sporting or gay sporting group. Join some kind of gay community group. Get out there, not with the intention that you want to find a date, or you want a pick-up, but you just want to make friends. You want to feel connected, and you want to build your own social skills. I think that’s really important as well.
Brian: Just living your life for you, and you’re not being so deliberate and intentional about it, and a lot of the times you know the world works in mysterious ways. It can actually bring people into your life that way.
Brian: You’re not desperate, and you’re just enjoying yourself, and that tends to attract people.
Clinton: That’s very attractive. It’s very attractive. And there’s a lot less pressure than standing in a bar with a drink and being on the hunt.
Clinton: Now if you are dating, what I say is take the pressure off yourself in the dating. Approach dating as if it’s really about you just getting to know people. It’s not about finding your life partner. It’s not about trying to hook up with the hottest guy on the online dating site. Think of it as this is a way … dating is a conduit for just connecting with people. You’ll meet some people you want to be friends with. You might meet a partner. You might meet other people you never want to see again. But if you can take the pressure off. Keep it casual, relaxed, and make it fun, dating will often be something you look forward to, as opposed to something where you say, “Oh, my God. I have to start dating again.”
Brian: Right. Absolutely. And now what about the couples?
Clinton: Well, if you’re in a relationship, one of my top tips is to make sure you are having dedicated one-on-one problem-free time together. So you take some time out of every week, and it might only be thirty minutes if you have hectic lives, where you take a walk or you do an activity together, but you don’t have any interruptions. You don’t take your cell phones. And you just get back to enjoying each other, really enjoying being with each other, and remembering why you’re with this person, why have you chosen to be with this person. What are the qualities that you love about this person?
Brian: And when you’re out, you don’t talk about any of the problems or the issues that you’re dealing with. You just enjoy being with each other.
Clinton: Exactly. That’s what I mean about problem-free time.
On the other side of that coin, I, also, encourage that you do raise issues with each other, and you raise them early, and you raise one issue at a time. You can do that when you become aware of issues. Just flag it with your partner. Try to find a good time to talk about it, and, again, you want to have time where you can talk about it without interruptions, and structure that so it’s a good time for both of you. That will help you get the best outcomes for talking about issues.
And anytime you start avoiding issues, you know it’s going to be worse in the long run. So, bring things up early. Early and often.
Brian: Communication is definitely key, and as soon as you can address that issue the better.
And then as we mentioned before, just creating a time for emotional and sexual intimacy is really important. And if you’re having hectic lives, and it’s not happening spontaneously, or your sexual intimacy has been on the decline, then talk about doing something structured each week. And certainly, you can even take the pressure off having sex or an orgasm off the table, but just spend some time maybe just holding each other, or just being naked in bed and talking with one another and touching one another. It doesn’t have to be about orgasm. That is a beautiful form of intimacy where you don’t have the pressure of having to perform. And sex doesn’t have to be about orgasm every time anyway.
Well, Clinton, these are some excellent tips. I really appreciate your sharing them.
How can people find you? Where is your website, and where they can find your book?
Clinton: The best way is probably just to go to my relationship counselling website, which is ClintonPower.com.au, and you’ll see my book there as well. It will link you through to Amazon.
Brian: Well, it has been a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much for joining us again, Clinton.
Clinton: The pleasure has been all mine. I hope we can talk again sometime.
Brian: Definitely. You take good care. Thank you.