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. Photo:Ranta Images
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."


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