Let's play the relationships game.

By Stuart Haggas @GetStuart

IN OR OUT 

Every day we’re confronted with a plethora of choices. These range from major decisions such as whether to be in or out to family, friends and work colleagues, to trivial dilemmas like whether jeans look best tucked in or out of our boots, and whether to eat in or take out. All this in-out-in-out business can be exhausting!

One significant decision is whether to be in a relationship or out playing the field. Despite the simplicity of the question, the answer can be a minefield of missteps and misconceptions. When FS posed the question “Relationships: love them or love flying solo?” on Facebook, it resulted in a variety of responses. Altogether, two-thirds preferred being in a relationship, one-third were happy both in and out of relationships, and one solitary reader opposed the whole idea. Sam posted: “You can’t wake up to a cuddle and a kiss when you’re by yourself.” Garth agreed by posting: “Relationships matter… or else there would be no one to share moments with or make memories even better.” Paul echoed these sentiments by posting: “I’ve been single all my life and now hate the loneliness. I would love to have someone to share my life with, can’t think of anything better.” On the other hand, Daniel took the opposite view by posting: “Relationships never last, better to love something that can’t leave you.” Those happy to go either way included Ben, who posted: “They can be fantastic with the right kind of guy, but being single is much fun too.”

Josh agreed, posting: “I like being in a relationship but I like being single at the moment.” And Kevin had a unique seasonal solution by suggesting: “single in summer, relationships in winter.” So what’s the deal with relationships? Should we be in favour of them or not? “For a lot of gay men, with regards to relationships, it seems that the grass is greener on the other side,” says GMFA’s Matthew Hodson. “I hear coupled friends of mine moan that they don't get to play around any more, and single friends miss the companionship, security and the ideal of having sex on tap. Of course the reality often doesn't match up to the fantasy. It's not necessarily the case that a single guy gets to have sex with a new hot man every week, or that relationships always provide that warm glow of security.” Flying Solo “Some men are at their happiest when they’re single,” Matthew says.

“Many of us enjoy being single for a time, but see it as a stopgap between relationships. The important thing is to check that you really are happy the way that things are going. If you’re having fun playing the field, or just enjoy the independence, that’s great. If you find that you’re having sex with people in the hope that it will make you happy, but actually it isn’t having that effect, then you may need to think about whether what you’re doing is really working for you. If you feel like you’re not in control of your sex life, talking to a counsellor about this can help.” Being single doesn’t mean being free from all commitments and consequences. Single guys need to maintain some responsibilities, even if their most committed relationship is with their STI clinic. “If you’re single and playing the field, it’s important that you get regular sexual health check-ups,” adds Matthew. “Even if you only ever have safer sex, it’s worth remembering that some other STIs are far more easily transmitted than HIV, and can have no noticeable symptoms.”

LET’S GET SOMETHING STARTED

It can be tricky to navigate those early stages, when what started as a one-night-stand seems to be evolving into something serious. “There’s a myth going round that all gay guys put out on the first date,” says Matthew. “Yes, of course a lot of us do, but there are also lots of gay guys who prefer to get to know someone before they have sex, and who feel that their relationships are stronger and more supportive as a result.” No matter when you choose to have sex with a new partner, something to consider alongside thoughts of moonlight kisses and candlelit dinners is whether to have a sexual health check-up. Knowing your status before you enter a relationship will bring piece of mind and you don’t want to give the new love of your life the Clap as an early Valentine’s Day present. “It’s great if you know that you have a clean bill of health before you go into a relationship,” agrees Matthew, “but that doesn’t mean that your new boyfriend necessarily will as well.”

Should your sexual health check-up not deliver the results you were counting on, what should you do about it? “Having to tell someone that you may have given them an STI is hardly the ideal start to a new relationship” says Matthew. “But if you test regularly, at least once a year or more often if you ever have unprotected sex, or if you have lots of sexual partners, it will reduce the chances of passing on any STI, including HIV.  “And if you do find out that you have an STI, try to let anyone who may have passed it to you, or who you may have passed it to, know. The sooner someone knows that they may have been exposed, the sooner they can get tested and, if necessary, treated. The more men that are treated for STIs, the fewer STIs there are in the population and the better the chance that you won’t pick anything up in future.”

IT’S GREAT TO TALK

Perusing the posts on FS’s Facebook page, the overall consensus seems to be that, even though you’re mostly in favour of relationships, choosing to be in one isn’t an easy option. Brian acknowledged this by posting: “I have been in a relationship for 16 years and been married for 8 months. Yes, you do have to work at a relationship, but it’s worth it in the end. You accept each other, faults and all, or you move on.” Danilo agreed, posting: “Relationships last only if you work on them. There must be compromises on both sides. Everybody needs to love somebody. Then it can be very rewarding. Being single is great but can be very lonely.”

The ability to communicate is often cited as the secret to a happy and lasting relationship, while failing to communicate can lead to heartbreak and break-ups. Sona Barbosa, GMI Partnership’s Counselling Team Leader, says that for the majority of gay men who come to her, the most common relationship issue is lack of communication. “They are often afraid of what their partner might think. There are a lot of fears and assumptions,” says Sona. She believes it’s vital to talk about your feelings no matter how difficult and daunting this may be – when you do, you might even learn that your partner has similar feelings, but was also afraid to share them. The power to communicate is one of our greatest assets as humans, so use it – and I don’t mean tweet or text or Skype, I mean face-to-face conversation! If you’re genuinely unable to open up and discuss your relationship and what you want it to achieve, you could consider visiting a counsellor like Sona, who can mediate and offer advice. “Some couples find it easier to talk when there is someone else in the room, someone who is listening, mediating, and not judging,” explains Sona. “Of course, for some couples this can make it even harder.” The secret is to figure out what works for you, and get talking. 

AN OPEN OR SHUT AFFAIR?

Another common issue that Sona tackles as a counsellor is when couples have an unspoken agreement to have an open relationship – in other words, it’s evolved from a casual fling into something serious, but there’s never been a discussion of how that alters the relationship dynamic, and so one or both partners continue to act as if nothing has changed. “Some partners are not happy with that,” says Sona, “They would prefer to be in a monogamous relationship, but they are afraid to ask for fear of rejection.” It is nevertheless vital to have that conversation. “I think it’s usually a part of that conversation when you say to each other ‘this is more than just a casual thing,’” adds GMFA’s Matthew Hodson. “If one of you wants to be monogamous and the other one doesn’t, it’s probably going to lead to problems, so it’s best to have that discussion sooner rather than later. Of course people do change their minds, and relationships do naturally evolve over time, but if your views on monogamy aren’t compatible, that’s a major barrier to a happy relationship.” Whether or not open relationships work is a subject guaranteed to spark a heated debate.

When FS asked that very question via Facebook, three-quarters of you were against open relationships, with just a quarter in favour. Those who opposed open relationships included Philip, posting: “Recipe for disaster, I speak from experience.” John agreed, posting: “Hell no! I ain’t sharing my man with anyone!” Alex posted: “What’s the point? Might as well be single and play the field.” And Andrew posted: “I think it depends on how you see your relationship and how you define sex. Personally I prefer monogamous – although when I’m single I’m an absolute slapper!” Those in favour included Oliver, posting: “Set some rules and learn the difference between a fuck and a companion.” Robert agreed, posting: “I say yay, they’re just gonna go behind your back – might as well be involved and enjoy the ride.” Dan meanwhile had a more philosophical view, posting: “The idea of having to be in a monogamous relationship because that’s what’s expected of us I find depressing. We can make our own rules as long as everyone is on board with it.”

SAFE AND SOUND

The question of condoms and whether or not you’re going to use them can also arise in relationships. Some couples stop using condoms with each other, but if this is something that just happens rather than as the result of a discussion, you may be putting yourself or your partner at risk. “Condom negotiation is important,” says GMI Partnership’s Sona Barbosa. “How far do you trust your partner with not having sex with other men?” Sona recommends you have a frank conversation with your partner to establish whether you’re going to be monogamous, what your HIV status is and before you make the decision to stop using condoms. “It is important to have that conversation,” agrees Matthew. “Too often I’ve heard men say that they were infected with HIV because they thought that they were in a monogamous relationship – but their partner thought differently.” If you and your partner have had this discussion, and are considering not using condoms with each other, the GMFA booklet Let’s Talk Sex identifies some of the things you’ll need to discuss to give you the best chance of success. Whether we want to be in one or not, relationships are a great topic of conversation – so join the debate! If we can talk openly about such issues on Facebook, shouldn’t you be able to do the same with the man you love? In this age of communication, talking is definitely the way forward.

Disclosing your HIV status to a new partner.

“Most HIV-negative guys expect HIV-positive guys to always disclose their HIV status before sex. The truth is that most HIV-positive guys don’t tell all their sexual partners - and especially if they think it’s just a casual thing,” says GMFA’s Matthew Hodson. “Some HIV-positive guys don’t tell their partners until they’re way into the relationship, or never at all, so it’s not wise to assume that if they haven’t said anything then they must be HIV-negative.”  

“In an ideal world I think positive partners would always disclose, but the world we live in is far from ideal,” Matthew continues. “HIV remains one of the most stigmatised conditions that anyone can have. If you tell someone your HIV status, you won’t be able to take that information back, so a certain level of trust needs to be established first. Most HIV-negative guys say that they wouldn’t want to have sex with someone who they knew was positive, so it’s easy to see why positive men may be reluctant to talk about their HIV status.”