The benefits of relationship agreements
“Love does not claim possession but gives freedom” – Rabindranath Tagore.
Relationships can be a lot like an Ikea instruction manual. From the onset things look straight forward, but once you’re halfway through the construction of your perfect partnership you realise you don’t have the right sized Allen key and things can go a little balls up.
As gay men, we don’t always have same-sex relationship role models that are close to us, so we are often left with making up the rules as we go along.
’Rules’ is such a rigid word though. The word ‘agreement’ suggests that both parties in the relationship are on the same page and with a little tweaking, both are having their needs met.
“At the heart of an agreement lies the ability to keep one another safe.”
Relationship agreements can be a healthy part of both monogamous and open relationships. For many gay men, monogamy provides a level of security and commitment that feels more in line with their beliefs and nature.
For others, open relationships provide the freedom of sexual exploration without compromising the commitment they have made to each other. The details of engagement, agreements or understanding between partners in an open relationship should be as unique as the individuals themselves.
Open relationships can include ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ arrangements built on the harmonious balance of discretion and fulfilment, through to ‘three’s company’; where the couple are more comfortable playing together with an extra party thrown in the mix (or seven).
“As gay men, we don’t always have same-sex relationship role models that are close to us, so we are often left with making up the rules as we go along.”
A relationship agreement can form the foundation for the way we treat, respect, consider and fulfil one another. At the heart of an agreement lies the ability to keep one another safe. This can range from ensuring someone feels emotionally secure through to protecting one another’s health.
Joseph and George from Rockdale in Sydney’s South have been in what they describe as an open, yet emotionally monogamous relationship for close to twenty years. “We were completely monogamous for the first 18 months of our relationship, but soon realised we were on the same page when it came to the idea of opening the relationship up,” says Joseph, 52. “We had talked about the idea, but never put a plan in place so to speak. One night at The Midnight Shift we got chatting to a nice guy and he asked if he could come home with us. I guess he took the plunge for us.”
“We are both HIV negative, so the basis of our agreement was and continues to be to play smart with others, and for us that meant using condoms.”
George and Joseph spent the next three years occasionally playing with a third or with another couple. Some time after that they decided to also play apart with full disclosure about the who, what and where of their out-of-home dalliances. “We set out our relationship agreement early on, but really looked closer at it when we decided to open up completely,” says George. “We are both HIV negative, so the basis of our agreement was and continues to be to play smart with others, and for us that meant using condoms.”
Agreements in a monogamous relationship can also include considerations around sexual health – for both serodiscordant relationships (where partners have different HIV statuses) and seroconcordant ones (where both partners have the same HIV status). Discussions may include the use of PrEP and or the decision to stop using condoms once trust and understanding has been established in the relationship.
ACON’s resource Talk, Test, Test, Trust can be a great guide when deciding to cease using condoms within a monogamous relationship or an open arrangement.
For guys in serodiscordant relationships where one partner is HIV positive and the other is HIV negative, risk reduction strategies can be part of their relationship agreement to ensure that a positive status within the relationship does not impact negatively on the couple’s sex life.
At the heart of any agreement there should be trust and respect. With those two essential ingredients, a couple can write their own script for a successful relationship.