Advice for straight couples from a long-term gay couple

Hands intertwined by one finger from each person
Photo: Shutterstock

Michael and I have been together 30 years, and we still love each other. Just as importantly, we also still really like each other.

As nomads, we now spend a lot of time together, usually in one-bedroom apartments. As a result, we periodically make a point to give each other afternoons or evenings apart. It helps that Michael likes to work in coffee shops and coworking places, while I like to stay at home.

Even so, after about an hour, we usually start missing each other. And I’m sorry about how sappy that sounds.

How much of the fact that our relationship works so well has to do with our being a gay couple?

It’s hard to say, but I think we’re a couple less because of social pressures and more because we genuinely want to be, which is mostly a good thing.

I also think we’re lucky to exist outside of traditional gender roles. We’ve been able to define our relationship however we want — whatever works for us. Better still, when we have a conflict, it is about the conflict, about us as individuals; we don’t get sucked into any preexisting gender dynamics or longstanding cultural grievances.

Photo by Alice Nerr.

Anyway, gay or straight, after all this time, I’d like to think we’ve learned a few things about relationships.

Incidentally, before we get to the advice, I think it’s important to say that long-term relationships are not the end-all and be-all in life, and that not being in or wanting one is a perfectly valid lifestyle choice.

And now, without further ado, here are my big relationship take-aways:

Pick the right person

I don’t think I’ve become less romantic as I get older, but I definitely now believe one should be fairly practical in love: Do you have a lot in common with the person you’re considering spending your life with? Are you compatible when it comes to all the big topics: finances, family, sex, and your general sensibility and the way you fight?

Opposites attract, but then what? How do they build a life together? They’re opposites, remember?

I also think it’s important to share the same values. I hear about couples on opposite sides of the political divide, and I confess I always think, “Really? How does that even work?”

Politics seems like such a fundamental expression of one’s values, I can’t imagine being with someone who doesn’t share mine. This isn’t to say that Michael and I agree on everything or that I don’t have friends who don’t share my political views.

Then again, I don’t live with those particular friends.

I had a few relationships before Michael, and all except one were with really great guys. But I don’t think any of those relationships would have worked in the long run as well as it does with Michael because we simply weren’t as compatible.

I now believe that 80% of the reason why Michael’s and my relationship works so well is that we’re really, really compatible.

My advice? Take your time picking a partner, and don’t do it when you’re too young.

Incidentally, “compatibility” also means your partner is capable of a relationship. To my mind, that means someone with integrity, maturity, and a strong sense of self. Avoid the man-child, drama queen, primadonna, or Instagram influencer.

But yeah, you definitely have to feel it too

I went to a wedding once, and at one point during the reception, one of the grooms pulled me aside and asked, “Did you have any doubts on the day you got married?”

I didn’t know him very well, which is why the interaction was weird in itself. But it was also weird because I hadn’t had any doubts. Like, at all. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve doubted my choice to marry Michael, and none of these times were on or around our wedding. (Incidentally, Michael and I had to get married five times, which is a whole other story. Read about it here.)

Naturally, I lied to the groom and said, “Oh, sure! Everyone has doubts. That’s perfectly normal.”

But I wasn’t surprised in the least when that marriage didn’t even make it 18 months.

Pick your battles

Most relationship advice involves finding the best way to resolve differences, but I think the real key is avoiding pointless fights in the first place.

This isn’t to say I think couples should swallow their feelings and resentments. I just think it’s really, really important to ask: Is this issue real? Or is it based on some fleeting feeling I won’t even remember in a day?

My least favorite argument is the kind I used to be far more likely to pick: “I’m angry about this thing you said three hours ago that, if looked at in the most uncharitable light possible, really upsets me.”

I think these arguments almost never matter. Okay, sure, maybe if it’s a perfect example of some chronic or ongoing issue. But if that’s the case, it’s not really about that one comment anyway, is it? So talk about the greater issue. And if you really want to solve that chronic or ongoing issue, don’t lash out in anger or, worse, be passive-aggressive. Make a point to bring it up at a time when you’re less emotional and can present The Big Picture.

I hate something-someone-said arguments anyway. I mean, we rarely have a videotape, and if psychology has taught us anything, it’s that perception is incredibly selective and subjective, and reality is malleable. Even if the comment was clearly objectively jerky, we’re all human. Who’s to say I didn’t say something even jerkier five minutes before?

Which leads me to another point…

Always assume good faith

Your partner is someone you really like, right? You respect them on a fundamental level? Plus, you don’t want to argue, yes? You’re not one of those people who gets off on the drama — or, worse, someone who always needs to be right.

If both these things are true, why in the world would you not try to look at the things your partner says and does in the best possible light? Why would you not do your damnedest to give them the benefit of the doubt?

In short, treat your partner the way you treat yourself. View their actions in the same self-serving way you look at your own behavior.

Because it actually is self-serving. If you treat your partner this way, they’re more likely to reciprocate and treat you that way too. It’s the opposite of a vicious cycle!

Assuming you’re partnered with the kind of mature, decent person I mentioned earlier. Because if they’re not, you’ve got a much bigger problem than that one jerky comment three hours ago.

Let it go! Let it go!

Conflict is inevitable, and successful relationships need a way to resolve it and move on.

Ultimately, there are two kinds of relationship arguments: (1) one person did something stupid and needs to own up to it and apologize, or (2) it was a messy situation, and mistakes were made on both sides, and you both need to apologize, and not in that mumbling “I’m sorry too” kind of way.

I think figuring out which kind of argument you’re having is easier when you, yeah, assume good faith on the part of the other person — especially if you’ve made a habit of assuming good faith. That makes it much easier to see where you’re both coming from and get to the heart of what’s really going on.

But this is also important: once an argument is resolved, you need to let it go.

When it comes to your relationship, listen to Elsa.

When you forgive something, forgive it. It’s over and done; if you ever bring it up again, it doesn’t give you leverage. No, it means you’re the jerk.

Which doesn’t mean you need to just instantly forgive everything. A transgression might be so big that it takes time to forgive. Fine. A thoughtful, decent person respects and understands that.

But the other person — who is also thoughtful and decent — understands that being petty serves no purpose. Pettiness makes no one feel better in the long run.

An added bonus to training yourself to let things go? You’ll find yourself letting things go before you even bring them up, which is another way of saying you’re starting to pick your battles.

See how this all works together? If you’ve chosen the right person, you almost can’t help but get along better.

What about chores?

I said before I think gay couples are lucky because we’re outside of traditional sex roles. But the clothes still need to be washed!

Michael and I divide chores based on (a) who’s better at it and (b) who cares more that it’s done well. Without the gendered cultural baggage, this kinda just makes sense, right?

What about those chores that no one enjoys, like cleaning the bathroom? Well, I care more than Michael, so I take care of it. But because a good relationship has a natural equilibrium, he’s intuitively picked up other thankless chores, like doing the laundry and dealing with the garbage and compost.

And finally, when it comes to sex, be open and respectful

It’s 2022, and I think it’s cool people are exploring new ideas about gender. But I also still think there are differences between men and women. Yeah, sure, it’s all a spectrum, these are only tendencies and averages, and we can all draw some great Venn diagrams.

But still. I think gay and lesbian couples have an easier time with the whole sex thing because they’re more likely to both be on the same page.

If I have any advice for opposite sex couples, it would be do everything I’ve said above, except naked: in other words, try hard to see sex from the other person’s point of view.

On one hand, I think gay couples have it lucky, because we do tend to be more on the same page, sexually speaking. But on the other hand, I think heterosexual couples are lucky too, because they get to explore and try to understand a way of looking at sex that might be a bit different than their own sensibility, and that sounds really interesting — and frankly, kinda hot.

Also — and I know this is a very “male” perspective — if you’re interested in dating men of any orientation, it seems like a huge mistake to equate porn or noticing attractive people as “cheating.” Take it from gay men and Gens Y and Z: this is just about testosterone and truly no big deal.

So! There are my secrets to a successful relationship. What have I missed?

Brent Hartinger is a screenwriter and author, and one half of Brent and Michael Are Going Places, a couple of traveling gay digital nomads. Subscribe to their free travel newsletter here.

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