Have you ever been in that situation where someone you know but you wouldn’t regard as a close friend, suddenly bares their soul and shares their problems with you?
It happened to me recently when an e-mail friend/contact sent me a message of almost book-draft length, asking for my advice. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t annoyed, I was flattered but apart from exchanging messages about HIV, neuropathy and our lives in general, I hardly know him and we’ve never met. It was slightly embarrassing but I couldn’t ignore it because I figured he must be really desperate to be reaching out to a semi-stranger in this way. Where were his real friends at this moment in time? However, that’s not a question you ask when you don’t want to make people feel worse about themselves.
The story went as follows (I’ve changed the names to maintain some sort of discretion but I’d love to know what you would do):
Robert and his partner… apparently soon to become husband…Frank have been together for four years and as far as Robert was concerned, this was it, the real deal, the one to share the rest of his life. They’re both HIV positive.
The day after they’d returned from a well-earned break on the Canary Islands, Robert had a headache and Frank went out alone to meet mutual friends for a drink. He came home in the early hours and crashed. The next day, Robert had to go to work and took Frank’s car because his own was getting its yearly check-up. To his dismay, he found a torn condom packet under the back seat and lube on the car mat!
Robert went on to say that although he was convinced Frank was the love of his life, there had been signs before that not everything was as rosy as it seemed. Robert is a confirmed monogamist; Frank not so much although he claimed to have been faithful to Robert from the day they met. The trouble was that Robert had caught him out on a number of occasions; mostly white lies but occasionally lies about money, telephone calls and his previous love life.
Robert had very sensibly concluded that nobody is 100% truthful, even to their partners and everybody has baggage they carry around and that people can change when they meet the right person. The problem was that deep down, he knew that consistent lying wasn’t a great basis for a stable partnership. Ever the pragmatist, he sat down at work and wrote down everything he could remember that just didn’t add up over the past four years. Seeing it on paper forced him to confront the truth. His perfect man really wasn’t so perfect after all.
The condom wasn’t something he could ignore and while he gave Frank credit for at least playing safe, he felt betrayed and insecure. Should he continue the relationship, work it out and move on? Should he ignore it as he’d done before and put it down to a blip, or should he break the whole thing off?
The problem was that Robert was carrying his own guilty secret. For all his monogamous wishes he’d strayed more than once too. Not that it had amounted to much but he’d had the odd physical encounter with someone else and although it was more of a fumble situation than full-on sex, mentally he’d gone the whole way in his fantasies. This latest incident made him wonder what their relationship was actually based on and whether they’d both been living a lie from day one. He’d convinced himself that the occasional grope with someone else in the heat of the moment didn’t betray his convictions. He was 90% monogamous and Frank’s percentage was clearly somewhat less. That gave him the moral upper ground but his conscience was nagging him and he knew that any indignation he brought into their inevitable discussion was based on quicksand and a touch of hypocrisy.
So, his question was, what should he do?
I was wondering what on earth I could say. As a blogger, you occasionally get this sort of request from people you don’t know personally. You become a sort of objective oracle, which is complete nonsense but nevertheless, if you write opinion pieces online, you can occasionally be seen as a sort of agony aunt figure.
The problem is, my opinions are no better than anybody else’s. I do believe however, that if someone writes asking for help, you should never ignore it but equally, you mustn’t interfere and create a self-importance for yourself that doesn’t exist.
In this case, it seemed at first glance, typical gay relationship behaviour to me. In my humble opinion, the trick in relationships where monogamy is wanted and claimed, is to realise that however good the intentions, shit inevitably happens and damage limitation is probably the answer.
What did Robert really want anyway? Someone to back him up and confirm his stance and make him feel the better man, or someone to point out the hypocrisy of it all and kick him up the backside? Either way, I knew I wasn’t qualified to give any sort of advice but I did recognise the symptoms. These guys had to work something out and fast, or the relationship probably wouldn’t last.
The key seems to me to be about who actually feels guilty about what they do on the side and who sees it as a normal part of relationships and nothing more than a fulfilment of the hunter/gatherer drive? That might require some serious soul-searching on both their parts to find out exactly on what sort of foundation their relationship was based. Had they set out the rules clearly enough from the start?
In the end I chickened out and wrote telling Robert that I really didn’t know them well enough to comment and it would be arrogant of me to express an opinion. I wished him luck solving his dilemma and left it at that. I’ve not heard from him since and now of course, I feel totally guilty but it did get me thinking about the nature of man on man relationships in 2014.
Was Frank cheating? Did Robert overreact? Does a relationship stand a chance if one person needs constant affirmation more than the other? Is it possible for two people to be on the same page when it comes to fidelity?
Apparently the latter is possible when you look at the number of ‘open’ relationships between gay men. How often do you see, ‘We play together’, or ‘We play separately’ on profiles and in friendship circles? Together or apart, they clearly ‘play’ outside the relationship.
It seems that most couples start off monogamous but after the honeymoon phase, they come to some arrangement and their relationship survives on a new basis. However, whether they really are a majority is open to doubt. Many couples live together discreetly as far as the rest of the world is concerned and who’s to say they aren’t being completely faithful to each other? What is their percentage? Unfortunately in our society we come to conclusions based on what we see and those who shout the loudest so to speak, become the voice of the community, when in fact the truth may be completely different. Then the third group must be a significant number of couples where one plays away and the other doesn’t; one lives for the danger and the other lives in blissful unawareness, until…like Robert, they’re confronted by the truth.
It probably depends on your own feelings as to how you think the best gay relationships should be formatted. If you’re jealous or possessive, you may be pro-monogamy and believe that anything else is betrayal and loss. If you’re the eternal hunter, you maybe can’t exist in a relationship where monogamy is required. Is there a right way or a wrong way, or should we just accept that men are imperfect and if you find the person who fits your requirements completely, you’re incredibly lucky?
The problem is that relationship rules are based on society’s rules, which stem back hundreds of years. They were often laid down in creeds (amongst others, thank you the Bible and thank you the Qu’ran) by religious faiths that have always seen themselves as guardians of morality. So these days, most of us still instinctively see infidelity as being morally wrong and open relationships as being somewhat perverse but that judgement is based on utopian guidelines and will always clash with practicality, reality and the 2st Century.
Yes, in the best of all possible worlds, most of us would probably opt for the perfect monogamous relationship because that’s what we’ve been brought up to believe brings the most happiness but that doesn’t take into account two things: this is 2014 and we are male animals, whose basic urges are to reproduce (for gay males read, the mechanics and pleasure of reproduction) as often as possible.
In the history of the human race, sex has never been so widely available. Either digitally or in reality, sex is everywhere. Is it realistic to expect hot-blooded males to ignore that and settle down with one person for the rest of their lives?
Religions and governments have lost the battle to control their chosen moral codes and cling to the hope that human nature will find a decent level of behaviour to adhere to. That’s in the western world of course and it may yet swing back, as tends to happen in history. The battle for control of sexual behaviour goes on in the rest of the world unabated but it’s often based on repressive social and morality laws based on ancient religious dogmas. Whether it’s possible to stop people behaving sexually one step away from the norm in this day and age is the question. The universal availability of every form of sexual behaviour on the internet probably means that Pandora’s Box has been well and truly opened and the clock can never be completely turned back.
So, getting back to the dilemma of this article; what should Robert have done? Should I have thrown in my two penneth? ‘Cos let’s face it, people on social media feel they have the right to do it all the time! If so, what should I have advised? Is his relationship based on hypocrisy? Should sex be the reason why people stay together or fall apart? Does HIV even play a role in how his and Frank’s relationship will develop or is it an irrelevance?
Although we probably shouldn’t, this is the age of peek-a-boo, we can see you! We all have an opinion, I’d love to hear yours.