Dear Dr Ren,
I’m 30-something, a happy gay man with a partner of eight years, and I’ve just had the chance to exercise the “bi” card I’ve always wanted to explore. I have a girlfriend, and everyone’s in on the deal. That part is actually easier than I’d feared.
But here’s the problem . . . maybe. My girlfriend is almost militant about shutting down any sexual interest I have unless it directly relates to her. I’ve even learned to stare at the sidewalk when we’re walking together to avoid her accusations that I’m looking at other women or men.
My boyfriend, on the other hand, thinks it’s totally hot when other guys give me the eye, and he even encourages flirting. Just a totally different attitude.
I don’t understand what’s going on here. Is this a gender thing? A gay/straight difference? Old relationship versus new? Simply personality variations?
And primarily, is it important?
Am I . . .
You’ve created a new relationship that is different from your established one in a number of critical ways. It’s not surprising that you are noticing the effects of these contrasts. Good on you for doing so. It can be difficult to see clearly in the beginning of a new coupling.
You have spotted a distinct dissimilarity in your lovers’ attitudes toward the role of sex. Your boyfriend takes a friendly approach, embracing the arousal-boosting charge of acknowledging another’s appreciation of the guy who is going home with him. He does not view lust as a threat.
Your girlfriend, however, lives in a different social world, where power distribution makes the rules distinct. Women are held to unattainable competitive standards with other women for the attention of men. By the time all the messages about beauty have merged with those about sex, some women believe it means they are not being treated well if their man wants somebody else, too. “Exclusivity” comes to equal “value.” It can also feel like safety — she holds on tight to prevent his straying to someone taller, thinner, richer, smarter . . .
So in those ways, gender plays a part, but only a part. Orientation matters, too. This examination forges in us an ownership of and responsibility for how we manage our personal and interpersonal sexuality. Straight folks can dodge some of the steps of this introspection, bolstered as they are with heteronormative cues along their way.
Old versus new relationship dynamics play here, too. You and your boyfriend have established trust and security over your years together. He knows where he stands with you. On the other hand, your new girlfriend is still tentative regarding her place in your constellation. You may find she eases up a bit with time. Or maybe not.
Finally, you ask about individual personality variations. Could that explain the difference in attitude between your lovers? Well, yes, to a point. Some people are nesters, while others dread fences; some merge, while others demand freedom. Good relationships require a balance of intimacy and independence, and each couple’s needs are individual. Still . . .
Overriding all is each person’s attitude about the value of sex. It’s not easy becoming or remaining sex-positive in a culture that is so constipated about sexuality, especially other people’s!
So, regardless of how you interact with these two different individuals, what is at stake is how their disparate attitudes can affect your sexual and interpersonal relationships.
Generally, those who have tasted freedom resent cages. And those who attempt to extinguish another’s desire are, sadly, often successful. Watch your reactions to your girlfriend’s focused attentions as well as your responses to your boyfriend’s more expansive approach. Can you appreciate both, different though they may be?
Monitor your comfort, rewards and costs. Absorb information, and learn what works best for you.