Learning about commitment from gay male couples

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

Milwaukee jazz pianist Tim Clausen is not in a same-sex marriage — nor does he have a long-term male partner.

But he has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the dynamics of such relationships, having conducted 103 interviews with gay men who are partnered or married. He turned the interviews into his first book, Love Together: Longtime Male Couples on Healthy Intimacy & Communication.

Clausen, 54, selected couples who had been together between a decade and 65 years. He founded and led the Milwaukee Gay Fathers Group from 1995 to 2004, and one couple he interviewed met via the group a dozen years ago. Otherwise, he relied heavily on social networking to find his subjects, whom he interviewed separately in order to get more candid interviews.

The men were diverse on many levels. Included in the book is Larry Duplechan, an African-American California man in a biracial marriage. He’s the Lambda Literary Award-winning writer of Blackbird, a seminal work of gay black YA fiction. Also included is the first same-sex military couple in America to marry and a Hollywood film industry couple who met the day WWII ended. 

WiG recently spoke with Clausen about the project. 

Why pursue this particular topic? I’ve had a couple of longer relationships, but the whole sort of life-partner thing has remained sort of elusive. I’ve sometimes been mystified when I would meet certain long-term couples over time who seemed to have a good vibe. How do they get along together over decades in a harmonious way? I was interested in finding out.

How did most of the couples find each other? One of the questions I looked into is, “Do we choose our life partner or is that person brought to us as destiny or fate?” A
lot of meetings between the partners who’d been together many, many years seemed to have a serendipitous quality.  Life often kind of brings us together through mysterious ways. And there’s no time limit on when it can happen. 

How did you organize the book? One of the nice things about the book is its structure. I created sections by the couples’ longevity. 

The last couple in the book are particularly remarkable. They’re from Portland, Oregon, and they’d been together just shy of 60 years when we interviewed. We continued to stay in touch after the initial interviews. Eugene (one of the men) died of congestive heart failure four days before Christmas last year. Eric (his partner) is a Buddhist teacher and is a brilliant, remarkable man. I asked Eric after Eugene passed away if he’d be open to talking about losing a partner of 60 years. We had an interview 10 days after Eugene’s passing and then another interview a month later and then a third six months later, which was the day after what would have been their 61st anniversary. The book basically ends with that three-part interview.

What sort of questions did you ask the men in the book? It was all across the board. “How do you deal with conflict?”  “Have you been to counseling together?” And, “Did you ever consider ending the relationship?” Not all of them had, but most of them had gone through difficulties at some point.

The monogamy/non-monogamy issue was a big topic. Couples ran the gamut in terms of sexual exclusivity. Many started out as totally exclusive, then opened up the relationship to being sexual together with others or separately. Couples varied from being exclusive to opening up the relationship to opening up and then going back to monogamy. There was no one-size-fits-all approach that worked for every couple.

But in every case communication around the issue was important. 

How did most of them feel about marriage? A lot of guys thought that getting married is just a formality, but then they found going through the experience was very profound. It helped deepen the bond.  After getting married, people realized how important same-sex marriage was.

What will heterosexual couples find the most surprising about male couples? They’ll be surprised by the very open communication that male couples have, especially the freedom to talk about sex and who they find attractive. It’s just assumed that straight couples will be exclusive, whether it happens or not. But gay couples as a rule talk more openly with each other about that. For gay couples, there’s not a standard script handed to you about how marriage should be as you’re growing up, and you kind of have to make it up and find the way that works best for you.

What did you learn? Some of the key themes that emerged were having as absolutely as open and honest communication as possible. Anything and everything needs to be on the table for discussion. Communication is huge.

People have real different backgrounds and experiences family-wise. One’s family background might be very open and expressive: You scream and throw the crockery and five seconds later it’s over with. And the other partner might have trouble learning how to communicate his feelings at all.  So the first partner would have to learn how to tone down his communication style. (Many couples) had to learn that after a fight everyone still loves each other and they’re going to move on together.

Anything else? People grow and change over time, and allowing your partner to grow and change and understanding that you grow and change also is going to make for long-term success. If you allow for personal growth and you’re willing to support your partner, that’s going to help your relationship succeed. About half the couples sought some sort of counseling and almost always found it helpful.

Eric and Eugene had a practice in which they had two marriages — on their 24th and 40th anniversaries. And Eric recommends that couples repeat their marriage vows out loud to each other once every quarter or six months just to reaffirm their commitment. When they’d find themselves in conflict, they’d say, “We need to go and repeat our marriage vows,” and they’d find the bigger picture (again).

ON STAGE

Tim Clausen reads from and signs his book Love Together: Longtime Male Couples on Healthy Intimacy & Communication from 2-3:30 p.m. on Dec. 13, at Whitefish Bay Public Library, 5420 N Marlborough Drive.

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