Therapeutic Issues for Same-sex Couples

Same-sex couples share many commonalities with heterosexual couples. The day-to-day activities of their lives often are similar, but the social context in which they live differs greatly, largely due to the influences of the dominant heterosexual culture and traditional expectations of gender roles within a relationship.

Many same-sex pairs may experience extreme stress if every day supports are lacking in their lives—for example, familial, legal, religious, economic, and social support. Members of same-sex couples have experienced societal prejudice in different ways and have dealt with it internally in their own ways, but the effect of “minority stress,” or the effects of living with often negative social conditions, always exists to some extent. The fact that many same-sex relationships endure, and are as stable as cohabitating heterosexual unions, in spite of residing in a sometimes-hostile climate, is a testimony to the resiliency of the members involved.

Gender Roles  

Traditional gender roles assume that women are relational and men are instrumental. There exists some truth in these gender-related assumptions that can be used in understanding same-sex partnerships. Psychological femininity implies a commitment to the relationship, a tendency to accommodate the needs of a partner, and attempts to remedy problems between them. Psychological masculinity, on the other hand, often is reflective of competition, independence, and lack of emotionality within the context of the relationship. When problems occur, these individuals have the tendency to allow conditions to deteriorate, or to leave the partnership. Gay male couples tend to rely on social exchange (like doing things for one another) rather than on emotional or relational factors for mutual satisfaction. When at least one member has adopted a stereotypically masculine role, there are bound to be difficulties in the relationship, such as the use of distancing strategies, high levels of competition, and strong needs for control.

Still, it is important to consider other issues that play a significant role between partners, such as ethnicity, cultural background, religion, social class, education, age, and immigration status.

The similarity of biological sex and gender role conditioning allows couples to have a high level of initial rapport and to merge deeply. They know what pleases someone of their own sex and can understand, give, and respond. The loneliness of years in the closet (and possibly thinking they would never find someone to love them as they are) intensifies the emotional high of the bonding. Because initial expectations often are elevated, disillusionment is intense when initial passion naturally diminishes.

Stages Discrepancies

Generally, it takes several years after the first awareness of same-sex attractions for an individual to advance through a number of phases to fully reach a sexual minority identity. Stage discrepancies are common for many same-sex couples given that many of these pairs merge before partners have completed their own identity growth. This results in members undertaking their individual sexual orientation development while simultaneously navigating the challenges of an evolving relationship. Issues of betrayal and loyalty often occur, but rarely will couples see their difficulties in terms of stage discrepancies. These stage differences frequently result in conflict regarding the level of “openness” each partner finds acceptable in family relationships, employment, community, and friendships. Many relationships can overcome this conflict, but some are unable to do so.

As with heterosexual couples, partner differences in relationship stages are common. For example, one wants more independence or separateness and the other is holding tightly or is fearful of differences; or one begins to grow personally and the other perceives this as abandonment; or one wants more self expression (and less agreement or sameness) and the other wants to maintain harmony and avoid conflict. Conversely, some lesbians and gay men are terrified if relationships become too close, since this reminds them of the suffocating closets of their earlier lives.

How can a family or couples therapist help?

A professional mental healthcare provider will be a sensitive clinician, fully aware of the pitfalls of traditional heterosexual bias, and will treat a lesbian or gay couple in an appropriate fashion. There are no unique treatments for same-sex couples and the methods used with heterosexual couples can be used for gay and lesbian pairs. However, the importance of taking into consideration developmental and socio-cultural variables cannot be underestimated, and a well experienced therapist will be particularly sensitive to these effects.

A therapist will assess the environment of the relationship based on those factors mentioned previously: Level of each partner’s development; external issues (such as support or alienation from family, community, workplace, and friendships); presence of mental or physical illness or domestic violence; HIV concerns; stage discrepancies between members; and issues of intimacy. Gay and lesbian issues will be addressed somewhat differently, as certain life stressors may play more of a role for a male couple than a female couple, and vice versa. For example, lesbians often experience more anxiety than gay men regarding reactions of family members to their sexuality. Conversely, gay men report more stress surrounding HIV/AIDS-related issues and violence and harassment than do lesbian couples.

The therapist will address any “multiple social identities” that must be taken into consideration. For example, one of the members of the couple may be biracial or struggling to reconcile a minority sexual orientation with a religious identity, and/or the members of the couple may be quite different culturally. The complexity of diversity, whether in reference to the broader culture or within the couple relationship, may be problematic. There may be external forces that deny the couple social privilege, but also vast internal differences also may exist between members of the couple. Concerns about, or differences in, religion, ethnicity, culture, world view, health condition, disability, immigration status, age, education, socio-economic standing and need for family support are some areas for reflection.

A professional can help the couple experience, for example, their fear of closeness as “normal” or developmentally appropriate, given the degree of bias associated by society with same-sex attraction. Rather than a client assuming something is wrong internally, he or she can begin to process issues in terms of a broader perspective. Often, for reasons not of their own making, sexual minorities are disengaged (or even disowned) by their families; alienated from their churches, mosques, or synagogues; and isolated in the workplace. In this situation, closeness in a couple may be a survival mechanism, rather than our traditional concept of “closeness,” especially in small or rural communities where opportunity for support from family, workplace associates, and other couples is unavailable. A therapist can determine if this is occurring in the relationship and can help the couple correct it. <

That same-sex unions can survive and thrive in spite of numerous challenges is a testimony to their resilience and to the resolve of the members of these couples. This determination, along with a strong sense of interdependence, perspective, and external buffers, has allowed many lesbian couples in long-term relationships to succeed as a twosome. Similarly, more male couples than ever before are strengthening their commitment to each other and are enhancing their mutuality and intimacy.

This text was written by Kathleen Ritter, PhD.

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