As a therapist – what is is your position on working with gay relationships?
Have you thought about your response should a gay man (or lesbian woman) or an LGBT couple makes contact with you to discuss problems in their intimate relationship(s)?
The concept of a publicly-open gay male couple is still a radical idea even in today’s society. Even those who live in major cities may find they rarely see two men walking down the street hand in hand, or displaying romantic affection, and when it is seen how many of us – gay or straight – find it unusual, or even uncomfortable, to observe? Notwithstanding the increase in LGBT-orientated advertising media (if it’s selling something, it must be acceptable, no?!) and government-backed changes in law (lowering of age of consent, civil-partnerships etc) a main reason for such absence of public gay male couple affection continues to be that it can still be dangerous for the gay couple to demonstrate their affection in public. Have you considered what kind of impact can this self-regulated behaviour can have on gay male relationships?
As gay couples, we have different rules within our lives from heterosexual couples. So why would we not have different rules to our relationships? And when our relationships are under strain, why would we not expect our distinct relationship needs to be met by a different kind of therapist; a specialist LGBT counsellor, or simply just an aware-enough therapist to practise gay male couple counselling with gay male couples?
For all therapists interested in gay male intimate relationships I would recommend: Couple Therapy with Gay Men (The Guilford Family Therapy) from David E. Greenan and Gil Tunnell – a distinctly helpful and easy to read book.
About “Couple Therapy with Gay Men”.
Published in 2003 the book is ideal for therapists who would like to familiarise themselves with (a) concepts of gay male socialisation experiences (b) how gay males create relationships that are distinct from heteronormative approaches and (c) description of a dyadic, circular, systemic approach to couple therapy.
Homosexuality’s Social History.
From a social perspective, reading Greenan & Tunnell’s commentary about gay makes in society now has a little sense of moving towards being out-of-date. This can be seen as a good thing: same-gender couples have legally-recognised civil-partnerships now, and same-gender marriage is in the cards as two examples.
Perhaps the book can be looked upon as a useful snapshot of homosexuality and its position in society at the turn of the 21stcentury.
But, what continues to be useful for the homosexuality-oblivious therapist are the social-discussions and history for gay men. Beginning with the Stonewall Riots (28th June 1969) as a turning point in opening up gay male social behaviour and gay relationships to public awareness. These aspects of the book are important, revealing, informative, and helpful in assisting therapists to become aware of how gay men commonly live their early lives split-in-two: their socially-acceptable/faked heteronormative-appearance, and their true homosexual-self.
An Approach to Gay Male Couple Therapy.
If we remove a basic assumption that relationships are intended to procreate and are based on a rule of monogamy, what are we left with? With British heterosexual couples one may say that no relationship exists (some European cultures would argue a different point of view). If procreation & monogamy do not establish what is and is not a couple relationship (as is common with many gay male relationships) then the gay couple must establish another set of rules that not only define their relationship for themselves, but also does so for others (friends, family, prospective sexual partners etc).
Attachment phenomena operate in same-sex romantic relationships just as much as they do in long-term heterosexual ones (Mohr, 1999 cited Greenan & Tunnell 2003); gay male couples can establish their relationship’s identity and boundaries so that other can recognise that the relationship exists and the couple itself can use the boundaries to recognise what their own relationship is … and what it is not.
But this can be difficult to establish when gay men grow up in heterosexual/heteronormative families. The gay male couple can struggle to find a peacefully dynamic workable relationship.
The systemic couple counsellor will already be familiar with the approach of not imposing normative views on the couple’s relationship and this book approaches the work in a modified variant of a three-stage family therapy model: Joining, Enactment, Unbalancing. While this is technically appropriate for any couple, the therapist’s knowledge of gay male development and management of their place and exclusion in society can be informative towards the therapist’s therapeutic curiosity within the therapy model.
Heteronormative Relationship Templates.
Certain therapists (psychodynamic/psychoanalytical ones in particular) are trained in models of human development. It is unfortunate that the majority of these models exclude (or are simply unaware of) the development of gay & lesbian children and those who are, or develop to become, uncomfortable with their gender.
Growing up as gay males we have been secretive, isolated, lonely. Families can share prejudice: reasons to hate those-who-are-not-us. Unlike other prejudices, such as race, our place in our families have tended not to allow us to fully share in (but to fake our) sexuality-prejudiced family-behaviour. As homosexual children we are the enemy-within, and we can’t reveal ourselves until we are secure (emotionally & financially) and often until we are secure elsewhere… that is: away from our family of origin. The gay or lesbian child at some stage will notice that the heteronormative world around it does not give off quite the same messages as feelings within: “you will grow up and marry the woman of your dreams” to a gay male child seems such a foreign message, and an inner alert mechanism (perhaps unconscious communication from the family) tells the child that he is not to reveal his differences.
We have had few (if any) gay-couple role-models to look upon (although this is changing in current times). We used to not know what a gay couple looks like… but this is changing. Yet, it’s late in the day for the few public gay-couples to influence many adult gay couple relationships – so we have to build our own templates. Men who struggle to be in partnership with another man can often have expectations of a partner based upon a heterosexual parental template. Gay male couples may struggle to be faithful to the relationship’s emotion, attachment and dependability, when sexual faithfulness is not the primary demonstration of commitment to the relationship.
But changes in their relationships can be worked through with the help of a gay-positive systemic couple counsellor – which is what this book is all about.
Why I recommend this Book to Therapists.
The book, throughout, examines heterosexism, gender acculturation, homophobia and gay identity formation throughout clinical examples of therapy sessions, and “how gay men and their therapists experience how these forces are impacting the couple” (preface).
As a systemic therapist myself, I find that this book communicates my own learning and technique of working with gay males – and the book does so in helpful plain English; there is very little “technical” or “academic” language – this book is not out to impress anyone – and, instead, offers useful facts and information as if it were the reader’s companion (a little like the systemic couple therapy approach itself).
For the heterosexual therapist: this book delivers information that can help the therapist be aware of what may be missing (or hidden) in the gay male couple’s dialogue. For example: how many couple therapists ask the gay or lesbian couple to describe about how they chose what would become their anniversary? It may be assumed that a heterosexual marriage-date would be the relationship’s anniversary; a ceremonial form not yet embraced by a majority of same-gender couples, but gay males may often stumble at the question with the response: “what do you mean ‘anniversary’?” or each partner may offer different ideas, hinting at how the couple communicate, negotiate and agree.
For the homosexual therapist: this book offers information that helps the therapist take a therapeutic step away from identifying too strongly with the couple-in-treatment. The techniques can be used regardless of the therapist’s sexuality, although a major point is that if the couple ask the therapist about this the advice is that the therapist should answer without hesitation (a struggle for the more traditional psychodynamic/psychoanalytical therapists).
One day we may accept all forms of intimate couples as part of society’s norm.
Until then, therapists wishing to become aware of the distinct differences and relationship-conflicts that gay male couples bring into therapy could do worse than to obtain a copy of ”Couple Therapy with Gay Men“.
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Therapists who work with: Lesbian; Gay; Bisexual; Transgender (LGBT), LGBT (couples/relationships), LGBT (mixed-sexuality relationships), Relationships, Sexuality, Systemic, Transgenderism, Transvestisism.