I am 49 years old, and since coming out at the age of 18 in 1979, I have been in three significant relationships. The first ended after 16 ½ years, the second lasted 10 years and 5 years in my last. My first two previous relationships ended for the same basic reasons; my inability to be honest, my inability to be monogamous, and a pattern of dishonesty throughout the relationship. I am fortunate that I have been able to have some degree of ongoing, present day relationship with both of my former partners; however the hurts and the resultant emotional damage linger and prove to be a barrier to any deep or lasting friendship. In retrospect, there are many things I could have chosen to do differently in both relationships, though that is no guarantee that the outcome would have been different. In both prior relationships, my partner and I attended couples counseling which ultimately served as the platform for dissolution of the relationship.
Very few of us gays and lesbians have been fortunate enough to have had homosexual parents who could model for us the ideal gay or lesbian relationship – caring, growing, fun, mutually supportive – all within the context of a burgeoning gay culture. Most of us were stuck with parents of the heterosexual variety – good, bad, or indifferent as mates to each other and parents to us, but no help at all in fashioning our gay love life. Lacking marriage manuals, parental guidance and models of conjugal bliss on film and television, we’ve had to “wing it” when it came to putting together workable love and life partnerships. Intimate relationships are a tricky business at best. Without the sanctions and supports of society’s institutions (no positive messages at all), same-sex coupling presents a special challenge to the courage and ingenuity of lovers trying to build a life together.
At times, that challenge involves the same hassles that bewilder every couple trying to make a go of it. At other times, it involves bedevilment seemingly reserved only for gay lovers in an uptight and intransigent straight world. Same-sex couples?
These are the negative messages that I believe undermine, subvert and scare us into pale versions of our dream of love. Sometimes, I know from my life experience, I internalize these types of messages and once the tapes of these messages begin to play in my mind, they work against me from inside.
“My relationship can’t work, won’t last, and doesn’t count.”
I find myself undermining my own efforts by echoing society’s baseless pronouncements about us. Too often I allow these clichés to become self-fulfilling prophecies. The prophecy of doom comes true, in turn; reinforcing the clichés and making them seem as truth. I have swallowed these untruths and the cycle becomes complete. If I, along with my fellow gay and lesbian peers am ever going to bring order, reason and sense to our lives as gay people, we must learn to interrupt that cycle. We must learn to find our own homophobic messages. We must become alert to their presence in our thinking, to the ways in which we merge them into our view of ourselves and other gay people.
“It was so gay of him,” I heard someone say recently when describing the inconsiderate behavior of a peer. I believe we must catch each other at this, work together to break the vicious cycle. Only then will we be able to really honor our deeply felt need to love and affiliate with persons of the same-sex. Only then can we learn to believe in the rightness of gay love relationships because they are, for us, the morally correct, emotionally healthy and socially responsible ways to live our lives. Many nongay people would argue with this statement I have just made. Some gay people would probably even argue with it. Going against prevailing beliefs is always threatening, even when doing so is ultimately to our advantage.
What is the motivation to be in a coupled relationship in the first place? Why do it? When my last relationship ended in August of 2009, I promised myself that I would wait two years before considering a committed relationship. But a little more than a year into the “single life” finds me bored with shallow contacts cultivated through online “hook up” sites. Is it that subconsciously I believe variety to be the spice of life and satisfy that need through hookups? Courtship is exciting. But the freedom and independence of being single for the first time in my adult life felt good too. So why couple up? Am I just afraid of being alone?
The reasons I feel for coupling are very much the same in the gay and nongay communities and they produce the same problems. Being alone has never been a valued condition in American society, being paired is, and the pressure to do so is almost as great in the gay world as in the nongay. So, people seek coupling because:
It’s important to find a partner so others (and you) will know that you can do it
Searching is boring – all that small talk game playing, insincerity, superficiality.
Searching is risky. You can get set up, ripped off, done in by strangers who don’t know or care about you.
Searching is time-consuming. I could be building, earning, learning, planting, painting …doing.
Searching is nerve-wracking. You can be put down, found out, written off. Singles are socially out of it – unsafe to have around a carefully homogenized couple’s scene.
Loneliness feels bad.
When the partner search is motivated by such pressures, chances are the selection process will be short and probably short-sighted. That’s not a disaster, since the willingness to work on a relationship can overcome such a beginning. The real problem is that short-circuited partner selection too often results in the fallacy of “if only I had a partner, then . . .” turning into the follow of, “now that I have a partner, I will . . . “: be loved, involved, safe, using my time constructively, emotionally supported, socially sought after and lonely no more. And then you aren’t. At least not enough, not often enough.
Each time I have entered into a committed relationship, I have invested my partner with enormous, usually unwanted power over my life. Few of us hold up under such a burden. If it has to be because of my partner that I feel adequately loved, meaningfully engaged, safe from the cruelties and crudities of boors and evil-doers; if it because of him that I will be enabled to meet the intellectual and creative challenges of my potential, feel comfortable in your dealings with the world, invited to the most desirable parties and freed of the pain of aloneness, well, I don’t think anyone can handle all that responsibility. If all of this is happening in the underground of a relationship, we don’t have a chance to deal with it, to become aware of it, to understand it, to express how we feel about it, to divest ourselves of the awful responsibilities of it. So, we have to find a way to make these implicit expectations we may have of one another explicit.
What I have learned I must do is open awareness of my own and my partner’s expectations and learn to communicate about them. This is particularly important for gay and lesbian couples whose relationships have to be made strong from within, since the culture without contributes so little to our stability. So how do we get to our fantasies and illusions about each other? Here’s one approach that I have begun to consider:
Every human relationship is flawed. Each person brings to the relationship a plethora of accumulated behaviors, good and bad. Also brought into the relationship are tools and coping mechanisms that may be current or, outdated. In my present relationship each of us has brought major health challenges as well as mental illness. In all of my relationships, past and present, I found it frightening to fight. In my mind, discord might be signaling the end of the relationship. The tape in my head plays, “Can’t work. Won’t last. Doesn’t count. And we’re dancing to their tune again!” But turning away from conflict is turning away from reality.
Denying anger, until it explodes unexpectedly at a later date, is bewildering and potentially very damaging to a relationship. Dealing with it as directly as possible, when it is happening, is strengthening though it may be painful and frightening to do so. Fighting is a necessity in a thriving relationship. Fighting fairly and to the finish is essential to the continuing growth of any partnership.
Unfinished fights are usually aborted because of fear of losing or fear of exposing hurt feelings or concern over letting go of one’s emotions totally. Most of us have experienced these fears at one time or another. But unfinished fights leave the participants tense and anxious. If I may share with you what I have found to be true in my life, if you feel tense and anxious when you stop fighting, your fight is probably unfinished. You should continue trying to work through to the finish – that is, until the real, underlying issues are confronted.
When my earlier partners and I experienced a good fight, we as partners were aware that we were risking ourselves and we were willing to experience the discomfort that brings resolve to the conflict. In a good fight, we trusted each other enough to be honest about our feelings, about our grievances and what we want to be different in the future. The good fight ends in negotiation, with both of persons being clear about what is being asked for about change. There is accommodation on both sides. Nobody loses. Everybody wins.
We must be willing to fight with each other to discharge the tensions that relationship building inevitably brings. We must be willing to fight to work through the control issues that are part of every partnership. The more openly these issues are dealt with, the better chance my next partner and I have for a lively, satisfying, and enduring life together.
Much of what I have written about so far applies to both male and female couples, for that matter, to nongay as well as gay couples. There are some ways, however, in which liaisons between two women and between two men are unique. I believe these differences are, primarily, outcomes of the ways women and men are differently socialized in this society.
With only three primary love relationships in my history, all of which ended in very negative ways, I have been able to come away from those relationships with some new knowledge of myself, and the intricacies of being in relationship. In the minds of my former partners, I will never be able to get out from under the thoughts they may have of me, or their reactions triggered from their experience with me. However, I know that people can and will change. I have. And along with this change comes my perception of how to make a relationship work and that is what I am happy to share openly with you.
- In Love v. Being “In Love” (christophersmark.wordpress.com)
- Penguins have gay ‘flings’ but mate for life as heterosexual couple (dailymail.co.uk)
- Frederick Hertz: Is Gay Divorce Any Different Than Straight Divorce? (huffingtonpost.com)