Gay and Lesbian Well-Being

Covering issues vital to the psychological health and happiness of gays, lesbians, and their families.

Gay Couples Therapy: A Way to Avoid Same-Sex Divorce

Helping same-sex couples who’ve lost that loving feeling

As we celebrate the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York, the thought of gay divorce could be a real party killer. Some of you might be wondering, "My partner is selfish, mean, stubborn, nagging, needy, distant narcissistic, smelly, snores, sucks her teeth (check all that apply) and my relationship is in trouble. Am I on the road to becoming a gay divorceé?"

What about couples' therapy? If your relationship is having problems and you are pursuing this step, that's a good sign--the prognosis for your partnership is good because people who take action to save (or improve) a troubled relationship often manage to do so. However, if you're looking for someone to referee your conflicts, or to finally convince your thickheaded partner of your unassailable sense of fairness and the truth, you'll be sorely disappointed. Over the past 25 years, I have done quite a bit of relationship therapy and here is some of what I have learned that you should keep in mind as you move forward.

1) A good couple therapist will not be on your side or that of your partner's, but on the side of THE RELATIONSHIP. I am by no means a referee. Novice therapists or students who fall into this trap quickly reach a dead end as they learn that acting as judge and jury does not resolve relationship problems. When I am doing couple therapy I am thinking about what needs to happen for the couple to overcome their obstacles, to learn to communicate and negotiate conflicts-NOT who is wrong. (BTW-Most likely, they both are.)

2) Problems tend to occur in pairs and it really DOES take two to tango. This may mean I challenge one or the other partner at times. When someone complains about a nagging partner I ask her what does she do to keep her partner nagging? A distant spouse is almost always attached to someone who inadvertently pushes him away. (Again, if you are wondering who is wrong, most likely you both are.)

3) If you want the relationship to work, you must be willing to move forward. This means letting go of sins of the past. The fact that your partner has been insensitive, mean, selfish, and sloppy is probably true and is, in fact, not surprising--that's how people act in unhappy relationships. I know from my clients and from my own relationship of 29 years, people who love each other can do really awful things to each other. (Don't we always hurt the ones we love?) but holding a grudge will not help your relationship. Instead you must find a way to let go, forgive, and move forward so that you can (re) build the relationship you want. If you need a penance, negotiate that with your partner-do it and then let it go.

4) If you are in a relationship where you both have agreed to be monogamous but in which your partner repeatedly has sex or affairs with someone else-- wake up and smell the coffee, you are in an open relationship (That means you, Hillary Clinton and Jackie Kennedy). I am not talking about one slip-that happens more frequently than anyone can imagine and should not be cause for break up. But repeated infractions, despite promises to the contrary, probably mean that your partner cannot or chooses not to be monogamous. Keep in mind, an open relationship can work (see my previous blog post entitled: Is Sexual Fidelity Possible or Even Necessary? ) but YOU need to decide if this is what you want.

5) Feelings of love, affection, and even sexual attraction can return if problems and tensions are resolved. Of course, when you first come for therapy, your anger is pushing aside those warm fuzzy feelings of affection and tenderness. However, this does not mean the love is dead and your union is doomed. Don't take the temperature of your relationship by assessing whether you feel love or not. These feelings can and do come back as the relationship improves.

6) Trust me, it is a really bad idea to use couples therapy to announce to your partner that you are severing your union, thinking you are letting him down easy by leaving him in the hands of a professional. A therapist cannot help with the initial shock and grief, and your partner will hurt just as much if the therapist is present or not.

Let's just kiss and say goodbye?

I have helped many couples stay together-however, many couples have broken up as a result of couples' therapy. Not because I messed up (I never mess up-just ask my partner!), but because during therapy they learned what they needed to do to make the relationship work--and then decided not to do it As we are now living longer than a century ago, one lifelong primary relationship may not be enough for each and every one of us. Some of us may simply outgrow our relationships and move on to new ones. However, keep in mind that some relationship behaviors have a way of sticking with us like you-know-what on a shoe and then rearing their heads again later. For example, if your current partner is needy and selfish, suspiciously like Mom was, you might find yourself with needy selfish moms in future relationships. So think carefully and recognize and resolve what YOUR relationship issues might be before deciding to trade in your old partner for a new model.

Michael C. LaSala, Ph.D., is Director of the MSW program and associate professor at Rutgers University and author of Coming Out, Coming Home: Helping Families Adjust to a Gay or Lesbian Child. more...

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