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Gay Love, Straight Sense

5 lessons everyone can learn from same-sex couples

Coming of age with “a very confused identity,” writer Andrew Solomon was certain he had to make a choice between creating a family and being gay. To have a husband, to say nothing of children, was unimaginable when he was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s. Very attached to his family of origin, he led “a squalid secret sexual life” through his late teen years and early 20s.

His sense of shame burned so deep that Solomon eventually vowed never to take up residence in any closet ever again. So it was that after being incapacitated by depression in his early 30s, he chronicled his own breakdown and went on to write about the oft-concealed affliction in a prize-winning book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. The marginalization that attended growing up homosexual saw frank expression in Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity , his 2012 exploration of how parents raise children who are markedly different from themselves in any one of a number of ways.

“The relief of authenticity after years of avoidance and surreptitiousness was enormous,” Solomon says. “I spent so many years fighting against myself.” He now lives openly as a gay spouse and father.

Gay men and lesbian women typically report similarly tortured experiences reckoning with their own sexuality, constantly calculating the costs of hiding or revealing one of the most defining arcs of being, self-policing their behavior for mannerisms that might betray their inclinations before they themselves are prepared to acknowledge them. It’s a testament to courage that so many eventually do, despite the possibility of rejection from those closest to them and a self-hatred internalized from a wider culture that still often reviles homosexuality.

For Solomon, as for many gay men and lesbian women, the very struggle to be and to love on their own terms is redeeming. The painful process of scrutinizing oneself and finding one’s core identity, especially in the face of opprobrium, is clarifying. “It made me more direct and honest as a person,” Solomon confides.

“Everyone should have to ‘come out’ in some way,” says New York psychotherapist Ken Page. “The feeling of authenticity is a universal need, a source of strength and resilience.”

What is more, the courage to reveal one’s true self to another is the cornerstone of intimacy in all its forms. Straight or gay, we all have a desire to be deeply known, yet often fear that some private flaw makes us ultimately unlovable. That fear of being our full selves constricts connection to say nothing of inhibiting passion. Small wonder that many couples settle into middling relationships while dreaming of ecstasy.

From the desire to seek love despite obstacles within and without to a need to create their own supportive communities, same-sex couples have learned a few things about establishing and maintaining relationships that are instructive for all. And as science repeatedly demonstrates, it is from the margins that we discern the middle.

That’s not to say that same-sex couples don’t experience their share of problems. They do. Many are the same ones that trip up all couples. Some, however, reflect the unique social legacy of homosexual partnerships. And some stem from doubling, the compounded dose of a single gender, which sometimes brings out the best in partners (emotional openness among lesbians)—and sometimes the worst (dominance struggles between gay men, emotional enmeshment in lesbians). Still, differences between same-sex partnerships and heterosexual ones may help illuminate the architecture of all love.

Lesson #1 Create Fluid Roles

One of the most obvious facts of same-sex relationships is that partners cannot automatically slip into roles or tasks prescribed by gender. At a time when the entire culture is wrestling with equitable division of responsibilities, urging women to lean in and men to be more domestically engaged, same-sex couples have a head start. Lacking a default option, they have always had to invent the rules themselves.

Once partners cannot fall into unconscious assumptions about who does what, the process of assigning tasks must be explicit. Then, almost any arrangement is possible. Partners are free to divvy up chores de novo by interest, ability, and availability in ways that both can live with comfortably. They can change when situations demand. “They tend to end up with much more equal relationships,” reports San Francisco psychologist Robert-Jay Green. “Simply making the process conscious pulls for fairness and equality.” It helps, he says, that “same-sex couples, male and female, tend to have much more equal levels of income and contribute equally to expenses.”

When partners don’t have to divide up roles by gender, they are also free to share roles, and many gay couples do, reports Boston psychologist Richard Miller. They may, for example, shop together or clean up the house together. “There is a certain joy in doing things together, even mundane tasks. It’s not the task that’s exciting but the courtesy involved in doing it together. There is a warmth that comes from sharing. It isn’t necessarily sexy. It’s relationship glue.”

Lesbian partners are especially apt to work as a team, says Maya Kollman, a New Jersey–based therapist whose practice includes both gay and straight couples. They establish a partnership of two equals—the model of what 21st-century marriage is struggling to be.

Lesson #2 Sexual Experimentation Is a Good Thing

The flexibility and creativity same-sex couples bring to handling chores permeates other aspects of being together—notably, sex. And for the same reason. There’s no default position to assume. There’s no gender-prescribed way of making love to fall back on.

Add to that the defiance in assuming a stigmatized sexual identity and a declaration of homosexuality becomes an act of sexual liberation, as in “we can have whatever sex we want.”

“We have a lot to teach the world,” says Page, “because we are not constrained by what others think sex is supposed to look like. We’re going to do what we find hot.” Enter gender play, flirtations with sadism and masochism, fetishes, kinkiness, sharing and enacting fantasies—the entire spectrum of sexual behavior.

“Our sexual IQ is bigger,” says psychologist Joe Kort, who teaches at the University of Michigan and sees both heterosexual and homosexual couples in his clinical practice. “Homosexual couples know more about what they like and don’t like sexually. They’re more willing to talk about sex than straight people—because they have to. They’re not as scared.”

“Every healthy thing I’ve learned about sex I’ve learned from lesbians,” Kort adds with only a bit of exaggeration. “Both research and clinical experience show that they are especially emotionally expressive. And they don’t count orgasms. They’re not penetration-oriented. They’re not orgasm-oriented. Sex can work all kinds of ways. There’s not one certain way to feel good about being sexual.” Lesbians’ problem is balancing nurturing instincts with eroticism to avoid the sexual lull that University of Washington sociologist Pepper Schwartz famously dubbed “lesbian bed death.”

Touching, kissing, oral and masturbatory experiences—even for many gay men “this is exactly what their sexual repertoire consists of,” adds Miller. “And it is deeply satisfying.” He advises heterosexual couples to spend time exploring each other and to engage in sex without intercourse—and, conversely, to engage in quick, unexpected sex away from the bedroom. “It’s hot!”

Rare is the heterosexual couple who enjoy the sexual freedom gays reap by breaking through the big taboo of homosexuality. Instead, the narrow bandwidth of sexual activity that heterosexual couples typically occupy limits passion, pleasure, and spontaneity, and the lack of novelty and exploration brings many couples to the doorstep of therapists in search of ways to energize the relationship. It is especially punishing to straight men and often enough drives them to seek sexual novelty outside the primary relationship, an act their female partners are inclined to interpret as profound betrayal.

“Or they do things and feel ashamed,” notes Page. “A woman doesn’t get to do much with a man’s nipples or his anus because, even though those are erogenous zones, that’s like robbing him of his manhood. Many men feel it as emasculating. Breasts are ‘girl’ things. A man who wants to curl up and rest his head on his wife’s chest often feels shame—it’s too soft, too unmanly.”

When it comes to erotic expression, Page adds, “we all have a host of non-gender-typical selves within us. Embracing those selves leads to fullness of being. Homosexual partnerships are pointing the way.” In fact, at the finish of therapy sessions, psychologist Kort urges all the heterosexual and gay male couples in his practice to “find your inner lesbian.” No matter how nasty the arguments lesbians have in his office, he reports, they always reconnect. They kiss, they touch, they call each other by their pet names. Kort’s admonition gets couples laughing, and that eases their struggles to reestablish closeness after the often constraint-busting work of therapy.

For homosexuals, sexual liberation encompasses the past as well as the present. Every man and woman, by a certain age, has a sexual history. But heterosexual partners often cannot talk to their spouse about their sexual past; it is felt to be too threatening to the relationship, Miller observes. Sometimes it taps a bottomless well of jealousy. One’s history is forced to remain a deep secret and serve as a barrier to intimacy, no matter how much it influences current behavior or could enrich lovemaking.

By contrast, the more open sexuality of the gay male community, says Miller, makes male couples comfortable sharing their sexual experience, even tapping it. They not only get to talk openly about sex, they can bring their whole self into a relationship.

Lesson #3 Keep Calm Amid Conflict

Two people, two sets of needs, and two points of view. Any relationship is bound to face conflicts. Research by pioneering psychologist John Gottman demonstrates that disagreements are generally nicer among same-sex couples, whether they’re talking about mundane or hot-button issues. The partners don’t start their conflict discussions by personally attacking one another. Issues are presented more positively and received more positively than in heterosexual relationships. That’s important because how conflict discussions start out is a strong indicator of where they will wind up—whether the issue will be resolved and whether there will be collateral damage to either party or to the relationship. The first few minutes of a couple’s conflict discussion are so emblematic that Gottman says he can predict the entire course of the relationship from them with 90 percent accuracy.

In long-term observational studies of both gay and straight relationships, Gottman, who is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington and founder of Seattle’s Gottman Relationship Institute, has found that same-sex couples begin more “softly” in bringing up a topic of conflict. They are less accusatory, less belligerent, less domineering. They also deploy more humor in discussing disagreements, he has reported in the Journal of Homosexuality, and that de-escalates the disagreement. They show more affection, listen better to each other, and take more turns talking. Homosexual partners on the receiving end of a conflict issue are less defensive. Physiologic monitoring shows that they register less fear and tension than do heterosexual partners. And both parties to the discussion are more willing to be influenced by the feelings of the other.

“Another interesting thing that emerged in the couple conversations,” Gottman found, “was that gays and lesbians are more honest. They talked explicitly about monogamy and about sex.” In over four decades of studying relationships, he hasn’t heard those topics come up with any regularity among heterosexual couples. “Gays and lesbians may be more competent at having a mature relationship.”

Gendered expectations, however subliminal, may contribute to greater friction in heterosexual relationships, Gottman believes. Husbands and wives bring to their interactions set expectations of each other’s roles. When a problem arises among same-sex couples, there is a problem—“I’m unhappy with something”—and that’s it. Among heterosexual couples, the same problem can become supercharged, igniting at least two additional fuses of resentment—the injury of dashed expectations in a partner who fails in a crucial role and the personal insult of having wound up with a defective, template-shattering spouse. Vitriol flung between heterosexual partners is a measure of how threatened the whole marital enterprise can feel by a simple failure to pick up a loaf of bread.

What’s more, Gottman offers, in heterosexual relationships the standard status hierarchy between men and women, which confers more power to men, breeds hostility in women. And they are the ones who tend to initiate the conflict discussions.

The humor and warmth that same-sex couples display in their conflict discussion, says Robert-Jay Green, is a function of greater equality of partners in the relationship. “You can’t get away with coercion if you have equal power. Partners let go of having to win at that moment.”

What do gay couples fight about? Many of the same things straight couples do—the basic human dilemma, how to tolerate differences. But there are a few twists, Gottman notes. Same-sex couples argue about differences in how “out” they are. And failure to connect emotionally can cause contention among gay men. But stripped of gendered expectations, a problem between same-sex partners tends to be…just a problem to be solved.

“In 200 years, heterosexual relationships will be where gay and lesbian relationships are today,” Gottman predicts. Movement toward interchangeability of men’s and women’s roles inside and outside the home is detectable, but it is slow.

Lesson #4 We’re All Surrounded by Attractive Others; Deal With It

Especially for gay men, but also for gay women, good friends are also potential lovers and sex partners. As a result, homosexuals have had to learn how to be friends with people they are attracted to and how to live in a world with lots of threats without being overly confined.

“To be social,” says Rick Miller, “we have to live with constant tension. It’s a condition of life.” Flirtation, admittedly, can be difficult to manage, but it adds spice and depth to friendships. It also encourages gays to develop internal restraints rather than abiding by external ones, such as marriage vows, not even a possibility until recently. It’s not that boundaries never get crossed: Gay men, he reports, often hook up sexually first, then become friends, maintaining the security and emotional commitment of their primary relationship.

As a therapist, he is often struck by the rigidity that catapults heterosexual couples into distress if a spouse is caught looking at someone else or maintains contact with an ex via Facebook or phone. Moreover, the heterosexual norm of not having close friends of the opposite sex can be downright confining. “There’s a fear that loosening the boundaries a notch means that everything is going to explode and everyone is going to be out of control. In a healthy couple, a little independence allows the boundaries to remain intact.”

Keeping jealousy in check also helps homosexuals to coexist civilly with exes. The smaller innermost social circles they often inhabit forces them to maintain friendship even when the partnership has run its course. Necessity is only part of the motivation for lesbian exes, points out Judi Zoldan, a clinical social worker and couples therapist in Boston. Lesbian females, with their orientation to relationships, “see more than one side of problems, even if they are angry and hurt.” They also don’t want to lose the connection to someone with whom they have shared some part of their life.

Lesson #5 Allow for Breathing Room When It Comes to Money, Family—and Maybe Even Sex

Homosexual partners can sometimes pick on each other over the smallest nuances of behavior, especially signs of effeminacy. It’s a legacy of internalized homophobia and its cultural cousin, misogyny. But in general, observers report, gays engage in less micromanagement of behavior than heterosexual couples do. Released from stringent gender templates, they have less investment in how the other should act, reports Michigan’s Kort.

One manifestation: There’s less telling each other what they can and can’t do with money. They do what financial experts say all couples should do—have shared money and have separate money. Heterosexual couples usually do not; the man typically earns more and that difference establishes a power imbalance between them that can corrode the entire relationship.

Nor are homosexuals always bound to accompany their partner on visits to their family of origin. Going home together for the holidays is an expected ritual for straight couples. Sometimes the loosened requirement for gays is a consequence of cultural homophobia: Not all gays are at the same point in the coming-out process, and not all families are fully accepting of same-sex partnerships. Gay men especially do not have that role expectation; they are not inclined to take personally any departure from the template. Says Kort: “It’s more what you want to do and what’s best for the relationship, not what you should do or what your parents did.”

But by far, the domain of greatest permissiveness has been sex. Research shows that 50 percent of gay male couples have open relationships, says Kort, although the number may now be decreasing as gays marry and establish families, actions that shift gay culture more to the mainstream. “And they make that work because both partners know it is just about sex. It is not a threat to the other.”

Some gay male couples negotiate an open relationship that has very strict rules to it, observes David Greenan, a psychologist and family therapist in New York who sees gay and straight couples in his clinical practice. Regardless of sexual orientation, he says, all males struggle with balancing the need for sex with a fear of dependency that is inculcated in almost all boys as they grow up, even in 2015. “The quickest solution is to go outside the relationship,” says Greenan, also a professor at Columbia University. Gay males are just more likely to make it explicit.

Ditto pornography. “Porn is typically a threat in straight relationships,” notes Kort. “Heterosexual women are especially bothered by it; they want to know ‘Why can’t I be all of that for you?’ Gay men understand: ‘You’re into that and I’m not. I have something else.’ They don’t take it personally. They can tolerate differences.”

In 2007, Andrew Solomon relinquished all vestiges of shame about being gay and before 300 guests committed himself to his partner in an elaborate ceremony at a stately English country house. Flowers and children were in riotous bloom. The fullness of coming out left him “flooded with joyful abandon,” he says. “There was no going back, no equivocating. I went from disliking the fact of being gay to celebrating it.”

Beauty wrung from pain. It is not exclusive to the lives of same-sex couples. “You can’t do anything important without work,” Miller says. “Challenge makes all of us better and stronger. Life is more exciting as a result.”

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