- We often hide some part of ourselves in our romantic relationships, especially when we're young.
- We also conform to the scripts we see around us for how to act in relationships.
- Interviews with lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals showed the benefits of being yourself in relationships.
- Authenticity in relationships means making your own rules based on who you are and what you want.
Co-authored by Tyler Jamison and Mari Tarantino
As scholars who study complex romantic and family relationships, we sometimes hit a wall of big questions. Especially when we are talking about romantic development we ask ourselves and each other: What is the end goal for someone’s love life? Marriage? Happily ever after? Something else?
One answer that keeps popping up in different studies is some version of “being and feeling like yourself” whether that’s in a relationship with one person, more than one person, or staying single. In a recent study, we analyzed lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) young adults’ memories of all their previous romantic and sexual partners. In telling their stories, participants gave voice to the idea of being yourself more directly and more meaningfully than in any other study we have seen.
Because of their experiences with discrimination and stigma, LGB folks in our study had to seek authenticity in their relationships more purposefully. They had to push past significant barriers to feel like themselves in a world that often ignores or stigmatizes their romantic lives.
A Note About the Science
It is well-established in the research literature that LGB people experience higher rates of discrimination and worse mental and physical health outcomes than their heterosexual peers. However, research shows they also form relationships that are strong in communication, positive emotions, intimacy, connection, stability, and equality. This left us with an important question: How do LGB individuals overcome adversity to create healthy, meaningful romantic lives?
The study findings highlight resilience in LGB people’s love lives, but even if you don’t hold any of those identities, the ideas may resonate with you or someone you love.
LGB young adults often (but not always) concealed their identities from themselves and or others during adolescence. For most participants, being attracted to people of the same gender seemed risky, so they tucked those feelings away. Concealment was a response to direct or indirect messages from others that being LGB was either not ideal or completely not OK.
Based on all kinds of cultural, religious, social, and personal expectations and beliefs, we probably all hide something about ourselves, especially when we’re young. Some of us might even hide our earliest romantic relationships. Especially during adolescence, being accepted is so important and it seems like there are so many rules to follow to get it right. We might worry we will be judged so we keep some part of ourselves (or our relationships) hidden.
Conformity to Blend In
Right alongside concealment, we found that LGB participants used conformity to blend in—at first with their heterosexual peers, and later within the queer community. The people in our study sometimes dated who they thought others would accept rather than who they really wanted to be with. They sometimes didn’t even realize it until later as they looked back on early relationships and evaluated them with a fresh perspective.
Regardless of our sexual identities, we all live in a culture that is saturated with messages about what romantic relationships should be like, what great sex looks like, and how we should go about getting it for ourselves. It’s no surprise that our earliest impulse is to mimic the romantic scripts we see in the culture all around us. We conform because it feels comfortable and familiar—until it doesn’t anymore. That’s when, if we’re lucky, we start breaking some rules and living by our own standards.
When the people in our study stopped hiding who they were and stopped conforming to the norms of heterosexual or queer culture, we saw true authenticity emerge. They started making their own rules for their relationships based on who they were and what they wanted out of partnerships and out of life more generally. They left stagnant relationships, communicated more clearly about what they wanted, and listened (carefully) to their instincts about their partners.
From this place of self-direction, LGB people built strong connections with their partners, made lifelong commitments (if that’s what they wanted), and expressed appreciation for the journey to get there.
It is easy to think of a specific relationship type or stage (like marriage) as the goal of your whole romantic life. But what would it look like if you reframed the goal to be less about what kind of relationships you end up in and more about how it makes you feel—specifically, how well they resonate with who you are as a person? Authenticity means resisting expectations imposed by others and making your own rules for your love life. Taking a note from the LGB community, it’s not easy but it’s possible to decide what’s right for you and pursue it with confidence.
Mari Tarantino (she/her) is currently a Ph.D. student at Virginia Tech studying Human Development and Family Science. Her research focuses on sexually and romantically marginalized individuals in partnerships and family contexts. Prior to starting her graduate career, Mari earned her BS in Human Development and Family Studies at the University of New Hampshire and minored in Queer Studies and Interdisciplinary Health Education. Her most recent work titled, “Queering LGB+ Women’s Sexual Scripts,” addresses how heteronormativity influences LGB+ women’s sexual partnerships and STI-pregnancy prevention efforts.
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Tarantino, M., & Jamison, T. B., (2023). Resilience through relationship experiences: A qualitative exploration of lesbian, gay, and bisexual romantic development. LGBTQ+ Family: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Advance Online. https://doi.org/10.1080/27703371.2023.2212621