Male Couples in Context:
Issues for Therapeutic Consideration
by Larry McFarland, M.Ed., L.C.M.H.C.
© 1997, Larry McFarland
Author’s note: This paper was written for a marriage and family therapy (MFT) class given by the Department of Family and Child Development at Virginia Tech, in April 1993. About six pages from the end have been removed because they included speculation on the use of certain MFT techniques with male couples. I added the conclusion paragraph so as to at least give the literature review portion of the paper a proper ending.
Please note that the passage of time has altered some of the conclusions detailed in this paper. Specifically, McWhirter & Mattison, whose 1984 stage theory of male couple development has been widely cited, have in later writings tended to downplay the usefulness of the stages they categorized.
Permission is given to cite this paper with proper credit.
Until twenty years ago, when the American Psychiatric Association withdrew homosexuality from the list of psychopathologies, no one voiced the need to study homosexual couples. Homosexuality itself was conceptualized as an illness, and if gay relationships were perceived at all, they were treated as brief affairs not worth addressing (Berger, 1990b). Prior to reclassification, therapy for homosexuals consisted mostly of efforts to convert them into heterosexuals (Eldridge, 1987). This approach almost universally failed. Therapy has evolved away from conversion and toward addressing the unique challenges gay men and lesbians face. Some of this research has focused on same-sex couples.
Summarizing the findings of research designed to answer questions about gay relationships constitutes the major thrust of this paper. The map for treating same-sex couples in family therapy is both complex and incomplete. Research has shown that most homosexual persons want to enter into committed, paired relationships (Peplau, 1991), and that homosexual and heterosexual couples are similar in love, relationship quality, and satisfaction (Kurdek & Schmitt, 1986b; Peplau & Cochran, 1990), but gay relationships are not just marriages where the partners can wear one another’s clothes. This paper identifies some of issues that enduring gay male relationships may encounter. Lesbian relationships have been shown to differ from those formed by gay men (Duffy & Rusbult, 1986; Kurdek & Schmitt, 1986b; Kurdek, 1988). While he study of female couples is equally important, it falls outside the scope of this paper.
Review of the Literature
Research into gay couples is relatively new. Gay people remain a largely invisible segment of the population. Problems in obtaining subjects that reflect the diversity of this group continue to plague studies of homosexual couples, while these difficulties are less troublesome when scholars examine heterosexual marriage. Therefore, some of the published research is based on small samples, and many studies are only anecdotal. Other researchers (Lawrence Kurdek, Raymond Berger, and others), however, have utilized the growing network of gay social/support organizations and media to compile a more representative sample, although it is possible that these also are more homogeneous than was hoped (Berger, 1990b). This sampling difficulty results, at times, in conflicting conclusions and interpretations.
This literature review will focus on the male couple in its context. Rather than simply to summarize studies, an effort has been made to separate the findings into relevant topic areas (which at times means that summaries of articles are divided). The social environment has an enormous impact on men who join together in intimate relationships, so the role of socialization has been addressed first. Second, research findings on the establishment and development of male couples have been summarized. Third, sources of support for gay couples and the impact of that support on relationship satisfaction has been examined. Finally, prior to turning to specific therapeutic considerations, the ways that therapists’ attitudes and biases effect the treatment of same-sex relationships are summarized.
Effects of the Broader System on Male Couples
Homophobia and the heterosexual bias. Americans live in a society where strong feelings against homosexuals are expressed openly and in almost every context. Legal, religious, and social institutions are constructed with a significant bias toward heterosexual marriage and, implicitly or explicitly, against homosexual partnerships. McWhirter and Mattison (1984) noted many of the ways that internalized social fears and prejudices toward homosexuals can create havoc within gay partnerships, and several other authors have discussed the role these social attitudes play in gay couples.
In their article on therapy with male couples, George & Behrendt (1987) observed that many homosexual men reflect the social proscriptions against homosexuality in their own attitudes. Homophobia, a term used to describe irrational fear or hatred of homosexuals, has a strong presence in both the heterosexual and homosexual milieu. Many gay men may believe that sex with other men is unnatural or sinful or that entering into and maintaining a same-sex relationship is immoral. They may also harbor beliefs that gay relationships are short-lived and that gay men by nature are sexually promiscuous and impulsive, attitudes that can become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Dahlheimer and Feigal (1991), in their article on gay couples with children, also commented on social prejudice when they wrote, “Homophobia breeds fear, shame, and anger in these families … ; leading a double life takes its toll on a gay man or lesbian person’s sense of security and self-esteem” (p. 46). They observed that society has often blamed homosexuality itself for the social tension felt by gay persons. From their point of view, society’s attitudes cause these anxieties. For example, social blindness to the importance of a relationship leads to excluding gay couples from definitions of the family.
Harry (1988) described several social stresses present in homosexual couples’ experience: The societal institutions, such as marriage, child bearing, or widowhood, that help mark the family life cycle are unavailable to male couples. In some communities, cohabitation by persons who are not legally related is prohibited. Stigma and secrecy also lead to an unnatural separation of homosexual and heterosexual couples.
“Passing” represents a unique response of gay couples to the social pressure to remain guarded about sharing one’s homosexuality. In his study of this topic, Berger (1990a) defined passing as representing oneself falsely to the world at large as heterosexual. Passing “creates a situation of tension as the couple spends emotional energy on holding together a socially constructed lie” (p. 329). In a survey of over one hundred gay men in relationships, he found that those men who kept their relationships secret from significant others (parents, siblings, best friends, and employers) showed lower scores for relationship quality than those who had “come out.”
Carl (1990), drawing on his therapy experience with homosexual couples, described several ways that social stigma has impacted on their lives together. In a unique observation he noted that at no time can a couple attend the church or synagogue in which they were raised and expect full support. “Nowhere does any major religious denomination and the majority of its members condone homosexuality” (p. 34). To him, grudging acceptance of gay individuals or muteness on the topic of homosexuality does little to offset the religious sanctions against gay couples.
Adolescents, who are more sensitive to social acceptance and rejection than other age groups, are in many ways the most vulnerable to society’s homophobia. For most people, awareness of one’s sexual orientation blooms fully in adolescence. However, as Carl (1990) has noted, almost all gay teenagers are socialized to believe that being gay is unacceptable to their family and friends, and so they begin a pattern of secrecy and emotional cutoffs that can last a lifetime. Holding this secret takes its toll on the individual, and many teenage suicides have been attributed to the isolation they experience. The methods these men use to adapt as gay adolescents may create difficulties when they begin to develop intimate adult relationships.
Several other authors have briefly noted the effects of social stigma on gay couples. Kurdek (1991) stated his belief that stigmatization contributes to reduced self-esteem, which contributes to the break-up of many gay relationships. Stigma has been codified into law that lowers the value of gay relationships. The absence of relevant community property laws reduces the likelihood that gay couples will pool their resources to purchase homes and other belongings, thereby reducing their investment in the relationship (Duffy and Rusbult, 1986).
Gender roles. Homosexuals and heterosexuals grow up subjected to the same dictates of socialization. Nowhere is this similarity more evident than in gender defined characteristics.
In her article on gender factors in homosexual relationships, Eldridge (1987) observed that homosexuals are typically characterized as possessing the gender traits of the opposite sex. These stereotypes do not withstand close scrutiny. Sex roles, masculinity and femininity, and sexual orientation are, in fact, independently determined. In relationship experiences, gender influences behavior far more than sexual orientation. Generalizations found to exist for male couples often do not apply for lesbian partners.
Similarly, Duffy & Rusbult (1986) compared members of homosexual and heterosexual couples to test a social exchange/investment model of relationships. They found the greatest differences in relationship satisfaction and commitment between men and women subjects, without regard to sexual orientation. “Gender appeared to be much more powerful in affecting behavior in romantic relationships than was sexual preference” (p. 20). Peplau (1991) strongly asserted her belief that gender determines how one acts and reacts in relationships. She encouraged researchers to use lesbian and gay couples to study sex roles since these relationships are less influenced by members of the opposite sex.
George & Behrendt (1987) have described the stereotypic male role: competitive, unemotional, strong, independent. Boys develop these patterns in order to be accepted and loved by their parents. Rigidly carrying these roles into adulthood, however, can lead to communication problems within male couples. The male role of sexual conqueror or the ever-ready sexual machine can overwhelm same-sex relationships. Since both men have been socialized to follow the same masculine standards, the intense pressure for each partner to perform can lead to sexual failures and loss of self-esteem.
Kurdek & Schmitt (1986b), in a study that compared heterosexual, gay, and lesbian couples, found that many of the gay men believed that their partners should be able to read their minds, a belief that may contribute to lower relationship quality. It was speculated that, because men are socialized to withhold their feelings, the mind-reading belief is gender related, and that many gay male partnerships may have deficits in communication skills.
In Kurdek’s (1989) longitudinal study of gay male couples, the subjects who were in the first year of their relationship showed diminished relationship quality. The author suggested that men are poorly socialized to cope with a decrease in limerence (i.e., the sexual exuberance characteristic of early romance) as the relationship matures. The failure to see the reduction in limerence as normal can put the relationship in jeopardy. Additionally, American men, who have been socialized to assert their own individual desires and to compete with one another, have greater difficulty when the needs of the relationship call for negotiation and compromise.
Carl (1990) added further insight into gender issues. He noted that boys are socialized to be sexual aggressors and reliable bread winners, while girls are instructed to save themselves sexually and prepare for maintaining the family. A relationship with two persons socialized for the same role can result in problems, but he has stated that most same-sex couples compensate by dividing the role-related tasks. The typical man also has more trouble showing their feelings, particularly fear, which can appear in the form of anger. Women are taught to express emotional closeness.
Ironically, the fear of being labeled homosexual drives both sexes to stay within the bounds of their prescribed sex roles. These socialization standards are much more strictly held for men; heterosexual women are more accepting of lesbians than heterosexual men are of gay men. Some gay men protect themselves from ridicule by overidentifying with the male stereotype, which may add to conflicts within male couples (Carl, 1990).
Affection, Conflicts, and Choices: Development of the Male Couple
Models of family life development (e.g., Carter and McGoldrick, 1989) are inadequate when applied to gay relationships. In a now classic study, McWhirter and Mattison (1984) undertook an extensive investigation of 156 gay couples in order to ascertain patterns of change as the couples aged. They were dissatisfied with attempts to impose heterosexual models of the family life cycle on gay couples. Their interpretation of the data led to a developmental theory of male couples comprised of 6 stages: Blending, Nesting, Maintaining, Building, Releasing, and Renewing. Loosely based on the age of the relationship, the model has been broadly used to describe the development of gay male couples. However, other studies have expanded knowledge of male couples in the nine years since the publication of the McWhirter and Mattison study. Some of these writings are summarized below.
Choosing well. Gay men may “come out of the closet” at any time from adolescence to old age. When they do, many pass through a period of high sexual energy, similar to the vibrant sexual exuberance teenaged boys. Gay men typically miss out on normal adolescent experimentation with intimacy, so they complete this developmental task after coming out (George and Behrendt, 1987). Carl (1990) cautioned that gay men who come out as adults may become sexually involved with several men or rapidly move in with someone they are dating, only to break up within a year. He equated this phenomenon to adolescents going steady, only without the restraints typical of the younger age. For most gay men, this period of unbridled sexuality subsides with time.
Carl (1990) also noted that many gay couples join across racial, cultural, or socioeconomic lines. He speculated that this occurs because a smaller pool exists from which to choose partners in the gay community. Nonetheless, these couples will face many of the same strains that cross-cultural marriages experience.
Berger (1990b) surveyed 104 male couples from across the nation, all members of a gay couples’ support network. He found that forty percent of the couples met in a gay bar, and the remainder met at work, in community organizations, at parties, etc. A large number of the men had introduced themselves to their partner rather than await introduction by another person they knew in common, which the author attributed to male socialized self-assertion. Most of the couples who lived together had moved in with one another within a few months of meeting. Berger suggested that the rapid pace at which relationships often begin can lead to compatibility problems as they progress.
Rituals. Berger (1990b) also reported that twelve percent of the couples he surveyed had participated in a ceremony of commitment, and that over a third of those who had not, wanted to do so. The lack of socially sanctioned rituals to mark transitions is cited often in delineating differences between homosexual and heterosexual relationships (Duffy & Rusbult, 1986; Harry, 1988; Carl, 1990; Meyer, 1990).
Rituals help reduce anxiety about transitions (Imber-Black, 1989). Individual identity and family membership are communicated through ceremonies. For example, weddings are useful in summoning support from traditional sources, such as family, friends, and culture. Without a socially accepted celebration of their union, gay couples must cope with the confusion that family members experience concerning their role with the new couple. The marriage ceremony gives both families the chance to meet and negotiate their relationships; this opportunity is absent for most gay couples. The lack of a wedding or its equivalent ceremony tends to confirm the stigma imposed by the larger community, that this relationship should be kept secret. Such “conspiracies of silence … restrain relationship possibilities” (Imber-Black, 1989, p. 151).
It may therefore be helpful for gay couples to develop alternative rituals (Imber-Black, 1988). Rituals of transition, such as a gay wedding, anniversary, or house warming with an emphasis on the union of the couple, will confirm for all involved the process that is already happening (Imber-Black, 1989). Holy unions or other celebrations of couplehood give the partners a chance to bridge the gaps between two families and friendship networks. This is not an isolated event, but affirms an ongoing, changed relationship with all family members. Painful separations or failure to acknowledge the importance of a gay relationship are common in families. Rituals can help redefine relationships that may have begun badly.
It is also important to provide a ritualistic equivalent to the divorce (Carl, 1990). Because beginnings and endings of gay relationships are not delineated, it is not unusual to have one or both partners unsure of their status, single or coupled. Marking the ending with a ceremony acknowledges the importance of the time together and allows both partners to connect with their new lives as separate individuals.
Communication skills. As has been cited earlier, male couples may suffer from deficits in communication skills that stem from the male socialization in our society. Lee (1990) has noted from earlier research that men whose relationships have withstood the test of time have highly developed patterns of communication. He has promoted self-exploration methods and couple’s and individual therapy to improve these skills. Reece (1987) noted that communication problems around initiating or declining sex frequently lead to sexual dysfunction within the couple.
Reduction in limerence. Limerence refers to intense sexual attraction that usually accompanies the early stages of intimate relationships. McWhirter and Mattison (1984) stated that limerence usually begins to decline after the first year or two of the relationship, and at the same time there is greater interest in “nesting” urges. This developmental change in the relationship is sometimes misinterpreted as loss of love or ambivalence about remaining committed. Kurdek (1989), in his longitudinal study of gay couples, observed that relationship quality among newly formed couples diminished during the first year, largely because the partners had difficulty coping with the decrease in limerence feelings.
Mattison and McWhirter (1987) have used their developmental model to aid in therapy with couples. In a case example, they described helping one couple cope with reduced sexual feelings by educating them in the stages gay couples have been found to follow. Reece (1987) also addressed discrepancies of sexual desire in therapy and recommended educating the partners, exploring motivations for sex (sexual release vs. communicating love), improving communication, and other techniques for coping with reduced limerence.
Monogamy vs. Nonmonogamy. Present day gay culture developed during the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. That era was marked by sexual freedom and openness that appear antithetical to a committed partnership. Gay couples are different from heterosexual ones, however, and several authors have noted that sexual exclusivity in relationships is optional, rather than required within long-lasting male couples. Peplau (1991) has suggested that sexual non-exclusivity in male couples reflects a male sexual value that is not limited to gay men. (Lesbians seem to value sexual monogamy more strongly than do gay men [Eldridge, 1987].) Heterosexual models of sexual monogamy may be inadequate for male couples because of the complexity of male-to-male (sexual-predator-to-sexual-predator) relationships (Weisstub and Schoenfeld, 1987).
Early research into sexual exclusivity among gay couples (particularly McWhirter & Mattison, 1984) had been based on data drawn from subject pools in large metropolitan areas and collected before the AIDS epidemic. These studies had suggested that endurance of gay relationships was strongly correlated with sexual openness rather than monogamy. Kurdek and Schmitt (1986a) attempted to correct the sampling problems, and their results suggested that non-monogamy in gay relationships is not inevitable. They compared open and closed relationships and found the participants were equivalent in psychological adjustment; closed couples measured somewhat higher in relationship quality, but only in three of the seven variables. Open couples in this study had been together slightly longer than the closed couples. The choices for or against sexual exclusivity appeared to be based on personality differences.
More than ninety-six percent of the subjects in Berger’s (1990b) study stated they were monogamous. He has suggested that monogamy is now increasing in the gay community because of fear of AIDS. There are “new norms in the gay community which advocate more exclusivity and a renewed importance of gay couples” (p. 35).
Negotiating sexual exclusivity is an important task for each couple. Disagreement between the partners can lead to feelings of betrayal and seriously threaten the relationship (Weisstub & Schoenfeld, 1987; Carl, 1990). However, it should not be assumed that casual sexual activities outside the bounds of the relationship constitute a threat to its continuation; in therapy it is important to ask what each partner thinks about the choice. Agreement on issues of monogamy is much more salient to the success of the couple’s relationship than the choice they make (Eldridge, 1987; Harry, 1988).
Relationship satisfaction. Lawrence Kurdek has conducted several studies of relationship satisfaction in both heterosexuals and homosexuals (Kurdek, 1988a; Kurdek, 1988b; Kurdek, 1989; Kurdek, 1991; Kurdek & Schmitt, 1986a; Kurdek & Schmitt, 1986b). He has identified several factors that contribute to higher quality relationships among male couples. First, he noted that perceiving few viable alternatives to the relationship adds to satisfaction. Duffy and Rusbult (1986), Carl (1990), and Peplau (1991) each observed that sexual openness in relationships may increase the number of comparative alternatives, thereby threatening relationship satisfaction. Research data (Kurdek & Schmitt, 1986a) somewhat supports this contention.
Relationship satisfaction was also strongly associated with barriers to ending the relationship. Couples entering heterosexual marriages sign a legal contract that must be dissolved if they later wish to go about life separately. Gay relationships develop without such a stated boundary. Kurdek (1991) suggested that pooling finances and buying property together can substitute for the legal barriers available to heterosexual families.
Mutual trust and shared decision making contributed to increased relationship satisfaction in gay couples (Kurdek & Schmitt, 1986b). Other authors have also observed the equal balance of power more available in gay relationships than in heterosexual marriages (Eldridge, 1987; Peplau, 1991). Reece (1987), Harry (1988), and Carl (1990) reported that when power imbalances occur in male couples, they are often related to widely differing incomes. Although actual financial dependence of one partner on the other is rare among gay couples, men are socialized to be the bread winner and often assume that providing the larger share of financial support gives them greater influence on decisions in the home. The less well paid partner can feel devalued. Unequal incomes represented a greater threat to relationship satisfaction and survival in gay couples than in heterosexual ones (Kurdek & Schmitt, 1986b; Peplau & Cochran, 1990).
Secrecy. Social stigma and fear of reprisal lead many gay couples to hide their relationship from the community at large. Harry (1988) has noted that it is an emotional strain to be ever watchful of this secret. Many gay couples feel forced to maintain separate homes or, if they share a residence, to represent themselves as simply roommates. It is not uncommon to fear as they grow older that parents or others will guess the nature of their relationship.
Berger (1990a) has stated that intense concern with secrecy is a sign of internalized homophobia. For those who are most afraid of being discovered to be homosexual, living with a partner presents a higher risk of exposure. Therapists should assess the quality of relationships and the level of openness clients have with significant others.
Children. The presence of children in gay families is becoming somewhat more accepted and prominent. Many of these children were born during earlier heterosexual marriages. Where this is true, the new gay families share many of the same issues with other blended families (Dahlheimer & Feigal, 1991). Many gay couples are also attempting to adopt children, although this is still rare. Having children in a gay family is a challenge for the entire household. “Gay parents face the same parenting issues as their heterosexual counterparts. However, straight parents do not face all the same issues as their homosexual counterparts” (Carl, 1990, p. 91). The absence of a legal marriage may confuse the relationships of step-siblings and can increase tension further (Baptiste, 1987). However, as with heterosexual relationships, children may increase investment in the relationship.
Homophobia and fear of exposure tend to cut gay families off from the world at large. These beliefs are not irrational; there are real dangers of losing custody. Men are not generally viewed as appropriate custodians of their children, and gay men are even less so. Stereotypes of gay men suggest that they are more likely to molest their children, that they will recruit them into a homosexual lifestyle, or that they will infect them with HIV. None of these beliefs is supported by evidence, but because stereotypes often effect custody decisions, the family must maintain a secret front that blocks them from community resources they could use to overcome these stresses (Baptiste, 1987).
Often it is the children who are most afraid of losing their fathers or who are angry at having to carry the burden of stigma. When these families enter therapy, Dahlheimer and Feigal (1991) have suggested placing them in multi-family groups with other gay families “because each subsystem has a peer group with which to identify and compare notes without fear of judgment” (p. 49). Gay parents may restrain their children from talking about their home life, thereby cutting them off from their peers. Family therapists should reassure the parents and children they are a family by emphasizing their commitment, intimacy, mutual caring and help them to connect with support groups where they all can feel freer to express themselves openly. Ultimately, the children will benefit from being allowed to talk to their friends about their lives, if they so choose.
Whom Can We Turn To? Family and Social Support
Family involvement. The level of family support that male couples experience varies widely. Berger (1990b) found that over two-thirds of the gay couples he surveyed described their families as supportive. Twenty percent of the respondents, however, reported that their families either disapproved or did not know of the relationship. Some described emotional upheavals when parents or family members took over when one partner was ill. Conflicts have arisen when family members pressure a partner to date or marry heterosexually.
Kurdek and Schmitt (1987) compared perceived family support in both heterosexual and homosexual couples. He found that gay couples were less likely to experience family support. “Being involved in a homosexual cohabiting relationship may jeopardize family support ties” (p. 65). Kurdek (1988) again studied sources of support for gay couples and found that, when two partners’ scores for perceived family support varied greatly, their relationship quality scores were higher. This curious finding suggests that, within gay couples, “supportive acceptance by one partner’s family may compensate for … the neutral tolerance or active rejection by family members of the other partner” (p. 508).
Friendships. In the absence of strong family ties, most gay couples have developed networks of friends; unlike heterosexual couples, friends surpass family as sources of perceived support (Kurdek, 1988). The importance of a social support system for many gay couples cannot be underestimated. Dahlheimer and Feigal (1991) have suggested establishing a support system before coming out to families. They urge, “Don’t come out to your family until you have somewhere else to go for Thanksgiving” (p. 51). Harry (1988) expressed concern for the increased sexual tension when gay couples socialize with single gay men; he encouraged them to become friends with other gay couples. Much of the literature on therapy with gay couples emphasize the importance of a friendship network (Eldridge, 1987; George & Behrendt, 1987). Carl (1990) and Meyer (1990) each warn, however, that the loose structure of the gay community makes effective support at times difficult to achieve. Further research into this field would be helpful.
Observation Changes What Is Observed: Therapist Biases
Theory-based biases. Studies into homosexual couples are only now beginning to impact the formulation of relationship theories. Because most theories are based on heterosexual models, there has been a strong bias toward heterosexual interpretation of almost all research. This exclusion has not just limited the usefulness of research findings. Candib (1989) and Harry (1988) have each argued that excluding gay men and lesbians from models of the family implies that they are not full participants in family life.
Using heterosexual models may result in ignoring or discounting the creativity that gay people can bring to relationships. Carl (1990) recommended that therapists expand their perspective to include serial monogamy and such non-traditional relationships as those in which the partners maintain separate households or live in separate cities and non-traditional roles that do not fit the patterns for heterosexual marriage.
As noted above, McWhirter and Mattison (1984) attempted to correct theoretical biases that favor heterosexuality by formulating their own stage model of gay male relationships. The tasks and stresses vary from stage to stage, and they also differ from those expected of heterosexual couples. These developmental stages have proved helpful in deciphering some male couple problems brought to therapy (Mattison & McWhirter, 1987; Weisstub & Schoenfeld, 1987).
Peplau & Cochran (1990) have offered an alternative, relational approach for conducting couples research that diminishes the sexual component and emphasizes “love, communication, commitment, and shared activities” (p. 325). In so doing they have attempted to broaden the perspective of relationships so that homosexual and heterosexual spousal partnerships can be compared without weighting judgments toward heterosexual standards.
Therapeutic prejudice: the unconscious thought. Family therapy is practiced with a focus on relieving suffering and helping persons get on with their lives. However, because therapists grow up in the same society as the rest of the population, they are subject to the same infusion of beliefs against homosexuality. Many times these prejudices are unconscious, but they can strongly impact therapeutic effectiveness.
Several authors have addressed the need for therapists to be more aware of their assumptions. Markowitz (1991) has cautioned therapists to avoid the twin errors of assuming that homosexuality itself lies at the heart of the presenting problem or assuming that homosexuality plays no part at all. A therapist who assumes that the children in gay families are unwilling or victimized members of the system will form an unhelpful alignment with the children against the parents. Such biases may lead the therapist to fail to consider that many of the children’s problems are developmentally normal (Baptiste, 1987).
Eldridge (1987) has cautioned against heterosexual bias, i.e., considering heterosexual relationships somehow morally superior to homosexual pairings. She has also warned therapists not to stereotype or assume that partnerships are based on the same model as male-female couples. This delineation is unlikely; most gay couples develop androgynous and egalitarian roles.
Carl (1990) also urged debunking the mythic bias that being coupled is necessary. “We do ourselves and our clients a disservice with any implicit assumption that coupling is best” (pp. 45-46). For some couples and individuals, gay or straight, life-long commitment is not possible. Male couples join together without strong social supports and with many forces working to separate them. Many cannot develop a level of commitment that would be possible if these forces were reversed.
Therapists need to take measures to counteract their own biases and to reassure their clients, and heterosexual therapists should not be surprised to find gay clients initially distrusting (Markowitz, 1991). Therapists are encouraged to accept the validity of the homosexual lifestyle, communicate acceptance, be aware of possible intergenerational issues, work toward the family’s goals, utilize gay community resources, and rein in their own curiosity about peripheral gay issues. It is also important not to assume that the couples seen in therapy are representative of the gay community; therapists should acquaint themselves with functioning gay families (Baptiste, 1987).
Therapists cannot be neutral in a world which despises gay persons. Eldridge (1987) recommended that therapists who work with members of the gay community educate themselves on gay and lesbian development and resources, and obtain supervision and consultation with more knowledgeable clinicians. Dahlheimer & Feigal (1991) have proposed special training for heterosexual therapists, including possible co-therapy sessions, and attending gay pride celebrations. Finally, it should be noted that it is not unusual for therapists who work with gay clients to fear for their own reputations (Baptiste, 1987).
Male couples have been shown to face unique challenges. However, many men feel their love for one another is worth every sacrifice. Marriage and family therapists can help thwart the social pressures that gay couples experience, but they will need special sensitivity and training to be most effective. For gay couples, a respectful, open, and creative approach will help them to endure in a hostile world.
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© 1997, Larry McFarland, M.Ed., L.C.M.H.C.
Administrative Director and Senior Staff Therapist
MAPS Counseling Services
19 Federal St., Keene, NH 03467