Couples Chronicles — Interview 12
Something Very Special
First published in February 1988
© January 7, 2018, Demian
Rhonda, 35, and Ellen, 43, have been together for five years. Both use the same last name. They are raising Ellen’s children — ages 12, 13 and 14 — from a previous marriage. Ellen is a psychotherapist and Rhonda is a jazz pianist, in the process of taping her first album. They reside in Connecticut.
How did you meet?
Ellen: I had been single for about a year when a friend of mine suggested I try the bars in New York. I’m really not a bar person and I had never picked anyone up. As I walked toward the bar, Rhonda turned around and we looked at each other. It was an intense moment. We picked each other up.
She told me she was still in a long-term relationship, but was seeing other people, which I thought honest of her. I said to her, “Well, it’s only going to be for one night.”
We spent the night and I really liked her a lot. We “clicked” pretty quickly and felt comfortable with each other. Before we left for the day, she bent down and tied my shoe. It was a very touching thing.
Rhonda: I was struggling with my previous relationship, not fully conscious that it was ending. We were both going out, seeing other people, but thought that we would work things out and get back together. We had been together for eleven years.
Ellen: I remember looking at her and thinking, “This is really hopeless, I’m going to fall in love with this person. I’ve got to do something.” So I said to her “You’ve got to make a choice to either end or develop our relationship.”
To have continued the old one would have provided too much conflict and pain for ours to develop properly. I had to make that kind of a confrontation. I needed to see that this was a relationship with a life commitment possibility. She chose to end the old relationship.
Rhonda has a capacity to take emotional risks, to look at hard decisions and to make them. I have a lot of respect for that. And she has kept that quality over the years.
I’ve also made some hard decisions and, in that way, we’ve been able to keep growing through all the challenges that come our way.
Ellen: About seven years ago, toward the end of my 14-year marriage.
Rhonda: I came out when I was 19.
Rhonda: Both my parents are dead. I never came out to my mother.
A couple of years ago, my father came to the marriage ceremony Ellen and I had. He was very accepting and respectful of our relationship.
Ellen: My mother has been dead for 25 years. I’m estranged from my father, but I’m out to my sister, brothers and people I’m close to.
Rhonda: They don’t have a problem with us. I’m very accepted and loved.
When Ellen told them about us, they were so young that it didn’t have much impact. They certainly accepted it in our home and were not that conscious of the cultural discrimination.
As adolescents, they became more sensitive to peers and are aware that kids at school use terms like fag in a derogatory way, and that people don’t accept gayness.
The quality of our home life and the kind of relationship we have with these kids is ultimately going to have much more impact than the effects of discrimination.
It’s up to them to tell their friends about us if they want.
Ellen: It’s their choice. We don’t tell them how to handle it.
Rhonda: They have chosen to tell people who are basically more thoughtful, more contemporary. My youngest son has a friend who made it a point to say he has a lot of gay friends.
Rhonda: They just call me Rhonda.
Ellen: Half the time they call me Ellen, and half the time they call me mom. They’ve been shortening my name to “Ell,” maybe because they hear Rhonda calling me that a lot.
Rhonda: We have a lot of affectional names. I call her Ell, or Ell the Bell. The kids nickname themselves and us. This household is very affectionate physically, as well as verbally, exchanging cards that say “I love you” and the like.
Ellen: We pool our resources. For us, money is not a good thing around which to draw lines. In our marriage ceremony we made a commitment for life.
We said from the start that we were going to share our lives. Although, in our first year together, Rhonda made efforts to bring in “her share” of the income. We were new at it and didn’t know better.
However, I do look forward to when her career gets off the ground. It would allow me to work more part-time.
Ellen: We made powers of attorney and wills, giving half our property to each other. We wanted to make as much of a commitment as married straight people do.
Ellen: We wanted to build commitment into our relationship. Shortly after our marriage, we took part of my maiden name and Rhonda’s last name, which is a mouthful. (You can’t say it, but you never forget it!) It’s legal and it seems to work very well because people know us as some sort of family. It makes them understand we’re together.
We still use our separate names on income tax returns, but on our checks, mortgage, and all else we use the combined name.
Rhonda: We’re committed to talk. If problems occur, we make every effort to talk it through. If serious problems arise, we’ll see a couples therapist. That has helped us hear each other better.
Both of us have the sense that we carry our own problems. Even if you leave the relationship and go with someone else, you still have the same problems.
If you are able to work through problems and anger, your intimacy becomes deeper and richer.
Rhonda: Yes, particularly now. We have a house on Cape Cod where I’ve been working on the album a great deal this last year. After that, I’m anticipating a continued amount of traveling and performing.
We spent the first three years of our relationship together all the time. Now, there’s a big change, a difficult one to go through. We’re still struggling with it.
Ellen: It’s been difficult first having all, then very segmented experiences of each other. This year we’re planning to take any free time and vacations together.
Therapists will tell you that, with lesbians, there is a closeness and fusion that sometimes gets in the way of a fuller relationship. Learning to adapt to the growth is where couples can get very stuck. They can stifle each other’s growth because they fear letting go, which I’ve felt quite a bit of.
What has kept me going through the fear and loneliness is the thought that “I love her and I like her.” It’s hard to find both those things in one person.
I find that loving is letting go, a lot, all the time. It’s not terrible, but it is difficult. There is a payoff. A lot of love and exciting things happen between us. I feel we’re pretty alive.
Rhonda: Part of being separated is that you function more as an individual. I don’t define myself primarily as part of a couple. I felt that more in my last relationship.
Now we have more separate friends and interests.
Rhonda: We are “monogamous.”
Ellen: You have to draw a line somewhere, and that’s the line.
Rhonda: My work takes up a huge amount of energy. If I was involved in an affair, it would take time away from work, my relationship and my kids. I don’t have time for it.
Ellen: Rhonda’s career interest strongly influences where it might go.
We want to live in Provincetown. We’d move there now if it wouldn’t uproot the kids. They must have stability, their friends and a home town. All that is set in motion here and will continue for the next five-to-seven years, until they’re grown.
I’ve told the kids, “The day Chris graduates, the van is backing up to the door.” They can come visit me.
Rhonda has this career-building faze in her life and I am finishing my career as a mother. I’m comfortable with the supportive role. I don’t feel I have to have this incredible career of my own. I value my work as a mother and as a therapist — not things I take lightly — but my relationship with Rhonda is foremost.
Rhonda: I see our future as a continuation of the way we work through change and crisis.
We have resolved so many issues around my going away, which didn’t fall into Ellen’s picture of the perfect…
Ellen: …my little cottage with the little fence.
Rhonda: I’ve seen other couples in similar situations, and the more restrictive situation prevails. It’s very important for me to survive in the relationship and not end up thinking, “If I hadn’t been in this, I would have done so many other things with my life.”
Ellen: I read a wonderful statement: “Everybody thinks they are going to get out of being alone in life.” Certainly, I had that fantasy. When you can sit with your own aloneness, you don’t have to cling to the other person. Out of that grows a solid place within you. That’s been true for me.
We feel a lot of trust and it has grown deeper over the last few years. We’ve been through a lot and we’re very sure of each other and our commitments to each other.
Ellen: Each of us devises creative ways to be a couple. That’s one of the strengths of gay relationships. We get to be our own role models. It’s a pain in the neck, but it’s also freeing.
Once you’ve gone through all of that, you’ve got something very personal.
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