Family counseling includes the appraisal of family roles, interaction patterns, and decision-making processes. A critical issue for family counselors working with gay and lesbian clients involves assessing the effects of gender role socialization on same-sex couples. According to Kurdek (1994) and Peplau (1981), gender role influences gay and lesbian relationships more than sexual orientation. The following discussions consider the specific impact of gender role socialization on same-sex partnerships.
Rigid and stereotypic masculine gender roles frequently contribute to relationship problems if one or both members of a male couple have been conditioned to be competitive, strong, and independent (George & Behrendt, 1987). Male socialization seldom equips men to function in relationships, since their conditioning often discourages their development of intimacy skills (Hawkins, 1992). Conflict commonly arises when there is an inability to communicate tender and vulnerable feelings (George & Behrendt, 1987). Men in couple relationships often tend to hold back from commitment for fear of losing power and control (Farley, 1992).
Family counselors working with male couples need to focus on those variables related to masculine socialization that seem to be obstructing optimal dyadic functioning. If extreme competition, aggression, fear of vulnerability, and loss of control are predominant in one or both members of a male couple, then the risk of relationship dysfunction is high. If fears of vulnerability, attachment, intimacy, or engulfment are profound and prevent commitment to the relationship, then individual counseling may be warranted before couple counseling is resumed.
Over-separation and over-attachment are two factors that influence the development of identity and intimacy conflicts in gay men (Colgan, 1988). During childhood and adolescence, for example, gay males may encounter rejection or emotional abandonment by their fathers who attempt to discredit or extinguish gender-discordant behaviors in their sons. Consequently, these boys may experience a need to deny their attachment desires for their fathers. As patterns of over-separation are established and maintained, disorders of gay identity and same-sex intimacy develop into adulthood.
Each stage of male couple development, however, presents possibilities for negotiating separation and attachment (McWhirter & Mattison, 1984). Frequently, the establishment of an adult emotional bond forms the foundation of safety necessary for redressing earlier developmental wounds and for balancing independence and dependence. According to Forstein (1986), counseling “provides an opportunity for the [male] couple to work through individual and interpersonal issues, understand the developmental nature of the couple relationship, and affirm the essential nature of being gay and being coupled” (p.136). Gay men with fixed and rigid patterns of over-separation and over-attachment can be helped not only through the intimacy of their male partnerships, but also by the empathic understanding of their counseling relationships (Colgan, 1988).
Malyon (1982) agreed that intimacy is more complicated for homosexual males than for heterosexual men, but that therapeutic success can be achieved within the context of an emotional relationship with the counselor. Emotional and sexual impulses have been inhibited and compartmentalized for many gay men, who have become as isolated from themselves as they are from others. The empathic reflection of the counseling relationship can become an agent for restoring intrapsychic integrity and fostering interpersonal intimacy.
Most women define themselves in association with others, develop within the context of connectedness, and learn to experience the needs of others as their own (Chodorow, 1978; Miller, 1976). This feminine socialization allows women to organize their identities around the ability to maintain relationships, the first of which is the mother-daughter dyad. Similarity and oneness between the girl and her mother facilitate the development of an enhanced capacity for empathy. This emotional understanding and inner experience of another then become a template for all future relationships (Brown, 1994; Chodorow, 1978; Mencher, 1990).
The quality of intimacy in lesbian relationships often has been measured according to male models of development based on individuation, separation, and autonomy. In comparison to these masculine concepts of maturity, women’s relatedness has been pathologized as fusion (Mencher, 1990; Miller, 1976). Classical psychoanalytic theory, for example, views experiences such as union or merger as regressive opposites of differentiation of self from the other.
In order to depathologize female patterns of connectedness and relatedness, merger has been reformulated as an ongoing adaptive strategy to maintain the integrity of a couple in a homophobic environment (McKenzie, 1992) and as a way to counteract the social and cultural pressures undermining the relationship (McCandlish, 1982). From the perspective of self-psychology, Mitchell (1988) asserts that flexibility and permeability of ego boundaries are essential elements in all intimate relationships. According to this theory, a woman’s ability to “open the boundaries of the self … is far from pathological. Rather, it is seen as the basis for a profound relationship and the necessary condition for psychological growth” (p.165).
During the initial phase of any relationship, a developmental stage of fusion allows two individuals to become one couple. Eventually, however, partners recognize their differences as well as their similarities. Once conflicts are recognized and resolved, mature intimacy develops. In other words, fusion is meant to last for a while but not forever. When fusion persists, a problem with merger exists. The development of mature intimacy represents an ongoing challenge for all couples, regardless of sexual orientation, and involves a dynamic balance between closeness and distance (Mc Candlish, 1982). “If enmeshment replaces the ebb and flow of connection and separation” (Burch, 1986, p.59), relationship dysfunction may require counseling intervention.
Family counselors must neither assume that the closeness of a lesbian relationship is immature and pathological, nor expect lesbian partners to identify with masculine concepts of maturity. Family counselors need to consider, however, that feminine gender role socialization sometimes results in prolonged difficulties with fusion in lesbian couples. Attention must be paid to enmeshment that restricts the movement between connectedness and separateness within the dyadic system.
The preceding discussions consider the specific impact of gender role socialization on gay and lesbian relationships. Although gender role conditioning is likely to be similar between members of same-sex couples, each partner inevitably will be socialized to differing degrees. In other words, one man will have been conditioned to be more competitive, strong, and independent than his lover; likewise, one woman will have been nurtured to be more empathic, relational, and sensitive than her beloved. Family counselors with flexible gender roles can ally with each partner accordingly and otherwise join these dyadic systems to recalibrate the dynamic balance between intimacy and individuation necessary for optimal functioning. Gender role flexibility thus becomes an important aptitude for family counselors to develop and cultivate within themselves in order to facilitate this vital equilibrium among same-sex relationships.
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© 2000, Ritter & Terndrup
by Kathleen Ritter, Ph.D.
California State University, Bakersfield
Anthony Terndrup, Ph.D.
Pastoral Counseling Center of the Mid-Willamette Valley
602 Southwest Madison Ave., Corvallis, Oregon 97333
This article first appeared in
The Family Digest, 12 (4), 4-5. (2000, Spring)
Used with permission of the authors.