Increasing Relationship Satisfaction for Gay Men

Relationship concerns are among the most common reasons gay men seek help from psychotherapy. This holds true both for single men who are having difficulty forming relationships and partnered men experiencing an impasse in their relationship. As part of a collection of posts on gay men’s mental health, I would like to share some thoughts on relationship issues from both a psychoanalytic perspective and from the perspective of developmental and cultural factors particular to gay men.

Psychoanalytic perspective on relationship difficulties

Relationships are a central focus of psychoanalytically informed psychotherapy. The field has evolved away from the concept of the pleasure principal, which was considered in early versions of Freudian theory to be the primary motivating factor for human behavior. By the middle of the twentieth century, psychoanalysts began to question this premise. If people were motivated above all else to seek pleasure (or its converse, to reduce tension and discomfort), then why would people stay in troubled relationships that generate ongoing misery?

The contemporary psychoanalytic view holds that rather than pleasure-seeking, people primarily are object-seeking. That is, the primary motivation in life is to relate to others, in particular to connect with someone to form an intimate relationship. Yet features of our earlier relationships with parents, siblings, and peers tend to shape the way we learn to relate to others. When these formative relationships included elements of trauma–such as abuse, neglect, or bullying–then these painful elements of what we learned about relationships may unconsciously get reproduced in the present day. For this reason, many people find themselves repeating the same painful cycles in relationships. Unlike medication which may alleviate a symptom, psychotherapy may help you learn to relate to others in healthier ways. This includes making better choices in selecting potential partners, recognizing your own contributions to relationship problems, and learning how to adjust accordingly to form and maintain healthier relationships.

Cultural and developmental factors impacting relationships for gay men

For many gay men, childhood and adolescent relationships contained emotionally painful features. The very fact of keeping your sexual identity a secret for some length of time can make you feel unseen and emotionally unmet by family. A sense may form that love is conditional upon conforming to the assumptions and expectations of others, rather than being loved unconditionally for who you really are. The resultant insecurity about the constancy of attachments to others and associated doubts about self-worth may persist into adulthood, even after coming out. Such insecurity tends to have a negative impact on the quality of relationships, manifesting in a variety of problems, such as jealousy, controlling behavior, sexual difficulties, or avoidance of emotional intimacy. Relational difficulties such as these can be compounded by additional factors–a mentally ill or substance abusing parent, bullying in school, traumatic losses, and so forth.

Gay affirmative psychotherapy integrates an understanding of the internal features described above with external features of the culture, particularly the impacts of homophobia and inequality. Years spent in the closet typically result in a delay, such that most gay men start dating and forming intimate relationships later than straight peers, so some catching up may be required in learning both how to form relationships and how to work through relationship difficulties when they occur.

Though our culture is changing for the better, as shown by the growing acceptance of legal gay marriage, still most gay men do not grow up knowing role models for stable gay relationships. Sometimes the lack of visibility of stable gay relationships can create the illusion they do not exist, but indeed they do. This lack of visibility combined with the learned association between relationships and emotional trauma can lead some gay men to feel hopeless about their prospects for a satisfying relationship. I would like to extend hope that although the social environment is very challenging, perhaps even more so in a high population area like New York, if you are willing to put the work in, you can significantly increase your chances of forming a healthy, enduring relationship.

The absence of a culturally prescribed template for gay relationships provides an opportunity for gay men to define relationships in their own terms. While this opportunity to design relationships in innovative ways holds potential for transcending narrowly defined, traditional relationships, it can also be fraught with uncertainty. It’s very common for an individual or couple to seek professional help when an attempt at an open relationship has backfired, or when infidelity has occurred in a closed relationship. People sometimes get ahead of themselves when attempting unconventional forms of relationships that may appeal to a progressive and sexually liberated worldview, yet the stress of unclear boundaries sometimes exceeds a person’s emotional capacity. Psychotherapy can help you and your partner reach agreements that are respectful and comfortable for you both.

Psychotherapy can help you build more satisfying relationships

Relationships take work, including communication, sacrifice, and compromise. Psychotherapy may help you learn how to do the work required to make a relationship satisfying and enduring. You may learn to recognize the sources of what you learned about relationships, both from your upbringing and from growing up in a homophobic culture. Such increased awareness may allow you to catch yourself as you fall into over-learned, unhealthy patterns of relating to others. Beyond intellectual awareness of how you may have unknowingly contributed to relational difficulties, the psychotherapy relationship itself provides an opportunity for experiential learning of more effective ways of relating to another person that eventually you may learn to generalize to other relationships in your life.

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