Let’s face it: compared to gays and lesbians, straight people have it easy when it comes to the practical nuts and bolts of relationships and marriage. They go to school, find a job, fall in love, get married, have kids, send them to college, retire to Boca Raton, and call it a day. The path is well-trodden, worn into place by generations of “traditional” couples who have set the cultural standard. Even divorce and the minutia of dissolving a relationship are spelled out in great detail by the legal system in each state.
From an emotional and interpersonal perspective, being in a long-term romantic relationship has challenges and rewards for any couple, regardless of gender combination. Due to the lack of social and legal framework, however, maintaining a healthy enduring relationship can be even more challenging for LGBT men and women. The structure of LGBT relationships is often built on the foundation of the traditional heterosexual model, with little leeway for variations on that “ideal.” For some couples, conducting a relationship in this way can feel like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.
The idea of marriage, settling down, building a family together, and retiring with palm trees in the distance is not necessarily the appropriate path for every LGBT couple. As gay men and women, we are faced with many complexities when building our relationships. Some feel pressure to adhere to traditional heterosexual concepts of what a romantic relationship looks like. Others find great freedom and exhilaration in being able to create their relationships completely from scratch. Still others find that same freedom overwhelming and struggle to find the middle ground between the strict rules of tradition and the challenge of infinite possibility. Issues like a financial framework, sexual dynamics, cohabitation, and a host of other questions must all be addressed with little guidance or precedent.
Many LGBT couples find challenges in some of the most basic aspects of defining their relationships. For example, purchasing or building a home together can bring up uncomfortable questions in the application process, with one partner required to become the named person on the application and the other relegated as secondary or additional. There are myriad other situations, including parental rights, medical coverage, and inheritance rights, which all carry with them the potential for uncomfortable and upsetting complexities.
To overcome these challenges, LGBT couples and families need to be creative and willing to think outside the box in order to build their own relationship model. It is important to set a strong foundation from the beginning in order to provide for open communication and healthy development of the path to realizing a couple’s dreams and goals.
These simple ways to strengthen a relationship hold true for anyone, not just gays and lesbians, but they can become even more important in LGBT relationships due to the inherent challenges they face. When building the foundation for a strong relationship, it is vital to maintain not only the identity of the couple as a unit, but also those of the individuals involved. It is important for LGBT couples to remember back to when they first met, remaining cognizant of the qualities each admired and was attracted to in the other. Making sure to nurture those qualities in each other, while also nurturing and encouraging their own individual growth, will help ensure that there is balance and respect in the relationship.
- Remember that as partners, you must also be friends. Small things like doing little favors for each other or arranging small experiences that promote sharing and happiness are a way to build trust and affection. Many of the strongest and most enduring relationships are built between people who would be friends even if they were not a couple.
- Learn to not make assumptions or take each other for granted. Many people fall into the trap of making assumptions about who the other person is and how they will react to any given situation. Frequent and honest communication is the key to getting out of this trap. It can be a great refresher for any relationship to listen and learn from each other. Surprise each other by being present enough to not let assumptions bring boredom and tediousness to a growing relationship.
- Each partner must learn the skill of asking for what they need. This intertwines with not making assumptions in a relationship, in that couples may start to expect the other person to become a mind reader and automatically fulfill unspoken needs. When these unspoken needs are not met, resentment can begin to build in the relationship, which can lead to arguments and the degradation of communication. The best way to address this is for partners to learn to share clearly their emotions, fears, needs, and desires. This can be a very challenging experience, and yet can open up a deeper level of comfort and commitment.
These simple tools, and others that a couple can develop over time, will create a strong foundation from which a lasting relationship can develop. Taking the time to build a strong foundation at the beginning, and continually checking in along the way, can set LGBT couples up for successful and fulfilling long-term relationships.
© Copyright 2010 by By John Sovec, LMFT. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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