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Journal of the Gay and
Lesbian Medical Association
FALL 1998
Volume 2, Number 1


Some Thoughts on Gay Male Relationships
and American Society
(From a talk at the Annual Symposium, 1998)

By Walt Odets

As a clinical psychologist working largely in psychotherapy with gay men, individually and in couples, I would like to talk today about psychological developmental issues and related social influences which express themselves in our relationships - largely, unfortunately, as impediments to our relationships.

As a society, we are only just beginning to recognize that there are a large number of lasting gay male relationships which are as fulfilling and happy as any relationships - which is to say, short of perfect, but worth the considerable trouble.  But the perception that gay men die alone and lonely is one I was certainly aware of as a teenager 35 years ago, and it is alive, kicking, and doing its destructive work on today's gay youth.

American society is still teeming with misperception, ignorance, homophobia, and ill-will, all of which breed self-fulfilling prophecies for gay the children of our society.  This society, which has traditionally prohibited - at best stigmatized -  gay relationships, then uses the results of that influence to demonstrate that our relationships do not work - or do not even exist.  I am reminded here of a gay man who, three years after coming out to his parents and trying repeatedly to talk to them about being gay, finally asked his mother in desperation:  "Aside from my going to hell, what have you got against my being gay?"  Her response well-intended response was,  "Men can't have relationships, and your father and I just want you to be happy."  Such responses - experienced by the gay man as some combination of fear, prediction, and vindictive hope - clearly make relationships between men much more problematic than they would otherwise be.

In the face of impediments like these, one of the most impressive things about working with gay men in psychotherapy is how much tenacity and courage so many bring to becoming themselves - to forging lives, including relationships, that express who they really feel themselves to be.  Despite this tenacity and courage, I am also certain that it is fair to say that, on the whole, gay male relationships are more problematic - more difficult to sustain happily - than heterosexual relationships.

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The individual, psychological developmental issues of gay men are complicated and vary among individuals.  But there are some experiences shared by most gay men as children and, particularly as adolescents, which bear heavily against our adult relationships.  Simply growing up gay introduces significant psychological conflict into any gay man's development.  Perhaps as one result, I believe gay men on the whole are more psychologically insightful than heterosexual men.  Certainly a majority of gay men who have progressed to successful relationships with other men have had to think consciously about their feelings.  And, no doubt, gay men at least talk a lot more about relationships than straight men - and sometimes seem nearly preoccupied with the issue.

Even with the advantage of relative "pychologicalness," gay men are usually at least partly the product of having been acculturated as men.  In a gay male relationship, there are two such men, and both, unfortunately, usually contribute at least some of the attributes that women so routinely complain about in men.  In the gay relationship, there isn't even the asset of a woman's sensibilities: to, for example, make conscious the problems, verbalize them, and attempt to interpret or mediate them.

To clarify the significance of two men in a relationship, I must broadly characterize what I mean by "the traditional acculturation of men" and contrast this with a traditional acculturation of women. 

Traditionally, women are acculturated to do things directly for others - empathetic interactions and other kinds of care-giving.  They are expected to stay in the house and to deal with conflict by becoming passive and depressed.  In contrast, men are acculturated to do things only indirectly for others - providing economic support or defense of the family against outside attack, for example.  They are expected to go out into the world, and to deal with conflict be crushing beer cans and beating people up.

Although both kinds of acculturation are problematic, I think it is obvious that traditional male acculturation holds very little promise for enduring, loving, respectful relationships.  A relationship does not, in fact, even exist when everyone goes out and acts out conflict aggressively.

While I think gay men as a group thankfully have somewhat less of this traditional male acculturation than straight men, psychologically gay men usually look a lot like straight men.  One of the most obvious expressions of  this in gay relationships is seen in the difficulty so many gay couples experience in structuring "power" within the relationship.  Because gay relationship cannot intuitively rely on organizing structure of traditional heterosexual gender roles, one of the fundamental issues in gay relationships is how - to borrow a phrase from Jay Haley, the family therapist - do partners accomplish some measure of complementarity and symmetry and thus provide stability within an intimate relationship without retreating to the relative simplicity, safety, and stability of  a "roommate" relationship.

While the failure of traditional gender roles in many heterosexual relationship is changing our understanding of those relationships, gay relationships - including those between two women, of course - have always necessarily had to invent themselves.  This is, of course, a responsibility, but it is also one of the big opportunities in being gay.

In gay relationships, complementarity - how partners balance power by complementing each other - and symmetry - how partners balance power through equity or similarity - are accomplished in a variety of, often unconventional, ways.  For me, and in my work with gay couples, the standard is always about the total balance between a mutual regard and respect for individual developmental needs on the one hand, and the requirements of a relationship - of being together intimately and honestly - on the other.

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How, exactly, this is accomplished varies widely among gay male couples.  For example, a partner who holds the balance of economic power may play a more passive or receptive role in sex.  But sexual roles are often flexible.  If an older partner holds a certain authority in the relationship because of his age and experience, the younger partner may balance some of that with his perceived greater sexual appeal, interpersonal and social skills, or even his physical size.  Such balances are complex, often unconscious, and an integral part of any relationship that works.

Despite old stereotypes about the predatory homosexual monster, it is obvious that the pursuit of complementarity and symmetry within gay relationships need entail neither mutual nor unilateral exploitation.  Nor must gay relationships mimic the inflexible solutions and limitations of traditional heterosexual relationships in order to work.  It is one of the advantages of a gay relationship that it quite naturally offers an opportunity to achieve some of the equity - the possibility of individual growth within a relationship - now pursued by many less traditional heterosexual couples. 

The solutions available to gay relationships are often untraditional and unfamiliar.  Many gay male relationships incorporate elements which are traditionally deemed appropriate to fraternal peer relationships or parent-child relationships.  Some gay relationships include more than two partners, are sexually "open, " involve large age differences between partners, or the financial dependence of one partner.  Our society is deeply inclined to judge such solutions critically, and often cites the very adaptations that help make a gay male relationships work as proof that they don't work - even when those adaptations are common and widely accepted in heterosexual couples.  This judgment, of course, has everything to do will our feelings about gay men in general, and with our deep-seated anxieties about the "feminization" of men in particular.  But the traditional "masculinization" of men is about nothing more than preparing them for narrow, often sadistic and destructive roles in relationships with females who have been "properly" feminized.   The adaptations of gay male couples are obviously not, in themselves, "pathological," and we who wish to respect and nurture gay relationships - which is to say, really, human life in its totality - must look at solutions for gay relationship in terms of the respect and developmental opportunity that they provide each partner.

Unfortunately, gay men themselves often fear adaptations within relationships which feel "feminizing" and fear that any departure from traditional masculine roles within a relationship provides evidence that society is, after all, right about the futility of gay male coupling.  We thus often feel uncomfortable with otherwise workable, happy solutions.  Gay men commonly cite substantial differences in age, the financial dependence of one partner, or exclusive sexual "roles" as reasons that a relationship is not working or could not work.  While for some men, at some times in their lives, these doubts might be true, the answer to the question is that the issue is not in the differences per se .  The issue is what those differences mean to the partners.  How are the differences - the complementary elements of the relationship - actually experienced by the two partners, and how does the complementarity affect the potential, happiness, and growth of each partner?

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Helping gay men with their relationships means helping them distinguish their own, real, experienced needs from the expectations of a society which would have our relationships fail just to prove its point.    Within relationships between two men, just as in any respectful, nurturing relationship, equity does not always mean symmetry.  It sometimes means complementarity.  Setting aside traditional social expectations of men - and the gay man's internalization of them - many gay men are quite happy with complementary adjustments within relationships which diverge from the acculturation of the traditional American male.  That male acculturation - I rely on no one, and I am always on top - expresses values that not only do not support gay relationships, but values which threaten all of human society and the planet it inhabits.  Both in the world and within gay relationships, everyone can't be on top - at least not all at the same time.  And, in any case, being on top need have nothing to do with aggression or subjugation.  Being on top can be about making love. 

I would like to talk now about how psychological developmental issues and socials issues converge, and place that convergence in the context of a particular, often problematic issue within gay male relationships.  This is the issue of a loss of sexuality within the relationship.  While loss of sexual interest is sometimes a consequence of problems seen in heterosexual relationships too - for example, power dynamics and emotional "withholding" - I believe that it often has unique roots in relationships between men.

Men, in general, are acculturated to not experience their emotional lives - that's why they kick other people instead of getting depressed.  One cannot be entirely self-sufficient and on top and cry in front of other people.  Sexual activity - which, because of its intensity and physical intimacy, could so easily be about emotions - is thus often transformed by men into recreation, sport, or pure physical thrill, all of which help skirt the issue of emotion.  Men - and I am still speaking about all men - thus often have difficulty integrating emotion into sexual experience.  For heterosexual men, if they're lucky, this integrative process is assisted by the emotional sensibilities of women.  Without this assistance, many gay couples have difficulty in making the transition that might keep sex alive within an enduring relationship: the transition from purely libidinal sex - performance sex, "hot" sex, or novel sex - to sex which is at least partly about communicating feelings to a partner.  Being a beautiful body engaged in hot sex with the body of a total stranger has very little to do with sex between intimate, long-term partners.  Long term partners know way too much about each other for either to buy the "I'm hot, you're hot, let's fuck" approach.  When sex within a relationship cannot make the transition to being a part of more complex, more psychological  communications, partners who deeply love each other often experience "a loss of sexual interest" in each other.

This "splitting" of sex from feelings is rooted not only in the typical acculturation of men in general, but in some developmental experiences more specific to gay men.  The heterosexual adolescent is encouraged and supported in learning how to interact with potential sexual partners.  Although sex itself may not always be approved among young adolescent couples, it is nevertheless clear that the heterosexual boy is "in training" for relationships that will ultimately be sexual.  Even as emotional vulnerability is discouraged in adolescent boys, this training - somewhat paradoxically - includes some insistence that the boy, in deference to "respectable" girls at least, learn to act, if not feel, as if sex and feelings were somehow related.

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In contrast, the gay adolescent is not only unsupported in learning how to interact with potential sexual partners, he is expressly forbidden.  The hitch here - I am returning now to the idea of splitting sex from relationships - is that he is not, of course, forbidden from developing peer relationships with other boys.  He is merely forbidden to include any sexual component in his relationships, present or future.  Thus, the gay adolescent who is able to explore his sexuality at all, must usually do so with other males who are purely sexual partners, and with whom sex is usually detached, and often exploitative or patently abusive.  His relationships with other boys are kept asexual and thus are protected from "contamination" by the dirty, forbidden homosexuality with which so many gay adolescents struggle painfully.

This training - in keeping sex and loving feelings for another man "protected" from one another - is very difficult to unlearn, and is too often perpetuated into adult gay life.  Even the well-adjusted adult gay man often comes to feel unconsciously that he must protect his loving, primary relationship from the contamination or degradation of sex.  Adult gay men "protect" their relationship partners from the "injury" that sex would inflict.  As a psychotherapy patient once succinctly put it to me, "I don't have sex with anyone I love."  Like many men with such feelings, this man he found himself sexually aroused only by projectively idealized strangers who would not be degraded or hurt by forbidden sex - because that is what they were for .  With these sex partners, relationship was not an issue, although it was always a fantasy.  This split - as well as the lives it often begets gay men - is a source of too much sadness, loss, longing, and nostalgia in the lives of gay men.

In closing, I would like to broadly address a fundamental feeling about relationships experienced by many gay men.  I said several minutes ago that gay men talked all the time about relationships.  One reason for this is that we often feel hopeless about them.  Behind the "we are proud" insistences, psychiatric "depathologizing" of homosexuality, and push for gay marriage, there festers in too many gay men a nagging, relentless, almost axiomatic sense of hopelessness about the real possibility of loving and enduring relationships between men.

There are some obvious reasons that gay men might harbor such hopelessness:  the traditional acculturation of men, which makes relationships for all men so difficult, is one.  And the obstructed, painful adolescent development which forces us into sex split off from relationships and into fantasies of  forbidden, and thus impossible and idealized "relationships" is another.  But gay men - perhaps to a greater extent than gay women - almost universally share another, even more pervasive, experience:  This is the experience of disappointing others simply by virtue of who one is :  "My father was always dragging me off to go fishing with him," a psychotherapy patient once said to me.

    And I hated it, and I was no good at it, and I refused to do it.  And I remember one day when I was about nine, we'd gone out on a fishing boat with a bunch of other people, and there was another kid there about my age.  This kid was really into fishing, and my father started talking to him and showing him how to do things, and he spent the whole day with him, and I just sat there watching them.  And I remember thinking, 'Well, that's who my father wants me to be.  And I will never be that, I can never be what he wants.'  That's when I gave up on my father.  Before that day, I think I sort of admired him, even though I was afraid of him.  But from then on I didn't even want to talk to him, and I hardly did, and I know he never understood why.

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That moment was, of course, not only the moment this man gave up on his father.  It was the moment he gave up on himself.  This kind of profound discouragement about - to use the words of Erik Erikson - the possibility of being who those who one loves want one to be, is common, perhaps nearly universal among gay men.  I have heard the "fishing-in-childhood" story perhaps a hundred times from gay men, and I am not even counting the baseball-in-childhood stories.  Ultimately, the gay man is not only a disappointment at fishing and baseball, but a disappointment because he is gay .  In being gay, we are not who parents expected us to be in a very important way, and most of us thus "fail" in these two very early, very important relationships.  That failure is not easily experienced as simply a product of parents' narrow expectations.  It is most often and most powerfully experienced as the failure of oneself - as I am a disappointment.  We may spend the rest of our lives trying to be particularly good and particularly accomplished - by becoming doctors, for instance - but, in intimate relationships where we fear being really known, the feeling of being a disappointment persists tenaciously.  The feeling that so many adult gay men bring to relationships is that there is something deeply wrong, something deeply lacking, something deeply unacceptable in and about themselves.  Although these feeling may be rooted in the fact of being gay, they easily persist into attempts at gay relationships - where, after all, being gay is a distinct advantage.  The feeling of too many gay men attempting relationships is that who one really is will eventually be discovered and everything will be lost.  This kind of deep discouragement, particularly when brought by both partners to a relationship, is obviously very, very destructive.  The fear of being disappointing to others is too easily experienced as the less painful disappointment in others and leaves us too ready to leap from a relationship before our partner finds out who we really are and leaps himself.

I would like to make one final observation about our relationships.  This is that, unlike heterosexuals, we are not working on the problems in our relationships in a socially supportive environment.  The influence of lack of social support is so pervasive and so profound that I think it is often hard to even recognize.  But the gay marriage initiative - regardless of what one feels about the details of the issue - has made one thing very clear:  American society, even as it is critical of what it would characterize as meaningless and promiscuous gay sex, is even less supportive of gay relationships.  In fact, gay men have received more support over the last decade for getting sick and dying than for relationships with a recognized, respected social presence.  In America, social values nearly prohibit two men on television from touching affectionately, much less kissing .  But, night after night, we broadcast stories of men threatening each other, beating each other, and blowing each other's brains out with guns.  We talk about whether this might be "hurting" our children.  In obvious truth, it is killing many of us.

We live in a deeply disturbed society which professes "decent family values," but demonstrates a clear preference for fear, hatred, and aggression over love between any two people who are able, against all odds, to muster it.  As a psychotherapist, my work is almost exclusively about trying to help gay people repair the damage wrought by the very fear, hatred, and aggression expressed by our television.  But I have also seen that as gay people - men and women - we live not only with impediments, but with real opportunity to make something authentic, decent, humane, and loving of our lives.  We must not let them - the self-hating and hateful - make us in their image.  We can and we must seize our opportunity and make something better - something much better.

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