Making Gay Relationships Work – Terry Sanderson

TS(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

Although this book was published way back in 1990, it is still relevant today. Back then, there were no civil partnerships and the current gay marriage debate hadn’t started. There were few role models and little conventional wisdom. Each couple has to go it alone and it no surprise that many relationships failed.  Since then, however, many such relationships have stood the test of time and the divorce rate has gone up for straight couples. Gay couples, by comparison, often have more stable relationships. Maybe this is because they have had to negotiate and think through many issues that straights take for granted so that when issues arise they have nothing to fall back on. Thus: A profound change is taking place in gay life and gay men are becoming more amenable to the idea of “settling down” and trying to make it work. Indeed, the Kinsey Institute in America published the findings of Alan Bell and Martin Weinberg who interviewed 686 gay men in California and found that 51 per cent were currently involved in a steady relationship. Their detailed analysis of the lives of these men concluded: “Our data tends to belie the notion that homosexual affairs are apt to be inferior imitations of heterosexual premarital or marital involvements.”

It is clear that the churches have failed gay people. The book opens with: Significantly, a report commissioned by the Church of England and leaked to the press in 1990, had acknowledged that the issue of gay partnerships could not be ignored. The report, chaired by the Reverend June Osborne, asked the Church to consider the question of “services of blessing for same sex couples”. It stated: “What is clear is the need for the Church to affirm the value of same sex friendships, and consider ways in which support and structures can be provided to enable friendships to flourish.”

Pretty radical stuff for an institution as deeply conservative as the Anglican church, and an indication that at least the issue is up for discussion even if it is many decades away from a conclusion. But whilst such worthy members of the Establishment wring their hands over whether they can “accept” gay partnerings, those individuals who are gay and in love have set about the business of actually forming their relationships and making them work; fortunately most of us do not feel the need to wait for the approval of “the authorities” before we make a start. We know that the approval of the law would, perhaps, relieve some of the burden upon us, but we also know that the real problems come from making and sustaining the relationship.

Most gay couples are well aware of the extra difficulties that may attend their relationships: the problem of finding a partner in the first place, the lack of support from family, the burden of disapproval from other sources. And yet still we try — if, like the rest of the human race, we want to love and be loved, we have little choice but to take the risks.

The damage done by society to the self-esteem of gay people is to be blamed for failure in relationships: (for) men to make legally recognised relationships with each other. But before that can happen we need to change not only the ingrained attitudes of society, but also the deeply-rooted negative ideas that have been internalised by gay people themselves.

“Until you are a happy homosexual, you can’t be part of a happy gay couple. If you don’t like your sexuality, then there is little chance that you will be able to happily share it with another man.

“So many men limit themselves because they have accepted the myths that ‘gay relationships don’t last’ or that two men can’t successfully live together as a couple because neither would be prepared to ‘be the woman’. We’ve also been told that because gay couples don’t have children their emotional partnerings are `sterile’; or because such a relationship is ‘unnatural’ it cannot be sustained. Even some supposedly liberal heterosexuals will tell you that if both partners are the same sex there is an imbalance and so the relationship is inferior. However, if we look at these ideas objectively we will see that they are nonsense….. It has been shown repeatedly that we are far more likely to base our relationships on the “best friend” model, a far superior arrangement that produces an egalitarian framework in which to function. It might not completely eradicate power struggles within a relationship, but it certainly reduces them significantly.”

Friendship would seem to be a stronger bond than the institution of marriage: from the memoirs of Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp: “Homosexuals were employed in the claypit of the large brickworks… Neither the hardest work nor the strictest supervision was of any use in these cases. Whenever they found an opportunity they would fall into each others arms…Should one lose his ‘friend’ through sickness or death, then the end could be at once foreseen. Many would commit suicide. To such natures, in such circumstances, the ‘friend’ meant everything. There were instances of ‘friends’ committing suicide together.”

In their book “Homosexuality in Perspective” (Little, Brown, 1979), sexologists Masters and Johnson have concluded that in some respects gay couples have advantages over their straight counterparts. They have maintained that the “social opprobrium” that society heaps upon gay couples actually serves to strengthen their unions.

Indeed: In theory, gay relationships have a head start in negotiations; both parties are men and both will have been raised with the expectation that their needs are important. In straight couples there is often an established power structure in which the man’s needs are assumed to be paramount: he earns the money, he rules the roost so he gets the lion’s share of say in decision making. Of course, many women are challenging such assumptions, but there is still generally an imbalance. Whilst such an unfair power structure might be less pronounced in a homosexual couple, there might be a clash of wills. Both may be strong characters, not used to coming out of negotiations on anything but the winning side. Perhaps both are used to hard negotiations as part of their job and think they can bring their ruthless business skills to their inter­personal negotiations

All of which makes me ask why gays want to imitate marriage. Maybe gays have something better to offer straights instead of being co-opted by them into an institution that is obviously failing.

“…each couple is obliged to create its own contract. We can make own rules to suit our own personalities, and not have other people’ traditions and expectations imposed upon us    . For most gay couples there is no need for a formal contract, they will formulate their own rules. A developing relationship is in constant flux and so there should be flexibility to change as you go along.”

And why assume that gay couples should imitate married couples by living together? In an American study where 44 per cent of the male couples did not share a home.  “The credit side of this arrangement is that if you are planning to keep your relationship ‘discreet’ (or even completely in the closet), it’s the easiest way to do it. ….. Keeping independent abodes also means that you are spared most of the hassles that go with sharing a home. If you’re getting on each other’s nerves, you can simply go back to your own houses. It also means that you can keep total independence in many other ways: perhaps there will be opportunity for other sexual relationships”

However: In the end, most couples who have decided to make a long-term commitment will want to live under the same roof. For some it will be relatively easy — one partner will be well established in a house or flat with plenty of spare room, and the other simply moves in. However, if both of you are well-established and both have room for the other, you will have to work out which home would be most sensible to share. An alternative is to start together in a completely new dwelling. This has the added advantage of being neither partner’s former territory. You might even decide to keep both houses going until you are certain you’ve done the right thing. You also need to consider which is the best location for both your jobs. Is one of you going to have to move completely from one part of the country to another? Will one of you have to give up or change your job so that you can be together?

“The criticism that gay couples don’t produce children is often put forward as proof that same-sex couples are unnatural. This completely ignores the fact that heterosexual couples are often childless — either by choice or by misfortune; who would have the effrontery to say that their marriages are meaningless because they are infertile? And by whose standards are gay relationships unnatural? I take natural to mean something which occurs in nature. Homosexual partnerings have been recorded throughout history ­mostly disapprovingly — but now that we have the courage and the confidence to make those relationships more profound and meaningful to us, we are accused of defying nature. Homosexuality has been recorded as occurring in many animal species, too, which is more than can be said of the Christian religion which has lead the way in persecuting gay people. How many dolphins have you seen reading the Bible or burning their fellows at the stake? Not many, but affectionate homosexual bonding has been frequently recorded between these intelligent mammals.”

Sanderson identifies six developmental stages towards gay maturity:

Stage I. Identity Confusion

From identifying himself as completely heterosexual, the Stage 1 individual suddenly begins to privately feel that information about homosexuality is somehow personally relevant to him. Try as he might to deny it— and quite often he will try mightily — the confusion and doubts persist. People at this stage often cope with their fear-inducing feelings by becoming anti-gay `moral crusaders’. They feel that if they condemn homosexuals long enough and loud enough, no-one will suspect that they are themselves gay. Those people at this self-denying point in their development have several ways of coping. The favourite is by having gay sex but not getting emotionally involved in the experience. They can then make excuses which rationalise their actions: “I was drunk” or “It was just an experiment”.

Stage 2. Identity Comparison

 many gay men enter into heterosexual marriage in order to conceal or deny their sexuality. They may, at the same time, be conducting a secret gay sex life. They will try very hard to avoid anything which might ‘give the game away’ and may become super-macho.

Stage 3. Identity Tolerance

 At this point the individual will have accepted the truth of his sexuality and be prepared to do something about it. He is very likely to seek out other self-defined gay people and find his way into the gay community. At this point he may feel alienated from important heterosexuals in his life, but if he receives the right kind of support and positive input, his confidence in his sexuality will begin to grow.

Stage 4. Identity Acceptance

 the confusion which has plagued the individual so far (“Who am I? What am I?”) will be resolved. He will have accepted that he is homosexual and be exploring it to the full. However, if he has had mainly bad experiences within the gay community he might still only be partially accepting of his homosexuality — considering it to be OK in private, but not to be shared with important heterosexuals in his life. If his experiences have been mainly positive, he is likely to “come out” to family and friends at this stage and to find homophobic attitudes actively offensive.

Stage 5. Identity Pride

 He becomes disillusioned with straights and withdraws further into gay life. He begins to dichotomise the world into gays (who are OK) and straights (who aren’t). He might well feel less and less inclined to hide his sexuality.

Stage 6. Identity Synthesis

 the idea that “they” (heterosexuals) are the persecutors and “us” (gays) the persecuted, is abandoned. Positive experiences with supportive heterosexuals has broken down the hostility and at this stage the individual’s gayness can be totally integrated into his wider life. His sexuality is no longer an issue for internal conflict.

Until these stages have been successfully negotiated: The consequences of separating ourselves from such an important part of our personality might show in such things as mental illness, social inadequacy, deep unhappiness or depression. The constant battles and inner conflicts can, for some individuals, result in emotional devastation, even in these supposedly more enlightened times.

“So long as we can recognise which failings are ours and which are our partners, we can work them out. But once inside a partnership, it is easy to dump your particular set of inadequacies on to your partner, and that’s when the trouble starts. ……taking on a lover with problems doesn’t mean that you can’t ever cut your losses when you recognise it as a mistake. Partners who find that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew have every right to distance themselves from problems which they feel are beyond them. They will probably feel guilty about abandoning someone who is already distressed, but sometimes it can’t be avoided. That’s one of the risks that both partners must face when they set out together.”

Many label gay men as ‘promiscuous’. This label has some basis in reality but the promiscuity is often the result of self-oppressed and a longing for something more: these men, who have been termed “sex compulsives”, feel a deep sense of loneliness. Despite the brief high that can be experienced after a successful sexual encounter, there is also usually a nagging feeling deep down that life must surely have more meaning…..Those who have internalised these profound doubts about their sexual orientation may well be able to pursue their career with a vengeance, but without a satisfying emotional life, balance will be absent. This distrust of one’s deepest feelings can manifest itself in many ways: a constant search for anonymous sex, perhaps, or an inability to make emotional commitments.

Some resent ‘flaunting’: “Heterosexuals don’t stuff their sex lives down my throat, why should I do it to them?” But heterosexuals do force their sex lives on to us — just about every minute of the day. We see men and women in sexual situations on television and in feature films, we read about their sexual activities in books. When men and women get married or live together, the implication is that it is for sexual as well as other reasons. Anyone who wears a wedding ring is announcing to the world that he or she has sex with their spouse. It’s unlikely that these people would describe to you in detail what they do in bed — what positions they favour, how long they spend in foreplay, whether they like oral sex and so on. Telling someone you are married does not mean that you will talk about your bedroom activities, but it does imply that there is a sexual relationship between you and your partner. By the same token, saying that you are living in a gay relationship is not the same as describing the details of your sex life. It just acknowledges that you have one.

And: “I think the gay liberation movement does more harm than good. It just upsets heterosexuals and turns them against us.” What this really means is: “However unjust and ignorant heterosexuals are, however abysmally they behave towards gay people, we must not protest lest we upset them further.” It seems to say that we must tolerate heterosexuals unjustly sacking us from our jobs, sending us to prison because we love someone of the same sex, vilifying us in newspapers, assaulting us on the streets, evicting us from our homes and so on. By this same reasoning no-one must ever speak out against these flagrant abuses.

So some gays avoid ‘frightening the horses’ but: If you deny your gayness in order to avoid the hatred of bigots, you are allowing these very bigots to limit your chances of love and success. Take for example this, written for the Sunday Telegraph by Roger Scruton, a professor of “aesthetics” and a leading right-wing “intellectual”: “A certain number of people in any generation, especially men, are attracted to their own sex, and in particular to the young of their sex. This attraction is not uncommon and traditional morality ensured that it would be useful. Homosexual feelings were overcome ­’sublimated’ — and turned to larger uses. Those who experienced them sought an outlet in paideia (as the Greeks called it): they became priests, teachers, fathers to everyone’s children. Their homosexuality, far from being a threat, became a benefit — a contribution to social continuity and to the inheritance of future generations. But the benefit depended upon shame and renunciation, which turned lust into charity…The liberated homosexual makes no such sacrifice…The result of this liberation is unprecedented promiscuity.”

The idea that homosexuality spreads by contagion is still around: In order to accept the children-will-be-influenced argument, you first have to accept that there is something intrinsically wrong with being homosexual. If you don’t accept that a homosexual lifestyle is automatically wrong, then you can’t accept that children shouldn’t be told about it. If it is true — and there is no evidence to show that it would be — that these children would experiment with homosexuality, then what is wrong with that? If they want to find out about themselves then it seems like a perfectly good idea. However, they should be reassured that experimenting with homosexual sex doesn’t mean that they’ll turn out to be gay, any more than heterosexual experimentation will necessarily make them straight. They should be taught about safer sex, the value of relationships (of whatever kind) and the difficulties created by society’s attitudes. That should give them the base from which to make up their own minds.

Before internet dating, the advice was: Opening yourself up to the possibilities and keeping alert to opportunities increase your chances of achieving the desired results.

The right frame of mind should also be accompanied by an effort to put yourself into as many social situations as possible. Mix with as wide a range of people as you can and enjoy them for themselves. (Everyone you meet won’t be the man of your dreams, but some of them could turn out to be life-long friends.)…. Pubs and clubs are excellent meeting places for those who are gregarious, outgoing and have plenty of confidence. ….(but) competitive nature of the pub and club scene can make it seem unwelcoming and threatening for those who aren’t young, good looking and whose self-esteem isn’t strong enough to withstand frequent rejections…..The sheer number of people who use the pubs and clubs means that if your Mr Right is out there, you’ll probably come across him in a pub or club one of these days.

But there were contact ads. Back then, in magazines and newspapers: Play up the good points, but not to the extent that you are misleading potential respondents. Leave out of your ad any word that creates a negative or downbeat impression: “lonely”, “depressed”, “fed up”, “unhappy” etc. That may be how you feel at the moment, but it will deter potential partners from even putting pen to paper.

For those who don’t do pubs, there are always special interest groups – book clubs, rambling clubs etc.: You can get to know people whilst engaged in some activity which you both find interesting, and which isn’t sex. These groups are good ways of making a circle of friends as well as looking for a partner…. However, for the newcomer, a gay group that has an established membership can often seem cliquey and unfriendly. Everyone seems to know each other and breaking into the circle seems impossible.  For the first few visits, a new member can feel excluded or even rejected. My advice is to persevere until people get to know you. If you aren’t very good at initiating conversations, or if your confidence has temporarily deserted you in this scarey new environment, don’t let it worry you too much. Believe it or not, most people feel that way: it’s just that some are better than others at covering it up with a show of confidence.

What about hobbies and beliefs?: Despite what you might have heard about opposites attracting, it ain’t necessarily so in human relationships. Research has shown that the more a couple have in common, the better their long-term chances of staying together. This is not to say that partners have to agree about absolutely everything in order to succeed……. there are some things which aren’t negotiable. It is unfair to expect your partner to compromise beliefs that are important to him in order to fit in with your thinking. … One of the things that most of us want from a loving partnership is a sense that someone will listen to what we say and respect it. It isn’t necessary to agree about everything all the time, but differences of opinion should be afforded due dignity and consideration. If you feel safe to open your heart to your partner in the full knowledge that you are not going to be humiliated or howled down, then you have a precious gift…. If one partner feels that they always have to back down in arguments or are overwhelmed and manipulated in each discussion, then at some stage that resentment will make itself felt either directly or indirectly. In a healthy relationship both partners should feel that they are gaining something, that both have a fair share of the cake. Compromise is the key word here. If there is any sense of injustice, any feeling of exploitation, then something is wrong.

What about age-gaps?: Significant age differences can be a particular stumbling block, the odds seem stacked against the long-term survival of a relationship in which partners are a generation apart. Not only will there be an inevitable difference in attitudes and needs, there will be significant discrepancies in priorities, energy and maybe financial resources. However, the younger partner might be finding his feet and the company of the older man can provide reassurance at such a time; many a young gay man has found a father-figure to help him through his difficult stage of adjustment. And many an older gay man has discovered the joy of having a young person around to share and benefit from his experience. There is nothing wrong with such arrangements, and there are glowing examples of their succeeding over long periods.

What about honesty?: — there have to be some things that you can call totally your own — so don’t feel that even your darkest and most private thoughts have to be shared. The occasional little white lie can save hurt feelings or unnecessary worry, so long as they’re kept to a minimum. Habitual lying will undermine the relationship, its inevitable escalation will result in neither partner knowing where he stands. And, after all, no-one wants to feel that their most precious relationship is a source of doubt and suspicion.

Romantic love wears off. That doesn’t mean that people  have ‘fallen out of love’ but that the work of real love starts: The “symptoms” of this ecstatic beginning time have been defined by Dorothy Tennov in her book Love and Limerence: (1) thoughts of the loved person begin to intrude at all times of night and day; (2) there is an intense desire for the love object to reciprocate the feelings; (3) the feeling of walking on air when the loved one shows evidence of reciprocating; (4) a general intensifying of feelings which thrusts other concerns into the background; (5) emphasising the lover’s positive attributes and ignoring the negative ones. Sexual attraction is a prime element in all this. This is called the honeymoon period, and in most cases it lasts between six and thirty months before the intensity begins to fade. The sexual jamboree gradually diminishes and real life comes back into focus: work commitments start to take on their former importance in your life; disagreements with the family which took a back seat now start to look serious again; debts still have to be paid; the house still has to be cleaned and, if you’ve moved in together, there is a whole new shared lifestyle to get used to. Now your eyes begin to focus on those irritating little habits which you were prepared to tolerate whilst you were on your extended honeymoon: his feet smell terribly, he snores loudly, he is untidy…. For those who are in love with love — the intensely obsessional kind with lots of romance and sex — this might seem like the end of the relationship. They feel they’ve “fallen out of love” because things have cooled off: time to move on and try to capture the magic again with someone else. Unfortunately, those who want to be in rapturous love all their lives are bound for disappointment. However much they try to avoid the mundane in their relationship and however much they resent the calming down and the diluted intensity, it always happens. However many partners we have, the honeymoon must always end sooner or later…….this is not failure; it is simply an indication that the relationship is maturing. Passionate love is changing to what has been termed companionate love.

There’s also a study about patterns and stages in gay relationships with the caveat: The stages that the researchers identified are by no means fixed, either. Rather than moving in a straight line, the stages should be seen as running along a spring which is lying on its side — moving back and forth and up and down as well as across. Partners will be moving at different speeds, too, moving into different stages at different times and moving back and forth occasionally.

Stage One: ‘Blending’ (approximately the first year).

the relationship and its exploration are of paramount importance and other considerations take a back seat. The partners are so absorbed in each other that they may become, for a while, isolated and unsociable to others.

Stage Two: ‘Nesting’, runs approximately from the first to the third year.

partners become a little less obsessed with each other, and much of their energy is directed into creating a home together. …..might also see a mixture of positive and negative feelings about the relationship which leads to a sense of ambivalence about it. The changes may not be recognised as a natural progression and be seen as “falling out of love.” Many relationships end at this point.

Stage Three ‘Maintaining’ around the third to the fifth year.

The partners will have changed considerably by this time, and their individual characters — which have been submerged in order to establish an identity as a couple — will once more emerge and take centre stage. There will be an increased desire for each individual to have time away from the relationship and pursue interests separately from his partner. There will also be more willingness to take risks, to speak what has previously been thought of as threatening, and to confront issues which have been avoided. The partners will become better at dealing with conflicts as they work out their own systems of coping.

Stage Four: ‘Collaborating’ from approximately the sixth to the tenth year

the increased feeling of security and dependability within the relationship. It might also increase the “taking for granted” element, in which partners no longer recognise the importance of their relationship and simply exist within it. Sexual activity is likely to be infrequent between partners, with more temptation to explore sexually outside the relationship. Any ‘outside’ activity is likely to be seen as less threatening to the primary relationship than it was in previous years. The couple will be building their shared resources and consolidating their home and material possessions.

Stage Five: ‘Trusting’ from the tenth to the twentieth year.

The partners will feel more and more “at one” in the relationship, they will have come to accept that it is likely to last for the rest of their lives and will merge their money and other possessions so as to consider themselves a unit from a material point of view.

Stage Six: `Repartnering’, twenty years and more.

reminiscing about their life together, and a new and comfortable affection grew between them. There was also a renewed interest in sex together.

A common mistake is to invest so much into a partnership that you neglect other people: .If you want to spend the majority of your leisure time together, fine, but it is important that you retain your circle of friends and continue to find new ones. If you look to your lover for all your social contact you may eventually find that you have become unhealthily dependent on him. Having other friends, other social outlets (whether alone or together) means that you don’t lose sight of yourself as an individual. That part of your life which is separate from your relationship (and work is probably the biggest portion of that) can keep you growing and can give you the kind of stimulation your partner can’t. If, for instance, you like amateur dramatics but your partner doesn’t, don’t give it up. Pursuing your hobby might mean that you have to spend time away from your beloved, but it will also ensure that you keep sight of who you are, and why you are unique. …..If you have friends with whom your partner doesn’t get on, then I see them when he isn’t around. Many partners — particularly after the first two or three years of a relationship — nominate one or more evenings I in the week when they’ll go off and see their own friends or do their own thing ….Not only will this introduce some variety into both your social lives, it will give you something to compare notes about. Having other friends brings an aspect to the relationship which shouldn’t be undervalued. … We need friends with whom we can compare notes, show off our partner and simply socialise together. The acknowledgement by our peers (and ideally our family) that they accept our loving relationship gives it enormous strength. …We need to feel that we are part of human society, and there are plenty of people out there who will be friendly towards our relationship if we’ll permit them to be. You don’t need approval from the whole world, only from that part of the world which is important to you.

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