…and we’ve had no time to get ready for either.
By Tony Carroll, LCSW
It has been a long and difficult struggle for LGBT people. In 1791, France became the first nation to decriminalize us, and the U.S. followed 212 years later. In 2004, the threat of “gay marriage” helped reelect George W. Bush, who inadvertently picked a fight that we had to win. On June 25, 2015, the United States Supreme Court named us the winner. Same-sex marriage became the law of the land, and instantly LGBT culture in the United States was forever changed.
Those 11 years of intense legal and legislative battles over marriage equality sharpened our political skills, and that will be useful in our continuing quest for equality. But relationship skills? Not so much. We are no better prepared for successful marriages than our straight brothers and sisters, who have had thousands of years of experience with the institution.
Our best inspiration may be drawn from the untold number of highly stable same-sex relationships that have endured happily with very little societal and legal support, while fending off every conceivable assault. In the early 1980s, I interviewed 40 Houston gay couples in long-term relationships, and the themes of mutual respect and affection were consistent: “He is my best friend.” “I can’t imagine life without her.” The bonding was about companionship, trust, friendship, mutual values, and shared lives.
While a high percentage of U.S. marriages fail, the successful ones are really successful. People are happier, healthier, and more productive in satisfying marriages. They offer stability, stimulation, comfort, security, companionship, and expansive growth. As Aristotle said: “The total is greater than the sum of its parts.” There is something magical in those relationships, and they are not a matter of luck. While societal condemnation of same-sex marriage has been reduced, the obligations imposed on same-sex couples have increased—and we don’t know much about “mating in captivity.”
Just a few months ago, if a relationship disappointed us, we could simply update our Facebook status, put our stuff in the car, send a “sorry it didn’t work out” text, reactivate the Match.com account, and meet someone new for a drink. Now, in addition to the heartbreak and disappointment, the task of untangling legal obligations and community property makes the decision to marry a much more profoundly important one.
The cheerful celebrations of local same-sex wedding ceremonies are drowning out the mournful drone of divorce proceedings for now, but the legal and psychological communities already look at “gay divorce” as inevitable. Only the most tone-deaf have missed the jokes about the booming business of engagement parties, pre-nups, fabulous weddings—and spectacular divorces.
Since many of us will opt for marriage, I want to encourage us to try to do better than our straight friends have done. Here are a few issues to consider:
• The choice of a spouse is life’s most important decision.
• It is far easier to get into a good marriage than to try to fix or leave a bad one.
• It takes two to begin a relationship, but only one to end it—either by death or desertion.
• Every relationship has a happy beginning and a sad ending, either by death or other separation; the only variable is in the length of time between these events.
• Avoiding hurt prevents some from starting a relationship, and causes others to leave their relationship.
Ten Questions to Ponder as You Consider Marriage
1. Do you like things the way they are now?
• It is easy to get lost in the fantasy of how things should be, or how they might become.
• The reality is that things are the way they are, and they’re likely to stay that way.
• Ask yourself, “Do I want to spend the rest of my life with this person, exactly as s/he is?”
• People change only with a great deal of effort, and profound internal motivation.
• You can’t get a cat and expect to teach it to act like a dog. It won’t happen. You’ll both be disappointed, and nobody will be happy. Better to get what you want from the beginning.
• Couples grow and mature over time. If they grow at similar rates and in similar ways, they remain happy; if they grow apart, the relationship suffers.
• Get clear about yourself through careful, heartfelt self-examination.
• Get clear about the other by listening and believing what you see and hear. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear the truth. Listen to what s/he says about previous relationships; it’s probably what s/he’ll say about you if you break up.
• If you hear “I made some terrible mistakes in my last relationships, but I’ve spent years in therapy, and I’ll never treat someone that way again,” you just may have a prize.
2. Are you truly compatible? Shared values are more reliable than shared interests.
• While interests change, values tend to remain constant—making for stable, satisfying long-term relationships. Some important values, for example, are affection, honesty, altruism, intellectual stimulation, honesty, loyalty, personal growth and development, dependability, motivation, activism, connection, humor, social involvement, curiosity, flexibility, and spirituality.
• If s/he places high value on family, while you place a higher value on adventure, this can be difficult. Does work always take precedent over the relationship, and is that mutually agreeable? What will happen if one of you has a business opportunity requiring relocation?
• Equality within a relationship is important for long-term satisfaction, but it is terrifying in the beginning.
3. Are you both willing to put in the time, attention, energy, and nurturing that are required for your marriage to thrive?
• Depriving a marriage of these things causes it to wither and die. Dissatisfaction and illicit affairs begin when commitment, devotion, attention, trust, and safety diminish.
• People get into relationships for companionship. Are you willing to give companionship to the degree your significant other wants it?
• Are you both flexible enough to accommodate the other’s needs and desires?
• Does s/he seem too “needy,” or are you hesitant to give enough attention?
4. All couples do well when things are good; the measure of a successful couple is how well they handle the hard times. Are you both prepared to “tough it out” when the going gets rough?
• Are you both supportive when the other is struggling?
• Are you both able to manage conflict without blaming, becoming volatile, defensive, or withdrawn?
• Can you both accept personal responsibility for your part in a problem?
• Are you both good at seeing and validating the other’s point of view?
• Do you both understand that in conflict there is never a winner and a loser? Either both win or both lose, and losing makes for bad love.
5. Have you discussed the areas where, for one or both of you, compromise is either impossible or undesirable (especially, but not exclusively, in the areas of children and monogamy)?
• “Compromise” often results in resentment, and neither will get what s/he wants.
• Don’t expect him/her to “come around” to your way of thinking over time.
• An open relationship may work if both agree, but it never works long-term if only one of you wants that. The dishonesty and resentment will kill you.
• Clearly define what constitutes infidelity. Porn? Sex? Affairs? Something in between? Can you distinguish between your own insecurity and the other’s perceived infidelity?
• Betrayal includes neglect, contempt, emotional and sexual deprivation, dishonesty, and violence, as well as sexual betrayal.
6. Are you aware that sexual passion changes over time?
• “Get it up, get it on, and get it off,” or “Two dogs f–king” sex is a hormonally and impulse-driven need for release stimulated by novelty. It attracts briefly, but always diminishes with commitment and familiarity.
• Sustained sexual passion is intentional, sensuous, and cultivated. It develops over time, in much the same way that we cultivate a sophisticated taste for fine food or art. Developing awareness, openness, sexual comfort, adventure, flexibility, and trust create a holistically sensuous passion rising from all the senses and emotions. Satisfaction comes from both giving and receiving pleasure.
• Fetishes and novelty distract us from sexual inhibitions, guilt, and phobias during casual and clandestine encounters. Distractions diminish and inhibitors emerge with security. Over time, rigid sexual roles limit passion.
• When we become “family,” the preconscious prohibitions against incestuous feelings emerge. Address those feelings instead of blaming your relationship, unless you’re happy just with hook-ups or celibacy.
• Proust suggested that love is the product of our imaginations, not the result of the other.
7. Commitment is the experience of being psychologically attached to something and intending for it to continue. Are you equally committed, or is there psychological disengagement—an absence of genuine engagement?
• Commitment value is determined by considering the “treasure-trouble” balance. Do the costs outweigh the benefits? Will I always wonder if there is someone better?
• Could there be an undisclosed secondary gain for your partner, and are you afraid that without that ulterior motive s/he wouldn’t want you?
8. Is this about deciding, or just sliding?
• Deciding means carefully considering the reality of a marriage, the self, and the other, and entering a marriage because the relationship brings rewards and satisfaction to both of you equally.
• Sliding is coupling by default. It’s just easier to go on together than it is to break up.
• Marriage must be motivated by the pursuit of pleasure, not the avoidance of pain.
9. Are you in love, or just afraid of losing the other? You’d better make sense of this before you jump in.
• Early in a relationship, it is easy to confuse the fear of losing the other with falling in love.
• After commitment, the fear of loss diminishes. A kind of buyer’s remorse may set in, and people may think they’ve “fallen out of love.”
10. Are your beliefs about marriage compatible?
• Consider the family-of-origin traditions. Do you genuinely want the marriage your parents or your spouse’s parents had? Remember that this is the model in your head, so if you want something different, you have to do something different. Is it enough that they were married for 35 years, even though they were not very happy for most of those years?
• Even if you are not currently religious, childhood religious values sneak into every marriage. Examine them carefully.
• Cultural differences are obscured early on by romance, but may become insurmountable as they emerge later. Infidelity is expected in some cultures.
• Some cultures see family as trumping marriage, while others accept vast differences in the power within a marriage.
• The traditional male-dominated marriage model is really tough for same-sex couples.
Since the choice of a spouse is life’s most important decision, it makes sense to get it right. Think about premarital counseling that is focused on the emotional aspects of personal growth as well as marriage. Communication, commitment, conflict resolution—nothing will make you happy if the match is wrong, and the Supreme Court just made breaking up a lot harder to do.
Houston psychotherapist Tony Carroll, LCSW, has worked extensively with Houston’s LGBT community since establishing a private practice in 1983. He is a past president of the Texas Society for Clinical Social Work and a member of a number of professional organizations, including the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists; and the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality. In 2015 Carroll was selected to achieve the Lifetime Achievement Award by both the Houston and Texas chapters of the National Association of Social Workers. Carroll and his husband, Bruce W. Smith, DDS, were married in Toronto in 2003 and New York City in 2008. They recently celebrated their 20th anniversary in a committed relationship. Both Carroll and Smith are frequently selected by readers of OutSmart magazine as Readers’ Choice favorites.