A gay men's specialist psychotherapist outlines ways gay male and straight relationships differ.
As I think back on the past 22 years of providing couples counseling for gay male relationships, I sometimes get asked what the differences are that I see in—(in general) in gay male relationships that are, (in general)—different from straight relationships.
In no particular order, below, are some of my thoughts. I offer these to both single and coupled gay men, in order to offer my perspective based on what I've seen through the years. My experiences and observations as a gay men's specialist therapist might differ from other gay men, and even other gay male therapists, and we always have to be mindful of not indulging in unfair assumptions, stereotypes, or even prejudices. But since making a relationship work, which I define, in part, as the relationship's level of satisfaction for each partner and in its overall longevity and subjective "quality" for each partner, is at least in part based on a skills-building process, perhaps offering my perspective sheds light on the skills required for a gay male relationship to both endure and thrive.
Here are my thoughts on different aspects of relationships that tend to come up over and over in the content of the couples therapy sessions:
1. Money – Gay male couples can have a lot of conflict around money. Statistically, white men tend to be relatively high earners. The sexism that women only earn a portion of what men earn, for the same work, extends to both gay men and straight men. Both gay men and straight men will compete with each other regarding financial "success", however they define it. And this competition can be within those groups, between those groups, or even within the gay couple itself. Its hard to find a gay male couple where issues of competition don't come up, whether regarding physical appearance, social influence, or income. When money issues come up in gay male relationships, I believe it's because all American men (and elsewhere) are still, even in our oh-so-modern times, expected to be the "breadwinners". White men, especially middle class or higher in socio-economic status, are socialized and used to "getting their way", among all demographics. Gay men of color face a dual challenge in managing social reactions and pressures both to being gay and of color, and also gender expectations. It's a lot of potential pressures to face and overcome.
Straight men face a lot of pressure, still, to earn more than their wives. Conversely, a straight man who earns less than his wife can feel humiliated, jealous, or dejected, all from society’s strong and ubiquitous messages of what it expects from men – it's not even up for discussion or conscious awareness; it just "is". So when two gay men form a relationship, issues of each partner "competing" to be the "breadwinner" can often arise. It's like some kind of pissing contest. There can also be an irony that the older, higher-earning partner can be the sexual bottom role in the relationship, and it's in the bedroom where issues of power, control, and dominance can be "played with", reversed, or expressed. In every gay male relationship, there is overt power, and there is covert or "passive-aggressive" power. How these dynamics are expressed, and the conflicts that can result, are often the impetus for entering couples therapy.
The gay men that I work with are often from mixed cultures or different nationalities. I'm not sure why this is; I really don't think it's because gay male couples "have more problems" than straight couples, or even that cross-cultural gay couples can't get by without couples therapy. Maybe it's that the cultural differences add an extra layer of challenge that can be a source of conflict. But it also adds an extra layer of mystery, excitement, exoticism, and fun. But along with cultural differences, such as language, food, spirituality, traditions, and habits, can be cultural differences about money. So, in couples therapy, differences and conflicts that arise about "money issues" on the surface are really differences in culture; For instance it can be differences in "family culture" in the family of origin, even if both partners are the same nationality/ethnicity.
Couples therapy helping a gay couple resolve conflicts about money often involves my helping the partners to understand that this is not a competition, or that one partner must dominate or be declared the "winner". Rather, it's about helping the men understand that their household is not two "I" that live under the same roof; it's about forming a "we". Forming a "we", where each partner is a 50/50 stakeholder in the relationship, can be hard for men, because in general men are taught to "control" and "dominate" from the time we are little boys in ways that they don't even realize that they're doing it. (Don't believe me? Just ask a militant lesbian if that statement is true. Don't say I didn't warn you).
Unlike straight couples, who up until relatively recently had the monopoly on legal recognition of their relationships (before domestic partnerships and marriage equality laws), gay men were treated by the law as two individuals under one roof, especially for tax purposes. Straight married couples are socialized to "blend" their money more readily, and they have their parents' example and subtle behavioral modeling to follow. They are more likely to have joint bank accounts, joint tax filing, and automatic rights of survivorship on everything from 401-ks to Social Security survivor benefits – and they have for generations. Gay men are socialized to think more individually, and the idea of "blending" their two individual incomes into one "household income" once they are coupled is a kind of mental and emotional hurdle that only softens with increased time and trust.
Couples therapy can involve brainstorming, identifying, evaluating, and implementing specific money management plans in the household so that both partners feel like they are making an equal contribution, even if there is a vast difference between Partner A and Partner B's incomes.
2. Sex – Gay male couples tend to approach sex differently. We all know that gay