LESBIAN RELATIONSHIPS: TALKING ABOUT OUR RELATIONSHIPS
BY KALI MUNRO, M.Ed., Psychotherapist, 1998, 2001
At one time or another most of us have heard or spoken the juicy words, “guess who so-and-so is seeing?” and “did you hear that so-and-so are breaking up?” Our interest in the ups and downs of each others’ relationships is so great that our desire to hear more is not limited to the lesbians we know but to any one in our immediate and distant community (remember our focus on Ellen and Ann?) And while many lesbians gossip and speculate about other lesbians, how often do we talk about what’s going on in our own relationships? I mean really talk – not only about what’s good but about what’s hard.
THE MYTH OF THE PERFECT LESBIAN RELATIONSHIP
It sometimes feels like a risk to be honest about our relationships – as if there’s an unspoken myth that all lesbian relationships are perfect and the same. If ours doesn’t measure up to the ideal model, there must be something wrong with us.
Our need to proclaim and protect our love in the context of a lesbian-hating society often feels like pressure to hide the struggles in our relationships for fear they’ll be used against us. This need to defend our relationships and present a perfect image can lead to our minimizing and denying the problems that do exist.
WE CREATE OUR OWN RELATIONSHIPS
In truth lesbian relationships can vary a great deal. How we construct our relationships is both a reflection of the wider heterosexual model as well as a reflection of our own creativity to create relationships within a void. With few or no models to look to, we are often freer than heterosexuals to create relationships of our own choosing rather than ones based on social conditioning and expectations.
Some lesbian relationships exist outside the mainstream heterosexual model, operating on entirely different values. They may embrace non-monogamy, be poly-amorous, live in separate homes for years, be committed to resolving their problems while staying together for “as long as we are good together” rather than “till death do us part”, and relate to each other as equals and friends as well as lovers. Being in a lesbian relationship can feel like starting from scratch – we get to ask ourselves what kind of relationship we want rather than feel compelled to follow some Hollywood model.
But it’s not always easy to be so inventive. We don’t live in a vacuum, there are social pressures on us. For lesbians, homophobia can present an obvious pressure and strain on our relationships.
THE PRESSURE OF HOMOPHOBIA
Many lesbian relationships suffer under the critical eyes of homophobic family and peers. Arguments about whether or not to come out, with whom and when can occur. Even when there is agreement not to be out, there may be differences between women about how far to go to hide their relationship. Where only one woman isn’t out, her repeated denial of the existence of the relationship may leave her partner feeling hurt, insecure, and unloved. The one who isn’t out may even blame and resent her partner who serves as a reminder of her own secrecy and feelings of guilt. Both women may feel depressed, irritable, and unhappy and take it out on each other.
Hurt and angry feelings can lead to arguments, insecurities, and worries about the stability of the relationship. In this situation, it is vitally important for both women to talk about how they are feeling, and hear and understand each other’s concerns and fears.
Even when both women are mostly or completely out, homophobia can, take its toll – because of harassment, fear of harassment, times it’s scary to be out and you pull apart from each other, rumours that get started, assumptions that are made about you, and so on. Repeatedly framing the problem as homophobia, rather than an inadequacy on the part of either women, helps to lay the blame where it belongs and instead of fighting about how to handle situations it is far better to bond over a mutual problem and find your way through it together.
When there are differences between women, based on such things as race, culture, age and sexual identity it can be an additional hurdle to cross. Added to this is the reality that too often even lesbian friends can be critical and unsupportive of overt differences between women assuming that it will never work out. This can be particularly devastating and isolating to a couple – to be rejected by both the mainstream and their own communities. Although this reluctance on the part of friends to accept your partner often changes over time, it’s still very hard for couples to be doubly stigmatized. Couple in these situations often feel like they have to present their relationship and partner as perfect because everyone is expecting them to fail. This is too much to expect of yourself. Finding people who support your relationship is so very important, even if it means going to couple’s therapy for awhile.
HAVING TIME APART
It’s not uncommon in the beginning of a relationship for lesbian couples to spend all of their free time together – basking in each other’s love and mutual discovery. Friends my be dropped, separate activities cease, and the relationship becomes like a cocoon. This may feel really good to both women for awhile. But, in time, this total focus on each other decreases usually with one of the women expressing a need to have space.
She may need time alone, or want to spend time with her friends. If she’s felt it for awhile, it may come out abruptly or desperately. Either way, her partner may hear her as saying she needs to get away from her. Feeling hurt or rejected, she may get upset or angry and question her lover’s love or commitment. The one wanting space may feel misunderstood, suffocated and possibly controlled, and then feel an even greater need for space. Not a good combination!
Short of lots of mutual understanding and reassurances at this point or shortly thereafter, many couples end up arguing. Rather than figuring out how to support each others’ needs for separate time, they may only get time apart after a fight which is not satisfying for either woman.
DEALING WITH OUR DIFFERENCES
Dealing with differences can be a real challenge for couples. As lesbians, we love that we’re both women – our sameness feels good and right. We delight in each other, our bodies, doing things together, swapping clothes, sharing food, music, ideas and laughter. But, when we hit a point, or too many points, of differences we may feel uncomfortable, scared or angry. From the less important things like when we go to bed, to more important things like not getting along with each other’s friends or not enjoying the same social activities, eventually we discover that we have differences.
Our difficulty dealing with differences may be due to a discomfort with the separateness they can create, or the fact that differences challenge our assumptions about the way people or relationships “should be like”. Maybe we think that feeling separate is not okay or means there is a problem when it’s actually a very healthy thing and helps us to feel even closer. Maybe we’re uncomfortable with our own privilege and how that gives us power in the relationship.
If our identity is wrapped up in the other person, we may believe that our differences mean that there is something wrong with us or them but differences are just that – differences. They don’t mean anything more than that – the challenge is to accept our differences and even rejoice in them. We can learn from each other’s differences. A partner who needs a lot of space may learn how to set her boundaries clearly and compassionately. A partner who needs less space may learn the value of space or to not feel abandoned when her lover takes space.
Our inclination can be to suppress differences that arise – worried that they mean something is wrong with the relationship. But, suppressing differences only leads to flat, stifled relationships or the opposite – lots of fighting. Unacknowledged or undervalued differences lead to resentment, can dampen sexual desires, fuel power imbalances and lead to despair, frustration and bitter arguments. Letting differences out into the light of day and not attaching any negative meaning to them goes a long way in a relationship. Noticing, talking about and appreciating differences can prevent all sorts of problems.
DEALING WITH CONFLICT
When resentments do build up, many women avoid addressing them. Many of us are never taught ways of dealing with our anger and conflict. Many women try very hard to get along and to minimize differences or feelings of anger and resentment. But, our anger doesn’t go anywhere and usually builds up and comes out in indirect ways which is usually hurtful to the other person and the relationship.
Airing resentments is really important and women often have to work at doing this. Taking time to listen to others’ resentments can help. Listening to and understanding each others’ anger goes a long way. It’s not about who’s right or wrong but about understanding each others’ perspectives.
Sometimes a good remedy for a relationship problem is to talk to a trusted and supportive friend about what’s going on in your relationship – not in someone else’s relationship! Our struggles are not so very different from each other and we can learn from hearing how other lesbians have handled their problems – something we don’t get to hear enough about.