For many people, couples therapy is important for developing healthy relationships with loved ones. While so much of the conversation centers around resolving existing troubles, it’s not always prescriptive, especially in same sex couples therapy.
Couples therapy can be a proactive way to build a better connection before issues come up. It can equip partners with the tools to deal with future conflict the right way. Indeed, the Gottman method focuses on teaching the skills all couples need for emotional intimacy and effective communication.
The problem is that these skills weren’t developed with every couple in mind. Until recently, same-sex couples had to rely on therapy techniques meant to help heterosexual couples. Many of these techniques were also concerned with saving a relationship once it had gotten to a critical point.
As we know, that’s not what every couple looks like. More importantly, relationship therapy isn’t the last resort. But as counselors and advisors build more inclusive frameworks to help clients, some myths about same sex couples therapy persist.
As the Pride month approaches, it’s important to identify some common myths and facts about therapy for LGBTQIA+ couples. With so much to learn and unlearn, it’s only right that we start with some key definitions.
How does same-sex couples therapy differ from heterosexual relationships therapy?
Before we define the key differences, we need to understand what all couples have in common.
Gender, sexual orientation, and social context are factors every health-related field needs to consider. By knowing how these factors impact people, we can provide care that gets to the heart of their needs. But neglecting shared traits can also lead to inadequate care and marginalization.
A 2019 systemic review of same-sex couples’ psychological interventions highlights the challenges all couples share. Between same-sex couples (SSC) and different-sex couples, researchers found:
“SSC enjoy the same satisfaction from their relationship as DSC, argue over the same topics. . .while most of the predictive factors of long-term relationship stability and satisfaction do not differ.”
The topics all couples argue about:
- Household responsibilities
- Child-rearing practices
At the end of the day, most couples want to learn better ways to communicate, collaborate, and co-exist. A common myth is that LGBTQ+ people primarily seek out therapy for homophobia-related traumas.
While these experiences can make being in a relationship harder, they don’t define couples or individuals. That said, therapists still need to have an informed approach. This is where some crucial facts about same-sex couples come into play.
The broad spectrum of LGBTQIA+ communities
Let’s start with a basic fact that’s often overlooked – there’s more than one type of LGBTQIA+ couple.
Gay and lesbian relationships came to the forefront with the legalization of same-sex marriage. Within the broader spectrum, we also have trans, nonbinary, and gender-fluid partners to consider.
“Until more recently, mental health services have largely ignored the relationships within
a transgender person’s life,” writes Kalene Ann Sharstrom, “and the impact that relationships can have on a person’s wellbeing,”
Compound issues faced by trans relationships
In her thesis Transgender Couples’ Beliefs and Experiences of Couple and Family Therapy, Sharstrom notes that:
- Transgender needs are marginalized even within LGBTQIA+ discussions
- Transgender partners have to navigate disclosing attraction and identity
- Transgender relationships are “socially devalued” at a much higher rate
These experiences give us a clearer insight into how sexuality and identity can warp even common struggles. One of the reviewed studies found that trans people were refused housing (19%), lost jobs (26%), and faced physical assault (61%) because of their gender identity.
When your ability to live safely and earn an income is compromised, it strains every relationship. Partners can take on this external stress even if the relationship itself is healthy.
Relationship therapy for polyamorous partners
For the most part, this guide is focused on monogamous LGBTQIA+ couples. The wider topic of polyamorous counseling deserves its own breakdown, but it’s worth mentioning here. Polyamory isn’t an orientation or identity, either. That’s a myth on its own.
Both SSC and DSC practice it.
It’s worth mentioning because a monogamous framework is frustrating for polyamorous people who need more informed care. Poly-informed therapy needs a professional who knows how to create a judgment-free environment. Clients shouldn’t feel like they’re constantly explaining themselves before presenting their issues.
It’s also key to providing insightful, valuable feedback that’s not based on traditional therapy models.
What is the Gottman method of couples therapy?
Therapists have relied on a specific set of techniques to help couples successfully navigate their relationships. Developed by Drs John and Julie Gottman, these techniques have been refined through their institute for over 40 years. But what is Gottman method couples therapy?
According to the Gottman Institute’s mission statement:
“…an approach that not only supports and repairs troubled marriages and committed relationships, but strengthens happy ones.”
What makes the method unique is how widely applicable its teachings are. From mental health professionals to partners at home, it’s a powerful combination of research, experience, and relationship theory put into practice.
Why is it an effective approach to same sex couples therapy?
Despite how broadly applicable it is, the Gottman method isn’t overly complicated. For the most part, it aims to make couples aware of which behaviors to avoid to foster a more fruitful connection, namely:
Known as the Four Horsemen, these behaviors have proved to be strong indicators of a failing relationship. By replacing these behaviors with healthier habits, couples avoid compromising their relationships while growing closer together. These habits include:
- Building a culture of appreciation
- Mutual responsibility when problem-solving
- Practicing patience and acceptance
- Finding more productive communication styles
Gottman method couples counseling is flexible because it doesn’t try to be prescriptive. While it can identify symptoms, it’s always focused on working through the root cause. For same-sex couples that face a unique combination of troubles, that’s invaluable.
Myths and facts about same sex couples therapy that you should know
While we’ve identified some of the foremost myths around same-sex couples therapy, others are harder to spot. Mental health professionals aren’t immune to having biases, especially where they lack experience with certain relationship types.
Understanding LGBTQ+ lived experiences is the first step to building more inclusive frameworks. Before we go through some key facts, let’s address other underlying myths around same-sex relationships.
Myth: gender roles follow a heterosexual dynamic
Many same-sex partners are often asked about the dynamic between them. There’s an assumption that, despite sharing a gender, they must still follow heterosexual patterns. This is a particular issue for gay and lesbian couples, with one partner often expected to act more “masculine” or feminine”.
Myth: physical and emotional intimacy are separate
The next two myths are both tied to moralization but in different ways. Just as social conditioning tries to present monogamous couples as “purer” than poly couples, same-sex couples are seen as deviant.
This myth makes it harder for same-sex partners to express their feelings around intimacy and romance. It doesn’t just come from people around them either. Popular media often falls into the trap of sexualizing LGBTQIA+ identities, leaving no room for rich, complex internal lives.
Myth: LGBTQ+ relationships are always less problematic
From amoral to overly pure, the other side of this myth tries to present same-sex couples as lacking complexity and nuance. It’s a more subtle form of othering and can come up even in otherwise positive discussions.
It’s perhaps an over-correction based on how violently the deviant trope has been applied to LGBTQIA+ communities. In both cases, it ignores the reality of flawed, complex, and imperfect human nature. So what truths can we keep in mind?
Fact: no relationship is immune to failure
This may sound disheartening, but it’s an important fact to keep in mind with couples therapy. As the comparative study shows, same-sex and different-sex relationships face the same vulnerabilities. The root cause is where they can differ, and that’s why the care couples receive needs to be specific.
Fact: external stressors are more likely to be a factor
In heterosexual relationships, social pressure forces couples to rush their connection. Marriage is a common pressure they face. In same-sex relationships, social pressure tends to push couples apart.
This goes beyond the disapproval of traditional family members and employers. The threat of physical and sexual violence is a tangible reality for gay, lesbian, and trans people in public. In many cases, it’s hard to treat intra-relational issues without identifying the stressors that come from the outside.
How do I find the right therapist for LGBTQIA+ couples?
All of this begs the question: is there a specific type of therapy LGBTQIA+ couples need? The short answer: yes and no.
Gottman method couples counseling works regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. What LGBTQIA+ partners should look for are therapists who are informed on their experiences. This doesn’t mean finding an LGBTQIA+ therapist necessarily, although that can help.
Rather, it’s more important to find a therapist who understands the basics of your lived experience. This understanding eases the pressure on clients. There’s less of a need to educate in moments where they need support. The more experience a therapist has with same-sex couples, the more feedback they can offer based on a wider range of perspectives too.