As a couple counsellor who focuses on lesbian, gay and mixed-sexuality couples, an important question I tend ask when I first meet the couple is:

“What makes this relationship distinctly yours… ?” 

(or variations such as: “What does this relationship do that helps people recognise this relationship being distinct yours?” or “How does your partner help identify this relationship as being distinct from all others in his/her life?” if we’re going for a circular-question approach).

It’s the kind of question that I’ve been developing for some years in my practice as a BACP-Accredited couple counsellor, and it’s not meant to be an easy one to answer!!  It is, however, a deliberate question that’s (a) is intended to give the couple an example of what it will be like to work in counselling, and (b) intended to provoke thoughtful conversation between the couple.

For some gay couples, this will be the first time that they have been invited to think about such a concept: “how do we define that this is our relationship, and not anyone else’s?”

The Purposeful Question.

The purpose of my question is to invite a gay couple to begin to understand what aspects of their relationship distinguishes their relationship as being separate from anyone else’s relationship. For example: does their relationship have distinct boundaries (can either partner have sex with someone outside of the relationship, for example, and has this been agreed)?

I’m also inviting the couple to discover if the relationship they think they have, is the same (or different) relationship that their partner thinks they have (“Difference is a relationship” – article: “a Brief Introduction to Circular Questions” (WaterloovilleCounselling.co.uk)).

Let me talk you through my question’s rationale.

Before Equal Marriage, before Civil-Partnerships.

Gay couples have not had a society-recognised union or ritual (e.g. marriage) until relatively recently.

Historically, gay couples have tended to hide their relationship from the public. The gay couple has tended to repress how their relationship exists (unlike heterosexual couples). Today’s LGBT couples can exist in public (at least to some extent in some countries) but years of repression can continue to have an effect on how the couple relates to each other.

The couple have had to create their own form of recognisable union; something that communicates “this is our relationship!” and which is communicated to, and is recognised by family, friends, work-colleagues and so on.

Just as importantly, this would be a union that is to be recognised by other potentially interested sexual partners (e.g. the gay club’s dance floor – as in: “thou shalt not come between us”).

Perhaps just as important, this union needs to be something that the couple themselves can recognise as being distinct from everyone else’s couple relationship.

If the couple are having trouble recognising or respecting the boundaries of their own relationship, this may be an important factor of the relationship’s conflicts – and maybe at the core of why the couple have come into counselling.

Couple Therapy with Gay Men.

David E. Greenan and Gil Tunnell, from their book “Couple Therapy with Gay Men” (2002 – The Guilford Family Therapy), put it like this:-

If procreation & monogamy do not establish what is and is not a couple relationship then the gay couple must establish another set of rules…”

In my experience as an LGBT couple counsellor, this applies to gay women as well as mixed-sexuality relationships.

When a gay couple meet for couple counselling, one of the things the couple counsellor tries to learn is: how does this couple decide that they’re a couple… and a couple that may, or may not, exclude others from their relationship (recognising that polyamorism, open relationships etc. exist).

Reflecting on my Question.

As civil-partnerships and equal-marriage have been introduced into the UK over the past few years, I’ve been considering if my question is still valid.

If the couple are married, for example, does that marriage not already establish that this is a distinct couple relationship?

Yet, couples coming into counselling continue to teach me that even formal unions are not always an automatic distinction for their relatinship… and sometimes such formal unions can be a distraction from what’s really going on in the relationship.

The Story the Couple Tell: “We’re married, so we’re committed to each other”.

The Story the Couple Live: “We’re married, but I don’t know where he goes every Thursday night”.

Theoretical Approach to Couple Counselling.

Regardless of sexuality or gender of the couple, in systemic / psychodynamic couple counselling the counsellor’s initial role is to be educated by the couple:

  • how the couple’s behaviour “system” is established (where do conflicts begin?),
  • what does the system do (who does what in response to whom … and what are subsequent responses?),
  • and how the system can lead to the relationship going wrong.
As the couple teach the counsellor, they too are learning what happens in their relationship’s “system”.

 

 

Through the counselling process, the couple can begin to review how they might recognise what leads towards their conflicts and then, together, may begin to introduce inspired ideas of how they might alter such behaviour (“instead if me yelling, perhaps I might say I’m going to step outside for 5 minutes, then come back to talk”).

Gay Couple Counselling is not just Couple Counselling.

Incorporating knowledge of the more distinct aspects and needs of gay couples can greatly assist the gay couple to feel that their relationship is recognised by the couple counsellor, respected by the counsellor, and that their distinct (if “distinct” is definable) relationship will be assisted through the couple counselling process.

In the end, perhaps my question is still an important one for me to continue asking…

Got a Question? Don't Hold Back…

If you have a question about gay & lesbian couple relationship counselling in Havant and Waterlooville, or want to ask about making your first appointment, feel free to drop me a line any time…

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