Summarised from David P. McWhirter, MD and Andrew M. Mattison, MSW, PhD. Chapter: “Psychotherapy for Gay Male Couples”. Book: “A Guide to Psychotherapy with Gay and Lesbian Clients”, Ed. Gonziorek (1982). Original publication McWhirter & Mattison “The Male Couple” (1984, Prentice Hall 0-13-547661-5).

Introduction to Gay Male Couples Development.

Over a 5-year period (1974 to 1979), David P. McWhirter, MD and Andrew M. Mattison MSW, PhD interviewed 156 gay male couples (in the California, San Diego County area) in depth about their significant/intimate couple relationship. The couples were not in therapy and had lived together anywhere from 1 to more than 37 years. The mean time in a relationship was 8.7 years, with median being slightly over 5 years.

The study documents how the relationships between two men develop and are sustained.

From the interview data, McWhirter and Mattison identified: six developmental stages of relationship between gay male couples (the first four stages occurring within the first 10 years of the couple’s relationship).

The stages were presented as tentative formulations needing further clinical trial and research validation.

The conceptualisation of developmental stages are helpful in the clinical approach to therapy with gay male couples. Also, they may assist gay men with their intimate relationships in identifying (for themselves) aspects of their relationship to which they may, or may not, wish to attend.

Blending (First Year) – Stage 1.

Characteristics:

  • Blending
  • Limerence (falling in love, being romantically in love, intrusive thinking about the desired person, acute longing for reciprocation, sexual attraction).
  • Equality of partnership
  • High sexual activity

Blending is experienced as the intensity of togetherness gay men feel early in their relationships. Their similarities bind them, their differences are mutually overlooked.

Nesting (1 to 3 years) – Stage 2.

Characteristics:

  • Homemaking
  • Finding compatibility
  • Decline in limerence
  • Ambivalence

By the second year more attention is paid to their surroundings taking the form of homemaking activities. Couples in this stage also tend to see each other’s shortcomings and discover or create complementarities that enhance compatibility setting the stage for the mixture of positive and negative feelings about the value of the relationship: ambivalence.

Maintaining (3 to 5 years) – Stage 3.

Characteristics:

  • Individualisation begins
  • Risk-taking
  • Dealing with Conflict
  • Relying on the relationship

Maintaining the relationship depends upon establishing balances between individualisation and togetherness, conflict and its resolution, autonomy and dependence, confusion and understanding. The intense blending of Stage Two clears the path for the re-emergence of the individual differences, identified here as individualisation. Individualisation requires some necessary risk-taking.

Collaborating (5 to 10 years) – Stage 4.

Characteristics:

  • Collaborating
  • Productivity
  • Establishing independence
  • Dependability of partners

After 5 years together, couples experience a new sense of security and a decreasing need to process their interactions. The individualisation of Stage Three can progress to the establishment of independence, sustained by the steady, dependable availability of a partner for support, guidance and affirmation.

Trusting (10 to 20 years) – Stage 5.

Characteristics:

  • Trust
  • Merger of money and possessions
  • Constriction
  • Taking the relationship for granted

Trust develops gradually for most people. The trust of Stage Five includes a mutual lack of possessiveness and a strong positive regard for each other.

Repartnering (20 years and beyond) – Stage 6.

Characteristics:

  • Attainment of goals
  • Expectation of permanence of the relationship
  • Emergence of personal concerns
  • Awareness of the passage of time

The twentieth anniversary appears to be a special milestone for gay male couples. A surprising number of couples reported a renewal of their relationship after being together for 20 years or more.

Comparing Couples Development Studies.

During my (Dean Richardson) Postgraduate studies in Psychodynamic/Systemic Couple Counselling our class was introduced to couple developmental stages from E. Street’s “Marital Stages” study (on heterosexual relationships). Comparing Street’s discoveries with “Gay Male Partnership Stages” by McWhirter & Mattison we might begin to see an interesting correlation:-

Stage

Street:
“Marital Stages”

McWhirter/Mattison:
“Gay Male Partnership Stages”

1)RomanceBlending
2)RealityNesting
3)Power StrugglesMaintaining
4)Finding OneselfCollaborating
5)Working throughTrusting
6)MutualityRepartnering

Conclusion.

Through study we find that gay male couples form as legitimate and well-defined intimate relationships as their heterosexual couple counterparts; showing development stages comparable and similar to each other.

This summary is intended to bring this knowledge to gay male couples who may be curious as to their own developmental stage and who may wish to identify areas of their relationship that they might improve, or relax in the knowledge that their relationship is “on par” with other male couples.

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