Although I have always enjoyed doing couples work with gay men, I am hardly a specialist in this area. So at times when I’ve had questions I’ve turned to my colleagues Rick Miller and Clinton Power. Rick’s practice in the Boston area specializes in work with gay men and Clinton’s in Sydney serves the LBGTQ population.
So for this month’s blog, I reached out to Rick and Clinton to help readers who work primarily with heterosexual couples and want to expand your knowledge base for helping gay men. I’ll start with some of Rick’s insights on common issues for gay male couples and follow up with a set of questions from Clinton that open communication lines and pave the way for your work.
Rick Miller has been a popular presenter at the annual Couples Conferences that we co-sponsor with the Milton Erickson Foundation. Last year his presentation was framed around potentially difficult conversations a therapist might initiate with gay couples in the areas of sex, money and vulnerability.
I know from my own practice and also from the many cases therapists have brought to me for consultation that these issues can be especially challenging to heterosexual therapists working with gay couples. So I am pleased to share Rick and Clinton’s information with you.
Rick repeatedly stresses the challenge for men of being vulnerably expressive with one another. Being independent and strong comes so much more easily than acknowledging what might be viewed as softer emotions. Western culture supports strength in men and belittles deep internal vulnerability or insecurity.
This is compounded by the internalized shame carried by most gay men. Imagine the challenge of growing up having to hide feelings of love and sexuality and knowing those feelings are unacceptable – even dangerous – in the larger culture. Gay men face disapproval or worse if those emotions are visible. Being able to hold men in those vulnerable feelings is a core skill for your couples sessions to work.
Rick also emphasized the necessity of being able to talk explicitly about sex. So many common sexual myths exist. For example:
- No gay couples are monogamous
- Gay couples don’t have sexless relationships
- All gay men like anal sex
- Gay men don’t have erection issues
He suggested opening the topic of sexuality with some initial questions.
- Are you open or monogamous?
- How often do you masturbate?
- Do you use porn-alone or together?
Rick also asked heterosexual therapists to challenge their own biases about open relationships and hook-ups.
In addressing financial issues, Rick suggested noticing who is paying for therapy and why. And do they have any joint checking accounts? Why or why not?
Have they fallen into specific rolls around who provides financial support and who does chores and housework? Were these agreed to or accidentally structured? Is this adding to stress in the relationship?
Rick has observed in his practice that open relationships work best with the following structure:
- The partners agree about open relationships that are either sexual, romantic or both.
- They have similar reasons for opening their relationship.
- They agree on guidelines that they respect and keep.
- They communicate openly and actively with one another and especially if they stretch beyond their agreements.
I recently asked Clinton Power to give me a list of questions that heterosexual therapists might not know to ask gay couples. Here are some excellent questions he gave me for your consideration.
- How comfortable are you with showing affection to each other in public, such as holding hands, kissing, hugging, or acknowledging publicly you're a gay couple?
- Do you have preferred sexual roles? Who's top, who's bottom, or are you versatile? And what role does this play in your relationship? Are you happy with how this works or is it an issue in your relationship? Would you like to discuss that here?
- Do you have a monogamous, open, or polyamorous relationship? If open or polyamorous, what agreements, if any, have you made around negotiating sex with others? How well do these agreements work for each of you?
- Are you both out to friends and family? If not, who is not out and how is it impacting on your relationship and your personal happiness? If you are out, what was the reaction of family and friends? What impact has coming out had on your life?
- Do you have a joint will or estate planning, or separate wills? Have you discussed what will happen when one of you dies before the other? Do you have financial power of attorney? Do you have joint bank accounts or credit cards? If not, why not?
Meanwhile, I’d like to tell you about a resource that’s helpful for almost every couple in your practice. Stepping Stones to Intimacy introduces couples to the stages of relationships. It explains and normalizes many challenges that couples face. The brochures are sold in packs of 25 so you can give them to your couples. Click here to learn more or order.