Last week, Stephanie Wallace and I (Jeremiah Gibson) released episode 8 of Under the Covers, where we explored how adults can utilize their primary intimate relationships to establish new dynamics with their families of origin. I wrote about the following in last Monday's blog post:
A couple relationship can be a venue for setting a boundary with your family of origin. We talk about ways to establish new rituals for each stage of your relationship, rituals that may or may not involve other family members. We also identify ways that you can establish your intimate relationship as the primary relationship in your life, such as taking breaks with your partner and staying in a hotel room rather than a family member's home.
While our perspective on Under the Covers so far has been mostly applicable to relationships of all sexual orientations, it's important to acknowledge that same-sex couples often experience a uniquely complicated process with their families of origin. This begins with coming out and identifying as an LGBTQ person, and we recognize that many people will be spending their first holidays with their families either as an LGBTQ-identified person or in a new LGBTQ relationship.
Coming Out to Your Family
The Pride Resource Center at Colorado State provides an excellent stage-model to guide LGBTQ individuals through the process of coming out to families of origin. They encourage LGBT-identified people to prepare for shock and denial from their parents, including withdrawal, hostility, and a lack of compassion. Some parents may feel guilt and blame, as if their child's coming out is a reflection of bad parenting; the coming out process may involve convincing parents that your decision has nothing to do with them. Parents may express this as anger and hurt, to which the authors of the webpage respond:
Since living in a homophobic society has forced you to experience many of the same feelings (isolation, fear of rejection, hurt, confusion, fear of the future, etc.), you can share with them the similarities in the feelings you have experienced.
However, allow them ample time to express themselves; don't let your needs overpower theirs. If they haven't read a book or talked to other parents, suggest again that they pursue one of those avenues. Offer to read and discuss a chapter in the book with them or to go to a parents' meeting with them.
Once family members begin to identify and work through their emotional experience, it generally becomes easier to figure out how to do the relationship moving forward, which may include the establishment of clear boundaries, particularly if parents are stuck in anger and criticism.
The Impact of Your Family's Response to Coming Out on Your Romantic Relationship
Corinne Reczek, sociologist at Ohio State, reminds us that establishing boundaries with families can be challenging for long-term same-sex relationships as well. In last month's Journal of Family Issues, Reczek interviewed 60 gay and lesbian individuals in long-term relationships (longer than 7 years) to explore their processes for confronting parental disapproval. Each participant was asked if they were out to both their and their partner's families, and how that disclosure affected relationships with their parents and their partners.
The majority (almost 75%) reported that disapproval from one of their parents (or their partner's parents) created conflict in their relationship. Participants reported anxiety and anger around the inability for one partner to set boundaries and high defensiveness around parents who made critical, homophobic remarks, which often carried over into the relationship.
Reczek writes about the "glass closet", where a person's sexual identity is an open secret, known/assumed by many in the family but never directly identified. 25% of participants reported not officially coming out to their families of origin, creating conflict particularly in situations where the other partner has already identified as LGBTQ. The glass closet seemed to be experienced by partners as an acknowledgment of shame and lack of commitment to the primary relationship.
About 30% of participants identified times where familial discrimination and homophobia brought partners closer together. The primary relationship strengthens when one person is allowed to express sadness and anger toward their families without judgment or reparation from their partner. Reczek reports couples negotiating the way that each partner processes and understands stress and rejection from their families, moving the couple from a place of opposition to support and encouragement.
A small percentage (12%) described ways that they cut themselves off from disapproving parents, either by moving far away or by setting clear, hard boundaries against communication and potential rejection. Reczek identifies resilience in the way these relationships protect themselves, but also observes language of isolation, particularly around the absence of continued family traditions. She notes that for some, geographical separation promotes the glass closet: "I don't have to come out to you if I live 1500 miles away from you."
Tips for Boundaries with Your Family
It's important to recognize that Reczek's interviews were with LGBTQ-identified individuals in an undisclosed Southwestern city, a region that typically has higher levels of homophobia than New England. Thankfully, we hear of more instances where families are immediately supportive of LGBTQ family members, and we hope for a day when the language "coming out" becomes irrelevant due to the lack of cultural homophobia.
However, there are families across the nation (including New England) that have strong emotional responses to LGBTQ-issues, and if you've experienced past or continual disapproval from your parents or your partner's parents, we hope that these can be helpful steps toward reducing stress, maintaining your sense of self, and protecting your intimate relationships.
Find a way out of the glass closet, if you still haven't disclosed your identity to your family of origin. Randall Neece, author of Gone Today, Here Tomorrow, a memoir about his experience as an HIV-positive gay man, wrote a great article on Huffington Post a few years ago called The Parent Crap. Neece encourages people to be secure in their identity (both as queer and as adult) before addressing the conversation, to be realistic about potential responses, and to remember that their permission is not required for you to have the relationships that you want.
Be clear with your partner about what you need from him/her following a contentious conversation with your family. As we stated in last Monday's blog post, the primary relationship comes first, which often requires an immense amount of patience and understanding within the relationship. Give your partner permission to experience any kind of emotions, and be clear about separating frustration and anger at both family and the larger cultural narratives of homophobia from the relationship. Incorporate intimacy, touch, and sexuality as ways of increasing connectedness and reducing stress.
Establish clear boundaries with your family regarding homophobic rhetoric/behaviors. Co-create new holiday rituals with your partner, regardless of how your family responds to your relationship. Develop boundaries and exit strategies for stressful situations with your families of origin. Identify people in your family that do support LGBTQ-issues, and build relationships with those people. Create your own community of friends that are LGBTQ and LGBTQ-friendly.
For more information about how couples, individual, and (gulp) family therapy can help you have the relationships you want, give us a call at 617-750-0183. As couple and family therapists, we have a strong desire to support all couples; feel free to check out my (Jeremiah's) bio and the bios of my colleagues at the top of the page. You can also book an appointment online if you like, also at the top of the page.