Even as a child, I could tell my parents’ marriage was a mess. My mother hurled insults at my father, denigrating him for not being able to hold down a job, provoking him with stories of past lovers who would have been far better husbands. My father saw my mother as a child and, although he did not voice his feelings the way she did, he barely concealed his contempt for her.
Nonetheless, they never seemed to consider divorce. And since theirs was the only marriage I’d been able to witness firsthand, a lot of my implicit beliefs about romantic relationships came from them.
I’m 31 now, and have spent many therapy sessions breaking down my distorted beliefs, but I still sometimes find myself reverting to my childish frame of reference. My marriage is nothing like my parents’ and neither is my conception of success. And yet, my thoughts and emotions try to tell me different.
My Perfect Life
Right this very moment, I am sitting at home in the middle of a workday. My husband, Kyle, is at the office, doing the high-pressure job he’s incredibly good at. I am curled up on a couch, nursing a badly stubbed toe. He is likely sitting at a desk or in a meeting, giving orders or simply getting shit done. Outside my window is a crystal clear swimming pool. Outside his window is the traffic nightmare that is the streets of Jakarta.
My mind ignores the fact that, regardless of where and how I’m sitting, I am at work. It ignores the fact that Kyle has repeatedly told me he respects what I do. It ignores the fact that, together, we make more money than we need. It ignores the fact that if I worked a 9-to-5, we wouldn’t be able to live the enviable life we do, getting to know a city across the world, taking trips in the region every couple of months. It also ignores the fact that he loves his job.
Instead, it chooses to focus on the fact that I don’t make nearly as much money as Kyle does. It chooses to focus on the fact that I get time to pursue my passion projects while he hustles the whole day long. It chooses to focus on the fact that I’m not even close to making money from those passion projects.
It plays these facts on a loop, telling me that Kyle will start to resent me if I don’t become more successful. It takes what I learned from my parents’ marriage and applies it to my own.
It takes my parents’ attitudes towards each other and projects them onto Kyle.
The Trouble With Relationships
Anyone who has been in psychodynamic therapy knows that what happens in childhood shapes the way you see the world. In spite of evidence to the contrary, you continue seeing yourself as your parents and siblings seemed to see you. You define success by their definitions. You look at others through their lenses.
When you enter a relationship, you bring all of these things with you. So does your partner. You start the relationship from different contexts, neither of which really apply to you. Which is why you find yourself fighting about things that seem to make no sense at all.
My favorite celebrity couple, Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard, are very candid about the fact that they see a therapist together. They did so from early on in their relationship before anything had “gone wrong.” They are both of the opinion that every couple needs therapy if they are to avoid the anger and resentment that builds, and leads to so many breakups and divorces.
In an interview with You Magazine, Bell mentions Shepard’s need to buy household supplies in bulk. She has learned that this idiosyncrasy goes back to growing up poor and that she has to be okay with it. Shepard, for his part, finds Bell’s meandering way of telling stories incredibly annoying but has learned that, as a girl who was always small, it was her way of trying to keep people listening.
This is probably the more lightweight stuff they’ve dealt with in therapy, but the basis for all of it is the same: the stuff that made sense for them as children in their nuclear families still expresses itself in spite of the environment being totally different.
Which brings me back to my marriage. The negative ways my parents saw themselves and each other have followed me into a relationship that is nothing like theirs. They would have destroyed our relationship if we hadn’t chosen to see a therapist relatively early on.
Same Sex, Same Problems?
Both Kyle and I were in individual therapy and had been for a while. We both had a very positive view of therapy, built on our experience of just how much growth it had facilitated. And so seeing Stefan seemed like a good idea, even though we weren’t in crisis.
To be honest, we expected a stamp of approval from Stefan, along with some ideas for maintaining and perhaps deepening our relationship. Stefan, however, saw what we were trying not to.
“You’re here because you’re scared,” he told us.
Our ambivalent reasons for seeing him crumbled around us, as he noted all the ways in which we were avoiding getting to know each other. We had been together a year and had just moved in together, and were both petrified that our authentic selves would come out and sabotage everything. We weren’t willing to trust the relationship and each other with any of the issues that were quietly piling up, let alone the real people at the heart of those issues.
There was a lot to unpack, and over the following weeks we began to understand how our familial and societal contexts had followed us into a relationship that should have been perfectly healthy.
Just as Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard had to discover the idiosyncrasies stemming from their childhoods, Kyle and I needed to learn where each other had come from. This was complicated by the internalized homophobia that, like every gay person, we have carried through our lives.
Internalized homophobia refers to “the involuntary belief by lesbians and gay men that the homophobic lies, stereotypes, and myths about them (that are delivered to everyone in a heterosexist / homophobic society) are true.”
While in the closet, internalized homophobia expresses itself in a very obvious way – the self-denial of our sexuality, the terror of anyone finding out, the self-loathing and self-disgust. However, even once we are out and proud, internalized homophobia remains.
For me, it comes through in my desperate need to prove to myself and others that I fit society’s definition of a man. It amplifies and has made me internalize my mother’s emasculation of my father. A man who doesn’t dress in a suit and tie is not a real man. A man who doesn’t go out daily to get that bread is not a real man. A man who can’t singlehandedly support his family is not a man.
It also reverberates in the memory of my father’s contempt for his wife. Talking about my “husband” still makes me feel a little uncomfortable, because I hear the implication that I am the wife, and through my father’s eyes, the wife was always helpless, incompetent, and emotionally unstable.
Kyle does not believe I am or have to be any of these things. Kyle is not concerned about whether I conform to my mom’s (or society’s) ideas of masculinity. He does not see me as my dad’s (or society’s) conception of a wife, either. Nonetheless, letting Kyle accept the mantle of main breadwinner was not easy. It still isn’t. Part of me still projects my mom’s resentment and my dad’s contempt onto him. I hear their words in his voice, even if he has never actually said or even implied them.
Having It Out
Stefan told us there were two types of couples who come to therapy. Those who come in screaming and shouting and those who come in quiet and placating. The former are generally more volatile, closer to a breakup or divorce. But the latter are more difficult to work with.
When every little thing ignites a major argument, you’re more likely to say something that is hard to take back. But if you don’t have those arguments, the anger will come through in more nefarious ways, destabilizing the relationship before either party truly sees that something is wrong.
However, knowing that silence can be deadly is not enough. If Kyle and I had fought about these issues, we would have been in big trouble. We would have been fighting about things that had no basis in our relationship. I may have made accusations that would have seemed arbitrary and unfair, that would have left me questioning my own sanity and Kyle questioning what he had done wrong.
We needed therapy, a space where we could confront the issue without judgment, with an objective third party who could tell us we weren’t crazy. A space to validate our feelings without turning them into “facts” and projecting them onto each other. A space in which we could see that our internalized homophobia is not our fault, but is harming us nonetheless.
Therapy gave us an opening to deal with threats to our relationship which we would have had no control over. Some of these threats are common to every relationship. Some of them are particular to same-sex relationships. And some are unique to our relationship.
So I encourage all couples to see a therapist, no matter how well things may be going. For same-sex relationships, there is nothing more important.