Read an Excerpt
What Is a Healthy Couple Anyway?
One of the questions we asked in the first edition of this book was "What is a lesbian couple?" In the 1980s this inquiry was about definitionhow do we know when two people form a couple? We decided that lesbians are in a couple when they say they are. Lesbian thought has shifted from defining our relationships, and just surviving, to seeing ourselves as deserving to be in strong, happy couples. We are expanding the definition of what makes a healthy relationship even as we defend our right to be in one.
In the time since we wrote our first draft of Lesbian Couples in 1983, a lot of research has been conducted regarding what constitutes a good marriage. We will refer to this new information throughout the book. However, comparable as we are to our heterosexual counterparts, lesbian relationships are quite unique.
Lesbian couples are composed of two women, which means that both partners are similarly socialized: They both have been taught to focus on their primary relationship. Lesbians must always be conscious of homophobia and the damage it can do to individuals and couples. The lack of legal acknowledgment of same-gender relationships, in forty-nine out of fifty states, deprives lesbian couples of the societal support that opposite-gender couples take for granted. This includes the right to marry legally and the privileges that come with it, such as inheritance and insurance benefits. Another important difference between heterosexual and lesbian couples is that the women appear to value equality intherelationship more than other kinds of couples. These variances can translate into different kinds of chore and childcare sharing than might happen in heterosexual or gay male couples. Frequency of sexual contact also varies between different kinds of couples. Because of these disparities it is important to examine research data from married, heterosexual couples with caution. For example, does sexual frequency include intercourse, orgasm and snuggling, or just intercourse? Does the research on divorce rates consider the privileges that come with legal marriage and societal support?
Often it's in our primary relationships that we discover the joy and exhilaration of loving women; it is here that we experience the magic and rightness of being lesbian. Our relationships define us as lesbians to the world and to each other. It is in our romantic partnerships that we confront some of our greatest challengesboth unique and universal. Will she still love me when she sees me at my worst? Will my parents accept our relationship? Can I keep my heart open when she disappoints me? Is it safe to come out to my coworkers? Can we be unalike and both be okay? Will my children reject us? In large measure it's in our relationships that we learn who we are and become more of who we can be.
Couple relationships aren't for everyone. They are not a requirement for being happily lesbian. Some women decide that they neveror never againwant to be part of a couple. Others find that at certain times in their lives, other interests, goals or activities take priority over being in a relationship. Still others prefer to be celibate or involved in multiple relationships rather than being with one person. And sometimes a woman may not meet anyone with whom she wants to have a relationship and may choose to put her energy elsewhere.
However, many lesbians live in a couple or would like to. We want to know how to choose good partners and create successful relationships. And relationships do take work, but it doesn't mean endless drudgery. Myriad goals and pleasures in life involve work, such as going to college, raising children, gardening, completing an apprenticeship, working on one's racism, meditation, running a marathon and resolving conflicts with our partner. But it can be joyful work, done in a spirit of loving kindness for oneself and one's partner.
Why Are Relationships So Important to Us?
For many lesbians, our primary relationships play a significant role in our lives. We focus a lot of time fantasizing, analyzing, daydreaming, writing, worrying and talking to our friends about them. And this doesn't count the time we actually spend with our partners.
We are drawn into relationships when we fall in love. We may then find that we love the person beyond that first rush of passion or, as sometimes happens, discover that sexual attraction follows the love of friendship. The Greeks named three kinds of love: eros, agape and filia. Eros is the physical, romantic, lustful energy of love; agape is unconditional, undeserved love; and filia is sisterly love, what we feel for family. Lesbian relationships have components of all three. One type of love may predominate and others fade at different times in the life of a couple, but given time we can have a rich multidimensional love.
As human beings we desire both emotional and sexual intimacy, and we look to our partners for much of this. Because we are women, we have received strong cultural messages about the value of coupling, and we have learned to prize couple relationships. As lesbians in a homophobic world, we live with oppression, but we give and gather strength from the partnerships that validate our identity and nurture our self-esteem. Many of us want to create something bigger than ourselves. A good relationship can enable us to become something greater than two people. Part of what attracts us to, and makes us fight for, relationships is the transformation that can happen as we live over time as a couple. We are challenged to invent and maintain a "we-ness" that also invites us to grow and become more individually whole.
Intimacy is a special type of connection. When we are in an intimate relationship, we feel loved, understood, accepted, known and appreciated. Intimacy comprises being close emotionally and sexually; it involves sharing thoughts, feelings and experiences. It also includes negotiating differences and fighting. In the next few pages we offer an overview of intimacy, which creates the context for why lesbians value relationships. We'll explore normal tensions in relationships and how each partner brings strengths and vulnerabilities to the task of managing those tensions. In Chapters Three and Four we widen our definition of intimacy, and we return to intimacy, its development and maintenance throughout the book.
There is a natural flow of intimate connection in couple relationships that includes separateness, contact and merger. Being separate is being apart, focusing on different things; contact is being together, focusing on the same thing; and merger is focusing exclusively on each other. It's common to feel anxiety as we move closer together and farther apart from our partners. Intimacy is the connection we can achieve when we are able to tolerate our anxiety as we move along this continuum of togetherness and separateness.
Differentiation is the ability to endure emotional discomfort enough to risk moving closer or farther apartwithout any guarantee of how the other person will respond. It is a crucial skill for developing intimacy, and it helps us avoid the many ways we accommodate to each other to keep from being anxious. Eventually this accommodation may stifle us until we are chronically resentful or want to leave the relationship.
Sarah and Margaret always spent the New Year with Sarah's parents and siblings. Every year Margaret felt a twinge of resentment, but the idea of raising the possibility of doing something else so unnerved her that she buried the thought before it was fully formed.
Lee was surprised to hear herself once again telling Trish that she was willing to have sex. Lee had found that she was not present when they made love because she got bored. But she was scared to say anything to Trish.
Some lesbians have difficulty with intimacy because we fear we have to be close all the time, or that we'll hurt our partners if we pull back at all. We may think that being close means we always have to do what our partner wants or take care of her or be taken care of or always stay the same or never want what she can't or doesn't provide. Knowing that there is a natural ebb and flow of separateness, merger and contact, and that no one place is permanent, can help partners give each other space. Trusting the process and recognizing what part of it we are in helps to calm such fears as, "I'll never get enough time to myself," or "I'll never get enough of feeling close." Some people want more space, while others want more contact and merger. These wants may fluctuate over time. Although couples often seem to be polarizedone person wants closeness and the other spaceit is important to remember that each partner needs both and that anxiety creates polarity. When partners fail to recognize that they each want some separateness and some togetherness, they may feel stuck and unable to resolve their differences. Each woman's discomfort becomes directed toward the stance her partner has taken. Thus, each polarized position may become a personality flaw in the other partner and may be so uncomfortable to one partner that she thinks she needs to leave the relationship.
Twyla had had it with her partner's clinginess. Camille "whined" when Twyla called to say she'd be late from work. Twyla couldn't take any time for herself without Camille overreacting. Twyla was beginning to think she should end the relationship and find someone who was more independent, the way Camille had been when they first met.
Ironically, it is often in the sexual arena of our relationships that we polarize the closeness and separateness feelings. Sex is one way of being close; indeed it is the most common place we feel merged. It also can add another dimension to couples' lives and to the ways they can be intimate. Like emotional intimacy, sexual intimacy allows partners to learn how to move toward each other. However, one partner may refuse sex more often than not and the other may become the frustrated initiator. This situation may cause anxiety because the lower frequency of sex can be construed to be rejection, disrespect or lack of love. Consequently, some women may put up barriers to being close. They may push their partner away the moment that they want to feel close to her.
When we are in a long-term, committed relationship, sex can provide an avenue to enhance intimacy. It is another way to be seen and known deeply by our partner. When we invite sex, we risk that our partner will reject us or not be present for the connection. This risk always accompanies our invitation for intimate connection, and our fear of not being met often keeps us from reaching out to our partner. The gain, however, is the increased intimacy this connection affords us. We think it is worth the risk.
Intimacy grows with time. It takes a while to get to know and trust another person. Time spent together doesn't guarantee intimacy, but closeness over years does mean that a couple has the opportunity to share experiences and changes. "We grew up together" is one expression of this shared history. Often the women in a couple come to know each other more fully than they are known by anyone else.
Listening to Cultural Messages
Because of the way our society treats girls, as compared to boys, women are more vulnerable to feeling incompleteof having a gap to fill. Traditionally, boys are told to "go for it," to be all they can be, while girls are encouraged to stay close to home, to curtail their own development in order to support someone else's, to be careful of the male "ego" and to be dependent. By the time girls are eight or nine, they know that eventually they are supposed to find someone and settle down for life. Even though women's interests and careers are taken much more seriously now than in the past, women in general are still expected to coordinate, or subordinate them to marriage
and children. As women, we are constantly deluged with messages that we need someonea manto feel complete. Long before we reach our twenties, most women will have started to look for our "other half." Much of what we do is designed to make us more desirable to that "someone" who will complete us.
How does this translate to lesbians who have chosen women as lovers? Quite directly. As girls we are assumed to be heterosexual. We receive similar messages, but instead of looking to a man for completion, lesbians look for a woman: Prince Charming becomes Princess Charming.
There are advantages and disadvantages to this cultural training and emphasis on relationships. One disadvantage is that we may neglect ourselves by overfocusing on our relationship. We may put a partner's wants and needs first and neglect our own. We may put too much energy into making the relationship a good one and not enough into personal growth and development. But there are also advantages: Women are raised to be more emotionally intelligent than menthat is, more sensitive to a partner's needs. Because most women value couple relationships, the women in a lesbian couple likely feel a responsibility for making the relationship work. Both may expect to give as well as receive nurturing and support. Lesbian couples may have the advantage that both partners are willing to invest time and emotional energy in the relationship.
Finding Support in a Homophobic World
We live in a society in which we may be disliked, feared and even hated because we are lesbian, gay or bisexual. These negative attitudes are called homophobia; when we, ourselves, believe them, they are internalized homophobia.
Suzanne Pharr, a feminist writer and activist, best articulates the bind that lesbians, gays and bisexuals are in as we live our lives. "When we talk about homophobia, we are talking about that particular blend of... fear, dread, and hatred that works to keep homosexuals as a hidden (closeted) underclass of society, discriminated against, treated as deviants, sinners maliciously perverted, sick and abnormal. From those who hate us most, we receive the messages that we would be cured or killed; from those who are liberal and tolerant, we receive the messages that we must be quiet and invisible." While homophobic messages may have changed in some large, urban areas, most lesbians are still confronted by these hateful attitudes.
In our daily lives we are faced with subtle and not-so-subtle oppression. Our couple relationships can be a place where we give and get support and energy to deal with the homophobia of the outside world. This need to support each other can pull a couple together, leading to the closeness and security of "you and me against the world." However, it can also strain a relationship. We can become emotionally drained. Or we may avoid expressing differences and working through conflicts because it feels too dangerous to risk losing our partner's support.
Creating Something Bigger Than Ourselves
When two people decide to be in a couple, they produce a new entity. This creation takes on a life of its own; the couple is different from each individual woman. Their apartment may look unlike their single living spaces did, and their friendship networks may change. Often couples make something outside of themselves: a child, joint business or remodeled house. Thus, a couple is both an invention of its partners and an inventor fueled by the couple's energies. Sometimes the process of creating brings the two women together in the first place, such as two actors working on a play. Other times the women have been partnered for years before they produce something as a teammost parents fall into this category.
Amy and Sonia met while creating a Web page together at work. Their collaboration was so enjoyable that they began dating.
Pearl and Barb had been lovers for thirty years when they decided to open a bed and breakfast. It was a dream come true for both of them and gave a lift to their relationship as well.
In her research, Judith Wallerstein found that the experience of being happily married over time transformed heterosexual partners) Women and men she interviewed talked about how they became different, fuller human beings because of the invitations and demands of their spouses. They developed aspects of themselves that were dormant or unknown.
A happy, healthy relationship encourages and supports both partners to risk becoming more whole. In our experience lesbian relationships have the same capacity for transformation. In the process of learning to give and take with each other, while not giving away our essential selves, we become a stronger "me" and a better "we."
Being part of a lesbian couple provides opportunities for welcome and challenging learning and growth. The chance to become more fully oneself while also being in a loving couple relationship is one of the most delightful of these opportunities. Differences between partners can provide excitement and stimulation, while similarities can offer warmth and comfort. Creating a successful relationship is an art form. It takes time and motivation; it requires learning and refining specific skills and it takes patience. Like good art, a couple relationship can bring pleasure to both the creators and those around them.