Often in my couples counseling work with gay men, we uncover the underlying reason why the couple is having trouble feeling connected. We find the following unconscious belief in one or both members of the couple:
“If you really knew me, you wouldn’t love me.”
This fear lives in the psyche of many LGBTQ people. It contributes to our hiding in our most intimate relationships.
Practically every queer kid on the planet experiences this anxiety. If your parents, grandparents, siblings, or friends knew you were not straight, they might stop loving you. That’s the fear.
Why should you open yourself to another person if your first experiences being loved were tinged with the knowledge that you might be rejected just for being your normal self?
Remember what it felt like to first realize you were gay? That you were something that the people closest to you thought was disgusting or embarrassing? That this part of you—that doesn’t go away—was basically yucky?
Even your mother, who may have adored you more than anyone on the planet, still might have said cruel things about gay people before you came out to her.
And now, as an adult, you’re supposed to be comfortable being yourself and being vulnerable in love relationships? Fuhgeddaboudit!
I work with many couples who understand intellectually that they are lovable people. They know this in the cortex section of their brain—the part that is responsible for conscious thought and reason.
But in the lower, younger, and more primitive areas of the brain, the memory of feeling unlovable can still run the show when it comes to getting close to someone.
Relationships are scary because getting closer always involves the risk of vulnerability. You can’t feel connected without it.
How We Grow Up Impacts Adult Love
In his well-known book, How To Be An Adult In A Relationship, psychotherapist Dave Richo, PhD, outlines the 5 A’s that all children need from their caregivers for healthy development.
Allowing (which really means some flexibility rather than rigidity and severity)
Guess which “A” is often missing for queer kids?
According to Richo, acceptance, which is being free of preconceived plans or agendas, leads to a sense of being an inherently good person. Without it we get the development of shame.
Sound familiar? Most people on the planet, with the exception of a few young people today in a handful of tiny progressive neighborhoods, have been raised with the shaming notion that it is better for them to be straight than to be gay.
And You Need to Be Good At Hiding
Many queer people also learn to be excellent at pretending. While their classmates’ sexuality is celebrated at the prom, gay folks might be sneaking into gay bars or secretly searching the adult apps for hook ups. And then they have to come home and make up a convincing story to their parents, siblings, and even their best friends.
Being secretive can become an easy habit. Secrets in adult love typically end in drama and disaster. Just ask all the men whose affairs have been captured on home security cameras or by the accidental syncing of phone accounts on the cloud.
Secrets may be hot, and may even remind you of the delicious pain of forbidden teenage crushes, but they ruin adult love relationships.
And There’s More
Emotional intimacy between two men also has to overcome years of ridiculous teaching that boys should compete with each rather than support each other. Good love relationships often require being soft, tender, nurturing, and compassionate. This isn’t typically taught to boys on the elementary school playground or in high school gym class. Men are rewarded when they are tough and teased when they are soft.
All men, even the macho ones, crave nurturing and softness. If you date a woman your chances of getting nurtured are much higher than if you date a man. And if you are a man who dates other men then the two of you might need some help in learning a some new soft skills.
This Is No Big Deal, Right?
Some of you are now saying, “Look, I wasn’t abused or homeless and I wasn’t in the military. Being gay wasn’t traumatic, and I am fine.”
You may not have experienced what therapists call “big T” Trauma unless you were exposed to bullying or violence. But you may have “little t” trauma which refers to the cumulative effect of chronic stressors over a long period of time. And all those little traumas over time can add up to big Trauma.
Pain is pain. If you went to a hospital emergency room because you cut your hand when cutting vegetables, you wouldn’t leave the hospital just because someone else was wheeled in on stretcher after a car accident. Both need treatment.
And yes, being called out as a faggot when you are in high school is traumatic.
So What Now?
Are you having trouble being close, honest and vulnerable in relationships? How can you begin to turn that ship around?
Good relationships are an inside job. That means your relationships will get better when you know more about yourself and how to care for your emotions. We offer a free e-class on that topic here.
Until you are ready for therapy, here are some ideas that will help you practice getting closer to people in a way that feels safe enough. And some of these practices might get you started on a path to a better relationship with yourself, which leads to better relationships with others.
Consider picking just one of these ideas and see what happens:
- Make a game of trying to say one thing to a friend or lover that makes you just slightly nervous, each time you see him or her one-on-one.
- Let your antenna search for people who seem a little more sincere when you are on a dating app. Sometimes you can sense it in their eyes. Often their written profile gives it away. And you can tell a lot by how they handle the initial texting with you.
- Do you have one friend who is less defended and more real than most people? Invest in that friendship.
- Spend just five minutes a day being with yourself in a non-distracted way. You now spend 24 hours a day occupied with work, food, exercise, social media, porn, and sleep. Could you find five minutes to ask yourself daily questions like “How do I feel?” or “How am I, really?” or “What scares me right now?”
- Pay attention to when you are bored. There is always a ton to learn about yourself in boredom. Underneath that experience is a gold mine of info about your fears.
- Stay curious about your own life story as a child. Can you ask your older siblings about what it was like? If you had some difficult experiences as a kid they are still within you. Those experiences deserve your attention and self-compassion.
- Check in with yourself one day after each experience with alcohol or drugs. Can you ask yourself if you got what you wanted from the experience?
- Identify one person who feels very safe to be around. Can you practice being vulnerable with that person by sharing mini-secrets?
What happens to you as you review the list? Where do you feel dismissive about these ideas or hopeless about change? Can you remain curious about that rather than closed down?