By Terri Finnigan, LMFT
LGBTQ+ Couples Therapy
I can't emphasize this enough: I've seen couples therapy revitalize relationships. The trick is getting there on time. If you are in a gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer relationship, read to learn how couples therapy can help you with the five most common relationship challenges.
1. Communication Issues
The number one reason any couple comes to therapy is because of issues with communication. But what does that mean exactly? “Communication issues” is a catch-all phrase that tends to mean something like, “We just don’t understand each other,” or “I don’t feel heard by my partner,” or “I don’t feel safe expressing my feelings.” When a couple is having communication issues, it can be hard to find solutions without getting outside help.
If you’re having the same fight over and over again, chances are you’re frustrated, resentful, and closed off — making it difficult to truly empathize with your partner. So what can a therapist do to help? A therapist can help navigate communication issues so it doesn’t feel like you’re stuck on a hamster wheel. An impartial therapist can help each partner identify his/her/their needs and facilitate a space where those needs might actually get met.
If you’re feeling like you and your partner don’t understand each other, you might need a therapist to interpret your feelings in a way that your partner will be able to hear. Sometimes it’s easier to hear things from an objective third-party, relationship expert than it is from your blaming partner! A therapist can help remove blame talk (which closes ears) and replace it with empathy (which opens ears). And if you’re feeling unsafe to share your feelings with your partner, a therapist can help you rebuild safety one validation at a time.
One of the things that separates LGBTQ+ couples from heterosexual couples is how much time they spend together! In heterosexual relationships, many partners spend time with their own separate friend groups. In LGBTQ+ relationships, friend groups and partners are often mixed. In general, with LGBTQ+ couples there is often a sense of enmeshment – a psychological term that means a lack of independence and boundaries. This can feel incredibly intimate in a positive way. However, this kind of attachment can also take its toll.
When a partner is your everything, the fear of losing them can become consuming — especially if you’ve had relationship trauma in your past. Fear of losing a partner can show up as a fear of infidelity, a need for constant validation, or a need to know what your partner is doing at all times. Inevitably, these fears cause conflict in the relationship.
So, how can therapy help? A therapist can help build what I call a three-pillared relationship. A stable relationship needs three pillars — one for each individual and one for the couple together. If any of those pillars is cracked, the structure is unstable. A therapist can help you set goals for increased independence and hold you accountable for reaching them. And if you’re interested in digging, a therapist can help you explore the old relationship trauma — family or romantic — so that you can dump the old baggage.
3. Built-up Resentment
When couples come in for therapy, resentment is often sitting on the couch in between them. It’s so understandable — partnerships are challenging, to say the least! And because of the higher level of co-dependency in LGBTQ+ relationships, even small conflicts can feel devastating and cause resentment. Left untreated, resentment builds and builds until it seems like it’s too high to climb. So how do you know when it’s time for LGBTQ+ couples therapy and how/if therapy can help?
In order to figure out whether it’s time for therapy, assess whether the resentment is passing or sticking. If resentment is passing, you’re not holding the issue against your partner for long, and it’s not coming back on repeat. If resentment is sticking, you are holding on to the issue. This is the best time to start therapy. But don’t wait too long!
Resentment on repeat usually lends itself to contempt. And a healthy relationship is pretty challenging when there is contempt from one or both partners. But, there’s hope! A therapist can help heal contempt by reminding couples of what they loved about each other in the first place. A therapist can help you process deep-seated resentment and encourage you to focus on the things you admire, appreciate, and value about your partner. Though this is incredibly difficult to do on your own, it can be highly effective with a therapist.
Infidelity often hits a relationship like a bag of bricks. It can leave the cheated-on partner feeling foolish, betrayed, and like their entire life has been upended. The cheating partner might feel desperate for forgiveness and frantic about making things right. No matter what the scenario is, infidelity can be hard for a relationship to recover from – especially without therapy.
A therapist can help navigate these incredibly choppy waters for a couple. Healing from infidelity not only takes time and patience, but specific phases of therapeutic interventions.
The first phase of therapy after infidelity will be about validating the betrayed partner and helping him/her/them feel more in control. A therapist might facilitate a safe space where the betrayed partner can ask questions about the infidelity. The therapist will encourage the cheating partner to answer these questions honestly and as often as the betrayed partner needs to hear them.
When the couple is ready to explore the reasons behind the infidelity (this readiness can be difficult for a non-professional to determine), their therapist will gently guide them through this process. With an expert’s help, the cheating partner might feel safe enough to lovingly speak of the issues that led to infidelity, and the betrayed partner might feel safe enough to hear them. Once a couple understands each other more intimately, a therapist will help the couple slowly rebuild trust.
5. Intimacy Issues
When a couple mentions intimacy issues, they’re typically talking about sexual intimacy, emotional intimacy, or both. Despite the fact that most couples crave both sexual intimacy and emotional intimacy, it can be hard to have them both at the same time. For example, in lesbian relationships, often there is emotional intimacy without sexual intimacy (aka "lesbian bed death"). And in relationships with gay men, there is often sexual intimacy without emotional intimacy. Both types of intimacy can feel incredibly vulnerable. No wonder it’s overwhelming to feel both at the same time!
So how can a therapist help with intimacy issues? If you’re having emotional intimacy issues, there is usually a reason (or reasons) why. A therapist can help you uncover what’s behind you and your partner’s personal blocks. (Spoiler alert: intimacy blocks are usually about past hurts or current resentments.) A therapist can help build emotional safety in the relationship by exploring what each partner needs to feel safe – acknowledgment, appreciation, empathy – and inspiring accountability. In long-term relationships, sometimes a lack of emotional intimacy is about not making the effort to connect. A therapist can help you make a plan for increased connection that is reasonable and effective.
Similar to emotional intimacy issues, sexual intimacy issues are often about a lack of safety in the relationship. A lack of safety might come from infidelity, built up resentment, communication issues, or emotional intimacy issues (You can see how all of these Top 5 issues can be intertwined!). A therapist can help you identify and process what’s behind your sexual intimacy issues, and give you fun homework to do to rebuild your positive sex life!