CPPNJ - The Center for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy of New Jersey

Friday, June 18, 2010

"Altar-ing" perceptions: On working with gay couples and individuals.

June is flying by -- the month when thousands of (heterosexual) Americans marry. June is also Gay Pride Month, when thousands more Americans still can't.

Imagine a fictitious gay couple, Tom and Jeff. They have been together for 17 years -- longer than either of their divorced parents. Imagine they are in couples therapy the day after attending the (heterosexual) wedding of Tom's niece in Pennsylvania, a state (like most) that does not recognize their not-quite-equal civil union from New Jersey.

In the session, Jeff complains about Tom's driving on the way home from the ceremony. "All I did was ask him to slow down a little and not be so aggressive," he tells the therapist. "He was driving like a madman."

"I was not," Tom snaps back. "You were very critical and harsh."

The therapist acknowledges Jeff's frustration and concern about Tom's driving, and encourages him to consider other ways to articulate his feelings. She comments on how the couple's disagreements sometimes devolve into power struggles, and offers advice on how they each might better communicate and express their needs. Tom and Jeff move on to another topic, and the therapist is satisfied that she has replied in a useful manner, based upon her work with many (heterosexual) couples and her own experience with a husband sometimes prone to aggressive driving.

In assuming that Tom and Jeff are like all the couples she has seen, however, the therapist has failed to realize that their relationship faces unique obstacles. Their fight was not simply a power struggle, but also expressed the hurt, shame and anger from feeling marginalized at the wedding.

Tom and Jeff need an opportunity to talk about how dejected they felt watching other couples slow-dance. Or how they both blanched when Tom's mother introduced them to others: "Tom, you remember your cousin Janet! And this is her husband, Paul. Janet and Paul, this is Tom and his, um... Jeff."

Most gay couples (and individuals) must deal with this sense of difference and even shame at times in their lives. In fact, the therapist would be wise to wonder if these feelings ever come up with her, a straight married woman. She may have been avoiding her own fears of not knowing enough, of being judged as different or inadequate. Had she been able to recognize her countertransference, she might have marveled at how similar she was feeling to them as an unacceptable other. She may have found a way to turn her discomfort into empathy.

Of course, gay, lesbian, and bisexual therapists would have their own countertransference reactions to this couple based on their own life experiences. Subtle expressions of homophobia are inevitable regardless of the analyst's sexual orientation. From a psychoanalytic standpoint, the goal is not to exorcise our countertransference, but to find ways to recognize and utilize it.

As analysts, we have a responsibility to become aware of our own beliefs and assumptions as they surface with patients. Additionally, I believe we have a personal and professional obligation to advocate for fairness for all people. Our commitment to alleviate suffering does not end at the consultation room door. Making marriage equal is no panacea, of course. But working for it is a good start.

-- Eric Sherman, LCSW

Eric Sherman is the author of Notes from the Margins: The Gay Analyst's Subjectivity in the Treatment Setting (The Analytic Press).

To find out more about supporting same-sex marriage, visit the websites of Human Rights Campaign (www.hrc.org) and Garden State Equality (gardenstateequality.org).

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