Avoid­ing ev­ery­day re­la­tion­ship chal­lenges can hurt in the long term

IN Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Paul Gal­lant

Leave no re­la­tion­ship un­tested

Years ago, early on in a quickly blos­som­ing re­la­tion­ship, my boyfriend and I found our­selves in the Bi­ble-belt town of Chilli­wack, Bri­tish Columbia, where the size of the churches seemed to match the length of the stares from strangers. On a scruffy down­town cor­ner, with­out warn­ing, my boyfriend took my hand. My gut re­ac­tion was to step away, but I did not, and so word­lessly ac­cepted to face to­gether any­thing our PDA might trig­ger. Noth­ing bad hap­pened, but I had passed sev­eral tests: of my will­ing­ness to show af­fec­tion and pub­licly present as a cou­ple, of my abil­ity to re­spond to chal­lenges spon­ta­neously and pos­i­tively, of be­ing au­then­tic even in a po­ten­tially hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment.

Putting our part­ners through the ringer to see if they re­spond the way we’d like them to can seem like ma­nip­u­la­tive be­hav­iour; gay men in par­tic­u­lar, less bound by straight courtship rituals, should know bet­ter than to is­sue ul­ti­ma­tums. We can’t ex­pect paramours and lovers to sub­mit to rules like mir­ror­ing our political opin­ions or re­spond­ing to mes­sages within two min­utes or else. Yet smallscale low-stakes tests early on in the re­la­tion­ship can pre­pare us for the se­ri­ous, some­times ir­re­versible tri­als that life inevitably drops in our laps.

In the early days of feel­ing things out for com­pat­i­bil­ity and shared goals, test­ing a part­ner can ei­ther be “more about as­sess­ing our own will­ing­ness to com­mit to the re­la­tion­ship in front of us, or the se­cret hope of giv­ing us an ex­cuse to bail,” says Joe Ramirez, a Van­cou­ver-based coun­sel­lor with a strong LGBT fo­cus. “What is most im­por­tant is our at­ti­tude, ap­proach and in­ten­tion. We have to re­mem­ber that two dis­tinct peo­ple—with dis­tinct so­cial cul­tures, habits, work pri­or­i­ties, bio-rhythms, fi­nan­cial pow­ers—are try­ing to merge for a pur­pose called a re­la­tion­ship.”

In the rose-coloured days of dis­cov­er­ing each other, the tests may be strate­gic and pur­pose­ful: Does he text you be­fore you text him? Is he nice to your dog? Will he ac­cept the joint be­ing passed around? How we la­bel each other can also be a test. Based on in­ter­views with New York-area gay men in 1990 and 1991, dur­ing the peak of the AIDS cri­sis, re­searchers David E. Wool­wine and E. Doyle McCarthy found that “the men them­selves of­ten ex­am­ined and re-ex­am­ined words and phrases (‘lover,’ ‘com­mit­ment,’ ‘friend­ship’), and in such a way that this test­ing process seemed to be in­te­gral to their own strug­gle to de­fine them­selves in re­la­tion­ship to sig­nif­i­cant oth­ers.”

The ques­tion of monogamy is a com­mon test for gay cou­ples and one that’s best taken out in the open, with lots of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. One gay cou­ple I know, Jim and Brian (who didn’t want their last names used in this story), met in the 1970s and were to­tally smit­ten, quickly mov­ing in to­gether with­out much com­punc­tion. At the two-year mark, “Brian re­vealed that he’d been go­ing to the baths on the sly,” says Jim. “It was quite a blow to me and I vividly re­call the roller-coaster of anger and tears and ac­cu­sa­tion. Brian didn’t re­turn my emo­tional fire­works, but sim­ply tried to com­fort me while hav­ing the nerve to ar­gue that I should check out the bath­houses too! I think when I had time to step back and con­sider, it was clear to me that the core of our love, our com­mit­ment, was un­changed, though that was never made ex­plicit.”

Some cou­ples go so far out of their way to avoid dis­turb­ing the still wa­ters of their re­la­tion­ship that they can re­main to­gether for years with­out so much as shack­ing up, com­bin­ing fi­nances or merg­ing peer groups, as if any test might pro­vide them with an an­swer that they re­ally don’t want to know. Gay re­la­tion­ships can be plagued—or gifted, de­pend­ing on your per­spec­tive—with a par­tic­u­lar com­plex­ity. A 2014 study of 4,215 Aus­tralian gay and bi men found that nearly half of those who said they had a pri­mary part­ner did not con­sider it to be a re­la­tion­ship. “Do­mes­tic ar­range­ments were far more strongly re­lated to whether men con­sid­ered them­selves to be in a re­la­tion­ship than monogamy,” states the study. “Two-thirds of men in a re­la­tion­ship lived to­gether full-time and three-quar­ters at least part time. In con­trast, three-quar­ters of men with reg­u­lar part­ners but not in a re­la­tion­ship did not live with their part­ner.”

Avoid­ing grap­pling with ev­ery­day re­la­tion­ship chal­lenges can hurt a re­la­tion­ship in the long term, ac­cord­ing to re­search into the longevity and sat­is­fac­tion of straight cou­ples. A high neg­a­tiv­ity thresh­old—where cou­ples main­tain an out­ward sun­ni­ness as they qui­etly tol­er­ate frus­tra­tions and foibles—is ac­tu­ally worse than a low neg­a­tiv­ity thresh­old.

“I al­ways thought that good re­la­tion­ships were about com­pro­mise and un­der­stand­ing, and so would have guessed that it was best to aim for a re­ally high neg­a­tiv­ity thresh­old. A re­la­tion­ship where you give your part­ner room to be them­selves and only bring up an is­sue if it be­comes a re­ally big deal,” writes UK math­e­mat­ics lec­turer Hanna Fry in her book The Math­e­mat­ics of Love. “But ac­tu­ally, the

team found that the ex­act op­po­site was true. The most suc­cess­ful re­la­tion­ships are the ones with a re­ally low neg­a­tiv­ity thresh­old. In those re­la­tion­ships, cou­ples al­low each other to com­plain, and work to­gether to con­stantly re­pair the tiny is­sues be­tween them. In such a case, cou­ples don’t bot­tle up their feel­ings, and lit­tle things don’t end up be­ing blown com­pletely out of pro­por­tion.” For­tu­nately for LGBT peo­ple, other re­search sug­gests that they tend to form bonds with low neg­a­tiv­ity thresh­olds, pos­si­bly be­cause same-sex cou­ples can’t so eas­ily rely on gen­der stereo­types and straight cul­tural norms to de­ter­mine who does what, and so are more in­clined to per­form re­la­tion­ship triage as they go along.

Some see mar­riage as the ul­ti­mate test. Though some LGBT peo­ple con­sider it a straight in­sti­tu­tion, in the rel­a­tively short time it’s been le­gal, the in­sti­tu­tion has re­vealed it­self to have a spe­cial role in same-sex re­la­tion­ships. In ad­di­tion to the tra­di­tional pub­lic dis­play of love and com­mit­ment, a wed­ding outs both par­tic­i­pants to their cir­cles, of­fi­cial­dom and some­times the whole world, and so equal­izes the level of out­ness. Since dif­fer­ent com­fort lev­els with be­ing out can bring con­flict to a re­la­tion­ship (“Why won’t you take me to your grand­mother’s birth­day party?”), mar­riage can al­most in­stantly put each half of the cou­ple on the same foot­ing.

Though mar­riage can be a bitch to undo, there’s al­ways di­vorce. But life of­fers other more ir­re­versible tests. Health crises, fi­nan­cial ruin, death in the fam­ily—th­ese are not tri­als most peo­ple would chose, but demon­strate the true strength of a re­la­tion­ship. For Jim and Brian, the big­gest test was im­posed from out­side, when Brian was hit by a se­ri­ous ill­ness for which he was hos­pi­tal­ized for eight months, cost­ing him his ca­reer. “Thank­fully, his re­cov­ery was none­the­less re­mark­able, and the cri­sis did not change the core of our re­la­tion­ship. It prob­a­bly has made it stronger,” says Jim.

Not all test re­sults are happy ones. But what makes all the dif­fer­ence is how we re­spond to them.

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