What Queer Couples Can Teach Everyone About Communication
It's easy to idealize queer relationships, hence the many straight women who lament the fact that they "wish they were a lesbian" after a relationship goes south. The reality is that queer couples face a lot of uniquely difficult challenges. But there is one aspect in which queer relationships typically shine above the rest, and that's communication.
From the moment queer people first enter into a relationship with one another, we're practically forced to discuss our relationship expectations. Queer people can't fall back on society's default scripts for romance, because queerness is inherently "an act of subversion," explains Danna Bodenheimer, DSW, founder and director of the LGBTQ-focused Walnut Psychotherapy Center in Philadelphia. That means we have to communicate instead.
Those early conversations set the stage for honesty and smoother conflict resolution later on in the relationship, says Kenya Crawford, a mental health counselor, researcher, and consultant who focuses on LGBTQ people of color in New York City.
As you may have heard a million times, communication is the backbone of health for all relationships, regardless of who's involved. So, what lessons can you learn from queer couples about how to communicate effectively with your partner? Bodenheimer and Crawford weighed in.
Don't make assumptions.
People often enter cisheterosexual relationships with all sorts of assumptions about their partner, from who will pay for the first date to who will initiate sex most often. When both partners fit neatly into traditional gender roles, it's easy to assume each other's expectations and avoid actually talking about anything.
But for queer couples, there are far fewer assumptions, and that's ultimately a benefit. It certainly feels comfortable to follow a script, but people are complex, and assumptions frequently lead to misunderstandings. How do you know if you're on the same page if you never even discuss certain topics out loud?
"Queer couples are often required to discuss sex, money, and religion in ways that their heterosexual counterparts don't typically have to," Bodenheimer tells mbg. For queer couples, "without gender norms as a typical and often reductive compass, the actual personality, strengths, and idiosyncrasies of each partner come together to form values and structure" instead, Bodenheimer says.
Whether you're queer or not, making a habit of having these conversations instead of making assumptions can strengthen your relationship from the get-go and make sure everyone's real desires are being met. Your partner is an individual, and you never really know what their needs and preferences are until you ask.
Build trust and security early on.
According to research by John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman, gay and lesbian couples are more positive and upbeat when they resolve conflict as compared to straight couples. Queer couples use more affection and humor, don't take things quite as personally, and use fewer hostile tactics during arguments.
This more pleasant approach to conflict resolution may be rooted in the conversations that many queer couples have about sex, money, and other tricky topics early on. Those conversations can be really uncomfortable at first, so they're excellent practice for learning to navigate difficulty early on and building a foundation of trust and security.
"Once there's already that security and trust that we can have these really tough, difficult conversations, it allows for conflict resolution to show up more smoothly than it would in other partnerships where that security and trust isn't established," Crawford says.
She recommends all couples take time to have these conversations as early on as possible. "It's really important to explore: What does someone need to feel safe and secure in the partnership? What does accountability look like, and how do we repair harm if it's done in the partnership?"
When it comes to relationship pacing, living arrangements, monogamy, and marriage, there are no right or wrong answers. There's only what works for you both as a couple.
"I think a lot of folks jump into either monogamy or nonmonogamy without interrogating their intentions or what they're seeking from partnership and not giving space to recognize that maybe it's something that's a little more nontraditional that would serve their needs much more," Crawford says.
Queer couples are much more likely to "define what they want the partnership to look like as opposed to walking into the traditional ideals of what a relationship is supposed to look like," she adds.
No matter who you are and who you're dating, you should always sit down with them and discuss what you both want out of your relationship. It's OK if you've never seen a relationship that looks like your ideal before—whatever works for you both is best. And hey, you're allowed to change your minds later!
Start with self-reflection.
Communicating with each other can only go so far. You also have to do the work of communicating with yourself first. Queer people tend to have done some of that work of self-reflection because their very identity requires a whole bunch o' processing.
"Because both members of a queer relationship are subverting heterosexual and cisgender norms in order to be together, they have already had to delve fairly deeply into internal dialogues in order to feel whole and authentic," Bodenheimer says. "The result of these deep dives is typically the ability to articulate pieces of one's inner world with those that they are in relationship with."
Crawford adds that queer people tend to have a better understanding of oppression, privilege, and trauma, which allows them to communicate to each other about those topics more effectively.
Even if you've never really had to question your identity, that process of self-reflection will make you better able to understand your own feelings and perspectives and better able to communicate them to your partner. To ramp up the self-reflection in your own relationship, try journaling, meditation, and/or therapy.
When in doubt, talk it out.
Is there any such thing as too much communication? Not according to many queer people!
Queer women are especially famous for their love of endless "processing." The Gottmans' research shows that lesbians are more emotionally expressive than gay men, perhaps because their socialization as women has taught them to be that way. In many woman-loving-woman relationships, even seemingly minor situations are subject to being discussed for an hour or two until everyone has had the chance to express themselves and listen.
Maybe there is such a thing as too much processing, but it's better to err on the side of more communication than less, especially if there's any doubt about what's going on. Process it, and then process the processing, until you both feel good about where you've ended up.
Queer or straight, all couples should cast aside the assumptions and practice awareness and honesty with each other. Your partners will thank you!
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