Toronto
7 min

The perfect queer couple

Trying to be one is the surest way to sabotage your relationship

DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD. Counsellor Kali Munro says we often look for what we lack ourselves. Credit: Dean Tomlinson

Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche had it all: money, celebrity, security, good looks, mad love and the rest of their lives. They flung out words like “forever” and “soul mate” to the hungry, star-mulching press.



Now look at them. Ellen’s off drowning her sorrow in laughter and Anne can’t find her way back to her car.



For homos inclined toward coupling, they were perfect role models. They made happiness look possible and that the right “someone” could be just across the next room. But if Ellen and Anne can’t make it work, does that mean hopes for the rest of us are in vain?



The search for perfection is a big trap for queer couples, according to many professional counsellors. Some people want so hard for it to be right that it can’t help turning out wrong.



“The myth is that love gets us through anything, but it’s not true. Love by itself is not enough,” says Kali Munro. She has a Masters of Education and 18 years of counselling experience in the lesbian and gay community. “A good relationship is work.”



Yet, we’ve been bombarded with the message that love conquers all, that happiness is having that special someone walk down the aisle to meet you.



Hollywood’s partly responsible, with its limited versions of life. In comedy, perfect love is attained after a series of ridiculous and unbelievable mishaps. In action, perfect love is attained after a series of ridiculous and unbelievable near death experiences. In tragedy, perfect love exists but, despite any number of unbelievable mishaps or near death experiences, it can’t be attained.



Lesbians and gay men are hardly immune to these tales. Many believe that once we find that perfect someone, we won’t have to fight anymore, we won’t have to express our needs anymore (or figure out what the hell they are) and we won’t have any reason to call up our friends and complain.



“As humans, we have a deep need for emotional connection,” says Adrienne Blenman of the David Kelley Lesbian And Gay Community Counselling Program. “The romantic myth of the perfect partner reflects that need in a way that makes it look easy and obtainable.”



But the pursuit of the perfect partner is, for most of us, pointless. Not because we can’t find someone to fall in love with, but because even if that person looks, smells and feels like perfection for the first six months, they will inevitably, in the next six months, start to smell differently.



“Attractions can be a double-edged sword,” warns Munro. “We are often attracted to things that are underdeveloped in ourselves, which can certainly be an opportunity for growth, but can also turn into resentment.”



There are also all the unconscious reasons we’re attracted to someone which often have, well, not much to do with them.



“People often want a partner to be the parent they never had,” says Pat Rayman, a counsellor in private practice who also works for the Toronto District School Board. “You hear someone say ‘Oh, he’s just like my mom.’ That’s not necessarily a bad thing, if you’re aware of how it affects your relationship. But someone who had an unavailable parent may be constantly trying to make their partner available to them, and that’s frustrating to both of them.”



So the quest for perfection falls apart. Relationships end, not because they aren’t workable, but because they aren’t what we expected. And relationships are full of expectations.



“It’s important to recognize your expectations,” says Munro. “We walk around with these notions that love means this or that, but these things aren’t universal. What you expect from love may be quite different from what your lover expects. And you have to talk about that.”



As in, if you love me you will also love and smooch and talk in a cutsie baby voice to my annoyingly pampered cat.



“People sometimes fight over pets,” muses Nelson Parker, a counsellor of 20 years, who’s also with the David Kelley program. “Maybe you’ve had a pet for 10 years and then you meet someone who doesn’t like dogs. Are you going to ditch them or fight about it all the time? Or are you going to find a way to be with them and still love your dog?”



Much of it comes down to communication. And compromise, which has to do with listening.



“Sometimes you have to put yourself and your needs to one side to really hear your partner, especially if you don’t agree with them,” advises Blenman. “Lots of times when you try to talk about things you’re talking across differences. No two people are the same and you have to respect those differences without being threatened by them.”



Easier said than done. Most of us know these rules about communication, about being honest and open and talking about yourself rather than blaming your partner. But they’re hard to put into practice, and the strain can be even greater on lesbian and gay relationships.



“We have no way to learn relationship skills except in relationships,” observes Parker. “We might try to model our parents’ relationship – or not – but as gays and lesbians we’re not necessarily clear which role is ours. And talking honestly and openly about yourself takes a lot of self-esteem and confidence. Gay people aren’t exactly nurtured to have a lot of that.”



There can also be heavy social pressure for gay and lesbian people to have relationships that seem perfect, that are good PR for the community, since we are often accused of being unable to have healthy relationships. It’s risky to admit there are problems in paradise.



But the truth is that good relationships, even the best relationships, have problems. What makes them the best is the way the problems are handled.



“Good relationships are lots and lots and lots of work,” says Blenman. “Loving someone and being in partnership with them takes a lot of trust and risk and vulnerability. That’s hard.”



Can it get too hard?



“Of course,” says Blenman. “If it’s hard all the time, that’s not okay either. When we’re talking about relationships being difficult, we’re not talking about abusive relationships. You have to give and take, but you also have to have healthy expectations of what a relationship should be so you can decide when that’s not being met.”



So the bottom line is that Mr or Ms Perfect may be sitting right in front of you, even if they’re wearing smelly socks, reading the National Post, talking too much to their ex lover, ignoring your goldfish or having difficulty telling you what’s on their mind. Desire, attraction, lust, or whatever you call it, makes it easy to overlook these things at first, but when the honeymoon’s over the real relationship starts.



“I have a new theory,” Parker says. “Real love takes a long time. You can’t really know somebody in one or two months and you’re liable to make some serious misjudgments then. You have to weather some of life together.”



The good news is that working at a relationship doesn’t have to be done in isolation. That’s another myth about love, that we should be able to solve everything ourselves. Most of us can turn to our friends faster than a slamming door when we need to bitch, but we rarely think of asking them for real support.



“Friends can play an important role in letting you know what they see in your relationship, either about your lover or yourself,” says Rayman. “And trusted friends can also act as mediators to help both of you sort through difficult passages.”



There’s also taking the time to work out some strategies you both agree on.



“We tend to think of human behaviour as random and driven by things we can’t control,” says Jeff Reynolds, a psychotherapist with 24 years of couples counselling experience. “But it’s an A-B-C process. You and your partner can direct what kind of relationship you both wish to have now and in the future.



“For example, arguing almost every day wasn’t the problem for one couple. With busy schedules, they didn’t have enough intimacy with each other. So they decided that when they found themselves fighting about ‘nothing,’ they’d stop and have sex. If the issue was still important afterwards, they’d work on it. If it wasn’t, they’d drop it.”



There is also plenty of self-help reading material, increasingly queer specific, to dress up your get-your-feet-off-the-coffee-table approach. And of course there’s counselling, which doesn’t have to be a last ditch resource.



“People have come to see me after a relationship of three months,” says Reynolds. “They know they want to stay together but they’ve got some issues to work out. Couples also come in as a way to work up to living together, so they can have more thought-out expectations and arrangements.”



Individual counselling can also be important.



“Whatever your personal issues around love, intimacy, self-esteem, etc, they’re going to affect your relationship,” says Rayman. “If you’re someone with complicated feelings around these issues – you’re a survivor or have experienced trauma or loss – it can be really good just to check in with someone, especially early in a relationship. Because you know it’s going to affect how that relationship is for you.”



So searching for your happy-ever-after may not be so pointless after all, if you’re prepared for some not-so-happy in between. And while you’re looking, it may just be helpful to keep this question in mind: “Mirror, mirror framed in teak, am I as perfect as the one I seek?”



Selves help



A few suggested reads for people looking for direction in their relationships.



* Lesbian Sacred Sexuality by Diane Marie Child and Marcelina Martin (Wingbow Press), $42.50



* Conscious Loving by Gay and Kathleen Hendricks (Bantam), mostly straight perspective, $19.95



* Permanent Partners: Building Gay And Lesbian Relationships That last by Betty Berzon (Penguin Books Of Canada), $23.50



* Love Between Men: Enhancing Intimacy And Keeping Your Relationship Alive by Rik Isensee (Alyson Publications), $18.25



* The Couple’s Comfort Book: A Creative Guide For Renewing Passion, Pleasure And Commitment by Jennifer Loudin (Harper Collins Canada), mostly straight perspective, $24



* Communication Miracles for Couples: Easy And Effective Tools To Create More Love And Less Conflict by Jonathan Robinson (Conari Press), $16.95



* Feathering Your Nest: An Interactive Workbook And Guide To A Loving Lesbian Relationship by Gwen Leonhard and Jennie Mast (Rising Tide Publishers), $24.25



* The Dance Of Anger: A Woman’s Guide To Changing The Patterns of Intimate Relationships and The Dance Of Intimacy: A Woman’s Guide To Courageous Acts Of Change In Key Relationships (Harper Collins Canada), both by Harriet Lerner, $20.95 and $20 respectively