Working with Gay and Lesbian Couples with Emotional/Verbal (Psychological) Abuse
Intimate partner abuse exempts no race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, sexual orientation or social status. On a daily basis, issues of dominance, power, and control in relationships are rooted in the oppressive systems to which we are all conditioned. Heterosexual hegemony normalizes the types of abusive behaviors that are both physically and mentally harmful, with the identified victim typically being the female and the perpetrator being male. Less universally recognized is the occurrence of domestic abuse among same-sex partners.
Regardless of habitation status, research indicates that domestic violence among same-sex couples occurs at similar rates as domestic violence among straight couples (30-40%), with Lesbians and Gay men experience abuse rates similar to those faced by women in heterosexual relationships. In fact, Intimate partner abuse is the third most impactful issue for gay men after substance abuse and HIV. In the context of therapy and clinical issues, because of Homophobia, fear of negative institutional reactions, and lack of resources, LGBT victimization does not receive appropriate attention, and, LGBT domestic abuse survivors may find it difficult to admit that intimate partner abuse is even an issue in their relationship.
Notwithstanding victim blaming and gender role projections, Sexism, Heterosexism, and Homophobia have informed the ways in which LGBT intimate partner abuse is imaged and analyzed. This leads to various barriers and myths to dealing with and addressing the existence of intimate partner abuse in LGBT relationships that influence both clinicians and victims. These, include the beliefs that domestic abuse is solely a gender-based issue, that two women don’t have conflict, or that only the “butch” or dominant partner can be abusive, or that same-sex partners are equally abusive, or that a physically smaller partner cannot abuse a larger partner, or that domestic abuse is part of kink, BDSM, or extreme sexual relationship, conflating sexual behavior with sexual orientation.
Although there is overlap between the issues faced by victims of partner abuse in straight and gay relationships, including using isolation, intimidation, threats of violence or suicide, coercion, financial abuse, reckless driving, disruption of sleep or eating behaviors, or using children or pets to control behavior, LGBT persons struggle with some unique challenges and vulnerabilities that may be exploited in same-sex relationships. These include, but are not limited to:
- -Using “outing” as a threat to control behavior.
- -Isolating the partner who is already experiencing familial or institutional rejection.
- -Domination or force as natural to the “butch/femme” roles.
- -Sexual domination and unsafe sex as the nature of Gay sex.
- -Threats to the biological parent’s custody rights.
- -Abuse in the guise of being toughened up to deal with an oppressive system.
- -Exploitation of Homophobia, as Gay being sinful, or destined to be punished.
- -Threats of legal, religious, or employment discrimination.
- -Exploitation of the fear of shaming the LGBT community if abuse is revealed.
- -Demeaning gender non-conformity.
It is also important to note that, regardless of sexual orientation, the presence of HIV/AIDS in an abusive relationship may also lead to specific forms of coercion, which include “outing” the HIV status of the victim, shaming the HIV- partner for being healthy, interfering with the medical services or medications of the HIV+ partner, using the partners health status as cause for financial control or other forms of isolation, and threats of infecting the sero-negative partner.
The challenge to working with marginalized persons, individually, or in couples, is understanding a socio-political analysis of power and domination. Sexism, Heterosexism, misogyny and homophobia impact all of us by informing and modulating our everyday perspectives and belief systems, and consequently, our behaviors and interactions in the world. Those imbued with socially sanctioned characteristics, such as male, white, and straight, internalize a sense of superiority that is reinforced culturally with power and resource privileges, entitlements, access, and other rewards. Those who embody characteristics, visibly or invisibly, that are deemed of lesser value, internalize a sense of inferiority that is reinforced culturally, directly or indirectly, as disadvantages and punishments, often described as “minority stress”. In LGBT relationships these disadvantages are ameliorated by degree of “outness”, levels of internalized homophobia, construct of gender identity, relationship quality, and lifetime and recent experiences discrimination, oppression, and abuse.
The levels of fear, insecurity, and marginalization experienced by LGBT persons in an oppressive socio-political environment may further promote or be expressed as horizontal or lateral oppression: the striking out at similarly oppressed peers who represent or embody the perceived inferiority, turning on each other rather than addressing or confronting the oppressive system. In LGBT persons internalized Homophobia, self-hatred, and shame may fuel horizontal oppression in the form of emotional/verbal abuse including, anger, blame, and demeaning behavior.
In this analysis, LGBT persons are not immune to the social constructs of power and privilege. The Patriarchal beliefs that intimate partners are possessions to be owned and controlled are deeply imbued in the social fabric. Gay and Lesbian partners may intentionally psychologically abuse their intimate partners for the same reasons that motivate heterosexual male perpetrators: that they have the right to gain and perpetuate domination and control, to prevent potential abandonment and rejection, and to avoid or compensate for internalized insecurity and inadequacy.
As in heterosexual power dynamics, systemic oppression allows the abusive partner to replay social and familial conditioning of pressuring or coercing the partner to give them what they want or need, to test their loyalty, to avoid their abandonment or attachment fears, to reinforce that they are entitled to get their way, and retaliate if these are not immediately forthcoming. The victimized partner may, in turn, believe that they deserve or expect such treatment and that they are the ones that are responsible for change.
The challenge for the therapist lies in understanding and accepting LGBT clients and couples who exhibit or experience psychological abuse, especially as these issues are often undisclosed in therapy, for fear of shame and recrimination. Many mental health practitioners, even if experienced with partner abuse issues, may be inexperienced or unprepared to respond to the issues specific to Gay or Lesbian couples. Alternatively, there are many counselors in community-based agencies who often see LGBT clients, but are inexperienced with relationship abuse. Given its association with intimate partner abuse, it behooves the therapist to screen and assess for relationship abuse in the context of depression and other health issues enumerated in this article. The greatest challenge to the therapeutic community, however, is that rather than addressing the systemic, socio-political issues that underlay relationship abuse, the interventions in couples therapy are often individualized, focused on personal and individual pathology rather than on the perpetuation of an oppressive social order. Couples therapists are most often only trained in responding to individual psychological problems, such as childhood trauma, communication problems, or conflict and anger management, rather than identifying, intervening, and confronting a belief system, that convinces perpetrators that they have the right to dominate and control, and the victimization that is embedded in this system. Couples therapists are often unprepared to educate couple, hold abusers accountable, and support the victim, but, instead, may reproduce abusive behaviors, through their own positions as experts, by imposing culturally sanctioned values and opinions that perpetuate the existing order.
*Moshe Rozdzial is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in private practice, GLOW Counseling (www.GLOWcounseling.com), in Denver, Colorado. He is a certified sex therapist, addiction interventionist, and trauma counselor. Moshe is a trainer and presenter on issues of diversity, multiculturalism, social justice, gender, sexual orientation, men’s issues, and sexuality. Moshe can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.