By Dr. Jeffrey Chernin
Each of us have tools that we have developed during childhood as we dealt with family challenges and learned how to cope in a homophobic world. However, adaptations that got us through those times can become very things that inhibit intimacy as an adult.
All families have area of dysfunction, and no matter how “functional” your family was, you had to find ways to cope with these dysfunctional areas. For example, most families aren’t very helpful when it comes to areas related to sexual orientation and identity. A movie example comes to mind: In “My Life in Pink,” otherwise loving parents were unsupportive when it came to accepting their gender-bending son. The same is true when it comes to having a gay, lesbian, or bisexual child. Most parents aren’t equipped to help their children live and love according to their nature.
To give you a counter-example (one that should give us all hope), a relative’s 5-year-old son was holding hands with another boy. They came up to her and he said, “Mommy, when we grow up we’re going to get married.” His mother excitedly said, “I’m so happy for both of you!” At that, the boys went happily back to playing together. Another time, a friend of hers said that someday her son would become a “lady’s man” because he was so cute. My relative said, “How do you know he won’t grow up to be a man’s man?” He grew up to be heterosexual, but what a lucky boy to be raised in such an open-minded family!
Children who are being raised by these types of parents know that they’ll be supported and loved unconditionally. I also think that her views were influenced by persons who came out to her – both family members and friends – over the years.
Nonetheless, most families were not this enlightened, my parents among them. And this is exactly what gives rise to developing certain coping strategies related to being LGB or T.
For those of us who grew up feeling “different,” these strategies included isolating, developing a rich fantasy life (sometimes confusing reality with fantasy), being forced to get comfortable with lying, and becoming the Good Girl or Boy (later developing into a Pleaser). If you felt the need to hide, there was little chance that you were going to let your parents, siblings, and friends know that you were LGB or T, and you had to cope with the uncomfortable feelings of fear and shame all by yourself.
In a related issue, some people believe that development (as in identity development) ends at age 18. However, our development never ends. Combining the idea of development with the need to hide, it isn’t uncommon for many of us to have “developmental delays.”
As a prime example, while our high school peers were having successes – and failures – when it came to dating, we were busy hiding or isolating our true selves. Some of us didn’t start actually dating until age 20, 30, or beyond. It puts us at a real disadvantage in terms of learning how to navigate the world of relationships.
Added to that, the very coping strategies that we learned growing up – to be the Good Child, to isolate, or to cover up – become the very things that make intimacy and being in a relationship more difficult.
Using new tools
Of course, a column such as this one can only start you on your way to “tool replacement.” However, with awareness, you’re already half-way there. You cannot pick up new tools till you begin to shed your old ones, and yet it’s scary and unpredictable when you start laying your old ones down, which is why you should be intentional, thoughtful, and methodical when you do this (however, some of us have no choice – the old methods sometimes simply stop working).
One place to begin could be the use of a Journal. You don’t need to write long paragraphs or even sentences. You can write something like, “Felt sad (or disappointed or angry) today.” If you wish, you can add why.
Start opening up about the way you feel toward others. If someone hurts your feelings, you can start by saying, “Ouch.” If someone angers or frustrates you, mildly confront the person by saying, “I’m uncomfortable with…” Alternatively, if someone does something to make you feel good, let him or her know. As you get your sea legs, you can open up more and become more assertive. In addition, learn to be more direct in your communication; you already display how you’re feeling by not answering phone calls, for example, or by silence, or sarcasm. Instead of acting out your feelings, state them.
If you can start with these simple ideas (I’m not saying they’re easy despite their simplicity!), you may find yourself being pleasantly surprised at what else starts coming naturally.