Estranged

Friday, December 23, 2011

Question

My Canadian girlfriend and I are already having squabbles. By the time Thanksgiving rolls around, we will barely be speaking, if previous years are any indication. We have been together three years. We live in Chicago where she has a good job that takes care of her visas, etc. In a way, I am grateful that my lover can be with me, in a city that I like a lot. But the distance between her and her family has allowed her to pull a few fast ones, and I am starting to wish she would get fired or something so that I will have to go to Canada with her.

She has been a lesbian ever since she was 16. Yet she refuses to come out to her family or tell them that I am not just “a roommate.” Every single year, she goes home for Christmas and stays until New Year's Eve. This uses up so much of her vacation time that we are rarely able to take a vacation together. They live in Vancouver, so she will be far away from me. Her mother is already lining up single men to take her out on dates. The pressure to get married is intense, but I have trouble supporting her when she complains about it. I have told her that these stories just make me feel jealous, but she can't seem to stop telling me who is on the list of eligible bachelors this year.

I am tired of spending these holidays alone. In the past, my lovers were out of the closet and we got to enjoy them together. My lover is not religious, and says that Christmas is no big deal. This implies it shouldn't be important to me either. But the only way can avoid becoming very depressed in winter is to celebrate all these heterosexual family holidays with people who know me and love me just exactly the way I am. I'm estranged from my own family, only partly because they are hostile toward gay people. It's a long story. She says the fact that I've ruined things with my own mother and father is no reason for her to ruin things with her own parents.

This question is more about relationships than it is about sex, I guess, although we usually stop having sex the day after Halloween. I wish I could hibernate like a bear. Who's right here? Who's wrong? Is there any way to fix it?

 

Answer

Some of us are able to manage the stress and potential consequences of coming out to our families. Not telling them would cause more distress because we cannot tolerate hiding and telling lies. Being honest is more valuable to us than family togetherness. Other gay people do not do so well at this important developmental task. They chicken out and sell out their own community and relationships so they can enjoy some  faux heterosexual privilege. I think that being gay—being different—is so hard for some people that they need a break, a time when they can pretend to be just like everybody else. It is amazing how far some families will go to avoid seeing the plain truth about a son or daughter. I've known gay men and lesbians who have been in ten-year relationships, and their families still behave as if the live-in lover was just a roommate. This can cause a great deal of heartache if the closeted lover becomes ill, has any other emergency, or dies. The family sees no reason to treat the distraught lover as a widow or widower. The fact is that homophobic family members might be mean to their dear child's lover anyway, but I personally would rather be snubbed for being a big pervert instead of being ignored as nothing more significant than the person who writes a check for half of the rent.

Unfortunately, you probably cannot change your lover by confronting her or giving her ultimatums. But you might be able to create change by changing your own behavior. One of the strange paradoxes in human relationships is the fact that change begets more change. I shouldn't have to ask you to do things differently. My heart is on your side. But in my private practice as a therapist, I have often seen this work. You and your lover are pulling on the ends of a rope. If you drop your end of the rope, she will fall on her butt, and after that, she won't be able to keep on resisting or arguing with you because you aren't providing any opposition. So she will have to come up with something new.

Make a list of all the things you used to do that made you happy over the holidays. Then proceed to put up decorations, bake cookies, wrap presents, send out cards, or plan a party for local friends. Get busy. You are too busy, you see, to argue with her or put her down or get angry. You are focused on positive things that are lots of fun. Too bad she is going to miss all of the fun. It's time she felt a little jealous of you. Hosting a party of your own or getting your friends to host dinners and such is important because she is going out while she is away. You should therefore be free to go out as well. Don't threaten to have an affair. But do mention that you hope you can meet some new friends at these events because you feel that you've gotten a little antisocial or isolated. 

She will probably try to bait you so that things will return to “normal” (i.e., cold as ice). Don't  cooperate. Listen to what she has to say, then reply, “I can't change you. The only person I have any control over is myself, and I am going to have a great winter holiday, with or without you.” I know it will be tough to do this. If you get drawn into a spat, don't put yourself down. Just resolve to do better next time. Figure out what she did to get you to lose control, and design an intervention (calling a friend, excusing yourself to go take a hot shower, working on a craft project, listening to music).

As long as you take a strong and vocal position against her spending every Christmas and New Year's Eve with her family, she HAS to argue back. There is a big empty space at the debate table, and few people can resist the temptation to say “yes I will” if somebody else is saying “no you won't.” The verbal disagreements distract her from listening to her own conscience and heart. A family that is dysfunctional enough to be in denial about a child's homosexuality is fucked up in other ways, too. There are probably many instances in which her family squashed her individuality and blackmailed her into conformity. All her life, she has been told that unless she maintains a false front, she won't have love or success. Experiencing unconditional love from you gives her a clear example of another way to live. It probably sounds like I am asking you to be a saint. And I kinda am. But aren't you curious to know how this experiment would turn out? If I am wrong, it will be a lot of fun to write and tell me so. But if I am right, it will also be fun to focus on something other than slash-and-burn, take-no-prisoners acrimony. Those arguments are old hat. You have her part as well as her own memorized, like a play you have put on a hundred times. It hasn't solved the problem yet, and it probably never will. 

Here is something else to think about. If she did agree to stay home with you and come out to her family because you told her she had to, it will be a disaster. Unless your family is a rare one that is already knowledgeable about and accepting of gay people, the first time the subject comes up is extremely painful for everybody. The first few years after you come out, many hurtful things can be said, and there is usually a lot of resistance to learning or changing antigay bias. Educating your family can be a lifelong struggle. Do you want to be blamed for this every time her mother freaks out or her father intimates she is disgusting? No, you do not. This is a huge step, and it is best taken when someone has decided that telling the truth is more important than any possible repercussions. I'm glad you have the guts to do so, and not look back. But not all of us are made of such stern stuff. The fact that you are gay doesn't mean you are automatically emotionally or politically cut out to be an activist. Most of us would rather the world would just leave us alone so we can do our jobs, come home to a comfortable place, and enjoy social activities with friends, maybe even connect with a lover. We are forced to become activists when the only alternative is to be wiped out. There are many kinds of genocide. There are savage nations that have murdered ethnic or religious minorities. And there are “civilized” people in North America who would love to do the same thing to all of the queers. A family like hers is also trying to wipe her sexuality out of existence. By refusing to think of it as a possibility, they kill her lesbian culture and her love of other women. The only sane thing to do in such circumstances is to fight back, because we really have nothing to lose. I hope she will wake up and realize that this is her only real choice. Being forbidden to live openly as a lesbian for such a big chunk of time is like being anesthetized for a month. It takes a lot of internalized self-hatred to believe that is the right thing to do to yourself. You and I know that no amount of family approval can make up for such a loss. But she is still afraid, suffering, and giving up her power to a straight family that demands conformity.

You may not be able to have sex with her. After all, you are still angry, and you have a legitimate grievance. But if you can continue to be warm and loving, I guarantee that things will change. You will feel less depressed, and she will be puzzled and a little alarmed. She might start to talk about how much she wishes she could stay home. “Of course you should do whatever you want to do,” you can reply. “But I'm going to be pretty busy. I'm making all of these plans with my friends.”

If perchance you really have gotten isolated or antisocial in this relationship, find some volunteer commitments you can do over the holidays. Organize a toy drive for needy families, serve food at a shelter, provide some help sorting out clothing or other holiday donations at a thrift store. When you feel like crap, it's always a good idea to help somebody who is doing even worse. Making a mental list of the things you are grateful for will help to center you and improve your mood.

When you are no longer pressuring her to come out, your lover will be forced to figure out whether she really wants to live this way, in the closet, a hostage of her mother, forced to pretend to go on heterosexual dates, kept away from the woman she loves during a time of the year that we all need extra devotion and sweetness. Winter is such a hard time for us. Our DNA seems to remember that wintertime means starvation, dangerous cold weather, and illness. The celebrations are meant to remind us that no season is eternal. This dark and edgy time will melt into spring. And winter cannot conquer everything. We still have warmth, good food, and love.

When you are calm and feel relatively happy about how your Christmas and New Year's Eve are going to be, you will find it easier to reflect on the quality of your relationship. If you are happy together for 360 days of the year, can you put up with five that are rotten while she is MIA? Is she honest with you about everything else? Does she show passion in the bedroom for the nine non-winter months? Aside from this major conflict, are there other things she does that make you feel hopeless or unhappy and angry? Don't stay in a bad relationship out of spite or to keep on fighting. It may take her a couple of years to figure out that her family doesn't treat her very well, and for her to seek out help to separate from them so she can tell the truth and individuate. The bonus is that she will always be grateful to you for turning things around so she could grow a backbone, love herself, see her lesbianism as a divine gift, and stop lying. If she is a bad person or you no longer love her, it's time to leave.

 

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