Star-Crossed Lovers and the Stress of LGBT Couples

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From forth the fatal loins of these two foes,
A pair of star cross’d lovers take their life,
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents strife.

Romeo and Juliet, Prologue

stress lgbt couples

Image from fanpop.com

Montague and Capulet. Tristan and Isolde. Cyclops and Phoenix. Any time a mortal tries to fall in love with a vampire. (Or for that matter, any time someone riffs off the vampire/unrequited love theme and creates a story that makes us scratch our head as to how it remained on the NY Times Bestseller list for over a year.)

The socioeconomic and personality gaps (and ensuing conflict) between these couples draws us into their narratives. We want to see Romeo overcome all odds to connect with Juliet and stick it to those snooty Capulets. We connect with heroes who are misunderstood and castigated, and root for them to find happiness and show the world that they’re much more than what their races, social classes, and disfigurations might suggest. We are captivated by degrees of difficulties: The more barriers a relationship has, the more we root for them to triumph.

Unfortunately, as William Shakespeare suggests in the killing of his protagonist teenage lovebirds, relationships fraught with external conflict, coming from parents, friends, and/or society at large, often struggle to survive.

Ilan Meyer, professor of sexual orientation law and public policy at UCLA, identifies the minority stress model, where socially devalued groups expect the constant discrimination and mistreatment they experience to exist in future relationships, leading to negative appraisal of self and other and attempts at hiding the status of minority. (Meyer researched LGBT couples who have a greater ability to conceal their identity as a minority than, say, an African-American person, although this model extends to racial/ethnic minorities as well.)

Recently, Kristi Gamarel of the City University of New York and others expanded Meyer’s minority stress model to encompass the experience of both partners, asking, “How do the external stressors of an LGBT person transfer over to the partner’s experience?” In the article “Gender Minority Stress, Mental Health, and Relationship Quality: A Dyadic Investigation of Transgender Women”, published in August’s Journal of Family Psychology, Gamarel and other researchers interviewed 191 transgender women who were in intimate relationships with cisgender (or non-transgender) men, almost 80% of whom were also racial minorities.

Transgendered individuals provide an interesting contrast to other LGB couples because they have higher rates of poverty. Related, the National Center for Transgender Equality reports that at least 25% have lost a job either during or shortly after the process of sexual transformation, and 75% have experienced occupation discrimination, including sexual harassment, refusal to hire/promote, and privacy violations. A national survey reports that two-thirds of transgendered people have been victimized by assault. Poverty creates its own set of relational stressors; Gamarel and company estimated that low income increases the odds of her research participants reporting depression by 65%. (Research included being screened through an evidence-based depression scale.) In this study, 43% of transgendered women and 47.5% of cisgendered male partners met the criteria for depression.

Studying depression in couples can prove challenging because of the chicken-egg dilemma: Did a couple enter into a relationship already suffering from depression, or did they develop depressive symptoms throughout the course of their relationship? Depression is too complex to answer that question simply. However, Gamarel and company created a qualitative questionnaire to assess for relationship stigma, including the following questions:

  • How uncomfortable do you feel holding hands in public?
  • How uncomfortable do you feel going out to bars (straight or gay bars?
  • How frequently have you actually been harassed when w/ partner in public?
  • How often do you experience difficulty introducing your partner to friends/family?
  • How often have you had to hide your relationship from other people?
  • How often do you feel there is something wrong/feel self-conscious about being in this relationship?

Predictably, many couples reported feelings of self-consciousness, that they were doing something wrong both in and because of their relationships. Sadly, the researchers also determined that partners experienced higher risks of depression the longer they stayed in their relationship. After awhile, as Gamarel and associated suggest, partners lose the ability to distinguish the difference between pressure from the negative messages from outside forces (i.e. family members and friends) and pressure from within the relationship. Work with minority (racial or sexual) couples must have conversations about discrimination and the potential for transference–the expectation that one’s partner will treat you with the same negativity and contempt that others have treated you.