This post is by K.
This month, we celebrated our 9 year dating anniversary and 3 year legal wedding anniversary. 9 years into our relationship and 3 years into marriage, we are going strong. We’re not perfect, but we are pretty darn happy together. And we sometimes are asked, “What’s your secret?”
The secret is not what you’d think. The secret is that our relationship was really horrible at some points. By horrible, I don’t mean we fought a lot or broke up a few times, though we did both of those things in those darker days. I mean horrific, immature, and emotionally abusive behavior. Really bad stuff. The worst. It’s hard to admit, because we want to make it look easy and because we’re ashamed of some of our past, but it’s the truth. We had to make a decision, early on, to work hard on ourselves. Over time–lots of time–we finally got to a point where we could be this happy, this safe, and this close. And to do that, we have to own up to our past and be honest about it.
We got together in our early twenties and were still figuring ourselves out. I don’t know for sure, but I hope that, if we met today and had those same problems, we would both walk away from a relationship that was so toxic. I would never advise a friend to stay in a relationship that made them unhappy or made them feel unsafe (emotionally or physically). There is no guarantee that it will ever get better. I can’t stress this enough.
Because there is so much pressure on LGBTQI people to be models of equality and integrity, unhealthy relationships and intimate partner violence in our relationships is something we just don’t talk about. Our own communities sometimes shame us into silence. We’re already seen as deviant and perverts, so we have to only show happy, healthy, “normal” LGBTQI couples. Additionally, domestic violence or intimate partner violence is framed in public discourse as an issues between cis men (abusers) and cis women (victims), in a really heteronormative way. Still, multiple studies show that people of any gender can be abusers or survivors/victims. Statistics for cis men and for LGBTQI people are fuzzy because of underreporting–lack of organizations and resources to report to, fear of law enforcement, fear of being outed, lack of support networks, shame from our own cultures and communities, etc. What statistics are available show that same-gender domestic violence happens at about the same rate (25% or 1 out of 4) as in heterosexual relationships.
To read stories of intimate partner violence in queer relationships, check out this article from the Atlantic (TRIGGER WARNING). If you think you might be in an unhealthy or abusive relationship, please contact the National Coalition of Anti- Violence Programs, which keeps a national list of LGBTQI domestic violence/partner violence resources or call the NYC-based hotline: 212-714-1141.
I think W and I are the exception to the rule. We are not the norm. Again, I’d never advise someone to stay in an abusive or unhealthy relationship. Or to get back into one. I wouldn’t advise 20-something me to stay if we had to do it over again. Some people might not consider our relationship abusive because it involved mainly emotional abuse and because it doesn’t fit the typical narrative of the “cycle of violence.” Some might argue that we were just immature and unhealthy. But that’s just not true. I’m going to call it out and talk about it publicly. Because it needs to be talked about and if we hide it, we allow it to become a place of shame for both of us. And we continue to hide the fact that abuse and unhealthy relationships happen in LGBTQI families.
Here’s the silver lining for us. Because of our horrible, terrible, very bad relationship past and the trauma we had to work through individually and as a couple, we came out the other end way stronger. We feel like the worst is behind us and we could tackle almost anything now.
I set out to write this post about tips for a healthy relationship, but I felt I couldn’t do it without being honest about our history. I couldn’t sugar coat it. But we are in an awesome place now. We wouldn’t be bringing a kid into the world if we weren’t. So here are a few of the things we learned and practice today…and none of that flowery crap about keeping the romance alive. This is for reals stuff.
1) Learn how to fight.
Seriously, this is so important. We don’t see a lot of good models of healthy fighting on TV. Watching two people “talk it out” isn’t great for ratings. If anything, we see abusive behaviors spun as hot and sexy romance. Like in this really not-OK commercial for Haagen-Dazs gelato. Many of us don’t get a great model at home, either. Some of us come from abusive homes and have no framework at all for what a healthy fight looks like. This is something every couple has to learn. It is essential to a healthy relationship.
Conflict is a part of every healthy relationship. I would be more concerned about a relationship where there is no fighting because that probably means that conflict is going unaddressed. There are lots of articles and resources with advice on “fair fighting” or “healthy fighting.” Read up. Agree to some ground rules. And if there is more to work out individually or as a couple that is keeping you from fighting and communicating about conflict in a healthy way, consider talking to a counselor.
2) You do you.
Being a pan/bi/queer cisgender woman, I’ve had long term relationships with straight cisgender men and, therefore, been well-curated in heteronormativity. One thing that is different in stereotypical hetero relationships is that the gender line is drawn in the sand very clearly. It is normal for the cis man to have his friends and the cis women to have her friends, separate from each other. So you can talk about beer and boobs with your boys if you’re a guy. Or talk about makeup and tampons with your girls if you’re a woman.
In queer and trans* communities and relationships, you often have the same friends and spaces and communities. Of course, none of this is universally true, but I do feel there is even more pressure to meld into one big sparkly queer entity in queer relationships. It’s easy to lose yourself. Healthy couple are not identical twins. It’s OK to disagree, even to disagree a lot. Hold onto the things that make you, you. Whether it’s your style, your music, your favorite activities or bigger things like your career goals, your personal ambitions, your dreams and aspirations…nurture yourself. And nurture your partner’s individuality, too. This means, yes, spending time alone or separate from each other. It also means being open to compromise and hard work when your big different things come into conflict with each other. (See #1.)
I will never like football with the passion that W does. W will never love Tim Curry with the fevered burning of a thousand suns like I do. W will never really like leopard print, but he will buy me leopard print things because I will always love it and wear it proudly. It’s OK. W will never love the idea of living in a really big city (NYC, SF, DC). I will never be down to move to a rural area or a rich white conservative suburb. These things are OK, too. W will probably never go back to school and will probably never want to move to another place. I might and have considered graduate or law school more than once–including going full-time to law school far from our home. We can make these things work, too, because we trust each other and respect each other as individuals.
3) Own your own sh*t.
This is the hard part. You are going to mess it up. Maybe you’ll make a really selfish decision without consulting your partner. Maybe you are going through some stuff personally (depression, anxiety, stress) and you are bringing it into the relationship without talking about it or working on it. Maybe your partner is going through some stuff personally (depression, anxiety, stress) and you are holding it against them without talking about it. Maybe you freaked out for absolutely no reason. Maybe you are acting angry, but you are really sad or frustrated or disappointed…or hangry (Hanger = hunger-induced anger. It’s a real thing, people.). Maybe you are saying or doing really not-OK racist, ableist, classist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic stuff without realizing it. Maybe you have your own stuff that you need to work on before you can be healthy in your relationship. Maybe that involves getting counseling or focusing on your health. Own your sh*t. Check yourself. Apologize when you mess it up and really mean it. No passive aggressive apologies! Work on yourself first. And, on the flip, hold your partner(s) accountable. Don’t make excuses for their bad behavior. Don’t let problems fester for days, months, years–talk about your issues before they becomes a huge, monstrous, insurmountable problem.
Sometimes W and I joke that we stay together because we’ve put so much work in and couldn’t imagine starting from scratch. When people tell us how good we are together, we are really appreciative. Because we agree. And because that was not always true.