Secrets and shame can seem like the Vert landscape of couple psychotherapy. At LoveRelations we work with couples from all walks of life – married, living together, same sex, mixed race, none of the above. Many come and speak about “lack of intimacy” or “loss of connection”. Our job as relationship psychotherapists is to make partners feel safe enough to scratch the surface of their relationship.
The secrets are often here. “I still see an ex-girlfriend,” says one customer. “I watch pornography all the time at work and at home. I am no longer aroused by ordinary sex, ”says another. The secret is made and kept to preserve the relationship it is now undermining.
But what if the secret is more than what we do? What if the secret is who we are and it is considered too shameful and too harmful to build a relationship? We have been impressed by working with many customers who struggle with an aspect of themselves that is full of shame and secrecy.
Robert and Sarah are in their mid-forties. Both have a successful career in the broadcast media and have been living together for nine years. Sarah wants to have children and formalize their relationship in some way. Robert says he is confused whether “Sarah is the one”. There was injury and confusion.
Robert has affairs with men. “Not always,” he says in his one-on-one therapy. “But I need sex with men to give me the intimacy and attachment I can’t feel with a partner, no matter how much I love them.”
Robert doesn’t want to lose his relationship. Nor can he imagine a life without having relationships with men. “How can I commit to one person if I have to give up 50 percent of myself,” he asks. Still, he doesn’t like the term bisexual and doesn’t identify himself as heterosexual or gay. Robert is ashamed of his secret.
Labels may not be important, according to American writer and LGBT activist Dan Savage, but he claims: “Most adult bi-sexuals, for whatever reason, get into gender relationships. Statistics support his claim. The massive LGBT survey by PEW Research in 2013 showed that 84 percent of self-identified bisexuals in a steady relationship have a partner of the opposite sex, while only 9 percent are in same-sex relationships.
The reasons for this are diverse. Although there is a lack of research on whether bisexuals choose relationships that appear “direct” to the outside world, there is no shortage of research showing that bisexuals live under uniquely strong pressure in both the LGBT community and the heteronormative community .
While statistics could offer some comfort to Robert, he remained shamed to normalize his sexual fluidity. In his one-on-one therapy sessions, Robert insulted himself that he was neither a gay nor a heterosexual man. He also called himself a coward because he feared what his colleagues and friends might say if they discovered his attraction to men.
Many therapists require full disclosure. We know some relationship therapists who work with a “behavioral contract” – it’s okay to have same-sex attraction, have a fetish to cross – regardless of what is known as behavioral aberration, but customers don’t have to go through a contract with their partner.
Maybe that helps some couples. In our work at LoveRelations, we often encourage couples to discuss and formally explain what constitutes fraud or crossing borders in their own relationship.
Working with Robert and Sarah has challenged us to look more sympathetically at secrets in a relationship. Secrets are a poorly adapted way of dealing with shame, and shame is corrosive to self-esteem, relationships with others, and most importantly, relationships with oneself.
Most people seek solidarity, but to be connected, we have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and to be seen, really seen by someone else. Life is often lonely for the bisexual man or woman. They believe that they are only one piece of information from being left by the closest people in their lives. Being “gay” is not an identity you want to adopt. They do not feel very comfortable in the heterosexual community, in which they have to work on their thoughts and behaviors in order not to be discovered.
How does psychotherapy help a couple like Robert and Sarah? Our belief – based on the years of experience we have gained with couples – is that we first gently explore shame and secrecy. What can one partner hide from the other? Where’s the shame that is inseparable in all of this? Is it a behavior or an interaction that contradicts the relationship itself? Or is it an aspect of the customer’s identity associated with secrecy and denial?
For Robert, he needed some psychoeducation. He had to see that many men experience same-sex attraction in partnerships with women. Robert began to realize that there are a large number of British citizens who do not identify as being heterosexual. Data released by the Office of National Statistics (“ONS”) in 2017 shows that over 1,026,000 people in the UK identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual – an increase of almost 12% over the previous year.
There is still little concrete information on the number of bisexual men and women living in heterosexual relationships or marriages. In Robert’s one-to-one psychotherapy at LoveRelations, he began to understand his attraction to men, along with his desire to be with Sarah. Robert began to understand that the non-binary states he occupied were anything but unusual. During this process, he reported that part of the shame was gradually subsiding.
Shame and secrecy destroy relationships and make intimacy and acceptance impossible. While Robert and Sarah still have a long way to go as a couple, Robert is preparing to speak to Sarah and share something about who he really is. And we have learned more and more about the complexity of people and their relationships.
All names have been changed.
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