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Coping with Stressful Families

Families have a mythical place in our hearts, minds and cultures.  My sister and her husband, loving parents to their three kids, have a woodcarving in their home that proclaims, “FAMILIES ARE FOREVER.”  I’ve sometimes wanted to ask her:  Is that a promise or a threat?

The truth is that for gay folks, families are often not forever – at least not in the manner that we might hope or have expected.  Relatively few of us are living where we were born for instance; we are separated by many miles from the familiarities of home.  Some of us have close relationships with our biological families.  For others, however, those bonds have been strained or severed.

Gay men experience families in a host of ways, but it seems that there are some similarities.  For some of us who felt “different” from an early age, the secret of our homosexuality caused us to want to show a cheerful, lovable and successful face to the rest of the world.  (Psychologists call this a persona – an assumed identity that we perform like a character in a play.)  Many gay boys adopted a persona which has been called “best little boy in the world,” after a book by the same title.

Coming out means letting go of assumed roles and false selves in favor of owning our true identities.  Families which value honesty and in which love is genuine and unconditional may find that a son or daughter’s coming out is a surprise, but one with which they can cope.  Families in which appearances or rigid moral or religious rules are more important are much less able to accommodate this new information about a family member.

In these latter families, arguments may become intense and members of the family may end up feeling very wounded.  Family units which are adamant in not allowing a gay member to be himself or herself will become toxic and suffocating for their gay kin.  In these instances, a mature gay man will need to make decisions about how best to cope with these pressures in a way that preserves his personal sense of integrity.

This is a difficult step for the best little boy in the world.  Standing up for yourself in a way that puts you at odds with parents or others in the family may feel disrespectful and uncomfortable – and certainly unfamiliar.

It is possible to be lovingly assertive without becoming aggressive.  It’s difficult to do this when you are feeling disrespected and hurt by those whom you love and hold as special in your life.  Parents who refuse to acknowledge the reality of a son or daughter’s same-sex relationship may unintentionally force a confrontation at times such as family reunions, holidays and similar occasions.

If a relationship with parents or siblings is to be healthy for a gay man or woman, it will need to be based upon mutual respect.  If that respect is not present, we face difficult choices about what to do.  It is not possible to maintain the comfortable fiction of a close-knit family when you are being asked to deny your primary relationship or the truth about your life.

Some families are so toxically rigid that they disown their gay kids. This is very sad.  Even if we learn to joke about it to try to minimize the pain, the hurt and anger are still there.

Talking with friends about these feelings and issues can lessen the sense of isolation and shame that sometimes accompany them.  If you need more help, consider seeing a psychotherapist.

About John

I have been  licensed by the State of Georgia as a professional counselor for more than 25 years.  My areas of specialty are relationships, intimacy, sexuality, anxiety and depression.  My passion is helping people build happier lives and stronger relationships. 

I know it isn’t always easy to talk about problems.  My approach to counseling is nonjudgmental and compassionate.  If you have questions, I welcome the opportunity to talk with you about working together.

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Whether you've worked with a therapist before or are exploring counseling for the first time, you probably have questions.  It is important to have the information you need to make a good decision when selecting a therapist.  I welcome your questions -- about your specific situation, about me or about my approach to therapy. Making things better can start with an email, or you can call me at (404) 874-8536.