Strategy One for a Happy Lesbian Relationship: Accept Yourself
One of the most important ways to build a strong foundation for your relationship is self-acceptance. This is not limited to lesbian couples. It also applies to heterosexual couples, and mixed orientation couples, poly folks, and biracial couples. Having a strong happy relationship requires that both partners to the relationship nurture their most outstanding self. This begins with self-acceptance.
In non-traditional relationships, there is a higher potential for societal rejection, social disapproval and family or parental disappointment. Therefore, it is essential to accept yourself as a lesbian before you can expect others to accept this about you. We teach others how to treat us.
To be accepted, we must accept ourselves, our choices, and our relationship. Every choice you make that discounts your relationship will chip away at its integrity, one piece at a time. You cannot, for example, create a happy lesbian relationship if you are not comfortable in your lesbian skin.
If you don’t accept yourself and your attractions to members of the same-sex, then you are at a very high risk of eventually rejecting the one you love because he or she represents what you are not able to accept about yourself. As is true for other relationship configurations.
We cannot build a strong foundation of love on fear and self-loathing.
Building a Happy Lesbian*** Relationship
Building a happy relationship is a conscious effort. It doesn’t just happen. This does not mean it has to be work, or it has to be hard. Ideally, it will not be super hard, especially if you are smart. This Happy Relationship Series is designed to help you increase your Relationship IQ. Look for a new strategy, lesson, or concept every week.
Love is a given.
(***Note: Because I work with more lesbian couples than heterosexual couples, do not be fooled by my emphasis on lesbian relationships. I am speaking to all couples. It’s just that, rather than have lesbians adapt to hetero-focused language to fit their relationship, I am offering heterosexuals an opportunity to have fun with this process of substitution and adapting during this series, which my blog series: 52 Strategies to Build a Happy Lesbian Relationship.)
Love is not a strategy for a happy relationship, it is essential. Love is to a relationship what lungs are to a human body. If you expect to have a healthy human body, you assume it comes equipped with lungs. Love comes standardly with relationships. This is not something to learn, strive for or improve. It just is.
How you exercise love, the way you use love for good, and your ability to express your love, now that’s a whole other story. One we will explore over the upcoming weeks and months.
Whether you are a heterosexual, gay, lesbian, or mixed orientation couple, this information will speak to you. Relationships can vary greatly, yet some of the most essential ingredients to a happy relationship apply to all couples.
Cheers to building strong happy relationship building muscles!
A book review by Michele O’Mara, PhD
Barash, David and Judith Eve Lipton (2001). The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People. New York, NY: Owl Books.
“Aspiring monogamists are going against some of the deepest-seated evolutionary inclinations with which biology has endowed most creatures” (1), according to Zoologist David P. Barash, and his wife Judith Lipton, a psychiatrist. And this book is determined to illustrate exactly why this is true. In a sometimes humorous, sometimes seemingly self-indulgent exploration of animal behavior that is mostly focused on birds and insects, the authors cite numerous research studies to illustrate their theory that humans, like animals, are predisposed to extra pair copulations (EPCs). This is the fancy scientific term for having sex with someone other than your mate.
As the authors prepare to unfold their observations about how human monogamists are climbing an uphill battle, they clarify that this book is designed to illustrate what is natural, not what is right or wrong. The exploration throughout this book is not about what should be, it is simply about what is.
Thanks to DNA fingerprinting, the lens used to observe animal behavior has significantly improved and animals previously thought to be monogamous are not so. Monogamy is divided into two categories: social and sexual. Social monogamy exists “if they live together, nest together, forage together, and copulate together” (8). Sexual monogamy requires sexual fidelity, also known as intra-pair (or in-pair) copulation (IPC).
The currency of evolutionary success is based on successful reproduction. To understand how this relates to males and monogamy, the authors introduce various associated strategies employed by males throughout the animal kingdom such as: sperm competition, frequent copulations, mate guarding and parental investment.
Sperm competition speaks to the effort put forth by males to secure a female whose egg he can fertilize, leading him to reproductive success. Endless sperm and limited eggs create an unbalanced picture – basic supply and demand dictates the inherent competition among men to get their sperm to fertilize eggs. The authors provide many examples of how males compete to copulate with a given female. For obvious reasons, frequent copulations increase the chances of reproduction, and it is theorized that this contributes to the frequent desire to copulate among males.
Mate guarding is another strategy used by males to improve the odds that they are successful in fertilizing their female, and furthermore to guarantee that the offspring they are raising are their own! This tactic prevents his mate from straying, as well as preventing other males from gaining access to her. An interesting side note about mate guarding that is correlated with human behavior is the notion that “poor-quality males are generally more concerned with mate-guarding than are their high-quality counterparts, and for good reason, since females whose mates are less desirable are more inclined to seek EPCs” (35).
When it comes to parental investment, there are many variations among animals and humans. Resources such as time, energy, risk taking, childcare, protection, beauty, skills, strength and more are combined to determine one’s value. This makes just as much sense with humans too. The greater your strengths, resources, and beauty, the more leverage you have to attract a similarly valuable partner. As for sperm which is readily available in large quantities, however, its value pales in comparison to “the big, fat, energy-rich mother lode of nutrients called an egg” (17). The authors suggest that because of this, males are positioned to compete with one another for access to the much rarer eggs, hence the sperm competition.
Interestingly, “the greater the male’s secondary sex characteristics, the less his contributing” (50). The authors go on to say, “It is as though desirable males know they are desirable, and so they are likely to shop that desirability around; by the same token, those ‘lucky’ females who get to mate with such studs find themselves less lucky when they are stuck with most of the household chores” (50). The comparison is drawn to less desirable men, and it is suggested that those less endowed with good looks actually make better fathers.
Before we get too carried away with all of this male gallivanting, let’s be clear that females are none-too-innocent themselves. For a long time, females were considered the opposite of males, and evolutionary biologists envisioned females desiring monogamy. However, “evidence has been accumulating, fast and furious, that females are not nearly as reliably monogamous as had been thought” (58).
If reproductive success is the fundamental biologically-based motivation for males to stray, what’s the motivation for females? The authors suggest a handful of reasons including: fertility insurance, to avoid inbreeding, a predilection for quality, and to maximize the benefits of sperm competition, material rewards, recruit care and protection of offspring, to gain toleration of young when different troops interact, and possibly to pave the way to a stronger prospective pair-bond.
Fertility insurance is a simple concept. The more sex she has, the more sperm she’s exposed to, and the stronger the likelihood that she will reproduce. In order to avoid inbreeding, the authors suggest females may seek out strangers that are less likely to have any genetic association, thus reducing the possibility of inbred offspring. The search for quality sperm is thought to be the motivation for multiple mating, and it involves not only the search for the most attractive, healthiest, and strongest male, but it also takes incorporates what is called the “last male advantage.” The female may mate with her partner, along with many others and typically the last male she copulates with has the greatest advantage for a successful fertilization. This also allows her to maximize the sperm competition, pitting the strongest of the strong males against one another, and saving her the effort of having to determine for herself which one is the best. The notion behind this is thought to be that the one who succeeds is going to help her create offspring that will be as successful in doing the same so that her reproductive success, and quality, remains high for years to come.
Material rewards are another suggested motivation for multiple pairings. The authors cite a study of Red-billed gulls, stating that “Females who are well fed during courtship resist all EPC attempts, and they also remate with their partner the following year; on the other hand, females who had been poorly provisioned are especially likely to divorce in the future and are more likely to submit to EPCs” (91-92). It is thought that some females seek multiple EPCs so that they can cast a wide-net of protection for their offspring, leading many males from all over to question whether or not the offspring is his, and thereby increasing the odds of protection, and at a minimum reducing the odds of harm.
The pursuit of a stronger pair-bond is another motivation suggested for females who engage in EPCs. Because there is an advantage of having two parents over one, the argument that a female would seek an alternate pair-bonding to improve her social situation certainly makes sense.
Why, the authors query, does monogamy occur at all? Their conclusions are varied. One suggestion is that monogamy leads to better and more effective parenting. Another thought is that it may be a response to sperm competition by males, so that they can reduce the risk that another male will fertilize his female’s egg. They also suggest the possibility that monogamy is a solution to men fighting over women. Monogamy may be the result of men negotiating how to divide access to women. In general it appears these arguments lead toward the suggestion that monogamy was greatly influenced by the “cultural homogenization that came with Western imperialism and the Judeo-Christian ethic of monogamy” (146). In the end, however, the author admits that with the question of why monogamy exists at all, “the short answer is that no one knows” (132).
The book also reports some interesting facts about monogamy and the double standard for men. G.P. Murdoch cited 238 different human societies around the world, and monogamy was enforced as the only acceptable marriage system in just 43. Gwen Broude researched 116 different human societies and reports that 63 permit extramarital sex by husbands, and only 13 permit it for wives. However, Kinsey and colleagues discovered that slightly more than 25 percent of adult females in the United States were unfaithful. Given this double standard, it is ironic that in terms of sexual capacity, women are physiologically capable of having more sex than men. Furthermore, a woman can be impregnated without experiencing a hint of pleasure, whereas it is likely (though not necessary) for a man to orgasm upon ejaculation, thereby rewarding him for his efforts with pleasure.
The last, and possibly shortest, chapter of the book draws a relatively simple conclusion that while all of the evidence points to why humans are biologically oriented to polygamy/polyandry, we humans are gifted with a large, discerning brain that allows us something all of the animals cited in the book do not have: choice.
In summary, this book was very informative; at times entertaining and it introduced me to some new and valuable perspectives on the evolutionary imprints on our sexuality. The first several chapters were weighted with very detailed research on animals. For a layperson such as me, it is hard to make the connection between the sexual behaviors of a fruit fly and those of a much more complex creature such as a human. This perhaps is more my weakness, than the books, however.
I appreciate the authors’ goal to simply observe the evolutionary trail and impact on human sexual behavior as it relates to monogamy, and to set out to do so without judging the outcomes as right or wrong. In this way the author succeeded. I would imagine this book has some cross-over appeal for the mental health community as well as zoologists and social scientists. It covers a lot of bases (no pun intended).
However, it was very disappointing to see the observations limited to male-female copulations. The fundamental premise of this research was reportedly to unearth the myth of monogamy. Specifically, however, this body of work only explains the sexual behavior and evolution of heterosexual monogamy, not sexual monogamy in general. The inclusion of same-sex pair-bonding between animals such as penguins, whiptail lizards, dragonflies, and others who are known to engage in same-sex pair bonding, would lead to a more accurate and informed view of our whole evolutionary history.
In the final chapter, the conclusion emphasizes the ability of humans to make choices. Unfortunately, this chapter seems to propose only two choices: to be monogamous or to be unfaithful. The reality is that we live in a culture that includes a multitude of coupling arrangements, some of which include the expressed desire to engage in a polygamous arrangement whereby partners support and encourage EPCs as an option for one, both, or all partners to the relationship. Because animal research relies on observation and interpretation, I would think it is nearly impossible to determine the motivations, and expressed agreements (or lack thereof) among these animals about their copulation. Humans, however, are easier to study in this way, yet there is no discussion about the choices humans makes to engage in multiple-pair arrangements and how successful or not those are. There is no mention, in fact, that this is a choice some humans do make. This seems a significant oversight in a book determined to dispel the myth of monogamy.
At the end of the day, this book has offered very interesting perspectives that provoke much thought about human sexual behavior and issues of monogamy, while simultaneously remaining judgment-free about exactly what to do with this information. That has been no easy feat.
After studying 566 gay male couples over a three year period, Colleen Hoff of San Francisco State University discovered that roughly fifty percent of gay male couples choose to be non-monogamous. Blake Spears and Lanz Lowen are a great example of how this works. Spears and Lowen started dating in their mid-twenties with the agreement that they will keep their relationship open. Thirty-four years later the couple is still going strong. In fact, this duo credits their relationship success in part to their decision to keep their relationship open.
Lowen and Spears have taken their interest in non-monogomy a step further by studying 86 non-monogamous, long-term (8+ years) gay male couples. Their research reveals that forty percent of the 86 couples started out with agreements to be open and have maintained this status, while the remaining sixty percent of the couples took an average of 6.5 years to open their relationship. The average length of relationship for the 86 couples in this study is 16.2 years.
While I’m not interested in promoting or discouraging open relationships, I do find it fascinating to consider what makes this arrangement work for so many gay men. Of the 86 couples in the Spears/Lowen research, only one couple is raising young children. This does not surprise me. Raising children is a time and energy consuming experience that will unlikely leave much room for extra play, or an additional romantic relationship. In an email exchange with Hoff, she explained to me that while they did collect data on parenthood for the couples in their study, they did not separate that data out to examine the relationship between monogamy and parenthood.
Another I also wonder, does the open option work better for men than for women? Is this really an issue that is rooted in sexual orientation, or one rooted in gender? Traditionally men are thought to be better at separating sex from emotion, which is helpful in an open arrangement. As Spears and Lowen point out on their website:
We found many couples had a somewhat compartmentalized perspective and approach to outside sex. “It’s just sex” – a release without meaning, quite separate from the relationship.
The statistics on fidelity among men and women suggests that monogamy is a struggle for heterosexuals too. According to Peggy Vaughan, author of The Monogamy Myth, “Conservative estimates are that 60 percent of men and 40 percent of women will have an extramarital affair.” That’s a whole lot of cheating. To clarify, infidelity is deceptive non-monogamy, but an open relationship is non-monogamy that occurs with the consent and knowledge of both partners.
Dan Savage, chimed in on the topic recently during a guest appearance on The Joy Behar show, saying:
I believe men can be monogamous. But I believe that it’s a difficult struggle. You know, when you’re in love with someone and you make a monogamous commitment, it’s not that you don’t want to sleep with other people; it’s that you refrain from sleeping with other people.
The culture says if there is love there is no desire for others and that makes people–essentially puts them at war with their own instincts and leads to lies and deceit because you’re lying and deceiving yourself.
In my own practice, having worked with more than 1,000 lesbians over the last decade, I would be very surprised to discover that lesbians choose non-monogomy at a rate of fifty-percent. While my sample of gay male couples in my practice is much smaller, it is large enough to support the notion that fifty percent of gay male couples open their relationship to outside play, or poly relationships (additional, consensual, romantic relationships).
Some advocates of gay marriage are discouraged by findings such as Hoff’s and Lowen/Spears’s. Maybe if we all focused a little more on how to make our own relationships work, and less about how other’s are going about it, we would all end up with more meaningful and satisfying relationships.
What works best for you? At the end of the day that’s all that matters.