Lesbian Couples

A Guide to Creating Healthy Relationships


By D. Merilee Clunis, PhD

By G. Dorsey Green

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Written by two experienced lesbian therapists, Lesbian Couples covers a range of topics—commitment ceremonies and marriage, living arrangements, work, money, togetherness and separate identities, coming out to family and friends, resolving conflict and understanding each other—and uses a variety of helpful examples and problem-solving techniques, drawing from research done on lesbian couples over the past decade. The book pays special attention to differences of race, class, age and physical ability, and addresses the issues raised when one or both partners are recovering from alcohol, substance, or sexual abuse. The book also addresses differences that lesbians may encounter in their relationships regarding such issues as butch-femme, transgender identity, bisexuality, monogamy, and s/m. Thoroughly readable and extremely helpful, with an updated resource guide, Lesbian Couples is a book that every lesbian will want to own.


When Seal Press asked us to revise Lesbian Couples, which was first published in 1988, we had no idea how much the lesbian and societal landscapes had changed since then. We knew that we had aged; we are now in our fifties and sixties. Dorsey has gotten divorced and started a new relationship; one son has graduated from college and the other has started (she was pregnant with her younger boy when we were writing the book in 1984). Merilee and her partner, Margaret, have celebrated their twenty-eighth anniversary, attended the weddings of both children, and welcomed their first grandchild into the world.
We had not realized how much we had unconsciously spoken from the perspective of the thirty- to forty-five-year-old age group in writing the first three editions. As we looked around this time, we identified different generations of lesbians. To help us address how issues might affect women of different ages, we divided them into three groups: those under thirty-five, those over fifty-five, and those in between. What emerged was a picture of (at least) three different world views—lesbian style. Hopefully we have done justice to these perspectives.
We tried to be aware of how race, class, physical and mental ability, and geographical location might interact with an individual's age (and when she came out) in creating her experience in the world. Each of us, then, brings our unique self into a relationship with an equally unique other. This is what makes relationships exhilarating and frustrating.
The first edition of Lesbian Couples now looks like a snapshot of lesbians in relationships in the mid-to-late 1980s. By nature, a photograph is two-dimensional, and in some ways we think the picture we created with our book was two-dimensional as well. It was a description of lesbian couples as we knew them to be. In the '80s, we needed pictures because most lesbians (and certainly most of mainstream society) did not know what communities of lesbians looked like. We only knew what our own lives were like. We needed reflections of ourselves and information about lesbians as a group. Now as we go to press in 2004—thirty-five-plus years after Stonewall, the symbolic beginning of the modern lesbian and gay civil rights movement—we wanted to provide more than photographs. We tried for more depth and complexity.
This edition of Lesbian Couples builds upon the third edition, which was less descriptive and more prescriptive than previous editions. This is partly because we are more opinionated and more willing to state our views. But it is also because we know more about relationships in general and lesbian relationships in particular. The last decade has seen an enormous amount of new research about couples: what contributes to their health and what helps them to improve when there is trouble. Print, movie, television, and computer media have also contributed more information and images of lesbians and our families. This is a good thing; however, public focus is still predominantly on white lesbians and therefore offers a limited picture. We continue to need more material by and about women of color.
There has been an explosion of resources for and about lesbians in the last fifteen years. There have been a few books through the years that explore relationships in general, but it is the diversity of topics that truly underscores the changes in society's recognition of lesbians and bisexual women. Sex between women, as usual, has received much attention, with Felice Newman's The Whole Lesbian Sex Book being a good example. Bisexuality, which used to be seen as a stepping stone to a real sexual orientation, is now viewed as a separate and valid orientation. Bilives: Bisexual Women Tell Their Stories by Kate Orndorff is one contribution to this growing body of information. As parenting has become more visible in the queer community, books geared toward lesbians, both as single and coupled parents, have become available. Our The Lesbian Parenting Book and The Queer Parent's Primer: A Lesbian and Gay Families Guide to Navigating the Straight World, by Stephanie Bull, are two examples of the different approaches available. A Donor Insemination Guide: Written for and by Lesbian Women by Marie Mohler and Lacy Frazer is as specific as one can get about lesbians' getting pregnant. Janet Wright expanded the discussion on parenting and families with Lesbian Step Families. Coming out has moved from how-do-you-tell-your-parents to Lesbian Epiphanies: Women Coming Out in Later Life by Karol Jensen. Disability is receiving more attention and titles as more people recognize the importance of the issue. And of course, any perusal of online or progressive bookstores provides plenty of wedding guides for lesbian and gay couples—general legal guides, along with the recent addition of books arguing specifically for the rights of lesbians and gay men to marry legally in the United States. Jonathan Rauch's Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights and Good for America is one example of the flood of books produced in the last two years. None of these books existed when we first wrote Lesbian Couples!
Lesbian novels and mysteries contribute fictional accounts of couples who try all sorts of ways to succeed in their relationships as well as in other areas of their lives. Movies, videos, and documentaries show lesbians, their relationships, and their children in a realistic light. Millions watched Ellen DeGeneres, of television fame, as she came out over an airport loudspeaker and as her personal life splashed over the pages of major magazines. Queer as Folk and The L Word brought us televised shows with a gay/lesbian focus, with lesbian couples on television becoming more routine, some even including children in their families. Rosie O'Donnell's coming out and subsequent adoption of children brought the reality of lesbian families into millions of homes. Daring for its time, the Hollywood film Boys Don't Cry brought transgender issues to a mainstream audience with the tragic story of Brandon Teena's murder. Lesbian and gay magazines and newspapers are sold in large and small bookstores. Newsweek and other mainstream magazines routinely run stories, some flattering and some not, about many facets of the lesbian, gay, and bisexual communities. The Internet has hundreds of lesbian and gay sites, allowing anyone with a computer and modem access to more information than any one person could possibly assimilate. We have come a long way from the depressing ending of Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, in which the heroine's gift to her lover is a heterosexual mate.
Society has matured in other ways as well. Many white people's understanding of racism has expanded to include awareness of their own white privilege. Individuals with more than one racial ancestry are asking for acknowledgment of their multiracial and multicultural heritages. Stepfamilies are beginning to receive the recognition and support they deserve. The AIDS epidemic has become less associated with gay (and lesbian) people and is seen more accurately as a global threat to everyone. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, regardless of personal opinion, have forced more American awareness of Islam and enriched the country's conversation in general about the relationship between religion and state. The American Disabilities Act has advanced the rights of people with disabilities to give them more equal access to employment, education, transportation, and housing. Lesbian couples who want their marriage or celebration of commitment recognized by a church or synagogue are able to do that in many areas of the country.
As we write this during the months leading up to the 2004 presidential elections, the country is engaged in a conversation about legal marriage for same-sex couples. The conversation is sometimes respectful and usually heated; it has polarized people from all areas of the country in an extraordinary way. The national debate began when legal marriage for same-sex couples became a reality in some provinces in Canada. Vermont then legislated civil unions and was followed by the Massachusetts Supreme Court, which mandated that same-sex couples in that state be allowed to marry. In California, the mayor of San Francisco issued an order allowing gays to marry and as thousands in San Francisco jubilantly lined up to do so, America saw real lesbian couples flashed across their television screens. Other cities, counties, and states are also wrestling with the possibility of legalizing gay and lesbian relationships. Whatever the outcome, it is clear that lesbian relationships are being taken more seriously than at any other time in our history.
Despite this progress, however, homophobia, racism, ableism, class bias, and sexism live on. A lesbian still has to work very hard to be seen as a complete human being and not just a sexual creature—and often a deviant one at that. Racism and cultural prejudice abound, making it difficult for many people of color and immigrants to claim a piece of the prosperity that the United States government maintains is available to all. Religious intolerance of homosexuality fertilizes hatred, which contributes to many acts of discrimination and violence. Just as we are demanding equal treatment from mainstream society, we need to hold ourselves and our communities accountable for behaving in ways that respect the differences among us.
Respect is, in many ways, the main theme of this book. Recognizing and accepting difference in your partner is fundamental to creating a healthy and satisfying relationship. Now that you have access to the many pictures of ways women can be coupled, you can use these images as a starting place for designing your own relationship. Ask others how they manage the differences and tough spots. We encourage you to take from our book anything that helps, use the resources, and create your own books, articles, support groups, rituals, movies, videos, or conversations.
Every chapter has been revised and some have been almost completely rewritten since we published the original book. We changed the order of the chapters and some of their titles to reflect what we hope is a more helpful progression of the topics and skills involved in developing a healthy and happy relationship. It has been very exciting to discover and think about what has changed in the last sixteen years. It has been a privilege to spend time together, with other women and with great written material, learning about these evolving communities of lesbians. We can't wait to see what comes next.
D. Merilee Clunis, PhD
G. Dorsey Green, PhD
Seattle, Washington
August, 2004

What Is a Healthy Couple Anyway?
One of the questions we asked in the first edition of this book was, "What is a lesbian couple?" In the 1980s this inquiry was about definition—how do we know when two people form a couple? We decided that lesbians are in a couple when they say they are. Lesbian thought has shifted from defining our relationships, and just surviving, to seeing ourselves as deserving to be in strong, happy couples. We are expanding the definition of what makes a healthy relationship even as we defend our right to be in one.
In the time since we wrote our first draft of Lesbian Couples in 1983, a lot of research has been conducted regarding what constitutes a good marriage. We will refer to this new information throughout the book. However, comparable as we are to our heterosexual counterparts, lesbian relationships are unique.
Lesbian couples are composed of two women, which means that both partners are similarly socialized: They both have been taught to focus on their primary relationship. Lesbians must always be conscious of homophobia and the damage it can do to individuals and couples. The lack of legal acknowledgment of same-gender relationships, in forty-nine out of fifty states, deprives lesbian couples of the societal support that opposite-gender couples take for granted. This includes the right to marry legally and the privileges that come with it, such as inheritance and insurance benefits. Another important difference between heterosexual and lesbian couples is that the women appear to value equality in the relationship more than other kinds of couples.1 These variances can translate into different kinds of chore and child-care sharing than might happen in heterosexual or gay male couples. Frequency of sexual contact also varies between different kinds of couples.2 Because of these disparities it is important to examine research data from married, heterosexual couples with caution. For example, does sexual frequency include intercourse, orgasm, and snuggling, or just intercourse? Does the research on divorce rates consider the privileges that come with legal marriage and societal support?
Often it's in our primary relationships that we discover the joy and exhilaration of loving women; it is here that we experience the magic and right-ness of being lesbian. Our relationships define us as lesbians to the world and to each other. It is in our romantic partnerships that we confront some of our greatest challenges—both unique and universal. Will she still love me when she sees me at my worst? Will my parents accept our relationship? Can I keep my heart open when she disappoints me? Is it safe to come out to my coworkers? Can we be unalike and both be okay? Will my children reject us? In large measure it's in our relationships that we learn who we are and become more of who we can be.
Couple relationships aren't for everyone. They are not a requirement for being happily lesbian. Some women decide that they never—or never again—want to be part of a couple. Others find that at certain times in their lives, other interests, goals, or activities take priority over being in a relationship. Still others prefer to be celibate or involved in multiple relationships rather than being with one person. And sometimes a woman may not meet anyone with whom she wants to have a relationship and may choose to put her energy elsewhere.
However, many lesbians live in a couple or would like to. We want to know how to choose good partners and create successful relationships. And relationships do take work, but it doesn't mean endless drudgery. Myriad goals and pleasures in life involve work, such as going to college, raising children, gardening, completing an apprenticeship, working on one's racism, meditation, running a marathon, and resolving conflicts with our partner. But it can be joyful work, done in a spirit of loving kindness for oneself and one's partner.

Why Are Relationships So Important to Us?

For many lesbians, our primary relationships play a significant role in our lives. We focus a lot of time fantasizing, analyzing, daydreaming, writing, worrying, and talking to our friends about them. And this doesn't count the time we actually spend with our partners.
We are drawn into relationships when we fall in love. We may then find that we love the person beyond that first rush of passion or, as sometimes happens, discover that sexual attraction follows the love of friendship. The Greeks named three kinds of love: eros, agape, and filia. Eros is the physical, romantic, lustful energy of love; agape is unconditional, undeserved love; and filia is sisterly love, what we feel for family. Lesbian relationships have components of all three. One type of love may predominate and others fade at different times in the life of a couple, but given time we can have a rich multidimensional love.
As human beings we desire both emotional and sexual intimacy, and we look to our partners for much of this. Because we are women, we have received strong cultural messages about the value of coupling, and we have learned to prize couple relationships. As lesbians in a homophobic world, we live with oppression, but we give and gather strength from the partnerships that validate our identity and nurture our self-esteem. Many of us want to create something bigger than ourselves. A good relationship can enable us to become something greater than two people. Part of what attracts us to, and makes us fight for, relationships is the transformation that can happen as we live over time as a couple. We are challenged to invent and maintain a "we-ness" that also invites us to grow and become more individually whole.

Achieving Intimacy

Intimacy is a special type of connection. When we are in an intimate relationship, we feel loved, understood, accepted, known, and appreciated. Intimacy comprises being close emotionally and sexually; it involves sharing thoughts, feelings, and experiences. It also includes negotiating differences and fighting. In the next few pages we offer an overview of intimacy, which creates the context for why lesbians value relationships. We'll explore normal tensions in relationships and how each partner brings strengths and vulnerabilities to the task of managing those tensions. In Chapters Three and Four we widen our definition of intimacy, and we return to intimacy, its development, and its maintenance throughout the book.
There is a natural flow of intimate connection in couple relationships that includes separateness, contact, and merger. Being separate is being apart, focusing on different things; contact is being together, focusing on the same thing; and merger is focusing exclusively on each other. It's common to feel anxiety as we move closer together and farther apart from our partners. Intimacy is the connection we can achieve when we are able to tolerate our anxiety as we move along this continuum of togetherness and separateness.
Differentiation is the ability to endure emotional discomfort enough to risk moving closer or farther apart—without any guarantee of how the other person will respond. It is a crucial skill for developing intimacy, and it helps us avoid the many ways we accommodate to each other to keep from being anxious. Eventually this accommodation may stifle us until we are chronically resentful or want to leave the relationship.
Sarah and Margaret always spent the New Year with Sarah's parents and siblings. Every year Margaret felt a twinge of resentment, but the idea of raising the possibility of doing something else so unnerved her that she buried the thought before it was fully formed.
Lee was surprised to hear herself once again telling Trish that she was willing to have sex. Lee had found that she was not present when they made love because she got bored. But she was scared to say anything to Trish.
Some lesbians have difficulty with intimacy because we fear we have to be close all the time, or that we'll hurt our partners if we pull back at all. We may think that being close means we always have to do what our partner wants or take care of her or be taken care of or always stay the same or never want what she can't or doesn't provide. Knowing that there is a natural ebb and flow of separateness, contact, and merger, and that no one place is permanent, can help partners give each other space. Trusting the process and recognizing what part of it we are in helps to calm such fears as, "I'll never get enough time to myself," or "I'll never get enough of feeling close." Some people want more space, while others want more contact and merger. These wants may fluctuate over time. Although couples often seem to be polarized—one person wants closeness and the other space—it is important to remember that each partner needs both and that anxiety creates polarity. When partners fail to recognize that they each want some separateness and some togetherness, they may feel stuck and unable to resolve their differences. Each woman's discomfort becomes directed toward the stance her partner has taken. Thus, each polarized position may become a personality flaw in the other partner and may be so uncomfortable to one partner that she thinks she needs to leave the relationship.
Twyla had had it with her partner's clinginess. Camille "whined" when Twyla called to say she'd be late from work. Twyla couldn't take any time for herself without Camille's overreacting. Twyla was beginning to think she should end the relationship and find someone who was more independent, the way Camille had been when they first met.
Ironically, it is often in the sexual arena of our relationships that we polarize the closeness and separateness feelings. Sex is one way of being close; indeed it is the most common place we feel merged. It also can add another dimension to couples' lives and to the ways they can be intimate. Like emotional intimacy, sexual intimacy allows partners to learn how to move toward each other. However, one partner may refuse sex more often than not and the other may become the frustrated initiator. This situation may cause anxiety because the lower frequency of sex can be construed to be rejection, disrespect, or lack of love. Consequently, some women may put up barriers to being close. They may push their partner away the moment that they want to feel close to her.
When we are in a long-term, committed relationship, sex can provide an avenue to enhance intimacy. It is another way to be seen and known deeply by our partner. When we invite sex, we risk that our partner will reject us or not be present for the connection. This risk always accompanies our invitation for intimate connection, and our fear of not being met often keeps us from reaching out to our partner. The gain, however, is the increased intimacy this connection affords us. We think it is worth the risk.
Intimacy grows with time. It takes a while to get to know and trust another person. Time spent together doesn't guarantee intimacy, but closeness over years does mean that a couple has the opportunity to share experiences and changes. "We grew up together" is one expression of this shared history. Often the women in a couple come to know each other more fully than they are known by anyone else.

Listening to Cultural Messages

Because of the way our society treats girls, as compared to boys, women are more vulnerable to feeling incomplete—of having a gap to fill. Traditionally, boys are told to "go for it," to be all they can be, while girls are encouraged to stay close to home, to curtail their own development in order to support someone else's, to be careful of the male "ego," and to be dependent. By the time girls are eight or nine, they know that eventually they are supposed to find someone and settle down for life. Even though women's interests and careers are taken much more seriously now than in the past, women in general are still expected to coordinate, or subordinate, them to marriage and children. As women, we are constantly deluged with messages that we need someone—a man—to feel complete. Long before we reach our twenties, most women will have started to look for our "other half." Much of what we do is designed to make us more desirable to that "someone" who will complete us.
How does this translate to lesbians who have chosen women as lovers? Quite directly. As girls we are assumed to be heterosexual. We receive similar messages, but instead of looking to a man for completion, lesbians look for a woman: Prince Charming becomes Princess Charming.
There are advantages and disadvantages to this cultural training and emphasis on relationships. One disadvantage is that we may neglect ourselves by overfocusing on our relationship. We may put a partner's wants and needs first and neglect our own. We may put too much energy into making the relationship a good one and not enough into personal growth and development. But there are also advantages: Women are raised to be more emotionally intelligent than men—that is, more sensitive to a partner's needs. Because most women value couple relationships, the women in a lesbian couple likely feel a responsibility for making the relationship work. Both may expect to give as well as receive nurturing and support. Lesbian couples may have the advantage that both partners are willing to invest time and emotional energy in the relationship.

Finding Support in a Homophobic World

We live in a society in which we may be disliked, feared, and even hated because we are lesbian, gay, or bisexual. These negative attitudes are called homophobia; when we, ourselves, believe them, they are internalized homophobia.
Suzanne Pharr, a feminist writer and activist, best articulates the bind that lesbians, gays, and bisexuals are in as we live our lives. "When we talk about homophobia, we are talking about that particular blend of . . . fear, dread, and hatred that works to keep homosexuals as a hidden (closeted) underclass of society, discriminated against, treated as deviants, sinners maliciously perverted, sick and abnormal. From those who hate us most, we receive the messages that we would be cured or killed; from those who are liberal and tolerant, we receive the messages that we must be quiet and invisible." 3 While homophobic messages may have changed in some large, urban areas, most lesbians are still confronted by these hateful attitudes.
In our daily lives we are faced with subtle and not-so-subtle oppression. Our couple relationships can be a place where we give and get support and energy to deal with the homophobia of the outside world. This need to support each other can pull a couple together, leading to the closeness and security of "you and me against the world." However, it can also strain a relationship. We can become emotionally drained. Or we may avoid expressing differences and working through conflicts because it feels too dangerous to risk losing our partner's support.

Creating Something Bigger Than Ourselves

When two people decide to be in a couple, they produce a new entity. This creation takes on a life of its own; the couple is different from each individual woman. Their apartment may look unlike their single living spaces did, and their friendship networks may change. Often couples make something outside of themselves: a child, joint business, or remodeled house. Thus, a couple is both an invention of its partners and an inventor fueled by the couple's energies. Sometimes the process of creating brings the two women together in the first place, such as two actors working on a play. Other times the women have been partnered for years before they produce something as a team; indeed, most parents fall into this category.
Amy and Sonia met while creating a Web page together at work. Their collaboration was so enjoyable that they began dating.
Pearl and Barb had been lovers for thirty years when they decided to open a bed-and-breakfast. It was a dream come true for both of them and gave a lift to their relationship as well.

Experiencing Transformation

In their research, Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee found that the experience of being happily married over time transformed heterosexual partners. 4 Women and men they interviewed talked about how they became different, fuller human beings because of the invitations and demands of their spouses. They developed aspects of themselves that were dormant or unknown.


On Sale
Dec 21, 2004
Page Count
368 pages
Seal Press

D. Merilee Clunis, PhD

About the Author

D. Merilee Clunis, Ph.D., and G. Dorsey Green, Ph.D., are both psychologists in private practice in Seattle. Together they lead workshops for therapists who work with lesbian couples. Their papers on lesbian couples have been presented at the American Psychological Association’s annual meetings. In addition to Lesbian Couples, they have co-authored The Lesbian Parenting Book: A Guide to Creating Families and Raising Children.

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