Walls and Bridges: How Coupled Gay Men and Lesbians Manage Their Intergenerational Relationships

Article excerpt

Eighty respondents in 20 gay male and 20 lesbian couples were interviewed in depth to determine the nature and influences of their intergenerational relationships. Most respondents reported that their partner relationships were not affected by parental disapproval. Both the lesbian and gay male participants assertively defended the emotional, intergenerational boundaries around their unions. However, the gay men emphasized the importance of independence from their parents, whereas the lesbians sought harmonious intergenerational connections. The findings suggest how Bowen's ideas about intergenerational relationships may need to be modified to reflect the genderspecific ways coupled gay men and lesbians manage their family relationships.

Several schools of family therapy address the importance of functional intergenerational relationships to healthy heterosexual marriage. McGoldrick (1999a) describes how family-of-origin ties must be loosened so that adult children can establish their own families. Boszommenyi-Nagy and Spark (1973) discuss the necessity of prioritizing loyalty to one's partner over one's parents. Practitioners of Bowenian family therapy use the phrase differentiation of self to describe how an individual establishes autonomy while maintaining meaningful connections with his/her family of origin (Bowen, 1978). Individuals who are leaving their families of origin to begin their own families must establish intergenerational emotional boundaries that allow for connection as well as protection of the integrity of their new families (Kerr & Bowen, 1988).

Problems can arise when family pressure to remain close prevents members from developing the autonomy necessary to establish functional relationships outside of the family of origin. Bowen (1978) would consider such families to be struggling with fusion. Alternatively, fused family members might excessively distance or cut off from each other in a misguided attempt to separate. According to Bowen, unresolved emotional issues from cut-off, family-of-origin relationships are often projected onto spouses, resulting in marital strain (Kerr & Bowen, 1988).

The small amount of research available suggests a link between intergenerational relationships and heterosexual marriage. Frequent intergenerational contact (Burger & Milardo, 1995) and supportive relationships with parents (Lewis, 1989) have been found to be associated with affable marital relations. Conversely, parental disapproval can influence mate choice (Jedlicka, 1984), might impede the progression of a dating relationship to marriage (Leigh, 1982), and may be associated with criticism of and distrust toward one's spouse (Driscoll, Davis, & Lipetz, 1972). Adult children who were emotionally cut off from their parents have been found to be less satisfied and less intimate in their marriages compared with those who had maintained their relationships with their parents (Adorney, 1994; Dillard & Protinsky, 1985).

Parental reactions to the news that a son or daughter is gay may play an important role in the family relationships of lesbians and gay men. On coming out to their parents, surveyed lesbians and gay men have reported adverse reactions ranging from guilt and disappointment to rejection, verbal threats, and physical violence (D'Augelli, Hershberger, & Pilkington, 1998; "Results of Poll," 1989; Rothberg & Weinstein, 1996; Warshow, 1991). Although attitudes toward a son or daughter's homosexuality can improve with time (Beeler & DiProva, 1999; Ben-Ari, 1995; Cramer & Roach, 1988; Muller, 1987), parental disapproval can persist well after the initial disclosure (Ben-Ari, 1995; Warshow, 1991). In light of the importance of intergenerational relationships to heterosexual marriage and the strong likelihood of parental disapproval for a son or daughter's gay or lesbian identity, one wonders how gay men and lesbians manage their intergenerational relationships. …