Stages of Gay Relationship Development

 

McWhirter and Madison (1984, 1987a, 1987b) have provided couples therapy for many gay couples and have interviewed over 150 male couples over the past 5 years. They conceptualize gay relationships as consisting of six stages.

McWhirter and Madison begin their discussion of gay relationships by discussing the climate in which gay relationships develop. They explain that

"Heterosexual couples do not grapple with issues about roles, finances, ownerships, and social obligations in the same way as gay men do. The heterosexual couple that was concerned about acceptance by their mutual families was exceptional, whereas this was the rule for homosexual couples.... Heterosexual couples lived with some expectation that their relationships were to last "until death do us part," whereas gay couples wondered if their relationships could survive. Heterosexual couples have a wide variety of models for their partnerships -- Adam and Eve, Romeo and Juliet, Ozzie and Harriet, Kramer and Kramer. Gay men have only the same heterosexual models, including their own families, which they may try to emulate but find unsuitable.... Non-gay people rarely question the rightness or wrongness of their sexual orientation, but at some point gay persons do." (p. 3)

It should be noted that Coming Out is not a single step, like high school graduation, or even a "clean" stage by stage progression. Often progression to one stage is temporary and regression to an earlier stage follows. Often one may be "Out" to friends but not to family. Often one may be satisfied with oneself but unable to find and maintain intimate relationships, thus preventing further growth.

What follows is a short summary of McWhirter and Madison's (1984) six stages of gay relationships. It should be noted that couples may form while the individuals are at any of the given stages. The individual members of the couple may also be at different stages of the coming out process.

Blending - Stage 1 - Year 1

This first stage in a couple's development entails the "unification" of the couple into a single unit. Each is very happy to have the other and to no longer feel isolated and alone. The couple spends most all their time together, experiences high limerence (romantic love), show high sexual activity, and attempt to equalize the relationship. This equalization process serves to help the couple negotiate responsibilities, rules, mutual goals, individual strengths and weaknesses.... It can be a very difficult time for couples, in that the two members of the couple are socialized in very similar ways. Males are supposed to be decision makers, bread winners, and dominant. Two men may have a hard time giving up control, negotiating responsibilities, learning to rely on and support each other, and being able to show each other their strengths as well as weaknesses.

Nesting - Stage 2 - Years 2 and 3

This second stage is characterized by homemaking, finding compatibility, declining limerence, and ambivalence. Homemaking serves to represent their commitment to each other. Finding compatibility requires accepting and learning to live with each other's differences, personality styles, needs, and goals. Issues of control, power, autonomy etc. can play an especially important role at this point. The loss of limerence (or the "end of the honeymoon") can result in a more realistic view of the relationship and can cause a weakening of the relationship or of the members' commitment to the relationship. This may result in some ambivalence, depression, or jealousy. Internalized homophobia, models about how relationships develop, isolation from role models, ideas about how couples act, what couples should do and not do... all come into play here.

Maintaining - Stage 3 - Years 4 and 5

This stage is characterized by the re-emergence of the individual, establishing traditions and customs, dealing with conflict, and taking risks. The members of the couple may re-assert their individual needs and deal with the conflicts that will result. The couple does not have the traditions provided by dating, engagement, marriage, and religion, and has to develop their own. They may settle into traditions around holidays, may wear rings, may deal with the issue of monogamy ... and increase the stability of the couple. Each member may express interest in new activities or hobbies that do not include the other, make friends outside the couple without the other, and make career changes or development. Each member may take risks by expressing something that they dislike about the other. This involves the risk of hurting the other, losing the relationship, and of admitting that one is not everything to one's spouse. The couple learns also to deal with disagreement, conflict, problems, and "standing differences of opinion." The couple may get through these hard times with the support of family, which McWhirter and Madison (1982) note, may only come after the couple has been together for three or so years.

Building - Stage 4 - Years 6 through 10

This stage is characterized by the settling of the last stage and the feeling of "dependability." The couple establishes the independence of the individual partners, but also reaches a new balance of dependence/ independence. They are now able to collaborate towards newer goals and desires, such as career building or pooled financial ventures. One partner who did the cooking for several years may turn the job over to the other partner and go back to school. This stage may also be marked by a comfortable complementarity, a decreased need to process every issue and discuss every decision, and the ability to "know what the other is thinking" in a conversation. This may also be detrimental if the communication process breaks down or if members make unwarranted assumptions about the relationship.

Releasing - Stage 5 - Years 10 through 20

In this stage the couple trust each other completely, after realizing who they are and who the other person is. There is no desire to "change" the other one. Close friendship and companionship are the main characteristics of this stage, as well as higher relationship quality (Kurdek, 1989). Money and resources are no longer shared so much as they are simply owned by both. Each member gives themselves freely to the other. The couple may however, begin to find life with each other as boring. They may begin to take each other for granted, may sleep apart, may find little pleasure in their accomplishments, and the individual members may experience the "mid-life crisis." However, after resolving this stage, the couple may move into the next stage.

Renewing - Stage 6

The could be called "the retirement" stage of the relationship. The couple has achieved adequate financial security and now has time for each other. As they move toward "old age" together issues of health may become important. Each individual may be concerned with his own health as well as the health of the other. Old friends may die at this stage as well. Issues of productivity, accomplishment, and meaning in life may become important. It should be noted that McWhirter and Madison compiled these stages before 1984, when AIDS was beginning to be identified in hospitals. Issues of health, dying, financial security, and loneliness become even more important during this stage in the 1990's. Lower self-esteem and depression may exacerbate already present feelings of estrangement from family (Lang, 1991). Issues and conflicts in this stage of the relationship conform to Erikson's "Integrity versus Despair" stage of psychosocial development.