Relationship education for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) couples

Relationship education for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) couples

7 July 2015
Relationship education for LGBT couples

Outlines modifications that may be necessary for relationship education to be appropriate for LGBT couples, and provides suggestions for therapists.

This article is part of a series on relationship education and counselling.

Relationship education aims to teach couples knowledge and skills to enhance their relationships. Efforts to enhance the appropriateness of relationship education for a diverse range of couples has led to modifications of existing programs for specific populations, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) couples. The predictors of relationship satisfaction are similar in heterosexual and LGBT couples; therefore much of the relationship education content is relevant to LGBT couples, such as enhancing communication, managing conflict, and promoting intimacy.

Although little research has examined relationship education for LGBT couples, here we outline modifications that may be necessary for relationship education to be appropriate for LGBT couples, and provide suggestions for therapists wishing to enhance their competence working with such couples.

Removing heteronormative bias

  • Existing relationship education programs are designed for male-female couples, with videos, vignettes, and workbooks featuring only heterosexual relationships. LGBT couples are unlikely to identify with such programs, and vignettes of LGBT relationships should be used in relationship education when working with LGBT couples.
  • Terminology such as ‘wives’ and ‘husbands’ is often inappropriate, and the term ‘partner’ is preferred, particularly in Australia where same-sex marriage is not currently available.

Modifications for LGBT couples

  • LGBT couples often experience challenges expressing the meaning and significance of their relationships to friends, family, and colleagues. Helping couples understand and manage the influence of external factors such as discrimination and prejudice on their relationships can be useful.
  • The extent to which each partner is comfortable being open about their relationship with others, and public displays of affection can be an important focus, particularly where there are discrepancies between partners in level of comfort. Examining each partner’s position and how they negotiate these issues is important.
  • Non-monogamous relationships are more accepted in the LGBT community, particularly amongst gay men. Therapists should not assume couples are in a monogamous relationship, and discussion surrounding the rules and arrangements for non-monogamous relationships may be important for couples involved in non-monogamous relationships.

Therapist competence in delivering RE for LGBT couples

  • In a similar vein to working with culturally and linguistically diverse clients, therapists require the necessary knowledge, attitudes, and skills to work effectively with LGBT clients. It can be useful to educate LGBT couples about both internal and external sources of psychological and relationship distress, particularly in the context of living in a heterosexist environment. This may form an important psychoeducational component to relationship education. It is therefore important that therapists have an understanding of such issues.
  • Both heterosexual and LGBT therapists should consider their own heterosexist biases that result from living in a heterosexist society, particularly implicit assumptions about the relationships of same-sex couples. Examples of common implicit beliefs are that gay male relationships are unstable, or that relationship dissolution is less distressing in same-sex relationships.
  • It is beneficial for heterosexual therapists to educate themselves about LGBT relationships, culture, and life to prevent the couple needing to educate the therapist. Therapists might, for example, read LGBT magazines, watch LGBT documentaries and movies, and talk to LGBT people about their experiences.

Further reading and resources

Pepping, C. A. & Halford, W. K. (2014). Relationship education and therapy for same-sex couples. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 35(4), 431-444, doi: 10.1002/anzf.1075.

Whitton, S. W., & Buzzella, B. A. (2012). Using relationship education programs with same-sex couples: a preliminary evaluation of program utility and needed modifications. Marriage & Family Review48(7), 667-688, doi: 10.1080/01494929.2012.700908

The feature image is by Josep Ma. Rosell, CC BY 2.0.

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Chris Pepping

Dr Chris Pepping is a Lecturer in Clinical Psychology at La Trobe University.

W. Kim Halford

W. Kim Halford is Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Queensland and a registered clinical psychologist.

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