As a gay men’s specialist therapist for over 29 years (in 2021), I’ve always enjoyed being active on social media and interacting with my therapist colleagues there. Recently I saw a great post from my local Los Angeles colleague on Instagram, Armine Asatryan, MA, LMFT, who is a specialist in anxiety and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. She has the handle, “therapywitharmine” on Instagram and is located in Santa Clarita, CA (844) 606-0679.
Armine’s post gave a list of items that, in her careful observation and experience, are associated with unhealthy relationships. These were:
1. Insult 8. Disrespect
2. Blame 9. Hold Grudges
3. Compete 10. Criticize
4. Distrust 11. Keep secrets
5. Resent 12. Demand
6. Deny 13. Ridicule
7. Threat 14. Abuse
To be balanced, she also listed the traits associated with what Armine would call healthy relationships. These were:
1. Respect 8. Communicate
2. Encourage 9. Validate
3. Trust 10. Appreciate
4. Support 11. Compromise
5. Compliment 12. Forgive
6. Safe 13. Value
7. Boundaries 14. Love
In previous articles and podcast episodes, I’ve discussed the building blocks of a healthy relationship, as applied to gay men, as a combination of Commitment, Communication, and Compromise. I’ve also discussed making your relationship work on four levels, the Emotional, Physical, Domestic, and “Managing the Other” (coping with stressors that impede on a relationship from the outside in). I’ve also discussed some of the risks for breakup of the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” (here). I’d actually like to revisit Armine’s list of healthy relationship traits another time, and address the unhealthy traits here.
Over many years of practice specifically with gay male couples, I’ve thought about these often. There are just times when I want to say to a client I’m working with, about his relationship or dating dynamics, simply that “healthy relationships don’t do that.” I think sometimes the guys I work with, either in couples or individually, have so few gay male friends in couples or aren’t discussing important, intimate topics in the relationships of their friends, that they lose perspective that there are just certain things that “aren’t done” if you expect your relationship to endure, to be happy, or both.
Let’s look at Armine’s list more closely:
1. Insult – Sometimes in gay relationships, there can be an aspect of, “Oh, it’s just us boys here” and “boys talk a certain way.” This means that without realizing it fully, we can get into disrespecting our partner/spouse. When we get angry (especially if alcohol or other substances are involved), we can get a little too “familiar” with language and go into insulting our partners with name-calling, cussing, or very aggressive phrases like “shut up” or even “fuck you.” This is not healthy. Healthy relationships don’t do that. We have to be able to be in a relationship and while not feeling like we’re speaking the Ladies Auxiliary in 1940, but to still “remember our manners” and just have a boundary that there are certain words and phrases that we don’t say if we expect our partners to remain, well, our partners.
Solution: Instead of insulting your partner with some kind of crass name-calling or statement used in the heat of the moment in anger, use the classic exercise of “I” statements. “I feel very angry right now because of what happened earlier at the bar tonight.” You have a right to express your feelings, so that you communicate times when you feel hurt, insulted, abandoned, or disrespected. But you don’t really have a right to verbally abuse your partner for some kind of perceived slight. You can discuss your complaint without getting anywhere the insult area.
2. Blame – Instead of telling your partner, “You messed up and here’s why,” take responsibility and “own” your part of a conflict, while also being assertive enough to ask your partner to take responsibility and “own” what you feel is their part of it. Perhaps the best kinds of conflict resolution processes are when each side owns its own part of the conflict, while also explaining their complaint to the other person.
Solution: Don’t blame as much as you just explain your feelings, such as, “I felt ignored when you didn’t introduce me to your former coworkers that we ran into at the bar last night. I own that I should not have stormed off and gone home, but I’d like to ask you to please not ignore me like that when we run into people whom you know, but I don’t. Please introduce me and make me part of the conversation.”
3. Compete – For many years, I’ve said that one of the things that character same-sex (especially male) relationships is that even though, as two men, we are not rival suitors competing for the affections of a woman (like gorillas in the animal kingdom), gay men still have a part of their minds (brains) that knows we are with another male, and we compete. If your partner comes home and announces he got a raise at work today, we’re tempted to go into work the next day and ask for a raise. If our partner announces that he’s lost 15 pounds running and got hit on by the cute checkout guy at the grocery store (isn’t there always one?), we immediately start looking for our old running shoes and throw out our Hostess Ding-Dong, mid-bite.
Solution: When we are with our partner, we want to support their successes without feeling like we have to immediately respond to and “match” what they do. We might be inspired by their dedication, hard work, and effort, but it should be just that –inspiration – and not like some kind of “contest” where we see our partner as an “adversary” that we have to vanquish so that we always maintain the upper hand. We want to go for mutual collaboration, not “one-ups-manship.”
4. Distrust – I see this one a lot in practice. Many guys contact me and want couples therapy or relationship coaching in order to “rebuild trust” that has somehow been lost. Distrust (aka “mistrust”) can take many forms, such as asking your partner “challenging” questions for them to account for their whereabouts, or going through their phone to “check” just who they’ve been talking to (my article on “resisting the urge to snoop” is here). It’s actually very common (and I think quite harmless) in this day and age for gay men to have some kind of “sexting” habit going on (my article on how to “relax, it’s just texts” is here). The gay apps have become too pervasive these days for anyone (including our partners, or ourselves) not to get drawn into some form of online flirtation. It’s the same thing with money issues; some partners insist on having access to and “overseeing” their partner’s individual bank accounts or Venmo account to see how they are spending, when, and with whom, scouting for anything they disapprove of. These intrusive types of actions don’t speak to trust in a relationship, they are indicative of wanting to control, manipulate, and subjugate our partner, which are never positive traits in a relationship. This is separate from discussing whether (or not) to have a monogamy agreement, or what the ground rules of Consensual Non-Monogamy (CNM) or an “open” relationship would be. That’s a different topic altogether, especially when it comes to how those agreements are arrived at, sustained, or mutually adhered-to.
Solution: We have to learn to tolerate the anxiety that we don’t always know our partner’s whereabouts, activities, or motivations. Maybe they don’t want time alone away from you to “cheat,” but to visit a store alone to buy a birthday or holiday gift for you. Maybe they don’t want to have an affair or leave you, but they want to have some privacy of their own, because being in relationship means that you don’t give up all of your individuality. This can include hobbies, work, some friendships, and certainly each guy’s own relationship to porn and masturbation, which exist even in “healthy” relationships.
5. Resent – Similar to Compete, we have to develop the healthy communication skills to never agree to any set of “rules” in your relationship that your heart (among other organs) isn’t into. Don’t agree to be monogamous, to refrain from sexting with others (see above), if you really don’t want to. It’s better to bite the bullet and sit your partner down to discuss issues that bother you openly, rather than to keep quiet in that passive, un-assertive, self-abandoning way, and then hold resentments.
Solution: Ask yourself if you feel any resentments currently toward a partner. If you do, there’s your agenda for a discussion with them sometime very soon. Clear the air. You have a right to air your grievance, even if your partner might need to outline their defense, explain the situation further, or ask you to compromise. Then, find solutions through creative, constructive compromises that you both can live with, without lingering hurt or resentments.
6. Deny – If your partner levels with you, and calls out on something they know you did that upset them, don’t deny it unless what they are saying is really untrue. Denial is a primitive defense, as they say. If they confront you, discuss it. Tell them your own rationale for doing what you did, even if they think that reasoning is illegitimate or problematic. Denial is usually a panic defense against the humiliation and shame of being “caught” in something we regret doing. People tend to lie as a defense against that embarrassment and shame. But we have to reframe that into “owning” that sometimes everyone acts outside of even their own value system. People make mistakes, particularly if they are under the influence, angry, in a rush, have conflicting feelings, holding resentments, hopeless, or acting out of anxiety.
Solution: Instead of just denying something, maybe you need to explain what was going on when you did it. If something your partner confronts you about is true, even if “just” (I use that word cautiously) their feelings, cop to it. Be an open book. If they remain angry, ask to make an explanation, or put your behavior in some kind of rationale or context, even if it seems, ultimately, like a flawed logic. Hindsight is always 20/20 vision. Everyone has lapses in judgement, and we just hope they aren’t too outrageous (such as crime). Work toward solutions based on facts, not on distortions or denials. Your relationship will be better from this point forward if you deal with direct honesty and the reality of the feelings/thoughts/opinions/values of both of you.
7. Threats – Threats are primitive, low-level, crass communications. In some cases, they are illegal; other times, they are just aggressive, manipulative, mean-spirited, or cruel. Don’t threaten as a defense against what they are saying/doing with you. Threats come from an emotionally desperate place, as a defense against your losing control, or becoming overwhelmed and convinced that you can’t handle this conflict without desperate, extreme actions. Yes, you can. Get a grip on yourself. Use emotional, affect regulation skills like deep breathing or a short silence to really collect your thoughts on how to respond, not just react to what is happening.
Solution: Express your feelings instead. Instead of saying, “If you don’t quit your excessive drinking, I’m out of here,” (although there can be a place for that in some situations), instead say, “I feel your use of alcohol has gotten out of hand, and I need you to understand how that harms me and others around us, and for us to discuss options for solutions.”
8. Disrespect – I’m an old movie buff. I remember watching a clip of Lee Minnelli, the widow of (bisexual) director Vincente Minnelli (former husband of Judy Garland, and Liza’s father), talking about Vincente’s movies like “Meet Me in St. Louis” She called him “Mr. Minelli” in the interview. Bette Davis called Joan Crawford “Miss Crawford” on the set of “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” before Crawford was replaced by Olivia de Havilland. Calling people, even spouses or close co-workers, by their last names was a sign of respect. While I don’t recommend that you call your partner by his last name, I can see a case being made for the idea that modern interpersonal relationships of many kinds suffer from a lack of basic respect these days. Think of ways you might disrespect your partner: Do you fail to be honest with him? Do you fail to apply tact, diplomacy, discretion, and compassion to the way you talk to him? Do you overrule his rights to things like patience and privacy in your house? Do you create any awkward situations with members of his Family of Origin? If you really reflect, you might find some examples where you’re not always respecting the supposedly Most Important Person to you in the world. If you can’t think of any, ask him; I bet he gives you some examples.
Solution: Remember that no matter how long you’ve been together, you want to provide (and ask for) an atmosphere of basic respect and dignity exists in your home, for everyone, including each other. Find gentler ways of stating confrontations, complaints, or requests. This helps avoid the “erosion” of love and “warm fuzzy feelings” in your house over time. It preserves a loving atmosphere of dignity, safety, and comfort for the long term.
9. Hold Grudges – OK, just don’t. If you feel a topic has not been talked through, and you’re holding resentments (see above), then you need to sit your partner down and revisit the topic until you’re satisfied that you can clear the air and ultimately “let it go,” Elsa Ice Princess. Reflect on if you hold grudges against your partner, which you’re probably not nearly as good at hiding as you think you are. If you reflect and find that you’re holding grudges, sit your partner down and bring them up, and ask for what you need: a compromise, an apology, an explanation, an absolution, something.
Solution: Identify your grudges, identify the solution you want to ask of your partner, negotiate some kind of “terms” for compromise or agreement, and then wipe the slate clean. Grudges are corrosive and antithetical to love. Let them go.
10. Criticize – Try not to criticize your partner. In my previous article, inspired by the work of couples therapists and researchers, Drs. John and Julie Gottman, criticism is one of the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” of relationship end. Instead of identifying what your partner is doing and letting them have it for all the ways that he’s wrong, speak in those “I’ statements about your needs instead.
Solution: Don’t say, “You’re such a lazy bum. I have to do all the work in this house.” Say, “I’ve been feeling especially tired lately because I feel like our household chores are not evenly divided between the two of us. Can we discuss some ways we could balance these out?”
11. Keep Secrets – While I am first one to advocate for a certain amount of privacy in relationships, particularly among two men, who are raised with male privilege to get their way in society and not be told what to do by others, I think it’s also true about the old AA saying, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” Learn the difference between a healthy privacy (like keeping the contents of your journal or your individual therapy sessions private from others, including your partner) and “secrets” that are inherently dysfunctional and potentially corrosive, such as your secret relationship to alcohol, other substances, habits (like gambling), or dysfunctional money issues (like hoarding or impulsive spending).
Solution: Often, keeping secrets (or even just plain lying) is a psychological defense against the emotionally intolerable state of feeling embarrassed, ashamed, or unsafe. Trust that your partner can “handle” even news that they’re not going to be thrilled about. He can handle it. If you have differences on a topic, you identify and express your respective feelings, and then work toward any conflict resolution by forging creative, practical compromises that work.
12. Demand – As stated above, men (particularly White men) in our society are not used to being told “no.” They are not used to anyone making demands on them in a way that would interrupt their assumption of male privilege (which is there, even when we don’t realize it). Demands you make of your partner create a hierarchical, boss/employee or master/slave dynamic (and not in the good, kinky way!).
Solution: Reframe any “demands” you make of your partner as “requests”, and lay out your rationale for making the request. Advocate for what you want via compromise and persuasion, and the occasional “arguing your case”, instead of trying to get what you want by being a tyrant or winning a power struggle with coercion. Seduce him into seeing it your way, and realize that the agreements that you forge together breed the least resentment and are the most enduring.
13. Ridicule – Similar to the word “contempt”, which the Gottmans, above, regarded as another “horseman of the apocalypse”, you want to avoid a caustic, mean-spirited, sarcastic, superior humiliation or ridicule of your partner, just because he disagrees or doesn’t give you what you want. You have a right to express your feelings, values, preferences, and goals, but not to humiliate a fellow human being, especially the person you claim to love.
Solution: Recognize when a situation or topic of discussion is important to you, and raises your anxiety or fear. Resist the urge to fight “in the gutter” by ridiculing our insulting. Instead, state your case for what you are asking of your partner by giving your explanation and rationale of why something is important to you, in the context of your experience, culture, or value system. Avoid lashing out if you’re frustrated, and use an assertive statement of the benefits for you both if you do things a certain way.
14. Abuse – This is the ultimate. Abusing your partner verbally, emotionally, financially, socially, and certainly physically is the wrong thing to do and is often illegal in addition to being unethical. Normal people don’t abuse others.
Solution: If you know that you do this, try to avoid just plain shaming yourself, and instead recognize a need for expert help. People who have abused others can learn not to, such as through local Batterers Group therapy or other programs designed to help people with the behavioral art and science of affect regulation, impulse control, anger management, and alternative behavior. If you were abused growing up, parts of your brain have learned to mimic the behavior in ways you probably don’t even realize. It was a behavioral, visual, auditory, kinetic teaching, not necessary a verbal teaching. These influences can be powerful. Stress, depression, disinhibition (from substances), desperation, trauma, abandonment, and fear can all fuel abusive behaviors. It’s not necessarily your “fault”, but it’s not your victim’s fault, either. You can take responsibility for the important need to change behavior without going into shame, which often makes it worse. And don’t rely on yourself to recognize what is, and is not, abusive behavior. That’s usually for your victim to decide (within reason; there can be unreasonable situations where manipulation or splitting or gaslighting behavior is present, particularly if you have a partner with the Narcissistic, Borderline, or Antisocial personality disorders). This topic is complicated; don’t try to address it alone; get professional help from a qualified therapist and likely both individual and group treatment (not necessarily couples therapy, which is usually contra-indicated in abusive situations).
Just being aware of the popular “unhealthy” traits that therapists like Armine and I see in practice can be helpful to avoid them. It’s also helpful to be aware of the healthy traits, and try to incorporate those. Healthy relationships are some kind of combination of avoiding unhealthy factors while cultivating healthy ones, like so many ways that we guide our lives for maximum functioning.
If you need help or support for making the most of your relationship, or even knowing yourself before you even enter a new relationship, please consider therapy or coaching. My colleagues and I at GayTherapyLA.com are here to help you on your way to navigating these traits. Email me at Ken@GayTherapyLA.com,or call/text my cell at 310-339-5778 for more information, or to make an appointment for customized support.