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Gay men’s fears of long-term romance

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2008 - Winter


A psychoanalyst argues that the way gay men’s parents treat them affects their adult relationships.

The night in June 1969 that gay men fought police raiding the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village marked the beginning of wider acceptance of male homosexuals. Homosexuality has not been considered pathological by mainstream psychiatry since the 1970s, and in the years that followed, gay couples have begun to acknowledge their partnerships publicly.

“There’s much more social acceptance than there was 20 or 30 years ago,” said psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Richard A. Isay, M.D., HS ’65.

Many gay men are still suffering, however, said Isay. The main, though not the only, source of their distress, he thinks, lies in the ways their parents treated them as children. He believes that the social acceptance of homosexuality “has not filtered down to the way homosexual boys are raised.” Fathers tend to criticize or shun sons who dislike rough sports, play with dolls or otherwise prefer stereotypically feminine pursuits. Mothers who enjoy the sensitivity and shared interests of gay sons may lean too much on them, using them to fulfill their unmet emotional needs.

Isay believes that these dynamics can prevent adult gay men from forming long-term romantic bonds. “Boys may grow up mistrusting the love of another person and will find many other ways of finding the self-esteem enhancement that they missed in childhood,” said Isay. Many gay men seek affirmation not through an enduring, loving relationship, he said, but in cultivating large networks of friends, pursuing transient sexual liaisons, focusing on professional success and creating flawlessly appointed environments for themselves.

In his new book, Commitment and Healing: Gay Men and the Need for Romantic Love, Isay describes how therapy can help provide gay men with insight into the effects of childhood influences on the capacity to commit to a partner. In a book accessible to nontherapists and illustrated with case studies, Isay shows how gay men can recover from childhood wounds and learn to sustain committed monogamous partnerships. A clinical professor at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a faculty member at the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, Isay draws upon his experience as a Manhattan psychotherapist with mostly gay clients.

Isay published his first book, Being Homosexual: Gay Men and Their Development, in 1989, at a time when he was coming out. He was the first openly gay member of the American Psychoanalytic Association. His 1996 book, Becoming Gay, outlines the ways in which gay teenagers and adults develop self-acceptance.

Isay said that his new book has stirred up some controversy because he argues that gay couples who tolerate sexual adventures outside the partnership may do so out of an unconscious fear of closeness rather than a sense of liberation from traditional heterosexual strictures. “It runs counter to the prevailing doctrines of the gay community that maintain that our relationships are fine, more democratic and better than heterosexual relationships,” said Isay.

He hopes that his new book will help gay men to examine the patterns of their romantic relationships and perhaps seek the guidance of a therapist attuned to gay issues. He’d like parents to pay attention to the way they treat their sons. Ideally, he said, even when a son doesn’t act like a typical boy, “if both father and mother love him as they do their other children, if they value what he has to say about his attractions to others, then they can inculcate the value of love and can greatly influence how he forms loving relationships as an adult.”

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