Violence against LGBT people occupies an important space in the current news cycle in the wake of the most deadly contemporary mass shooting in the US, which unfolded at a gay club in Orlando. As crucial as it is to understand how homophobia works against LGBT people, we must also understand how it operates as a pernicious force within queer communities, where individuals live with internalized homophobia, shame, and stigma that affects our own self-worth and our partnerships.
It’s not surprising, in the context of a homophobic society, that it’s a bit taboo to discuss abusive relationships in queer communities: we work so hard for legitimacy; it feels very vulnerable to acknowledge that the relationships we work to have recognized sometimes are toxic. Still, it’s also not surprising that toxic relationships exist within queer cultures: we have not been supported in developing great mate selection skills, have needed to isolate or mask our relationships in order to maintain some social acceptance, and have found that places we might turn to for support, validation, skills, or, in the case of domestic violence or stalking, are unpredictable at best. Plus, of course, we are not immune from the relationship challenges that face straight folks, given that most of us learned our relationship patterns from straight family systems.
Lesbians and other queer women especially face challenges in creating happy, stable partnerships. As women, we are subject to the economic disadvantages of contemporary societies, and that, along with general inexperience with dating, women’s tendency to quickly bond through biochemistry, the sense that there are few single lesbians, and the rejection and isolation we often experience from our families of origin may encourage women to make commitments to each other quickly and without spending much time exploring whether a prospective partner is truly a good match. Indeed, in the rush to partner, lesbians may mistake behaviors that indicate a date will cause them serious trouble as romantic gestures that indicate true love.
For example, in my book The Wise Lesbian Guide to Getting Free From Crazy Making Relationships and Getting On With Your Life, I recount a “grand romantic gesture” that was a thinly veiled manipulation designed to evoke dependency and control. A lesbian had been dating someone new for a few weeks when the new date entered her house without permission, found her credit card bills in her desk drawer, and paid them all. Instead of ending the relationship then, the lesbian interpreted this “generosity” as a sign of her new girlfriend’s thoughtfulness, rather than as a sign of her disrespect for boundaries and desire for control. Soon, she accepted her girlfriend’s invitation to move in and found herself in an emotionally toxic relationship it took years to leave. One of the challenges she experienced was revealing to friends and professionals that she was being emotionally abused at home ---- her recognition that professionals might not take her seriously or know how to help, her concern about being more visible or making her girlfriend more visible as a lesbian in a small town, and her shame at having missed the early signs of abuse all contributed to how long she stayed in a toxic partnership.
What are some early signs that a lesbian may be dating someone toxic?
Here are a few:
1.”Love bombing.” While it’s natural to be happy and excited about meeting someone with potential as a mate, “love bombing” involves excessive contact, excessive adulation, and obsession. The target of love bombing may enjoy the attention and feel special as a result; as lesbians or queer women, those of us who are on the social margins may be especially vulnerable to this.
2. Boundary violations. How do we know if a person is engaged in manipulative love bombing or just enthusiastic? By asking them to slow things down or back off -- that is, by establishing boundaries. Toxic dates have little respect for boundaries and will argue against them and continue to violate them. Boundary violations also show up as violations of social norms: showing up unannounced, cyberstalking, calling your workplace without an invitation to do so, and doing anything you ask them not to do.
3. Manipulating sympathy --- playing the victim. Ironically, despite stereotypes of narcissists and other toxic sorts as self-aggrandizing, they often earn the affection of partners by presenting themselves as noble victims, appealing to the date’s desire to rescue – often by providing housing, money, or other forms of assistance long before it is appropriate to do so.
Of course, there are other signs that a prospective partner is toxic and not a good choice --- lying, stealing, emotional volatility --- but those may not be as obvious at the beginning of a relationship. In the example of the girlfriend who broke in to pay her new date’s bills, we witness the boundary violations and love bombing --- as well as the set-up for an end game that involved control through financial dependency.
What’s good preventive medicine for lesbians and other queer women who are dating and hoping to avoid toxic relationships? Making a commitment to getting to know a partner slowly, to paying close attention to how it feels to be with them, to seeing how their actions line up with their words, and to experiencing whether they take the time to earn your trust and treat you with respect and kindness can be extremely beneficial. The goal isn’t to forgo the fun of love, but instead to choose partners so wisely that relationships become an emotional sanctuary of joy and pleasure in a world in which LGBTQ people continue to face the daily invalidations of heterosexism and homophobia.
Thanks to the fine people at TalkSpace for their interest in lesbian/queer mental health issues. This essay was inspired by an interview with TalkSpace; you can read it at the link below: