Gay relationships and attachment theory
It is just us in our little matchmaking bubble, or is Attachment Theory pretty hot right now? Right? No…? Well, it’s always a hot topic at Lemarc Thomas Matchmaking. But when it comes to gay matchmaking – finding and keeping love – how much do we know about gay attachment patterns and needs? Can we just copy and paste what we know about straight couples to gay relationships? Are we all the same or are we different? Luckily for us, in their paper, Attachment Theory and Gay Male Relationships: A Scoping Review, Robert Allan and Augie Westhaver have reviewed the academic literature on gay relationships and attachment theory for us, and below we’ve extracted all the juicy findings. We are more alike than we are different, but there are some super important (and rather interesting) cultural differences that must be understood and respected.
Attachment theory in our view, is one of the most significant develops in Psychology that everyone needs to know to have better relationships (and be better parents) – and we feel like, with the help of books like Attached and Hemligheten, Attachment Theory is finally coming off the academic shelves into common knowledge. Not to worry if you don’t know about attachment theory or need a refresher – the paper gave such a great summary that we could not resist paraphrasing it below for you before we get into the findings about how gay men attach.
Attachment theory says that we need to form close bonds to keep us safe and protected as infants, and this gives us evolutionary advantage. Based on how parents loved and cared for us we create a picture of ourselves and other people which we use to negotiate the world around us – I am lovable? Am I safe? This “internal working model” continues into adult life.
Early research identified three main attachment styles in babies: secure, avoidant, and anxious-ambivalent.
“A secure attachment style emerges as caregivers respond predictably and warmly to the child leaving the child in a position to trust in the availability of their caregiver. With this trust, children are more inclined to explore the world around them.”
“If a child learns to perceive their caregivers as emotionally distant and physically unavailable, then they may develop an avoidant attachment style. Avoidant children are less likely to rely on, and distance themselves from, their caregiver in times of need.”
“If children see their caregiver as unpredictable or unaware of their needs, they are inclined to develop an anxious-ambivalent attachment style. Anxious-ambivalent children tend to cling to their caregiver, make greater demands on them, and are less likely to explore the world around them.”
Anxious attachment = discomfort with emotional closeness.
Avoidant attachment = others won’t be there in times of danger, stress, or ambiguity.
We go on about this all the time because these become prototypes for your relationships and are particularly important in romantic relationships.
Securely attached adults are able to respond positively to others, and the world around them by turning to others when in distress. They have strong conflict resolution and communication, are more able to selfdisclose because they are comfortable with intimacy and have greater self-esteem. They are generally comfortable with being close and interdependent with their partner.
Avoidant adults are less comfortable with closeness and interdependence.
Those who are anxious-ambivalent fear losing their partner, need to be closer to their partner, and experience frustration with not being close enough.
We find it super interesting how people in each attachment style view the world:
Secure: view themselves as fundamentally lovable and others as normally accepting and responsive
Preoccupied (anxious): view themselves as unworthy of love and gives others a positive evaluation. They are preoccupied with relationships because they seek self-validation through others.
Dismissive (avoidant): value themselves as worthy of love but who are inclined to think of others as uncaring or rejecting. They are inclined to protect themselves from relationships to avoid disappointment.
Fearful (anxious-avoidant): see themselves as unworthy and expect that others will be uncaring, rejecting, or unresponsive.
The science of gay love – what has research on attachment and gay relationships been focused on?
A lot of the research on attachment theory has focused on straight couples, not so much on us gays. The research paper blames this on heterosexism.
Allan and Westhaver reviewed 55 articles and dug out the following themes in relation to attachment theory and gay male relationships.
1 – Add gays and stir: when it comes to attachment theory, fundamentally, gays and straights are the same – we have the same attachment dynamics (outlined above) going on in childhood with our parents, which continues into our adult relationships.
2 – But us gays, we are a bit different. Heterosexism, homophobia and coming out impacts how we attach and may lead to different attachment dynamics depending on gay men’s unique experience.
3 – Attachment narratives – Homophobia, heterosexism, and homonegative messaging negatively impacts romantic relationships for gay men.
4 – “Monogamish” relationships and attachment dynamics. Gays might be breaking the mould with non-monogamy – it’s unclear. But it’s not necessarily linked to avoidant attachment like in straight couples.
1 – Add gays and stir: when it comes to attachment theory, fundamentally, gays and straights are the same
The literature supports that, fundamentally, we (gay men and heterosexual couples) are more alike than we are different when it comes to attachment dynamics.
The problems LGB people face, are rooted in the same relationship struggles everyone faces.
“Some of the predictors of relationship satisfaction that same- and different-sex couples share include: intimacy, mutuality, quality of communication, humor, shared interests, fidelity, dependability, constructive conflict resolution skills, and shared power” (pg. 304).
2 – But us gay men, we are a bit different.
Whilst we are all the same, we have differences. Fundamentally, gays and straights attach in the same way, but there are ‘cultural’ differences.
There is a very clear (and very interesting in our opinion) difference between gay and straight men. Whereas straight men’s attachment patterns are mostly influenced by their early caregivers, gay men’s attachment patterns are also influenced by their friendship group – our chosen family whom we build our gay identity with.
By the time gay men start exploring our sexuality, we have received a lot of homonegative messages. This shit affects how we see ourselves, others and how we show up in the world. But then, in the coming out process, our gay crew/ networks become a safe base from which to explore. What’s awesome is that new narratives around attachment are developed – like a second chance to develop a picture of self and others as fundamentally lovable.
Oh, the importance of our gay family!
Coming out activates the attachment system. It makes sense that things get shaken up when one risks rejection from loved ones by saying, “I am different, I’ve learnt that the way I am different is wrong, but do you love and accept me anyway?”
Sadly, those who are insecurely attached may avoid the stress of exploring and developing their gay identity – such as attending a gay community event or coming out to loved ones. With an insecure attachment, others are seen as ‘unreliable’ so it is hard to count on them for support. This then deprives the insecure attached of those important resources for dealing with negativity and developing a positive gay identity.
Parents’ reactions to coming out are also important, but there is little research on this. Supportive fathers were associated with less attachment anxiety. Supportive mothers were associated with less anxiety and avoidance.
Another difference for gay men to be considered is that both early childhood experiences and experiences with adult minority stress may impact their attachment narrative.
Something that we see as positive is that attachment fluctuates over time. About 30 – 35% of gay men change their attachment style ratings. Which means even if we have insecure attachment styles, we can shift them and built secure gay relationships!
3 – Attachment narratives – Homophobia, heterosexism, and homonegative messaging negatively impacts romantic relationships for gay men.
Below are some of the research points Allan and Westhaver noted:
- Avoidant and anxious attachment is associated with internalised homophobia, shame, guilt (Sherry 2007), internalised homonegativity, identity confusion and difficult process (Wang et al 2010).
- If one is struggling with internalised homophobia, they are likely to have negative internalised views of gay relationships (Mohr, 2008).
- Insecurely attached people are more susceptible to jealousy and to have unhelpful responses to jealousy in their relationships. (Mohr, 2008)
- Two secure people in a relationship are less likely to engage in destructive responses such as neglect, when dealing with conflict
- Gay men may overattach or overseparate. We tend to cling to or avoid relationships to cope with social stigma.
- Gender-role norms have an impact on attachment strength in gay relationships. Mohr (2008). Male couples expect more autonomy than female couples. Feeney and Raphael (1992)
- Carnelley et al. (2011) – Gay men whose mothers reacted positively to their coming out were less anxious in their romantic relationships.
- Mohr – attachment avoidance reduces a person’s ability to deal with challenging circumstances such as heterosexism.
Like straight people, for gays, our childhood experiences with our parents can predict our romantic attachment styles in adulthood. At the same time, the coming out process can change our attachment patterns Mohr (2008). It is super important for us gay men to find our people – supportive networks within the gay community.
4 – Gays and their “monogamish” relationships
Obviously if you are going to look at what researchers are exploring in gay relationships, the theme of non-monogamy is gonna show up.
In gay relationships non-monogamy is seen as part of the cultural landscape. And whereas in straight relationships it’s taboo and associated with avoidance of commitment, gays could be showing how it’s done.
As non-monogamy is normalised in gay relationships, there are more resources for thinking about and acting on negotiated nonmonogamy.
In straight couples, avoidant attachment is typically associated with less relationship commitment and greater sexual experiences for men. However, research found no evidence of gay men in open relationships being avoidantly attached.
In fact, gay male relationships are the only couple type that report equal satisfaction, whether the couple is monogamous or not.
Other research, however, shows that when there is moderate to high anxiety in the relationship non-monogamy is negatively associated with relationship satisfaction – like our straight counterparts.
Some research showed that gays in closed relationships reported higher relationship quality.
So we are not entirely sure yet on the whole monogamy thing. We, the matchmakers, think the more open-minded we become on different relationships needs and types the better. Then comes the education and resources to decide where your boundaries are and to be able to explore within them.
Mind the Gaps!
The researchers point out that there are gaps in the academic literature. Socio-political factors for example:
“What happens to a young boy’s attachment narrative when he begins to have an inkling of a same-sex attraction while repeatedly hearing about what is wrong with having those feelings? How do adult gay men navigate their way to healthy relationships with repeated exposure to minority stressors? What are the physical and mental health implications of being repeatedly exposed to information and experiences that tells one it is wrong to explore their adult romantic attachment needs?”
The researchers points out that academic literature looks at gay men as a “monolithic whole… as if gay men are not also racialized, do not also come from all ethnicities, are not religious, do not have various forms of gender expression, and so on.”
They go on to say that:
“The attachment narratives of gay men are not only affected by the minority stressors associated with being gay but also the inter-cultural realities that make those minority stressors different for gay men across a variety of factors”.
The gay matchmaker’s conclusion
In matchmaking, we are often reminding people that gay people in relationships are more similar to straight people than we are different – so it’s great that the research supports this. We are also mindful of the cultural differences that impact gay relationships. The coming out process is a huge one. Gay men risk rejection from their loved ones in expressing who they are. But how wonderful that our friendship groups during this period can help us form a picture of more secure attachment. And we have certainly seen this in our matchmaking interviews with gay men looking for love. Some have shares stories of difficult childhood experiences, yet in moving to London, Stockholm or whatever other city they chose, they found their gay friend nest, and in that a secure base to explore and build a secure self-image. The world totally needs to be exposed to more examples of awesome gay relationships, of all types. The socio-political space has improved for gay people so much, but we still have further to go, especially when we step outside of our gay friendly western city bubbles. Gay relationships have broken the rules to show us new paths. It is important not to group all gays as one of the same. Some want marriage, some don’t. Some want babies, some don’t. Some want monogamish relationships, some don’t. We have to work out what our values our, what type of relationships we want/ need and dare to build what is right for us as two (or more) individuals coming together to build a relational unit.