Equality Crept Into The Wedding

family-76781_640My brother in-law’s family of origin is two gay men — my husband and I — or, at least that’s how he symbolized us at his wedding.

Over the course of our thirteen years together, my husband and I have found ourselves to be the novelty “wild card” at weddings, including our own; the image of our togetherness often evoking some mix of discomfort, fear, awe, and/or the hope of change yet to come. But as we both read verse during my brother in-law’s ceremony — the only ones asked to stand and represent him in this manner before the hundred or so guests — it struck me that change has arrived. We had the privilege to be recognized not only for what we were but for who we were: a married same-sex couple and, quite simply, his immediate family.

The past decade has taught all three of us a lot about family units, my husband and his brother having lost their mother, along with the loss of several other relatives between us, in that time. Family units can develop deliberately or accidentally, forming out of need as easily as they form out of want. They shift, morph, lose and gain parts, and can revitalize entire relationship systems through processes of adaptation.

┬áMy husband embodied this adaptation while toasting his brother and new bride with the gravity of a parent, the teasing of a sibling, and the sharp reflection of one who has shared in great loss and in the rebuilding of life with great hope. The flame of our family unit burned strong before relatives and friends that my husband, his brother, and I have made efforts to cultivate relationships with since their mother’s death–including faces they hadn’t seen in two decades or hadn’t even met before that day. Our identity as a family was clear and was only made clearer by my brother in-law’s choice to keep us front-and-center.

Perhaps more importantly, the guests recognized us as the groom’s primary family exactly as we were. Gone were the days of disguises or omissions, gone the circa 1996 hijinks of The Birdcage, in which a gay couple attempts to deceive their son’s fiance’s family into believing one of them is a woman. My new sister in-law’s entire extended family approached and embraced us, eager to meet and connect with those closest to the groom. (“We hear you’re great cooks!”) My husband’s cousin introduced her four year-old daughter to us using the word “husband” as effortlessly as if she had said “Disney.” My grandfather-in-law, a lifelong Republican who now suffers from dementia, couldn’t remember where he was, but he did hug me when he saw me, laughed with recognition, and remembered my name.

Regardless of how the Supreme Court responds this summer in the DOMA and Proposition 8 cases, marriage equality has already been woven into the fabric of our culture so intricately that no laws — and no amount of fear or hate — can unthread its effects. Families are forming, transforming, shrinking, growing, and sometimes staying the same, with a great deal more choice, recognition, and acceptance than ever before. Same-sex spouses can be spotted as the first in line for the groom at art deco altars, and as the last to say bon voyage to the newlyweds on a radiant Sunday morning-after. I know this because it happened to us at an unforgettable wedding last weekend. My husband and I are no longer his brother’s immediate family, of course; as I said, families change. That mantle now passes to his lovely wife, and our generation–with all of its beautiful varieties and evolutions–gains another happily married couple.

To Be, Or To Be “Well”: How Therapy Works

A guy walks into a therapist’s office — sadly this is no joke — and says, “I just read an article in the New York Times, and I’ve got some questions. What do you know about my condition? What’s your success rate with people like me? When will I get well?”

More and more, psychotherapists are fielding such questions due to the recent onslaught of articles proclaiming that short-term “evidence-based” practices — e.g., Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT — “work” better than long-term psychodynamic treatments. The bottom line is, there is “evidence” supporting the efficacy of both. But I don’t intend to go there, or to define “CBT” and “psychodynamic” for the many people have no idea what the terms even mean; to do so would only fan the flames of the Republican vs. Democrat-style wars between the two. Instead, I’d like to discuss how therapy works (all therapy) as opposed to why it works, and how specific people, such as those in the LGBT communities, are affected when we presume to know what makes someone mentally and emotionally “well”.

First, what does “well” even mean? We can all agree that our bodies are unwell when attacked by the common cold, cancer, or even ourselves (e.g., self-mutilation or starvation). But who determines the wellness of the boy who feels more like a girl, or the girl who wants to marry a girl, or the girl who feels ostracized for lacking “sex appeal”? One such arbiter is presumably Harriet Brown, the latest writer (and non-mental health professional) published in the Times this month, who asserts that motivational therapy techniques based on “scientific research” are “working,” while clinicians who are “good with people” — as opposed to being “scientific” in their approach — are wasting your time. The idea of wellness underlying Brown’s op-ed piece is summed up in comparisons she makes between psychotherapy and buying a car: Brown quotes a psychologist who cites studies indicating that less than half of psychotherapists use “motivational techniques”, and who reasons, “You wouldn’t buy a car under those conditions”.

This is a conveniently tidy analogy, but the wellness of a car is objectively determined and the emotional wellness of a human being is, obviously, not. Cars have malfunctions, not subjective experience. They don’t have to conceal their sexual desires fearing discrimination or physical attack. Cars do not privately suffer from identity conflicts or body dysmorphia. (I’ve yet to hear of an anxious SUV that feels like a Mini Cooper on the inside.) If “well” for us means our “parts” are in order, who gets to decide what our sexual, emotional, and gender-expressive “parts” should look like? Who can say if we’re running properly?

When a client enters my office I don’t know them until I know them, and knowing a person requires time, patience, and the wisdom to dispense with assumptions. I may use “evidence-based” directives at the beginning of a treatment with someone who can’t focus, or washes her hands until they bleed, or starves himself (and may refer them for medical treatment, if necessary). But even if such a client were to increase focus, reduce hand washing, or begin to eat, is that where treatment ends? Is she well? Engine fixed, exterior painted, let’s sell this car?

Let’s say a lesbian-identified client with severe anxiety enters therapy. We could use scientific research to explain why there are more straight-identified women in the world than women like her. We could also find studies that explain why she might have anxiety as a result. We could even prescribe evidence-based techniques to help reduce her symptoms. But would any of this validate her unique experience or give her space to discuss how she lives, how she struggles, and how she survives — not all lesbians with anxiety but She, with her specific history and challenges?

The benefits of psychotherapy are in being seen, heard, and having the space to, as psychoanalyst Donnell Stern says, “formulate experience”– often, experience that never before had the chance to breathe. Therapy is ideally a safe relationship in which to discuss how our bodies, desires, and sociopolitical contexts impact our lives. It is an opportunity to discuss the undiscussable and how this very lack of discussion has influenced our behaviors — a point I have made on Huffpost earlier this year, regarding the discourse on guns and mental health. No matter what method, style, type, or technique is being used, good therapy allows one to be; to awaken to one’s adaptive, or perhaps maladaptive, patterns; and to consider the propensity for these patterns, once “healed,” to strike again in another form. (Not unlike fat cells accumulating in one’s arms after one has had liposuction everywhere else– I’ve seen it happen.) Therapy helps us to be us, to genuinely be, feel, and think in relationship with another.

As I stated above, a variety of therapy approaches can be useful at different times, but to be inundated with New York Times-endorsed articles about types of therapy that “work,” fix,” or make us “well,” to the exclusion of other types, is damaging. It is damaging not only for therapists who have dedicated their lives to the art of empathic recognition, but also for the multitude of people whose complex stories, needs, and longings remain unsung — including lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender people who are regularly told that they are “not well” by much of society.

Renowned psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Jack Drescher once explained in a paper how “traditional scientific viewpoints discredit personal voices” and, consequently, how his approach to therapy had shifted from “a scientific view…toward a hermeneutic one,” particularly because of his identity as a gay man and his desire to help other queer people.

All of us deserve to have our unique stories heard in a therapeutic context, beyond our “symptom” pictures and beyond the “scientific” solution to our “problems.” As a client recently said to me, “getting well implies returning to the way I once was, but therapy has helped me to adapt and to grow. Simply erasing my symptoms would be like retreating, and why would I want to do that?”