Seek out the support you need from people who know where you’re coming from.
While the queer community has plenty of strengths — from natural creativity to a deep sense of empathy forged through the coming out process — we consistently struggle with fostering intimacy in our romantic relationships.
The causes probably aren’t entirely surprising; perfectionism, internalized homophobia, and body dysmorphia — common among LGBTQ individuals — all have a negative impact on our ability to form healthy, lasting partnerships. But it’s important to remember that you’re not alone, and that intimacy issues — from thinking that you’re undeserving of love to feeling like you’re unable to love in return — are often influenced by social forces beyond your control.
We asked Lighthouse provider and LGBTQ-affirming psychotherapist Anthony Patterson to tell us how best to solve intimacy issues. His answer? Group therapy.
“Group therapy can allow us to build a community of queer people outside of sexual or romantic relationships,” he says. “It provides a kind of safe space to deal with the complex feelings related to intimacy.”
We sat down with Patterson to learn how group therapy can create emotional support networks for queer individuals working through romantic hang-ups, confront complicated emotions with the guidance of medical professionals, and question heteronormative assumptions from doctors and therapists.
Finding a Safe Space and a Queer Community Simultaneously in Group Therapy
Prior to group therapy, psychotherapists screen patients to make sure that each will be a positive addition to the group dynamic. The goal is to craft an environment free from the typical social and sexual pressures of the LGBTQ community so that participants are encouraged to share personal stories and support others.
“A group setting for therapy can be an ideal way to desexualize the discussion of intimacy,” explains Patterson. “Unlike a gay bar or club, these sessions are designed so you don’t have to worry about sexual attraction, and can be upfront about intimacy issues you’re experiencing.”
By wading through intimacy fears in a group, you’re adding more voices and viewpoints to a discussion that would otherwise be restricted to you and your therapist. This may seem nerve-wracking, but, for the right patients, it can be a constructive way to challenge preconceptions in a supportive environment. The American Psychological Association agrees, explaining that participants can be positive forces in the lives of fellow group members. The community developed within group therapy allows gay, lesbian, trans, and queer individuals to feel at ease and platonically intimate with others experiencing similar concerns within their relationships.
As Patterson says, “It can be really affirming if you’re having intimacy issues of your own — you know, telling yourself that you’ll never find love, that you can’t be loved, that queer people aren’t meant to have long-term relationships — to hear other people going through the same thing.”
Confronting Emotions with Professional Guidance
During group therapy sessions, psychotherapists work to uncover the underlying beliefs and assumptions driving emotional and sexual intimacy issues that may be holding queer patients back from forming stable romantic relationships.
“If I hear someone say that he feels that gay men aren’t meant to have loving, long-term relationships, I push back, because that’s not a feeling — it’s just a thought,” says Patterson. “Underneath that, there might be shame because of unresolved, internalized homophobia or fear that future relationships will end poorly. In a group, we can all learn from getting to the bottom of what people are going through.”
Anxiety and depression — rates of which are nearly three times higher among LGBTQ individuals than their straight counterparts — may also have a role to play when it comes to intimacy issues. Both can have negative effects on sex drive, irritability, trust, and overall relationship quality. Research, however, shows that group therapy can help prevent or alleviate both anxiety and depression. By opening up to a vetted and supportive network of other patients alongside a trained psychotherapist, you can learn to identify ways that anxiety and depression may be negatively impact your relationships and develop strategies to combat their influence.
Pushing Back on Heteronormativity
No matter when in your life you decided to come out (or even if you haven’t), you probably know what it feels like to be isolated because of your sexual orientation or gender expression. Growing up in a deeply heteronormative and explicitly homophobic society, it’s no wonder that members of the LGBTQ community often feel alienated and alone.
Flash forward to adulthood. While the sense of social alienation may have subsided, the emotional scar tissue of homophobia, harassment, and isolation can make forming romantic relationships difficult. Frequently, many queer patients will pursue therapy only to discover that they feel heteronormative judgment from their therapist or other healthcare professionals, only isolating the patient and further reinforcing the same feelings.
In group therapy, you have the chance to work through these experiences and prejudices, particularly with those who understand your experience and a therapist who specializes in queer health. Hearing from other queer people who struggle with heteronormative ideas about the “right” way to speak, dress, act, and express love can help you deal with what you’re going through more constructively, and to feel a sense of connection to the community as a whole.
Getting into Group Therapy
Group therapy isn’t for everyone, but it may help you work through intimacy issues in a supportive environment. If you’re interested as to whether you might benefit from it, ask your therapist about the possibility of attending an LGBTQ-friendly group therapy session to work through fears of intimacy.
At Lighthouse, many of our therapists offer LGBTQ group therapy. Check out the list here to find the right therapist for you.