Out On The Couch
Rainbow flags stand as one of the hallmarks of the LGBT community, symbolizing colorful celebrations of life, nature, sunlight, and spirit, amongst other positive notions (Gilbert Baker Foundation, n.d). However, as we consider emotional safety in queer relationships, it’s imperative that we recognize certain other “flags,” some of which dictate the need for increased boundaries, conscious uncoupling, or even the critical difference between life and death.
Green flags and red flags of emotional safety
“Green flags” in relationships signify positive attributes contributing to the respect and well-being of each partner. “Red flags” are concerning or unhealthy behaviors such as manipulation, instability, or other emotional concerns that would negatively impact the longevity of a quality relationship and dissatisfaction of a partner. These relationships are emotionally and physically unsafe, and can have devastating effects on partners’ mental health. This article explores the following conflicts in queer relationships relational bonding, communication, spiritual and religious values, a lack of personal autonomy, family of origin challenges, and gender expectations. How couples navigate these challenges can determine the outcome of the relationship. Conflict-heavy and stressful experiences can lead to divorce, trauma, or other serious mental health concerns, indicating a need for conscious uncoupling. Let’s look at red and green flags therapists can think about when supporting queer couples.
Bonding and emotional safety in queer relationships
One of the most important considerations in relationship therapy is the health of the bond between partners. Many relationships include supportive, uplifting, enjoyable qualities. Conversely, ties that are based on trauma or centered around unsafe behaviors can have certain unexpected consequences.
As therapists, we see individual queer clients, couples, and poly partners who are seeking help with communication, boundary setting, intimacy, and other topics. It is our job to help them learn and implement safer behaviors when partners have significant trauma histories.
Religious and spiritual safety in queer relationships
Couples sharing the same religious or spiritual values have a connection that helps guide them in the direction of their shared goals, and to solve problems together in a way that respects each other’s needs. For many people, religion is a source of values and problem-solving. Members of the LGBTQIA+ community may have a history of religious outcasting, persecution from their religious groups, or rejection by their families of origin.
As a therapist, it is easy to see how religious or spiritual beliefs can emerge as points of contention for many queer couples. One client’s comfort level in leaning on religious support for strength and guidance may be confusing for another partner who has experienced negative messaging about LGBTQIA+ identity from their church, temple, or synagogue.
It can be difficult for partners to relate to each other when they have such different experiences with religion. Therapists can help both partners share their concerns in a respectful and empathic manner, carefully addressing both their need for support and community as well as any issues relating to their place of worship.
Considering social interests
Partners who find themselves engaging in very different activities throughout the week can lead to further conflict, judgment, or resentment. The attempt to express concern in the way someone is spending their time or who can turn into a power struggle without healthy communication skills. Differing beliefs on important topics of a personal nature can breed conflict and contribute to an unhealthy relationship dynamic. Therapists can help clients learn to communicate more effectively by expressing their points of view in a way that is both assertive and respectful.
Some beliefs or differences may be considered irreconcilable. Helping clients accept that can be a valuable moment in therapy. Even if a relationship is irreconcilable, supporting a client to discover what is truly important to their spirit can positively affect their quality of life long past the end of an incompatible marriage.
Family issues & emotional safety in queer relationships
Another common conflict between romantic partners can derive from differences in upbringing or family of origin. For instance, a partner struggling with feelings of shame or a sense of loss after family rejection may experience poor self esteem.If the client feels unworthy of becoming a parent due to lack of perceived support and possible further rejection and criticism from relatives, this view can skew their sense of self and prevent them from pursuing parenthood all together.
Family issues can also affect a client’s role in their relationship with their partner. They may have differing levels of comfort in managing family conflict, which can present challenges when spending time with relatives when their partner is present. Therapists can help clients with family issues by exploring their family histories, including past trauma, while also reimagining their lives without the negative influence of others’ criticism.
Gender roles in queer relationships
It is important to note that gender norms do not only affect heterosexual couples. There are societal rules and norms that affect how partners in queer relationships interact and express their individual genders as well. A partner who identifies with traditionally masculine roles and behaviors may unconsciously exhibit heterosexist, hypermasculine attitudes and behaviors that are typically associated with cisgender men (Halkitis, 2019). Poor emotional intelligence and rigid enforcement of gendered expectations can be a red flag of elements of gender dysphoria in some clients. For example, clients may express harsh sentiments about others acting “like a man” or “like a woman” when they are questioning their own gender identity. These concerns are evidenced in relationships through attitudes encouraging behaviors associated with toxic masculinity, such as greed, aggression and lack of conscience or empathy (Kupers, 2005).
Similarly, a person of any sex or gender who may struggle with ideas related to toxic masculinity may exhibit self-destructive traits such as denial of pain, refusal to seek professional care, addictions, and participating in risky behaviors (Kupers, 2005). Toxic masculinity in relationships can present in many ways, such as emotional unavailability, espousing strong sexist, homophobic, or transphobic beliefs, or making disparaging comments about a partner’s body. It can also include continuing sexual advances without enthusiastic consent from their partner, or isolating partners from their friends and families using coercion, intimidation, manipulation or even violence.
Queer couples are vulnerable to domestic violence at the same rates as their heterosexual counterparts, despite the partners being of the same gender or even havingprogressive views in other parts of their life such as politics or social issues (Elliot, 2008). Both partners should be assessed separately by their therapist for vulnerability to domestic violence to provide privacy and a safe space for honesty.
Supporting emotional safety with therapy
Without therapeutic support, any of these elements can become a threat to queer couples. It is important that partners recognize and verbalize their own needs, are able to agree on the role their families of origin play in their lives, and if necessary, work towards healing from personal trauma with the support of an individual therapist . Partners can learn to affirm each other’s concerns and embrace their differences, as well as their shared values, to decrease these possible points of contention. Therapists can help clients to explore and shift their beliefs around family, and help the couple define what family looks like to them.
Green flags: emotional safety in queer relationships
Just as it is important to understand red flags in queer relationships, it is just as important to understand what healthy choices look and feel like. Below are a few great examples of green flags to point out to your clients in session.
- Respecting sexual and gender fluidity and self-expression: The client and their partner acknowledge each other as being deserving of kind words and appropriate terms , including correct use of names and pronouns.
- Sharing similar interests and values: The client and their partner have similar goals, desires, and attributes that increase cohesion and decrease value-based conflicts.
- Intentionally practicing healthy communication: Couples can discuss issues without becoming disrespectful or disregarding each other’s needs.
- Enjoying full social autonomy over their own lives: Couples are free to make decisions about their social lives without coercion or intimidation by their partner. Controlling behaviors and codependency are signs of further issues needing to be addressed in individual therapy. It is important to note that couples therapy is not recommended for partners experiencing abusive behavior due to the risk of serious harm.
Making healthy choices with professional support
When we consider the characteristics of emotional safety in queer relationships, we are able to honor differences between LGBTQIA+ clients and straight clients while supporting them in making healthy choices for their families, their futures, and their own mental health.
Supporting queer couples in therapy comes with important cultural caveats and considerations. As a professional working with diverse clients, it is very important to manage your own biases and take note of personal emotions that may impact client care. If there is a concern or question that arises in therapy that is outside of your understanding, it is your duty to do thoughtful training and research to inform your ability to serve your clients well. Continuing to proactively seek training and supportive education regarding the nuances and needs of queer couples will increase a provider’s confidence, competency, empathy, and genuine appreciation for the diverse clients and families we serve.
Learn more from our courses:
Gilbert Baker Foundation. (n.d). Rainbow Flag Color Meanings. Retrieved from: https://gilbertbaker.com/rainbow-flag-color-meanings/
Elliot, P.(1996) Shattering Illusions:, Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services,
4:1, 1-8. Retrieved August 8, 2022, from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1300/J041v04n01_01
Halkitis, Perry N. (2019). Out in Time: The Public Lives of Gay Men from Stonewall to
the Queer Generation. Oxford University Press. Retrieved August 8, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780190686604.003.0007
Kupers, Terry A. (2005) “Toxic Masculinity as a Barrier to Mental Health Treatment in Prison.” The Wright Institute. Retrieved August 8, 2022, from
Melendez, Lyanne. LGBTQ PRIDE: Gilbert Baker, creator of rainbow flag, shares story of strength and pride. (2017, March 2). ABC7 News.
Should I Go To Couples Therapy With My Abusive Partner? (n.d). National Domestic Violence Hotline. Retrieved August 8, 2022, from https://www.thehotline.org/resources/should-i-go-to-couples-therapy-with-my-abusive-partner/