Five steps to a fantastic gay relationship

gay relationship success the thoughtful gay
Reading time: 6 minutes

Throughout my twenties, I stumbled from one unsuccessful gay relationship to another, thwarted by the fact my partners and I were often operating at cross-purposes.

The first time this happened, I had just confessed to my then-boyfriend Kohei* that I didn’t anticipate ever wanting to have kids of my own.

Having a vague awareness of my own dysfunction, and fearing I might unintentionally inflict it upon my children, it seemed the sensible thing to say.

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I was also barely out of my teens, and in no way ready to even contemplate the possibility of parenthood.

“Gonna be honest, that really has me worried,” Kohei replied. I shook my head.

“It’s just not my thing.”

“… So you’re not even going to consider it?” Kohei said.

“Sorry,” I said. Kohei’s gaze fell to the floor.

“Well, I can’t see myself dating someone who doesn’t share my long-term goals.”

Feeling cornered, I grabbed my backpack from his couch and stood up.

“Fine,” I said. “Don’t date me.”

Stepping out onto Kohei’s front porch, I called out a polite farewell, hopped on my bike and pedaled home.

When a gay relationship just doesn’t “work”

My reaction was, in hindsight, unfair. But truth be told, Kohei’s ultimatum had given me the escape hatch I had long been looking for. 

My boyfriend’s puppy-like devotion had arrived at my door, premature and unqualified – like a Christmas gift in July. It had left me with deep-seated suspicion.

Was Kohei really interested in me, or was he just afraid – as we all are, on some fundamental level – of being alone? 

Up until this point, I had been seeding our conversations with prickly challenges, less out of a desire to antagonize Kohei than a wish to test whether he would stand his ground, or roll over. And time and time again, Kohei had done the latter.

When the morning after our confrontation, Kohei attempted to patch things up with me, I insisted that he was in fact right: we were not compatible.

The “don’t date me” comment was, I knew, the culmination of many attempts to test him. Kohei’s willingness to overlook my take-it-or-leave-it attitude seemed to me proof enough that the two of us were, in some inexplicable way, out of alignment.

Too needy, or too neglected?

Where I had kept Kohei at arm’s length, come the next relationship, I found myself cast in the opposite role.

Remo* was accommodating, but not in the way Kohei had been. Unlike Kohei, asserted himself where he needed to, and I respected him all the more for it. 

Here was a person capable of withstanding me at my bossiest and gently putting me on notice. We were, I wanted to believe, a good match.

The day I called to reveal I had just been made redundant, I got my first hint of the growing distance between us.

“So…I’m out of a job,” I said, my voice breaking with emotion. 

“Well, you know what you have to do,” Remo replied.

“What do you mean?” I replied, stung by his lack of sympathy.

“Look,” Remo said. “I’ve got to get back to work. I’ll text you later.”

Feeling kind of put out, I grew first apprehensive, then adversarial.

“You know, you could be a little more empathetic,” I said during a later conversation.

“I think you mean empathic,” Remo sniped back.

Sensing his withdrawal, I pressed him for emotional support. But the bullishness Remo had once excused had suddenly become a problem. He ended it not long later, claiming he no longer “had the time” to hang out. 

In fighting for my boyfriend’s validation, it seemed I had unwittingly driven him away. Heartbreak and an unexplained sense of shame followed. 

What is attachment?

When gauging a gay relationship for compatibility, there is perhaps one factor that trumps all, and yet is often overlooked: attachment style

Attachment styles in short are about how we form attachments to other people. Our styles are largely the result of our first relationships with our caregivers.

When our attachment is healthy, we develop a secure attachment style. According to Attached authors Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, “secures” have a strong and stable sense of self-worth, have no problem being direct in relationships, and are comfortable with intimacy.

When however our caregivers inflict trauma such as sexual abuse or emotional neglect, or fail to properly “attune” with us, our attachment is ruptured, and we develop an insecure attachment style.

Those suffering from insecure attachments not only struggle to maintain consistent self-worth – they are also more likely to struggle where it comes to forming healthy relationships.

Levine and Heller identify two insecure attachment styles as the most common: “anxious” and “avoidant”.

Those with anxious attachment styles typically seek closeness and intimacy in their relationships. They fear abandonment and may engage in “protest behaviors”, which include excessive attempts to reestablish contact, withdrawing, hostility, and manipulation. 

Avoidants on the other hand like to keep their distance when in a relationship. They do this by engaging in “deactivating strategies”: refusing to verbally commit or say “I love you”, dodging physical or emotional closeness, nitpicking their partners, flirting with others and longing after a “phantom ex”.

Levine and Heller believe about 50 percent of the adult population has a secure attachment style, while roughly 25 percent are anxious, and the remaining 25 percent are avoidant.

One could argue that in the case of gay men, insecure attachment styles could be even higher. Consider for example the misattunement that results from a parent rejecting their child on the basis of their sexuality.

Notably, relational trauma can also shift securely attached people towards insecurity. The fact that “betrayal, abandonment, abuse, and chaos” is a gay relationship rite of passage for many, according to The Velvet Rage author Alan Downs, makes us even likely as a population to suffer from attachment issues.

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Which attachment styles are compatible?

Secure + secure OR secure + anxious/avoidant: Those with secure attachment styles can form strong relationships with each other and with the insecurely attached (anxious and avoidant). “Secures” are generally able to provide a “safe base” for their insecure partners, sometimes even help “heal” their attachment problems. But not always.

Anxious + anxious OR avoidant + avoidant: Anxious-anxious and avoidant-avoidant partnerships are less likely to work by virtue of their mutual difficulty forming healthy attachments. 

Anxious people seeking reassurance from other anxious people are naturally a difficult proposition. Likewise, avoidants are not likely to date avoidants because of their mutual desire for distance and independence inevitably forces them apart.

Anxious + avoidant: Avoidants’ tendency towards distance and independence is likely to unsettle their anxious partners, who thrive in an affirming, supportive environment.

When avoidants withhold intimacy from their anxious partner, the partner may confuse the resulting turmoil for passion. Attempting to re-establish relational equilibrium, the anxious partner may double down in their demands, only for the avoidant to withhold affirmation even more.

The pair thus will find themselves caught up in a spiraling push-pull dynamic that is sometimes confused for romance.

Forging a fantastic gay relationship

According to an attachment style quiz devised by Levine and Heller, I myself have a predominately anxious attachment style. Considering the behavior of my first boyfriend Kohei, I’ve concluded that he too was likely anxious.

Kohei’s constant need for affirmation and intimacy might have been a non-issue for a securely attached partner. But for me, it was overwhelming, and I coped in the only way I knew how: by challenging and thereby trying to create distance.

Kohei’s anxiety about the relationship understandably grew, until at least he issued a challenge of his own: either change my future parenthood plans or kiss him goodbye. 

Remo on the other hand was most certainly avoidant. I was never permitted to get too close, and the more I sought reassurance, the more he withheld. My attempts to re-establish contact were met with veiled contempt.

Until I discovered attachment theory, the mechanics of a successful gay relationship eluded me, and gauging romantic compatibility was hit-and-miss. 

Levine and Heller thankfully provide detailed strategies for coping with avoidant or anxious attachment styles. Their key advice is to seek out a more balanced pairing: secure + secure, secure + anxious, or secure + avoidant.

To determine the other person’s attachment style, Levine and Heller suggest following these steps:

    1. Determine whether your partner seeks intimacy and closeness. 
    2. Assess how preoccupied s/he is with the relationship and how sensitive s/he is to rejection. 
    3. Don’t rely on one “symptom” – look for various signs. 
    4. Use effective communication: express your needs, thoughts, and feelings. Then assess your partner’s reaction.
    5. Listen and look for what he is not saying or doing. Trust your gut feeling. 
gay relationship success the thoughtful gay

A final word of caution to secures: helping someone with an insecure attachment shift towards more secure attachment patterns isn’t always possible. Sometimes your partner may insist on clinging to their old ways.

The question therefore is, are anxious or avoidant behaviors something you are ultimately willing to overlook? Can you learn to be satisfied with your partner’s status quo?

For those with anxious attachment styles, remember that you’re more likely to experience an avoidant out in the wild than any other attachment style.

Avoidants after all spend more time dating than in actual relationships, on account of their struggles forming healthy attachments. 

Secures are also a lot harder to come by. Why? The ease with which they form healthy attachments means they’re more likely to remain in relationships, and are less likely to ever appear in the dating pool.

Takeaways

  • Identify your attachment style: secure, anxious or avoidant.
  • Use the five steps to determine your partner’s style.
  • Seek compatible partnerships.

* Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of all individuals discussed in this article.

© Ehsan Knopf. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. All content found on the TheThoughtfulGay.com website and affiliated social media accounts were created for informational purposes only and should not be treated as a substitute for the advice of qualified medical or mental health professionals. Always follow the advice of your designated provider.

Are you a gay dating app sociopath?

gay dating app sociopath thoughtful gay
Reading time: 6 minutes

Much of the small talk that happens on gay dating apps is, in my experience, a preface to a request. 

“What you up to?” someone may ask, and behind this seemingly polite question, invisible gears are turning.

Maybe this stranger will hear my response and respond authentically, or maybe they will continue with the subterfuge of trying to gauge whether I’m willing and able to sustain a fantasy – or fulfill a desire.

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This is very much in keeping with the commodified, gamified nature of online dating, where chat apps involve little more than a mutual cranking of slot machine handles.

For someone who is seeking to build connections, these obvious attempts at assessing sexual eligibility can quickly become soul-sapping.

So the last time someone asked “What you up to?”, it was hardly any surprise that I responded with, “Getting a frontal lobotomy”.

I was in my own way trying to shake my chat partner out of automaticity, but all I got in return was the acronym “lol”. 

Clank, went the invisible gears, and within seconds, my chat partner was proceeding with his script. 

“Cool. You looking?”

Some people may describe this kind of attention as affirming. Personally? I just can’t shake the feeling that I’m being treated less as a human being, than as a prospective reward.

Apps are basically Skinner boxes

Previously I compared gay dating apps to Skinner boxes. For those of you who don’t know, Skinner boxes are small glass cages used by experimenters to teach animals how to perform certain actions, like hitting a lever.

These boxes reinforce desired behavior by dispensing a reward such as food, or punishment in the form of a shock from an electrified floor grid.

Andreas1/Wikimedia Commons

Skinner boxes are a perfect analogy for gay dating apps. The difference here is that messages, or more specifically, the attention they represent serves as the reward, while being ignored is a form of punishment, or negative reinforcement.

As app users, we maximize reward and minimize punishment using strategic and even deceptive self-presentation and engagement. We tailor profiles and our behavior in ways that will gain and sustain attention, even if they aren’t necessarily authentic

We may boast about our preferences or prowess, while using erotic photos as bait for our chat partners.

Some of us may go so far as to create fake profiles, or message someone exclusively with the aim of receiving a response. 

Messaging purely for attention, however, may be the first signs we’re developing a process addiction. Here’s why.

Why gay dating apps are addictive

At one point during his studies, the inventor of the Skinner box – American scientist B.F. Skinner – modified his boxes to dispense food pellets according to a random number of lever presses. 

His pigeon test subjects, rather than being deterred by the unpredictability of the exercise, quickly learned to press the lever at random, even when no pellet was immediately forthcoming. 

What Skinner realized was that this very same unpredictability had created a tension of expectations, which was released the moment the pigeon received their reward.

Skinner credits this tension-reward loop, also present in slot machines, as being the main driver behind addiction.

We can see that loop widely incorporated today in video games, social media, and even dating apps.

Consider the unpredictable nature of “rewards” on Grindr, Scruff or Tinder: users log on and off at random, and the rate of replies can vary completely, sometimes even within the span of a single conversation.

Meeting someone off the app may begin as a tantalizing fantasy, but it’s one that ultimately can’t compete with the dopamine seeking reward-loop offered by the back-and-forth of instant messaging.

The result is an experience that could be broadly described as ineffective, at least where it comes to generating face-to-face interactions.

Of course, if you were to canvas a group of gay men at random, I’m not sure a consensus would ever be reached on what constitutes an “effective” dating app chat session. 

After all, everyone’s definition of a reward will vary from interaction to interaction, day to day, sometimes minute to minute. Yes, humans are a fickle bunch. 

Dating apps don’t help, in that they all seem designed to facilitate any variety of interactions. Some may use the app with the intent to meet, while others are simply looking for distraction, or the thrill of erotic chat or photo exchanges. 

Suppose we come to the apps with a specific goal in mind. Gamification in many cases will nudge us towards abandoning specificity, towards being open to any and all interactions, if only for the momentary gratification they promise.

Our sole purpose thus becomes the maintenance of the tension-reward loop.

Sustained use will lead many users towards a nebulous middle ground, simultaneously craving all of the above, yet never finding true satisfaction. And yet we keep coming back. Why?

Notably, Skinner found that pigeons in his experiments continued to peck a lever even once their appetite had been sated. His conclusion: the action of cranking a lever had in and of itself become “fun”. 

You can see the same behavior among gay dating app users. Like edgy, risk-averse stockbrokers bidding in an incredibly volatile market, we hedge our bets, messaging indiscriminately just to see who will bite.

After firing off scores of messages to multiple chat partners, we wait for the replies to trickle in. 

Too much tension and frustration – not enough replies, significant delays or “inferior” rewards – and our sense of enjoyment will diminish. 

Our only recourse then is to either adjust our expectations, or spread our net more widely in order to maintain the loop. 

Profile grids and swipe stacks will come to resemble an ever-shifting buffet in what feels like a perpetual famine. 

Prolonged use of gay dating apps thus sees other users reduced to mere units in a digital meat market characterized by extreme scarcity. 

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Addiction creates gay dating app sociopaths

In the 10+ years in which I’ve used gay dating sites and apps, I’ve often caught myself logging in just to see who had messaged, less interested in the content of the communication than the sheer fact of its existence. 

It became clear to me that so long as I was caught up in tension-reward loop – in the split-second objectification, relational multitasking, devaluation, and dismissal that seems baked into digital modes of interaction – I could hardly expect to form healthy relationships with other gay men.

How, when I was treating chat partners as mere levers to be pulled for personal gratification?

The single-mindedness with which we perform this action, according to researcher Simon Baron-Cohen, is the antithesis of empathy:

“Single-minded” attention means we are thinking only about our own mind, our current thoughts or perceptions. “Double-minded” attention means we are keeping in mind someone else’s mind at the very same time… When empathy is switched off, we think only about our own interests. When empathy is switched on, we focus on other people’s interests too. 

It is in the absence of such empathy that we adopt sociopathic behavior. And just like the sociopath, many of us – consumed by our process addiction – will go to extreme lengths in the pursuit of satisfaction.

Consider these traits, as laid out in the seminal work on sociopathy, The Mask of Sanity

  • superficial charm
  • absence of anxiety or guilt
  • undependability, dishonesty, egocentricity
  • complete inability to form lasting intimate relationships 
  • failure to learn from punishment
  • absence of emotion
  • lack of insight into the impact of our behavior
  • failure to plan ahead

For those of you who have or continue to use gay dating apps, I ask you this: have you not experienced or dabbled yourself in superficial charm and unpredictability?

Or worse still: deceit, manipulation, and outright nastiness?

The system is hopelessly broken

Chances are you’re alone. Tragically, the addictive qualities of gay dating apps have created an environment where sociopathic behavior is now the status quo.

Strangers will issue demands and unsolicited erotic photos, interrogating our sexual preferences before blocking us at random.

While these tendencies are not specific to gay men, app-based reward loops positively reinforce these behaviors while failing to offer real accountability. 

The result is an endless chain of victimization in which bad behavior is normalized and internalized and we all unwittingly find ourselves either in the company of, or becoming, gay dating app sociopaths.

It’s no secret that gay dating apps aren’t designed to foster genuine, heartfelt connection, or for that matter to enforce personal accountability.

Their goal, rather, is to gamify interactions with the goal of sustaining use, indefinitely. But in so doing, they train us to associate self-worth with constant affirmation

In our pursuit of that affirmation, we will find ourselves pulling out all stops to feed it, even if it means completely disregarding and discarding others along the way.

The system may be broken, but it remains profitable for app makers, so there is little motivation for change. But as individual users, we can and must hold ourselves to a higher standard of personal conduct.

We can do this by:

  • Exercising self-awareness: curbing usage motivated only by the desire to get a “fix”. 
  • Empathizing, rather than objectifying: treating people with kindness, consideration and courtesy. Being honest and upfront with our intentions and not stringing people along when we aren’t interested in them. 
  • Voting with our feet: registering our protest by quitting and pursuing more wholesome forms of interaction, offline.

Takeaways

  • Gay dating apps employ a reward loop to keep us addicted.
  • Addiction leads to single-mindedness and a temporary loss of empathy.
  • In its absence, we may behave in antisocial ways.
  • Be self-aware and empathic. Be accountable for your own behavior.

© Ehsan Knopf. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. All content found on the TheThoughtfulGay.com website and affiliated social media accounts were created for informational purposes only and should not be treated as a substitute for the advice of qualified medical or mental health professionals. Always follow the advice of your designated provider.

How judgmentalism is ruining gay dating

Reading time: 6 minutes

Gay dating is riddled with pitfalls, but perhaps the most significant is the rampant judgmentalism we face – and inflict – upon one another.

The irony is that we approach dating expecting chemistry while treating each other in ways that make it almost impossible.

The catch-22 is that unless we feel safe, unless we can let our guards down, we’re going to resist being vulnerable. And without vulnerability, there is no chemistry.

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Judgment and gay dating

I met Bryce* one evening over boba tea. Bryce was a guitarist from the UK who had come to Los Angeles with big hopes of breaking into the music industry.

As we exchanged details about our lives, Bryce made a number of flattering remarks about my appearance, flashing flirtatious grins, while indicating he genuinely wanted to get to know me.

As our conversation rolled on, Bryce asked me about my family and we somehow got onto the subject of trust.

“I like to give everyone the benefit of the doubt,” Bryce said.

“That’s great,” I replied. “I used to be the same.”

Bryce looked at me, expectant. I smiled, explaining I had firsthand experience dealing with a relative who was a pathological liar and that this had left me somewhat wary.

Almost immediately the warmth left Bryce’s expression. I excused myself to use the restroom, and when I returned he asked to call it a night. 

Out in the car park, I offered Bryce a polite farewell hug.

“Oh, we’re going to hug, are we?” he sneered, then walked away.

I got into my car, confused. Had my comment had been mistimed? Had I overshared?

Even so, I couldn’t shake the feeling that no time would ever have been appropriate for such an admission.

For in opening up to Bryce, I had breached an unspoken code by which many gay men live: never expose your vulnerabilities.

Gay dating and expecting perfection

Being born gay almost always guarantees an inheritance of trauma or invalidation. Having been bullied and marginalized for our differences, in particular our emotional expressivity, we learn early on to hide these, lest others brand us “feminine”.

Some of us do this by constructing a perfect exterior, or by hiding behind keen wit, brand name wardrobes, gym-fit physiques, or career success. In many cases, this is the mark of insecurity, born of an unrelenting inner critic.

Deprived of self-compassion, we, in turn, become incapable of mustering empathy for others. When a romantic interest tries to be vulnerable with us, to let their imperfections hang out, there is a strong possibility we will treat this as an infraction.

Uncomfortable with the demands this vulnerability makes of our own, we – like Bryce – reach not for understanding, but dismissal. 

Thus, having ourselves been rejected for being our authentic selves, we come to reject others for what we perceive as their weaknesses or flaws.

I believe it’s for this reason that many of us choose hookups over dating. We’re even more likely to avoid connections if we have in the past put ourselves out there, only to be shut down.

Hookups furthermore validate. They offer us instant gratification while sparing us the emotional risks typically associated with relationships.

In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown notes that we commonly associate vulnerability with “dark emotions”. But so long as we remain terrified of recognizing, acknowledging, and discussing such emotions, they continue to exert significant control over all aspects of our lives.

Imperfection is a given

Most gay men will suffer some form of trauma and a degree of neuroticism by virtue of what we have lived through. Psychology Today defines neuroticism as “a tendency toward anxiety, depression, self-doubt, and other negative feelings”. 

Unfortunately, the popular doctrine of masculinity asks that we hide our anguish and struggles. Those who fail to do so are mocked and rejected. Social conditioning has more or less made emotional concealment a condition for acceptance as males.

But our wounds and imperfections are a fact of human existence, ones that will sooner or later be revealed in the course of dating.

While I believe this act of revealing should be treated as a generous gift and met with compassion and understanding, many of us resort instead to the scorn and rejection we ourselves have suffered.

When we do this, we don’t just perpetuate a cycle of harm – we render gay dating an exercise in futility,

Until we have learned to be comfortable with our wounds and to reintegrate that emotional part of our identity we have split off as a matter of acceptance and survival, we will not treat vulnerability with the honor it deserves.

And so the meaningful relationships we all ultimately desire will continue to elude us.

Use discernment, not judgment

When dating, judgment may serve as a valuable defense mechanism, allowing us to screen out people who may pose a threat to our interests.

The gay dating world is, after all, rife with people who are irresponsible in their actions, inconsistent in motive, and generally lacking self-awareness. 

This is especially true on gay dating apps, which cannot enforce personal accountability. People we’ve been engaging in a heartfelt chat with can, for example, decide to reject, ghost, or block us, often without an apparent cause or explanation.

It’s no wonder then our reaction is to always be protecting ourselves, yet there is a difference between preemptively attaching negative labels to someone and genuinely trying to understand and relate to them

To this end, first dates should be treated as much as an exercise in rapport-building as one in information gathering. We should work to learn about our date’s habits and character; to build a holistic assessment in the place of making a snap judgment.

Chemistry is important, certainly, but true chemistry is a slow-burn phenomenon that can only flourish under conditions of emotional safety. So we must first create a gay dating environment in which it can flourish.

We do this by choosing discernment over judgment.

gay dating judgmentalism

Discernment in practice

Judgment is a process of assigning values and drawing conclusions, while discernment is a process of perceiving facts and making informed inferences

As a discerning dater, your job is to be on the lookout for discrepancies, causes for concern, differences and dealbreakers.

Your date for example may tell you they find you very attractive. They may insist they are looking to date. But they may also label themselves a workaholic.

You will notice here a disparity between a stated desire and practiced action, one that seems to suggest this person may not really want to date. Dating, after all, would require that they be willing to shift gears; to consider putting people before things

Workaholics by definition neglect their own needs. They are therefore unlikely to have the mental bandwidth to accommodate another person’s needs. 

When a date defines themselves as a workaholic, they may be intentionally or unintentionally “Mirandizing” you. That is, they are reading you your rights as a romantic candidate, telling you what to expect. Namely, that their job will always come first. 

This kind of distancing behavior is often indicative of an avoidant attachment style, which does not bode well for most people seeking romantic fulfillment. 

If we probe a little deeper, workaholicism for many gay men is an expression of covert depression, masquerading as grandiosity. There is a possibility this person may have some challenges they need to work through.

Unless your date is taking proactive steps to help themselves, to be in a relationship with them may require that you be willing to accept – if not enable – their avoidance. 

By making observations about the facts presented here, I have practiced discernment.

But discernment also tells me that while my date has admitted to being a workaholic, this is a clue, not a conclusion. 

Keep on gathering intel

Red flag may leave you with reservations, but it is imperative to keep an open mind, while also looking for data that may contradict or confirm the evidence at hand.

In the situation above, you may subsequently learn your date was joking about being a workaholic, or that they are in fact willing, ready, and able to break the habit.

With positive discoveries like this, we may feel tempted to abandon our assessment. Still, information gathering is a process that cannot – and should not – be rushed when gay dating, lest we miss evidence of future problems.

After all, when meeting other gay men we tend to put our best foot forward – at least initially. Over time, our true nature seeps out through the chinks in our armor. Such glimpses of our true selves are often the most telling.

One of the perils of expediting assessment while dating is that we may overlook this true self. Or we may never even get the chance because we’ve already ruled that person out, thus missing out on the opportunity to connect with a possible kindred spirit.

For this reason, we must strive to recognize the commonality in our stories and to offer one another the compassion we are all seeking – and rightfully deserve.

Takeaways

  • Dysfunction and imperfection are universal.
  • By dismissing a date, we may be perpetuating harm we ourselves have suffered.
  • True chemistry only happens when we feel safe.
  • When we judge, we create a hostile environment that undermines vulnerability.
  • The alternative is to practice discernment, compassion, and empathy.

* Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of all individuals discussed in this article.

© Ehsan Knopf. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. All content found on the TheThoughtfulGay.com website and affiliated social media accounts were created for informational purposes only and should not be treated as a substitute for the advice of qualified medical or mental health professionals. Always follow the advice of your designated provider.

Five reasons why gay men may benefit from therapy

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Reading time: 9 minutes

It’s not uncommon for me to meet another gay man suffering from anxiety and depression who is either unaware, in denial, or unwilling to recognize and address it.

Some years ago, I had a falling out with my flatmates. At the time I was directing a major shoot at film school and was under immense pressure. Amid my mad scramble to find a new apartment, I decided to meet Samson*, a gay Phillipino man in his 20s who worked as an IT consultant. 

Having exchanged niceties, Samson quickly got down to brass tacks, advising me he wanted a flatmate willing to hang tea towels and stack dishwashers in a specific fashion.

As someone known for my somewhat OCD tendencies – I for example never allowed people to sit on my bed while wearing their “outside clothes” – I could to some degree relate. 

But Samson seemed to take things one step further. A health fanatic devoted to all-natural products, he told me I wouldn’t be allowed to clean with bleach, on the account he might be exposed to its fumes.

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Despite my reservations, I took the room. But from that first meeting onward, the stipulations piled up. One minute I was using too much fridge space, the next I was filling the kettle with “excess” water and wasting energy.

Samson even took to switching off the oven when he believed I was using it too long.

While he managed to bend some of his rules for me, I couldn’t shake the feeling that my presence in Samson’s home was not welcome. I could tell that while he wanted to save on rent, but also wanted to live alone. 

Worse still, whenever we happened to cross paths, Samson would complain. First, it was about his cutthroat colleagues at work. A week later it was the ex who seemed incapable of empathy, and the friends who failed to understand Samson’s very specific health choices. 

Samson told me he was against eating hydrogenated oils, on account of them being carcinogenic. For him, discovering that a meal contained even a trace of such was enough to ruin an entire night out.

Listening to Samson, I felt torn. Some of his complaints were understandable, and yet I knew I was being used as a sounding board for his discontent.

I tried to bring empathy and some perspective to the issues Samson raised, and yet nothing I said or did made any difference. Samson was trapped in a cycle of negative thinking, focused only on assigning blame to others.

So long as he continued to see the apparent failures of others as a reflection of their respect for him – and by implication Samson’s worth as a person – this would likely continue.

Samson’s paradigm was clearly at fault here, but I became convinced that it was serving double duty as a smokescreen for Samson’s inability to manage his own distress. 

By pretending it was not there, he would never have to confront it. Yet this unwillingness to accept and recognize his covert depression was precisely what was keeping him stuck. Rather than practicing introspection, Samson searched for scapegoats. 

Once or twice I broached the subject of seeing a therapist. Each time, Samson produced a readymade excuse.

The few therapists Samson had approached would not take his health insurance. The nature of Samson’s job meant he was often on the road with short notice, making it difficult for him to plan therapy sessions in advance.

Then there was the question of trust: Samson didn’t want to open up to just anyone

These were legitimate friction points, ones faced by many gay men looking to undertake therapy. But they were also excuses. As per the old maxim, if you really want to do something, you’ll find a way.

1. Gay men often suffer from depression

An inability or unwillingness to acknowledge one’s own mental health struggles is usually a product of self-denial; of alienation from one’s own authentic feelings.

Like a majority of men, we as gay men are programmed to go at it alone. Masculinity is popularly defined as self-reliance, an idea more widely echoed in our culture’s embrace of rugged individualism, i.e. the “I don’t need help from anyone” mentality (see my earlier article on embracing your authentic gay identity).

Gay men tend to be more emotionally expressive than their straight counterparts. Gender-atypical tendencies like this often lead to us being singled out and persecuted. Any wonder then we should be especially challenged when it comes to asking for help.

But forcing ourselves to repress our emotions and to cut ourselves off from the help of others leaves us prone to covert depression. This depression is often the reason many of us should seek help…and yet it can also serve as a major source of resistance.

Depression sufferers know all too well how we can become trapped in the stasis field of negative thoughts and “automatic”, self-perpetuating cognitive distortions.

In his book Feeling Good, David D. Burns notes that these distortions lead in turn to procrastination and “do-nothingism”. That is, we found ourselves restrained by the very same inertia we are seeking to escape. 

Thus the depressive, lacking the motivation to change, surrenders to the comforting familiarity of their unhappiness.

Another reason it is difficult to take action is that covert depression operates as a kind of background presence that evades easy detection, or may be put down to just a passing “mood”.

Similarly, anxiety – depression’s fraternal sibling – may also be dismissed as an inevitable feature of modern life. It may even be regarded as a helpful crutch that gives the sufferer a motivational edge; a willingness to go the extra mile that is recognized and rewarded by employers.

2. We may have attachment difficulties

Caregivers play a crucial role not just in early development but our future wellbeing. They comfort us during times of distress, fostering a sense of security through healthy attachment. That attachment serves as a template for future relationships, shaping whether we are able to form close bonds with others. 

Attachment also provides children with an internal working model of self-worth. It defines whether we see the world as a safe or nurturing place, or one full of pain, uncertainty, and anguish. It provides the primary reference point for our lived experience

Ruptured attachment is the result of either active trauma, which typically involves a boundary violation such as physical or sexual abuse, or passive trauma, which involves some form of physical or emotional lack, such as neglect. Ruptured attachment can occur at any point during childhood or teenagehood.

Gay men experience both active and passive trauma when a parent rejects, neglects or attacks them over their sexuality, an experience which is all too common.

During early attachment, trauma is preverbal, making our suffering literally beyond words. As such, it can be difficult to “re-cognize” the experience and come to grips with its effect on us as adults.

Without the help of a trained practitioner, we will continue to live unknowingly in the shadow of our trauma, afflicted with mental health conditions like depression.

3. We may be unable to self-soothe

Ruptured attachment results in an inability to self-soothe. When our caregivers fail to properly “attune” to us and provide the correct behavioral modeling, we fail to develop this vital skill. 

Self-soothing means being able to realize we are hurting, to give ourselves the comfort we need, and to seek it from others when we can’t

Without self-soothing, we may find ourselves prone to “fight, flight, or freeze” in times of stress. 

That is, we engage in one of three coping strategies: coming out guns blazing, running from danger, or shutting down. We don’t seek the support we so desperately need, leaving us beholden to depression and anxiety.

In an attempt to pacify our troubled minds and hearts, we may turn to the Band-Aid fixes of grandiosity or process addictions.

4. Gay men are debilitated by shame

For gay men, depression is often compounded by longstanding shame. The distinction between guilt and shame, as pointed out by Brené Brown, is that guilt involves believing “I did something bad”, while shame involves assigning a permanent negative quality to yourself, like “I am bad”.

We come by shame firstly through socialization. Society teaches us our sexuality is abnormal, perverse, and even morally wrong. When this view is adopted by our caregivers, it may not necessarily lead to outright rejection, but rather words or deeds that are invalidating.

Invalidations, no matter how small they may seem, can inflict profound psychic wounds, Alice Miller says. If the only people in the world duty-bound to love you unconditionally mock or belittle you because of your sexuality, you may come to believe you are inherently unlovable.

The child with a devastating belief in his own unworthiness is likely to carry it into adulthood. If left unaddressed, this belief can leave us relationally impaired, resulting in an insecure attachment style.

Attached authors Amir Levine and Rachel Heller estimate about half of the adult population suffer from insecure attachment styles. In the case of gay men, this figure may arguably be even higher.

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How a therapist can help

Therapy is one way we can identify the impact ruptured attachment or invalidation has had upon us. It offers avenues for reconnecting with aspects of ourselves we may have become alienated from as a result of parental and social rejection and invalidation. 

And it is through this connection that we develop self-awareness, what Daniel Goleman calls “emotional intelligence”, and thus the ability to self-soothe.

A relationship with a therapist ideally is reparative. They model the unconditional acceptance of an ideal caregiver, creating an accepting space in which clients can vent to thoughts and feelings they have been forced to repress, often as a matter of survival. 

A good therapist uses compassion and insight to help their patients reintegrate alienated parts of the self. Through their guidance, gay men can come to terms with the loss and anguish they have suffered.

Therapy requires that we go to places we have been avoiding. After a lifetime spent mastering the art of emotional concealment, gay men undergoing therapy are asked to forgo their craft and expose their wounds and weak spots.

Embracing vulnerability in this fashion allows us to ultimately regain our long-lost ability to be emotionally authentic.

As Buddhist Pema Chödrön points out:

Without realizing it we continually shield ourselves from this pain because it scares us. We put up protective walls made of opinions, prejudices, and strategies, barriers that are built on a deep fear of being hurt… Finding the courage to go to the places that scare us cannot happen without compassionate inquiry into the workings of ego… Either we question our beliefs – or we don’t. Either we accept our fixed versions of reality – or we begin to challenge them. 

Choosing a therapist

Making the decision to undergo therapy sometimes feels like half the struggle. Then you have to deal with the deadly triad: money, scheduling, and what Samson called trust, but which I like to think of as compatibility

You can’t put a price on your mental wellbeing, so don’t let the cost alone thwart your efforts. If you don’t have a mental health care-inclusive health care plan, consider finding a therapist who offers sliding scale fees. If you need to take time out during working hours, negotiate with your manager or HR department.

When choosing a therapist, we all need an assurance that we are in safe hands. We are, after all, seeking the unconditional acceptance we were once denied. Our chosen confidant, therefore, needs to show they will honor this responsibility. 

Bessel van der Kolk suggests three criteria by which you can gauge this: comfort, curiosity, and collaboration. To that list, I would also add proactivity and accountability:

  • Comfort: Do you feel comfortable and safe in the presence of this therapist? Do they seem comfortable with you? In the words of van der Kolk: “Someone who is stern, judgmental, agitated, or harsh is likely to leave you feeling scared, abandoned, and humiliated, and that won’t help you resolve your traumatic stress”.
  • Curiosity: Does the therapist seem interested in you as a person? Or do they see you as just another patient to be handed a rote list of advice and instructions? Do they actually listen to you? Are they comfortable sitting with your distress? Or do they immediately leap into diagnosis and prescription?
  • Collaboration: Is the therapist demonstrating a genuine desire to work with you, to explore your issues in-depth and to formulate a treatment plan?
  • Proactivity: Some therapists tend to take a nondirective role. As a result, you may feel you have to overcompensate. Sessions may become endless talk marathons, broken only by you prompting your therapist for participation. There is great value in a sympathetic ear, and venting is definitely part of the process. But given for example depression’s tendency to keep us trapped in automatic thoughts, we are never going to make the necessary shifts in our thinking without the help of someone willing to interrupt, redirect and even challenge, where necessary.
  • Accountability: Does your therapist honor their appointments with you? Do they cancel or reschedule on short notice? A therapist who is unpredictable or inconsistent can’t provide you with the security and caregiver-like “containment” you need. This also works in reverse. Do they help keep you accountable? Set tasks and homework? Without proper follow through on your behalf, your recovery may be hindered.

Remember: you are not locked into any therapist relationship. Treat the first session and those that follow like you would a date. You may be seeking immediate relief, but your objective should be to assess compatibility. 

In the end, there is no use building a relationship with someone who isn’t capable of giving you the support you need. Be willing to shop around until you find the right fit. And if it isn’t working, be prepared to move on. 

As with any endeavor, you will face setbacks. Sometimes these setbacks may simply come down to lack of motivation. If this is the case, break the task of finding a therapist into baby steps and try to complete one step a day.

The act of unlearning maladaptive behaviors and patterns can take months, if not years. Your recovery ultimately comes down to your being patient with the journey, flexible in your approach, and perhaps most importantly, remaining committed to your wellbeing,

Creating a new self unburdened by the injustices of your past first requires that you choose to break with the old.

“When I let go of what I am,” says Chinese philosopher Laozi, “I become what I might be”.

For advice on finding a therapist, check out this handy post by the American Psychological Association.

Takeaways

  • Acknowledge you may have depression.
  • Consider how your attachment history and feelings of shame might be playing a role.
  • Fight motivational inertia! Take it one baby step at a time.
  • Stay committed. You're in this for the long haul.

Have self-care tips of your own you’d like to share? Comment below, or send me a message.

* Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of all individuals discussed in this article.

© Ehsan Knopf. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. All content found on the TheThoughtfulGay.com website and affiliated social media accounts were created for informational purposes only and should not be treated as a substitute for the advice of qualified medical or mental health professionals. Always follow the advice of your designated provider.

10 self-help books to read during the coronavirus lockdown

coronavirus lockdown gay books velvet rage
Reading time: 8 minutes

The coronavirus lockdown may have given us time aplenty to stew and fret, and yet that time can just as easily be used to play “life catch up”.

With the world deep in the midst of its own crisis, there is arguably no better time for personal reckonings and insights.

Here are 10 self-help books that you may find infinitely helpful in your own quest for answers as a gay man.

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Understanding the gay struggle

“Something about growing up gay forced us to learn how to hide ugly realities behind a finely crafted façade. Why is this so? We hid because we learned that hiding is a means to survival.”
– Alan Downs, The Velvet Rage

Even as an out and proud gay man, I felt like I was still living a life of subterfuge. Only now it wasn’t my sexuality that I was hiding but my vulnerability

My dating experiences revealed I wasn’t the only one struggling with an entrenched sense of self-loathing and shame. More than a few of us had been left emotionally crippled by our experiences.

Not only were we incapable of building robust relationships – we were also prone to seeking relief through substance and process (behavior) addictions.

The Velvet Rage argues however that there is cause for hope. Author Alan Downs charts the journey gay men must take from self-loathing to self-acceptance before concluding with a raft of invaluable suggestions for how we can live happier and healthier lives.

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Transforming your life through vulnerability

“Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose.”
Brené Brown, Daring Greatly

When I came out as gay, I was searching for connection and a sense of belonging. I was, in a way, looking for a replacement family for the one from which I had become alienated.

Initially I looked for it at gay venues, like bars and clubs. I quickly learned that it was sex, not vulnerability, that many of the men I met were looking for.

These individuals might claim to have achieved self-acceptance, and yet their aversion to vulnerability was so total, the denial of shame so complete, that our relationships remained mired in superficiality.

Any invitation to be emotionally authentic was met with bewilderment, resistance, and even scorn. To those I encountered, being vulnerable was at best weak, at worst dangerous.

Daring Greatly author Brené Brown argues that this need not be our fate. “Shame,” she writes, “derives its power from being unspeakable. Shame keeps us small, resentful, and afraid”.

Her solution? Recognize it for what it is, understand its triggers, strive for critical awareness, and be willing to reach out to others and speak out about our shared experience of shame.

You can watch Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability here.

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Recognizing the influence of trauma

“Traumatized people are terrified to feel deeply. They are afraid to experience their emotions, because emotions lead to loss of control… Being traumatized is not just an issue of being stuck in the past; it is just as much a problem of not being fully alive in the present.”
– Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score

I was 12 when my family began to fall apart. My older brother’s daily battles with my parents, his drug use and random acts of violence, lying, and thievery reduced our household to a warzone.

My parents eventually buckled under the strain of it all, withdrawing emotionally and giving my brother free reign to bully me. 

The experience left me stricken with an unrelenting sense of loneliness and worthlessness.

Trauma was a word I exclusively associated with veterans or victims of extreme abuse. But as I came to later learn, trauma can be entirely passive, like emotional neglect.

Trauma for gay children is an all too common experience. We face it when we are rejected, assaulted and even cast out for our sexuality.

Bessel van der Kolk’s comprehensive The Body Keeps the Score is a deep-dive into the manifestations and mechanics of trauma.

Readers will come away from it with new insights not only into their own experiences with trauma, but possible treatments as well.

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Adopting optimistic thinking

“An optimistic explanatory style stops helplessness, whereas a pessimistic explanatory style spreads helplessness. Your way of explaining events to yourself determines how helpless you can become, or how energized, when you encounter the everyday setbacks as well as momentous defeats.”
– Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism

While my family was disintegrating, I was also being bullied at school due to a then-undiagnosed disability, Asperger syndrome.

My resulting depression and anxiety led to what Learned Optimism author Martin Seligman calls a “pessimistic explanatory style”. 

In moments of difficulty I would resort to self-blame, telling myself I was unlovable and entirely deserving of my misfortune. These explanations came at great cost to my mental wellbeing.

Learned Optimism argues that we can correct this chain of thinking by identifying the adversity we’ve experienced, the existing beliefs they trigger, and their consequences. By disputing these beliefs, we can alter the impact they have on us.

You can discover your own explanatory style with the help of this quiz devised by Seligman.

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Being kinder to yourself

“Self-compassion provides an island of calm, a refuge from the stormy seas of endless positive and negative self-judgment so that we can finally stop asking, ‘Am I as good as they are? Am I good enough?’”
– Kristin Neff, Self-Compassion

Previously I’ve discussed the burden of “grandiosity”, a defense used by gay men against feelings of inferiority or covert depression.

The one thing I’ve found key to my recovery as a grandiose workaholic perfectionist is the very thing I’ve denied myself: self-compassion.

When our attachment as children to our primary caregivers is disrupted (more on this below), we fail to develop critical self-soothing skills.

This may cause us to neglect our own needs during times of stress or suffering. We may even seek distraction in grandiose or self-destructive behaviors, like addiction.

Self-Compassion author Kristin Neff offers a third alternative: practicing self-soothing through mindfulness, being aware of our emotional states, and responding appropriately to them with words and acts of compassion.

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Adopting a ‘growth’ mindset

“Believing that your qualities are carved in stone – the fixed mindset – creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over… Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?”
– Carol S. Dweck, Mindset

Those fixed in their thinking, like grandiose gay men, are stricken by a fear of failure and imperfection. 

As such, they seek success in the place of growth, superiority rather than self-acceptance.

But, as in the words of Mindset author Carol S. Dweck: “If you’re somebody when you’re successful, what are you when you’re unsuccessful?” The fall from such heights can be devastating. 

The opposite of a fixed mindset is the growth mindset, which calls for us to suspend constant judgment of ourselves and others, in favor of personal change and development.

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Setting clear boundaries

“Setting boundaries inevitably involves taking responsibility for your choices. You are the one who makes them. You are the one who must live with their consequences.”
– Henry Cloud and John Townsend, Boundaries

Boundaries are crucial for all gay men because our right to choose how we live is one that often comes under the scrutiny and judgment of others, especially our own families.

As a gay man who enjoys a close relationship with my mother, I can safely say that it was one arrived at through continual negotiation, and a willingness to defend my personal boundaries. 

My transition to independent adulthood was predictably rough. My mother, for reasons that were perfectly logical to her at the time, would insist on trying to control or judge aspects of my life even after I left home. 

My decision to get a mini-mohawk, for example, would result in the silent treatment. Piercing my ears resulted in her nagging for me to “take them out”.

In moments of weakness I would kowtow to her will, at the cost of mutual respect.

Renegotiating boundaries with our parents can be a particularly thorny process, yet it is critical to the longevity of your relationship as well as those that follow.

While the non-religious may struggle with Boundaries’ numerous Biblical references, Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s classic remains a vital guide to establishing better relations with our loved ones.

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Understanding your relationship needs better 

“People have very different capacities for intimacy. And when one person’s need for closeness is met with another person’s need for independence and distance, a lot of unhappiness ensues.”  
– Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, Attached

Dating for me has historically been an uneven game of push-pull; a mismatch of varying needs and expectations.

It was only when a friend introduced to me the concept of attachment styles that the cause was at last brought into focus.

Our relationships with our primary caregivers from our childhood onward serve as a template for how secure we feel in the world. It also forms the basis for how we “attach” to others. 

Attachment falls into three categories: secure, anxious, or avoidant. Anxious people seek closeness and affirmation, avoidants seek distance and independence. 

Secures typically have no difficulty bonding with either type and thus serve as an ideal partner for anxious and avoidants.

While this all sounds rather formulaic, being able to recognize your own needs as well as that of your romantic partner is a guaranteed way to save both of you a lot of difficulty – and heartache – down the road.

Those interested in identifying their’s or other’s attachment styles can try this brief quiz by authors Amir Levine and Rachel Heller.

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Learning to meditate

“Mindfulness is moment-to-moment non-judgmental awareness. It is cultivated by purposefully paying attention to things we ordinarily never give a moment’s thought to. It is a systematic approach to developing new kinds of agency, control, and wisdom in our lives, based on our inner capacity for paying attention and on the awareness, insight, and compassion that naturally arise from paying attention in specific ways.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living

Fight or flight is an automatic, unconscious reaction to stress. Stress in life is unavoidable; our choice merely comes down to how we choose to deal with it. 

The traumatic experiences of my childhood had become hardcoded into the behavioral circuitry of my brain. Later conflicts would invariably trigger them and I found myself resorting to fight or flight, to the detriment of my relationships.

In Full Catastrophe Living, author Jon Kabat-Zinn explains that by escaping the constraints of constantly judging and reacting, we discover not only self-awareness, but inner “realms of well-being, calmness, clarity, and insight”. 

Using exercises like diaphragmatic breathing and meditation, we learn to be present with our experience; to be aware of our feelings, rather than controlled by them. 

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Improving emotional intelligence

“People with well-developed emotional skills are also more likely to be content and effective in their lives, mastering the habits of mind that foster their own productivity; people who cannot marshal some control over their emotional life fight inner battles that sabotage their ability for focused work and clear thought.”
– Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence

The skills described above – self-awareness (knowing one’s own emotions) and self-compassion (managing those emotions), as well as self-motivation, empathy and relationship management – are all critical to what Daniel Goleman calls “emotional intelligence”.

Emotional intelligence is a meta-ability that governs how successful we are in all aspects of our lives, from relationships, to our wellbeing, to personal effectiveness and productivity.

My discovery of Daniel Goleman’s seminal work served in this sense as a catalyst for confronting my own trauma and seeking a fresh perspective on my struggles.

I accomplished this with the help of therapy, reading self-help and psychology books, opening up dialogues with others, and yes, undertaking meditation.

While some sections and theoretical discussions may not be relevant to all readers, Emotional Intelligence is an inspiring essential read for all thoughtful gay men on the path of self-improvement.

Have self-care tips of your own you’d like to share? Comment below, or send me a message.

© Ehsan Knopf. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. All content found on the TheThoughtfulGay.com website and affiliated social media accounts were created for informational purposes only and should not be treated as a substitute for the advice of qualified medical or mental health professionals. Always follow the advice of your designated provider.