Gay men, love and intimacy
Published Thursday, 07-Aug-2003 in issue 815
by Paul Sussman, Ph.D.
“The way to find a soul mate is to be a person with soul.”
— Thomas Moore
Intimacy makes life meaningful. As a psychologist working with gay men and couples, I observe daily how love, intimacy and relationships are the most deeply felt and longed-for desire in gay men. We all want intimacy and fear its absence. Having close, loving connections with others not only keeps us happily healthy, it profoundly affects our physical health as well, staving off disease, giving us longer lives and boosting our immune systems. Relationships matter! They are life-giving and incredibly challenging at the same time. Being gay, being male and living in these amazing and confusing times creates unique challenges and opportunities around intimacy.
Growing up gay and male in our American culture may contribute to certain specific obstacles to love and intimacy. Many gay “boys” and adolescents spend much of their childhood hiding or feeling ashamed of their desire for love and sex with other males. We get good at disguising who we are, pretending we are not hurt, hiding our softer, more vulnerable selves and looking good. In other words, we get good at lying and hiding. Intimacy requires honesty, openness and vulnerability.
Intimacy requires courage. The word “courage” is derived from coeur, meaning heart. It takes a brave heart to embrace and express anger, fear, jealousy, sadness, gratitude and joy in a respectful and direct way. It takes a brave heart to apologize, to have difficult conversations about sex, erotic desires and monogamy. It takes a brave heart to stretch beyond your own needs and limitations and to love a partner the way he needs to be loved … not the way you think he needs to be loved.
Intimacy requires honesty, openness and vulnerability. Intimacy requires courage.
In the journey of growing up gay, many of us work very hard to eliminate any hint of being a “sissy” and may armor the softer, warmer parts of us that allow love and intimacy to root and grow. It takes courage to face and embrace all the parts that make us whole … soft and hard, tough and tender, masculine and feminine. It takes a brave heart to stand naked before our partner in the glory of our strength, beauty, imperfections and vulnerabilities. The reward of a relationship where both partners can really relax and be themselves is a great gift.
How do we create and maintain love and intimacy? “Sex and the City” and “Queer as Folk” may not provide all the answers. Life is complex. Love is complex. We are complex. The challenge of living, learning and loving is a lifelong curriculum. As gay men, we are pioneers. We are openly exploring and mapping the territory of love, intimacy and sex between men for the first time in written history, figuring out — through trial and error — how to cooperate with love and intention, and go for the ride.
Love challenges us all like nothing else in life. Love challenges us to face our fears and childhood wounds, to confront conflict, to live more fully, to know ourselves and to stretch and grow in the most amazing ways. To love is heroic. To keep searching for love in spite of heartbreak, rejections and painful experiences is heroic. The word “intimacy” comes from Latin, meaning, moving into fear. Indeed, love can be intimidating. Love and intimacy do not just happen in our lives. It isn’t about luck or “just finding the right guy.” We choose it; we create it. I observe this every day in my psychotherapy practice. Good lovers are dedicated students seeking knowledge, wisdom and psycho-spiritual development. Intimacy is all about intentionality. Relationships that work are and require work. As we move from the romantic first phase into the challenging second phase of intimacy called “the power struggle” we learn to endure the slings and arrows of love and we evolve. At least, we can choose to do that.
One of the biggest steps in developing and deepening intimacy in your life is knowing what love is and is not. Learn to differentiate between romantic love, puppy love, deep intimacy and mature love. One of the reasons many couples struggle so much after the first year or two together is that they are not prepared for what happens after the intoxicating endorphins and hormones begin to wear off and the romantic phase changes into the reality phase. Many believe that love is diminishing when, for many, deeper, real love is just beginning.
What are some of the realities versus the illusions of love and intimacy? One simple yet powerful reality is that to have healthy relationships each member of a couple needs to be healthy. This involves good self-care — taking care of yourself emotionally, physically, socially and spiritually, creating balance, facing and confronting your demons rather than avoiding difficulties and problems, knowing who you are and loving and accepting that reality. This is a lifelong process. Enemies to self-care include self-hatred, drug and alcohol abuse, isolation, fear and any compulsive/addictive pattern. Lying, dishonesty and violence all destroy the fragile safety love demands.
One current perspective on love from Imago Relationship Therapy is that falling in love and developing intimacy has a purpose of helping us emotionally heal from old childhood wounds. None of us get through childhood unscathed. Hurts occur in both functional and dysfunctional families and are not necessarily a parent’s fault. For many of us, growing up gay in our homophobic culture is more than enough to create emotional wounds and obstacles to intimacy. Because each of us is wounded in relationships with our caretakers, in adult relationships we feel those hurts (stimulated by partners) resurfacing and the opportunity to heal can occur. Wherever one gets stuck in a relationship usually points the way to the developmental childhood wounds that demand to be made conscious in the present relationship (in the form of chronic frustrations) and healed.
Relationships, like most experiences in life, take exquisite care and nurturing to work and bloom, yet most of us believe they should just happen without study. Strive to become a student of cupid’s arrows and love’s mysteries. Become a dedicated student through schooling, self-study and by learning from your experiences, positive and negative, in relationships. Confront the demons that keep you in fear and avoidance and nurture the spirit in you that longs for more from life.
Paul Sussman, Ph.D., is a licensed San Diego-based psychologist specializing in couples/individuals, gay men’s intimacy groups, sexuality and anxiety/stress.

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