In an excerpt from our book A Womb of Her Own (Routledge 2017) Dr. Richard Ruth writes as follows:
The men I will call Tom and Rick, a gay male couple in their thirties, originally sought couple and family therapy for help with their adolescent son, who I will call Mike,. They described Mike as defiant at home and achieving poorly in school. Tom and Rick had been together nine years when our work together began.
Tom became Mike’s father in a previous heterosexual marriage. He entered into the marriage though he knew he was “mostly gay” at the time. He told me he had spoken about this with the woman who, by the time of the therapy, was his ex-wife, before they married, but I learned that they never had explored the implications deeply.
Tom assumed sole parental responsibility for Mike, his only child, with the consensual dissolution of the marriage and with the formal and legal agreement – again, not deeply considered together – of his ex-wife, who had a history of psychiatric problems, when she and Tom negotiated their divorce. Tom spoke about his ex-wife in disparaging terms, with an overtly misogynist cast, referring to her as “crazy,” “dysfunctional,” and “hysterical,” sourcing these traits in her femaleness. In our early sessions, he never narrated how he had come to care for her and to marry her, nor how it had come to be that he had made no overtures toward including her in parenting decisions and the parenting process with Mike, either at the time of the divorce or in the subsequent years.
Tom showed signs of bipolar disorder, though this had not been diagnosed at the time the couple began their four years of work with me. He equated his inattentiveness, periods of elevated mood, forgetfulness, and rejection of others’ social expectations of him with the degrees of freedom from conventionality he assumed as an out, gay man. Tom was out to the members of his working-class family of origin, who lived in another state and with whom he wished, and had, little contact. He also was out to his co-workers, and preferred to socialize almost exclusively with other gay men.
Rick became sexually active with other males as a teenager, but he did not begin identifying as gay until after he had been with Tom, his first and only committed partner, for two years. Unlike Tom, he was from a middle-class family and had a college education. He described himself as “out to himself” and to a few close friends, but not to his co-workers or to his family of origin. He liked going to gay bars, sometimes with Tom and sometimes on his own, and participated in social organizations in the gay community. In his personal manner, and in his behavior in sessions, however, I found him anxious, introverted, and quite shy.
In their initial meetings with me, Tom and Rick assumed that the gay solidarity they correctly perceived to be present among us would leave important questions and assumptions unexplored. They wanted help with Mike’s “problem behaviors”; they did not want to explore their early histories, their inner lives, their dynamics as a couple, or their relationships with Mike’s mother or with anyone else. I negotiated with them that this could not be so in meaningful psychotherapy; they warily and grudgingly agreed, ceding me authority as “the doctor” that I experienced as investing me with an element of male and heteronormative privilege (that they knew I was gay did not seem to be an obstacle to the unfolding of this process, which I understood as a kind of projective identification).
Rooted again in their perception of what they felt gay solidarity with me brought with it, in early sessions Tom and Rick would make “humorous” comments putting down Mike’s mother and other women, and assumed I would share their bemusement. I let them know they were welcome to speak freely with me, but that I did not share their perspectives on women, and hoped they would explore with me how they had come to hold their attitudes toward women. I told them these attitudes might be more relevant than they thought to their difficulties with Mike. They were skeptical.
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Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.