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Q&A: What Valentine’s Day and Commitment Looks Like in Queer Relationships

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Emma Atkinson

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One man sits on a couch, embracing a second man who is sitting in front of him on the floor. The two are smiling comfortably and affectionately.

On Valentine’s Day, we often examine our romantic relationships with a more critical eye. Are we getting what we need from our partners? Do our relationships look and feel the way we expect them to?

Do these assessments and their answers differ for those who are in queer relationships? Do LGBTQ+ couples face additional challenges in making commitment work for them?

In an interview with the DU Newsroom, University of Denver research professor of psychology Nick Perry digs into the significance of Valentine’s Day and examines what romantic relationships can look like in the LGBTQ+ community. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What has your research shown about love-centered holidays like Valentine’s Day?

We do think that those moments [and holidays] are really meaningful for couples; they often prompt people to reflect on the relationship or connect in some sort of special way. We know that date nights are a smaller version of this; it’s really important actually, for maintaining intimacy and connection. And for someone in a romantic relationship, those kinds of events can be really special and important for keeping the engine running as it should.

What could a couple looking to deepen their romantic relationship do on Valentine’s Day?

I think a little bit about what feels right to an individual or a couple, right? What feels right in terms of how they connect, and what’s meaningful to them. Different couples connect through deep conversation, or through shared activity, or through sex or whatever sort of feels most appropriate to them.

I do think it's a chance for couples to reflect on where the relationship is and how the past few months or year have been for them; and to think about maybe recommitting to the relationship: “I really like this—my relationship—we're going to keep going forward, and we want to maybe work on changing or tweaking what doesn't work for us as well.”

There’s often pressure to follow a recipe, right? It's like, I have to buy my girlfriend a box of chocolates and a dozen roses. And there isn't a secret magic sauce, I don't think, other than connecting in the way that feels good to you.

Let’s talk a bit about connecting and about LGBTQ+ relationships. What, if anything, sets a queer relationship apart from a straight or cis-het [cis-gender, heterosexual] one?

I'll use the term “queer” kind of broadly, to think about someone who might be genderqueer, or sexual orientationally queer, just sort of not in the cis-het norm.

I think first and foremost, in a lot of ways, we’re all the same; we want to love and be loved in very common, universal ways. How we connect kind of transcends the boundaries of sexual orientation or gender identity. But that being said, there are some differences for queer couples that bear some thinking about.

One is the challenge of finding a dating partner. It’s just harder to find someone to date when the pool is literally smaller. And also, in a safe way, and whether it feels healthy and safe to you, depending on how out they are or how comfortable they are in their current setting. So there's that navigation for people to try to work their way through.

And then there’s a number of other things that are just different for queer couples. Queer couples don’t have quite the same representative model, or template, to follow in their relationships, that’s so prevalent in the media, broadly. And the ones that we do see aren’t always positive—usually, for dramatization’s sake. It’s a little unfortunate, on the receiving end, to not feel like there are any positive, healthy role models out there for you. And I do think a little bit about some of those challenges—being things around stigma or homophobia that folks might encounter, or transphobia, or other kinds of discrimination.

There's also—not for all queer people, but for many [of them]—there is tension in their family of origin. And so you have chosen family—close people who aren’t biological relatives, but are people you feel close to and consider family—who are extra important to you. So family acceptance of a dating partner might be a complicated situation for a queer person or a queer couple.

And then, you know, queer couples don't have the same kind of expectations or ideas around marriage, necessarily, or monogamy or parenthood. Those are more varied and diverse and colorful in the queer community. And among some couples, they can bring some challenges, if you feel like you don’t really know what feels right to you, or how to figure it out for yourself or as a couple.

But there’s also a lot of beauty in the opportunity to craft your relationship the way you want it to be, in the way that feels right to you, and not based on some societal standard that is kind of penning you in, in a way. There are some challenges that folks have to navigate, and those are really hard in some ways, but there’s also some beautiful opportunities to be true to yourself.

So there’s a little more freedom, less sense of restriction in queer relationships? Is that right?

I think that’s exactly right. When same-sex marriage was being debated in the Supreme Court, there was a lot of debate about whether that was what we wanted, or whether that was a good thing. I think ultimately, access to social institutions that matter to people is a good thing. I think ultimately, it’s good for people who want to get married to get married, but I think there was this understandable counter-current: What if that’s not what I want? What if that’s not how I want to honor my relationship? That’s fine, that's totally OK. You can find your own path or form of relationship that is beautiful and meaningful to you. It doesn't have to match some kind of outline of what a traditional family might look like, quote-unquote.

We know dating has evolved in the last few decades, thanks especially to the advent of the internet and dating apps. How has dating in the queer community, in particular, changed?

One thing for queer couples is that it’s safer to come out now. Obviously, there’s lots of variability in that, depending on someone’s close community context, larger social context, in a state or a city. It’s certainly not always good to be out. But that certainly got more visible, and I think that is helpful.

Some older couples [in a study on the beginnings of queer relationships] were having to meet in really specific ways to be sure they were safe. There was a lot of vetting going on to make sure people could like admitted to [queer community] groups safely, and that it wasn’t someone trying to hurt members of the group, for example. That was something that older couples had to contend with, as well as much stricter ideas about gender and gender roles. I think that’s eased a bit. In some ways there’s a little more freedom to play around with gender roles and gender identity and our relationships.

But then, the big shift—a couple of things happen. One is the internet. It's revolutionized dating in both positive and negative ways across the board for everybody. Where I think that’s helpful for queer people is it makes it easier to safely connect, to find people in your community who might not have a rainbow flag on their back.

I do think for lots of folks, identity aside, online dating makes things very transactional and really reduces someone’s ability to attend to someone and think about them as an individual. There’s this challenge: “Maybe there’s another best partner for me if I just swipe one more time and spend more time with this person.”

There’s this idea in research about commitment. about quality of alternatives. The idea of having a lot of other people around you that seem like appealing romantic partners decreases your commitment to your current romantic partner, because you’re like, “Oh, I love my boyfriend, but Ben over there is very hot and single; what if I was with him?” I do think online dating does that a little too visibly.

It also sexualizes the environment for some queer people. It can complicate what expectations are about interacting online. Is this about a date? Is this someone looking for romance? Is this about sex? And that can happen in-person, too, offline, in the real world. But something about being on the internet makes it a little harder to align those two things.

In your research, has anything come up about communication in queer relationships—about what people want or don’t want for the future?

In some ways, this buffet of options available for queer people and queer couples makes it a little more complicated to know for yourself what you want. That totally can and should evolve over time. And also how to name it; how to actually discuss it in clear terms with another person.

The other thing is when expectations shift and how to navigate that. This happens for all kinds of couples when they’re first meeting. Someone’s meeting turns into a hookup, which turns into a relationship, for example. Navigating that kind of transition can be a little thorny or challenging. It takes a lot of self-awareness to be able to articulate what you want in a relationship, and then to be able to ask someone else what they want.

Does being a member of the queer community make it more difficult for people to know what they want, especially when it comes to the evolution of their identity?

Yeah, I think I think it can. Because all those things are really tangled together, right? Sexual orientation, gender identity, sex, the act of sex and romance are all super-tangled into each other. Because those aspects of identity connect very closely to those experiences in our social lives. And in some of my research, previously, we’ve seen that folks who were newly out, or folks who realize they’re queer in the context of falling in love or having a crush—it just makes all of that much more complicated.

Because, of course, crushes and romantic feelings and sexual attraction are part of how everyone realizes their sexuality. But when your sexuality follows this sort of status quo template, you’re like, “OK, this fits and this is sort of what other people experience around me; it’s probably my parents experience. And this just makes sense to me.”

But when it doesn't fit that kind of standard outline, it brings up a lot of questions for oneself, and maybe some doubt, or maybe some shame. And it can make exploring romance or exploring sex a little more complicated when you’re having a lot of inner dialogue about, “What does this mean about me as a person—how other people around me will see me or value me or view me?”