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Sexual Minority Stress within Relationships

Written by Derrek Toussaint (Clinical Psychology Registrar)





LGBTQIA+ individuals entering a relationship are often vulnerable to unique relationship-level minority stressors. Unlike individual-level sexual minority stresses, relationship-level minority stressors may be experienced by each partner separately or conjointly due to the often stigmatised, devalued, and diminished status of their relationship within society (1).


Often, as one partner is affected by minority stress, the other partner will be affected as well (2). Relationship-related sexual minority stress has also been demonstrated to have direct associations with poorer psychological and physical health outcomes for LGBTQIA+ individuals (3)(4)(5).


To help illustrate, below are some commonly experienced couple-level minority stresses:

  1. Stigma/expectations of rejection – Expectations of rejection or awkwardness from work peers who may be uncomfortable being around a non-heterosexual couple at a social event.

  2. Discrimination – Being excluded from family events because siblings don’t want their children exposed to, or to be around, a same-sex couple.

  3. Internalised sexual prejudice – Holding beliefs that their relationship is less important or less valued than heterosexual relationships.

  4. Identity concealment – Hiding the status of their relationship by strategies such as claiming one’s partner is just a housemate when family or friends visit. Also, presenting for healthcare as a member of a sexually diverse relationship can result in stress and effort around hiding not only one’s own sexual orientation, but that of their partner(s), while also worrying about managing the visibility of the relationship in the context of expecting rejection.


Within sexually diverse relationships, stress can also arise from two discreet processes: discrepancies and contagion. Discrepancies refers to the degree to which individuals experience differing levels of minority stress in relation to that of their romantic partner(s) (1). For example, if one partner has a much higher degree of internalised sexual prejudice compared with the other, stress may emerge in several ways, including conflict around sexual intimacy, personal views about LGBTQIA+ issues, or differences in desire to connect with LGBTQIA+ supports (1).


Contagion refers to how the experience of a specific minority stressor by one partner often creates change in the other partners experience of the same minority stressor. To illustrate, consider one partner has high levels of internalised sexual prejudice around LGBTQIA+ marriage and this belief results in ongoing relationship arguments and stress between the couple due to differing beliefs. The partner who supports marriage, to reduce relationship conflict, may adopt the same stance as their partner (even arguing for their partners stance) which results in an increase in own levels of internalised sexual prejudice, thus the minority stress has been passed on. While in this example it began as a discrepancy issue, it can be seen how it has resulted in a contagion process. While this is only a brief introduction to relationship-related minority stress and its processes, by considering these additional dimensions relationship-level stress and the processes of contagion and discrepancies, it allows for greater understanding of the self and one’s relationship, and for a more complete healthcare formulation around the lives of sexually diverse individuals.


References

  1. LeBlanc, A. J., Frost, D. M., & Wight, R. G. (2015). Minority Stress and Stress Proliferation Among Same-Sex and Other Marginalized Couples. Journal of Marriage and Family, 77(1), 40–59. https://doi.org/10.1111/jomf.12160

  2. Rostosky, S. S., & Riggle, E. D. B. (2017). Same-sex relationships and minority stress. Current Opinion in Psychology, 13, 29–38. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2016.04.011

  3. Hoy-Ellis, C. P. (2021). Minority stress and mental health: a review of the literature. Journal of Homosexuality, 1–25. https://doi.org/10.1080/00918369.2021.2004794

  4. Meyer I. H. (2003). Prejudice, social stress, and mental health in lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations: conceptual issues and research evidence. Psychological bulletin, 129(5), 674–697. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.129.5.674

  5. Meyer, I. H. (2013). Prejudice, social stress, and mental health in lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations: conceptual issues and research evidence. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, 1, 3-26. doi:10.1037/2329-0382.1.S.

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