A Couples' Therapist Reacts: The Ultimatum Queer Love Part 3
Updated: Nov 6
The Proximity Element
Lexi says she’s starting to think more about dating than the fact that she just asked Rae to marry her. That seems fast, but highlights how important physical proximity is in compatibility and attraction. One framework for understanding interpersonal attraction breaks it into five elements: proximity, similarity, physical attractiveness, reciprocity, and responsiveness. Among these, proximity may be one of the most important. If you see an attractive person on the street, and never see them again, chances are you won’t think about them much. But if they’re your next door neighbour or coworker, and you exist in close proximity to each other, the stimulus is reinforced, and the attraction gets stronger. The closer we are in proximity to someone, the more likely we are to have exposure to them, and the ongoing exposure allows attraction to intensify.
A number of psychological studies demonstrate that as the geographic distance separating potential couples decreases, the probability of their marrying each other increases. One of the reasons that the Ultimatum doesn’t exactly set the existing couples up for success is that by removing the factor of proximity from already strained relationships adds stress into the relationship system - a more subtle type of stress than the obvious influx of hot strangers, but one that certainly impacts the likelihood of reconciliation.
Hot Strangers and Emotional Amnesia
Speaking of the influx of hot strangers, Aussie and Mildred are having a deep talk. Mildred says she’s there to support Aussie through Aussie’s journey, one hundred percent, and points out that they both want marriage. I actually feel nervous watching this. Mildred has gotten attached so quickly. I wonder if she has a very anxious attachment and needs to have a constant sense of connection to feel safe. Right after I finished wondering this, Mildred says that for her, falling in love feels like she “can’t breathe without [her] partner,” which pretty much tracks. PSA: love shouldn’t feel indistinguishable from a panic attack, and if it does, help is available. In a culture where we really hold up the cool, aloof, slow texter as the most attractive and optimal way of being, it can lead to a tendency to look down on people with anxious attachments, or label them as needy, clingy, or “too much.” When I work with clients with anxious attachment, what I actually see is that their nervous system gets hijacked by fear, and with the belief that if they are just good enough, they will be able to win the love of emotionally unavailable people; often leading to people-pleasing and generally over-accommodating others while denying their own needs. The path to healing attachment wounds can take lots of forms, including the experience of a relationship with a secure partner, or Internal Family Systems therapy.
Love Shouldn’t Feel Like a Panic Attack, Mildred!
Mildred says she feels confused about how she’s able to connect so easily with Aussie, but it has taken so long to connect with Tiff. Boundaries just tend to be lower at the beginning of relationships - it’s how we’re able to establish connections with new people. Sometimes people with complex trauma experience something called “emotional amnesia,” where the feeling they’re feeling in the moment feels like the only one they’ve ever had. So if they feel mad at their partner, they feel like they’ve always been mad at their partner. Or if they feel a new attraction, they feel like they’ve known this person forever and have a deep and instantaneous connection that feels disconnected from the length of time they’ve known the person or the amount of information they actually have about them. In light of Mildred’s new connection to Aussie, Mildred may be having a hard time remembering that she once felt this good about Tiff. Which I’m guessing she once did, or else she wouldn’t be resorting to going on reality TV to “save” the relationship.
Xander and Yoly are talking about the idea of raising children, which is probably an important conversation to have with a potential partner, especially when you’re dating in your thirties. Xander says that Vanessa had wanted them each to have their own kids separately, while still in a relationship with each other, and to only be the parent to the child(ren) that she birthed, and vice versa. That seems messy. Sometimes people come to family therapy because of divisions where one child is more aligned with one parent, and the other child may be aligned with the other parent. That ends up causing problems, because functionally it means that the two parents aren’t fully aligned with one another, and struggle to parent as a team. It also tends to cause discord outside of just parenting, because it’s really difficult to have an intimate relationship with someone who is making a decision not to be on your team. I can’t imagine wanting to create that dynamic on purpose.
Vanessa, the Anti-Mildred
Vanessa is the anti-Mildred, and seems to struggle to make deep, committed connections without kind of keeping her options open. I’m curious what makes this parenting arrangement seem preferable to Vanessa, and if it’s the idea of avoiding any kind of custody conflict in the event of a separation. I’d also be interested in knowing more about her attachment history, and whether there may have been divorce in her family. It seems like she goes into relationships with the belief that they will inevitably end, and that it’s better not to get attached. Which sometimes manifests as preferring to leave a relationship undefined for a long time. Having a separate family from your spouse feels like the extreme end of this way of being.
Xander says she wants all of their kids to feel loved equally by both parents, which seems like a healthy thing to aspire to. So far Xander presents really well-adjusted, and I’m curious if she gives Vanessa a sense of safety and stability that allows Vanessa to try aspects of connection and commitment that might otherwise spook her. Dipping her toe in the metaphorical waters of secure attachment. We are also only two episodes in, so it’s possible Xander is less well-adjusted than they seem, and has just been able to maintain the facade of well-being for whatever length of time two episodes spans in real life. Xander might also be someone who is really concerned about how others perceive them, and puts a lot of work into cultivating a wholesome image (sometimes called “impression management”).
LBD and Discordant Desire
Yoly says that Xander seems like a sensual person, and she’s into it. They both agree that they like to have sex at an above-average frequency. I’m curious if either of their previous partners (Vanessa and Mal, if you’re keeping track) had lower sexual desire. A mismatch in levels of sexual desire is a common reason that people seek out couples’ counselling. There is also a thing called lesbian bed death, which means what it sounds like. It does not sound like it would be a problem for Xander and Yoly, who are now sitting very close. Some people say LBD happens because there’s no “man” in the relationship to initiate sex. I do not love this explanation, because I think it’s heterosexist and kind of treats cis men as the owners and leaders of sex. In my experience counselling couples, what I’ve actually seen is that people who are not cis men are not socialized to pay attention to their experience of desire, and have more trouble noticing it and then knowing what they want to do with it. Similarly, people who are not cis men are often taught to feel shame about their sexuality, I think as a cultural way of reinforcing sex as the domain of men. Sometimes the process of working with a couple with discordant sexual desire involves the lower-desire partner doing some work to unlearn shame or anxiety around sex.
Stay tuned for part 4!