Loving and Leaving Lesbians: Breaking Up and Starting Over

by mary lee sargent

If breaking up is hard to do, lesbians must be one tough bunch of women. Many of us end lover relationships regularly, serially, every two to five years. Find yourself in a room full of dykes between the ages of 15 and 55 and there are sure to be several who are in the process of ending a relationship receiving sympathy and support from sisters wno have recently been through it themselves. Everyone there will have experienced at least one breakup and some will have done it over and over.

What is puzzling about our coming together and breaking apart is that most of the lesbians I know say that they want stable, long-term relarionships. It is rare to find anyone who admits that she really seeks a series of brief and intense love affairs which end painfully. Most of us claim to want enduring partnerships which change and grow over time. Why then is our reality so different from our articulated dreams and desires? Why do we find it so difficult to stay together as lovers when we sincerely want relationships which last? It is these questions which I will address below. Some of the factors I describe will be peculiar and specific to lesbians. Others could apply to any intimate relationship in the U.S.A. during the late 1980's.

I am moved to write out of my own painful experiences and because I would like for every lesbian who wants one to have a satisfying relationship. Perhaps a deeper understanding of the obstacles in our path will help us to find a better way of relating. If I sound bitter or overly critical of our behavior, please do not confuse my negativity with blaming or homophobia. Despite tne pain and problems I have experienced in intimate relations, I am a lesbian and would not choose any other way of life.


-- Lesbians love women; we choose to give our primary stuff--affection, attention, energy, caring, time--to women. This choosing of woman by woman is the most threatening and revolutionary act in patriarcnal society. The more women choose women, the fewer of us there are to serve and service, to produce and reproduce for men. Consequently, lesbianism is forbidden and cruelly punished by state, church, family and the larger society. Lesbian love is stigmatized as sinful, sick and unnatural. It is denied, hidden, and exists unseen and unspoken. At best our relationships are ignored and unacknowledged; at worst they are attacked and place us in danger. Regardless of how tough, proud, radical or separatist we are, the societal hatred of our relationships takes its toll. How do we nurture a love that has to be hidden, feel good about a partnership that is despised, sustain a bond that many people close to us oppose and regret? Relationships thrive on societal support and approval. Heterosexual pairing is idealized, supported by family and cultural institutions. Being coupled brings with it a sense of selfworth and normality. Lesbian couples, on the other hand, are deprived of this support and approval. Our partnerships cause us problems--guilt at hiding them, injury and pain if we don't hide them. We are forced to ask ourselves if a relationship that is so troublesome is really healthy and right for us.

Internalized homophobia complicates our relationships still further. Shame, guilt and self hatred seep into our intimate relationships and affect our love life. These feelings may cause us to objectify our partner and our coupled relationship in a negative way. Perhaps we are so critical and unforgiving of our lover's faults because she is only a queer after all. Perhaps we resent having to suffer simply because our lover is a woman and unconsciously blame her for the pain we feel.

lesbian ethics

-- Since we are victims of homophobia it seems reasonable that lesbians would resist it by rallying round to support each other's relationships. Unfortunately this is often not the case. Despite years of collective heartache, there is still no strongly felt and clearly articulated norm or ethic among lesbians regarding ongoing intimate relationships and how we ought to behave toward them. Lesbians frequently do not respect and support other lesbians' lover relationships. There is no agreement among us that it is unethical, hurtful, wrong, destructive to fall in love and go after someone who is already committed to another woman. In fact getting involved with someone who is in a prior relationship is generally accepted and rarely questioned or challenged by other lesbians.

Sometimes it is even condoned as a principled act, a blow against monogamy, possession and ownership. All is fair in love and sex appears to be our motto. Some believe that marriage|trysting|coupling rituals might be a way to alert or communicate to lesbians in the community the importance and seriousness of our commitments. Bv participating in such rituals, women would have an investment in the relationship and its continuation.

self fulfilling prophecy

-- There is widespread cynicism among lesbians about long-term relationships. Many of us have simply resigned ourselves to serial pairings as a fact of lesbian life, painful and heart wrenching as they may be. Since we know of few enduring partnerships we believe that they cannot exist. Role models of long-term relationships, much less of satisfying and healthy ones, are rare. After each breakup, either our own or a friend's, we become a little less trusting, less willing to stick it out through hard times and adjustments. One part of us desperately wants a permanent relationship; another defeats us before we begin by believing that relationships can't last. We expect and get a series of brief affairs because that is all we know or experience. As a former lover was leaving me she told her family that lesbian relationships never survive longer than four or five years. Although we knew couples who had been together for 45, 13, 12, 11 and 10 years, my lover's relationships had lasted from three to five years. Her experiences had become her reality.

female conditioning

-- Lesbians are women and we are brought up, socialized, programmed and conditioned as women. Whenever Susan B. Anthony was upset at a woman's behavior she invariably reminded herself, "It is a condition of her bondage." There are behaviors and attitudes that women bring to intimate relationships which are a consequence of our social conditioning as females in a male supremacist society. Some of these ways of being contribute to problems in relationships. Among lesbians these learned behaviors constitute a double whammy since the relationship carries a double load of female-conditioned tendencies. Imagine the strain on a partnership when it involves two persons with low self esteem; two who try to please and depend on external validation in order to feel worthwhile; two who feel relatively powerless and therefore avoid conflict? What are the stresses on intimacy between two who are indirect and unassertive and have been trained to supress or lie about feelings?

Add to this the socially conditioned impulse to place relationships at the center of our lives, to merge and give up ourselves to a lover and to feel like victims and healthy relationships become even harder to sustain. Many counselors/therapists/friends who see lesbians through relationship problems and break ups have noted that women often lose their identities and personal boundaries and begin to mirror their partners. They do everything together, take on each other's habits and projects and tell themselves that this is a sign of closeness and love. At some point, one or both come to resent the loss of self and separate identity, blame their lover, and leave her in that order.

romantic addiction

-- Not only are lesbians socialised to make relationships the focus of existence, but Hollywood and our addictive society lead us to expect them to be intense, exciting, consuming, passionate, a continual high. Many of us are hooked on the high and experience withdrawal symptoms when the feelings begin to wane. We do not feel "in love" unless we lose ourselves in the other, feel as one, and are soulmates. When these feelings begin to fade and change, as they inevitably must, we struggle to sustain the sensations we are so addicted to. We try to re-invent and revitalize them by ritualized love making, play acting our initial meetings, planning romantic evenings and going to therapy to "work" on our love life. But no matter how hard we try, he cannot bring back the feelings of being passionately in love.

It is no coincidence that many lesbians break up at the point in the relationship at wnich the initial romance and passion have worn off and it is time to move into the next stage of intimacy. Either we do not accept that a transition is necessary, inevitable or do not know how to make the change. By continuing to break up at this critical juncture and starting over with a new lover, lesbians ensure that individually and collectively we never gain the kind of experiences necessary to move on to the next stage of relating.

In the process of falling in love in the first place we have had to lie to ourselves about our lover. We have had to screen out information about her, see only pieces and not the whole, idealize her, and put her on a pedestal. We have made our lover into our mind's creation. When we really come to know her for all she is and see both her strengths and weaknesses, we are disillusioned. We were not, after all, in love with a real, whole, complex and flawed human woman but with a fantasy. Possibly we are also addicted to the feelings of tension, anxiety and excitement which accompany being vulnerable and intimate with a new woman we don't really know. The new woman is perfect because she is a perfect stranger. She hasn't had an opportunity to hurt us yet or to disillusion us with her imperfections. Like many twentieth century Americans, we are addicted to novelty.

sexual scars

-- As women in heteropatriarchy we are sexually abused and exploited from birth to death by law, custom, religion, images, rape, incest and unwanted male attention. Consequently, many of us never achieve a comfortable and joyful sexuality. Joann Loulan explains this as resulting from the fact that women and girls in our culture have no "private space" (physical, emotional, psychical) free of male sexuality in which to nurture and develop our own desire. Instead, women are usually responding and reacting to or resisting male desire.2 As a result we often shut down completely, sometimes we numb ourselves with compulsive sexuality. Few of us seem to achieve a free and easy sexuality which is essentially pleasurable.

In lesbian couples there are two sexually tender women trying to work out a satisfying sexual relationship. A typical pattern of lesbian sexuality is to have a passionate beginning followed by decreased love making until we arrive at a point of almost total sexual abstinence, referred to by Loulan as "lesbian bed death." When passion is gone a tension is created in the relationship. Perhaps lesbians are especially vulnerable to the loss of lust because we have sacrificed so much for the right to make love to a woman. We begin to look for sexual excitement outside the relationship. Once we find good sex outside we fall in love because for most women sex and love are inextricably linked. If we are having passionate sex over here and not at home, we must be meant to be over here and not at home.

pathological communication problems

-- Women are stereotyped as gossips, as compulsive talkers who communicate incessantly about the minutiae of our lives. When we are having relationship problems, the stereotype fits. We do tend to talk too much to women outside the relationship and too little to the lover, friend or coworker with whom we are having the conflict. It is our way, learned over a lifetime of living in a culture which punishes honest expressions of feeling and in families where we have little value or power. We have learned the habit of complaining to others instead of confronting the source of the pain or problem. To make matters worse our confidantes talk too much to their friends who, in turn, talk too much to the other party involved in the troubled relationship. All this talk, indirect as it is, adds confusion, misinformation and distorted perceptions to an already problematic pudding. How different things might be if friends refused to listen to complaints and instead encouraged the principles in the conflict to talk to each other face to face.

Among lesbians the problem of lying (of lies, secrets, and silence) is compounded by our habit of covering up and hiding our very existence and suppressing our rage and hurt at having to deny who we are. Is it safe to assume that the habits of lying and of stuffing feelings negatively affect our abilities to trust and communicate honestly with each other?

woman hating

-- is not too strong a word for what we feel toward other women. We live in a misogynist society and even though we are lesbians who love women, we cannot escape this hatred. We have internalized both self hatred and a deep ambivalence toward women in general. Many lesbians, even if they are manhating separatists, have higher expectations and standards for women than for men. We judge women more harshly, punish failures and disappointments more severely, are less forgiving of slights or hurts. Our double standard sets our relationships up for failures.

Complicating our feelings are the deep, unresolved love/hate relationships many of us have with our mothers. We bring lots of emotional baggage from our families of origin into our lover relationships. We want to mother and to be mothered by our lover at the same time that we both love and hate our mothers.

Many of our problems, jealousies, dependency and control issues are simply old undealt with stuff with our Moms surfacing in our relationships with our lovers. Some lesbians choose women very much like their mothers; others pick as lovers women who they believe will give them what their real mothers never did. Others do a bit of both. Although heterosexual women may do something comparable in their relationships with men, they have been trained to repress their antagonism to Daddy. Women/lesbians are for the most part more consciously hostile, resentful and dependent on mothers than fathers and these feelings find their way into intimate love relationships with women.

There are undoubtedly other factors which I have not yet identified. Since I want a satisfying relationship and would like to channel the energy I spend breaking up into creative and productive living, I would like to help understanding this painful process now if not sooner. Let us continue the discussion so that we may have the deep love relationships we all deserve.


1. Conversations with Pauline E. Kayes, Marilyn Ryan, Ann Russo, Susan Hills, JoAnne K., Suzanne Gair, Candace Walworth, Mary Jo Kane, Lee C., Moon LaLune, Lu Snyder gave me new insights about lesbian relationships.

2. Joann Loulan speaking at Town Meeting on Sexuality, October 10, 1987, Washington, D.C. as part of the March for Lesbian and Gay Rights.

off our backs/april 1988/pages 18-19