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Responsibilities in relationships beyond gender roles

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Sep 02, 2023

Responsibilities in relationships beyond gender roles
  • Navigating responsibilities in LGBTQ+ relationships goes beyond mere adherence to gender. Gender roles can be restrictive and even harmful.  Binary gender has also completely warped our understanding of how we show up for other people in relationships. There are so many moments in all types of relationships where I am struck by how little our society prepares us to be in a caring community with each other. 

    It’s almost comical that we devote so much of this conversation to house chores, not that they aren’t important, but they are only one element of the vast array of needs and desires that we all bring to the table. 

    Gender roles make us lazy, allow us to fall into false assumptions, and without them, you have to be more intentional. But I promise you, there are queer people today, there were queer people yesterday, and there will be queer people tomorrow finding ways to be respectful and caring in relationships outside of the gender binary. 

    I don’t think queer people get enough credit for the profound ways they shape relationship roles outside of gender. When I was researching this piece, the first result from a google search for “responsibilities in a lesbain relationship” pulls up an article from 2016 with the headline “Who’s the man?” and the second result is a  study from 1982 about gender roles and chores. Same-sex couples have different gender roles than heterosexual couples? Obviously. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. 

    It’s a shame because I know from experience that queer couples have figured out new and innovative ways to be in healthy relationships, but we are rarely given a platform to express this. I grew up with queer parents and surrounded by other LGBTQ families. I didn’t realize at the time what a radical act it was for my parents to do the simple things — writing grocery lists, cooking dinner, caring for each other, balancing their own family obligations, dividing childcare. In adulthood, I have a unique privilege to mold my own version of what that balance will look like for myself. 

    Of course the magic of queer relationships is there is no one-size-fits-all. Your version of a balanced, open, loving relationship will be completely unique to you and your partners. 

    Finding balance in your relationship

     A queer couple on a bed, they’re smiling, talking, and resting on one another.

    Balancing responsibilities is a sign of a healthy relationship, but it takes communication and practice to know what to expect of your partner and vice versa. It’s one of those things that you start to know what it feels like once you’re doing it. Truthfully, every breakup I’ve ever experienced was also the result of an imbalance in relationship responsibilities, and I’m still learning how to give and receive care in romantic relationships. 

    Each relationship will have a completely different set of responsibilities to balance, and these tasks will change over a relationship’s lifetime. When my parents finally mastered the lesbian housework balance, then they had my brother and me and had to figure out childcare. Hello! 

    Also, balance has a sister, and her name is flexibility. I can never achieve perfect balance, but I think of it as an equilibrium. For example, I’ve been going through a loss in my family, and my partner has picked up a lot of that emotional support. Is she going to dump me because we’re not balanced enough? I sure hope not! Just kidding, we’ve talked about it. She knows that life happens, and when she needs me in that way, I’m there for her too. 

    Dividing chores in LGBTQ+ relationships

    A queer couple talking on a leather couch, with two dogs beside them.

    Of course, someone needs to water the plants and feed the cats. If you’re living with a partner or a regular guest at their place, you do need to talk about some basics. 

    Dr. Lynda Spann, founder of the Lesbian Couples Institute, lists dividing work and chores as one of the signs you’re in a healthy lesbian relationship. 

    “You negotiate the division of labor in your house, the chores based on your strengths or your interests, not based on gender roles”

    Dr. Lynda Spann

    LGBTQ relationships are DIY. This means you do have to take the time to sit down and talk about who will do what and hold each other to those commitments. You’re more than welcome to make a chore chart. My partner is an amazing cook and it brings her endless joy, while I am a compulsive cleaner and can happily spend an hour dusting and vacuuming. 

    That being said, these roles don’t need to be set in stone. When your partner comes home after a long day, maybe you want to step up and cook dinner on their night. 

    Other relationship responsibilities

    A queer couple kissing passionately on a beach.

    There are so many ways outside of chores that we care for each other in relationships and balance the labor of love. There are emotional, financial, social, and sexual responsibilities that people often share in a relationship, and countless others. 

    Social responsibilities 

    One of the main responsibilities that I’ve shared with my partners is a social life. It takes a lot of work to find a balance between alone time, one-on-one time, and time with friends. I’ve been in relationships where they were very dependent on me in social situations, and I’ve also been with people where it was the complete opposite. 

    We are all unique little social creatures, and it takes time to learn someone’s needs. It’s easy to assume we know our partner’s disposition — especially in lesbian relationships where women and nonbinary people are often expected to hold up the emotional side of social situations — but there are nuances that will always surprise you. 

    This is where I recommend the night-out debrief. Get a little snack and some water, and unpack every little interaction. Discuss what was awkward, what was silly, and what was fun. It’s gossip that’s good for your relationship 

    Managing financial responsibilities

    Here’s an unhelpful brain rot narrative from gender roles: the idea that you’re never supposed to talk about money. What did this culture of silence ever get us? Insane socioeconomic equality? The gender and racial pay gap? Rampant capitalism destroying the earth? Yeah, no thank you. 

    So let’s be transparent about money. And that includes in our relationships. The level of shared financial responsibility with a partner may range from splitting the bill on a first date to joint bank accounts. But at each new stage, it’s important to talk about it. Discuss what you’re comfortable spending in your shared life. Find a balance that works for you both. Discuss what your financial priorities and goals are and decide if you want to work toward them together. 

    Handling emotional responsibilities 

    We are gay! We are in a relationship! And oh boy we have feelings!

    Sometimes I roll my eyes a bit at all the ways that the unique parts of queer relationships get written off as a product of us having more emotions. I think it’s much more complicated than that. I also think in a heteropatriarchy, cis men get to make a lot of emotional mess and the rest of us have learned to pick up the pieces and be attune to anything else that could set off more destruction. Anyway, I digress.

    But yes, we have feelings, and we care for each other in those feelings while balancing our own needs and reactions. Handling emotional labor in a relationship takes a lifetime of practice. In every relationship I’ve ever had, there have been times when we hit our stride and other times when we fall out of sync. 

    In my last breakup, this is where I fell short. I knew I was taking on too much of her emotional load and not allowing her to return the favor. I was caving into myself, holding back. And when it ended, I realized our emotional responsibility was completely lopsided, and I allowed it to happen. It took a lot of personal reflection to figure out how to open up again. 

    We don’t have to be perfect at handling our emotions to be in relationships, but being with another person means your impact is greater, in ways that are magical and difficult. It’s a great power — and a great responsibility. 

    Addressing sexual responsibilities

    If sex is a part of your relationship, it’s good to understand what you expect of each other

    And no — it’s not about who’s the top and who’s the bottom. What do you like? What does consent look like to you? What do you want to try? How often do you want to have sex? Are you monogamous? These are all important questions for establishing boundaries and balance in a sexual relationship with a partner. 

    As a final word on dividing responsibilities, I encourage you to be intentional — this is my life advice for everything. Every mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve caused by being careless, with friends, with work, with relationships, with myself. The more I approach the people in my life with intention and love, the better off I’ve been. 

    When it comes to relationship responsibilities, I firmly believe that the more thought and intention you put in, the better. It’s when things go unspoken that resentments rise. 

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    Catherine Henderson is a journalist based in Chicago. She has worked at a wide variety of newsrooms, including The Denver Post, Chalkbeat, Business Insider and In These Times, covering education, career development and culture. Catherine holds a master’s and bachelor’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University. Outside of work, she enjoys traveling, exploring Chicago, reading LGBTQ lit, and analyzing internet trends.

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