Heterosexual and same-sex couples are treated equally by the law if their marriage fails. But do gay relationships have their own unique difficulties, asks Ellie O’Byrne
IT was one of those raw, unscripted moments in radio.
When novelist John Boyne opened up about the breakdown of his marriage on RTÉ’s The Marian Finucane Show recently, listeners took to the Twittersphere with messages of support for Boyne, praising his honesty.
In the candid interview with Brendan O’Connor, standing in for Finucane, the Boy In The Striped Pyjamas author revealed the toll the breakdown of his 11-year same-sex marriage had taken on his mental health, even leading to a suicide attempt the 47-year-old described as a “cry for help”.
“I’ve veered between great pain and sadness and brutal fury, and I’ve ended up in the hospital at one point after taking too many pills,” said Boyne.
Boyne and his ex-husband met 13 years ago and celebrated a civil union in 2014, but the relationship only lasted another two years. The couple split in 2016 and the papers finalising their dissolution were served the week of the interview, adding to Boyne’s emotional vulnerability.
Gay couples won the right to civil partnerships in Ireland in 2010, and the landmark 2015 Marriage Act, following on from Ireland’s historic same-sex marriage referendum result, has freed LGBT couples in Ireland to enjoy all the same rights to define and determine their lives with loved ones as their heterosexual peers.
But what about when marriages break down or enter difficulties? Are there struggles specific to gay couples who are in it for the long haul?
Niall Morris is a music producer and former member of The Celtic Tenors, who celebrated a civil ceremony with his Thai partner, Awut Prompan, in 2012. Morris and Awut, or Woody as he’s known, have settled into a happy domestic equilibrium in recent years, but they say the relationship hasn’t been without its rocky patches.
They met while Morris was holidaying in Thailand several years earlier. A holiday fling developed into something more serious until it got to the stage where Morris was flying to Thailand four times in a year. “It was insane, but love makes you go a bit mad,” says Morris.
Woody eventually joined Morris in Dublin on a holiday visa for a three-month stay. “Then I came back on a student visa and went to English School for a year. We really got to know each other in that year,” says Woody, who now works as an administrator for a Thai massage parlour in Templebar.
Turning a sunny holiday romance into a life together in Ireland came with challenges and the couple experienced difficulty adjusting, including cultural differences.
“The Irish sense of humour can be very dry,” says Morris. “Woody would take something I said literally and not speak to me for three days. But we haven’t argued for so long now — years really.”
The power dynamic between two men is one difference that Morris thinks is specific to gay male couples. “When we stopped competing with each other, that helped. I think that with two men, one can be trying to be more of the boss, but it doesn’t work. It works when we’re equal. Woody is much wiser than me. I always ask his advice on things because he’s going to give me the truth in a direct way.”
Homosexuality was only decriminalised in Ireland in 1993. The ostracisation, social stigma and isolation that LGBT people suffered in the Ireland of old is receding, but Morris is in his 40s and has seen society’s attitudes toward gay couples change radically. He says he and Woody have equally accepting families, a far cry from the traumatic family disownment often experienced in the past.
“I have to pinch myself sometimes, that my whole family is so inclusive,” says Morris. “My mum absolutely loves Woody. And in Thailand, it’s the same.”
Working lives have a large impact on relationships, and Morris’s work isn’t without its pressures. He’s currently in the count-down to the Bord Gais Energy Theatre performance of the show he wrote, Callas – The Life & Music of Maria Callas, in September, and says that directing requires focus and organisation to avoid stress.
Does it put a strain on the relationship?
“It is very, very full-on. Then once the show’s over there’s a lull. I think I handle it OK,” he says.
He checks with his husband: “Woody, do I get very grumpy?”
“He gets very grumpy and he gets in bad moods with me,” Woody responds mischievously.
“You see? I told you he was very honest,” quips Morris.
The couple didn’t swap their civil partnership for a full marriage following the introduction of the Marriage Act, as many couples did. This may account for the sharp increase in same-sex marriages in 2016, the first full year of legalised same-sex marriage. According to the Central Statistics Office 1,056 same-sex couples wed. In 2017, this figure dropped to 759 marriages. One difference between civil partnership and marriage is that to apply for a dissolution of a civil partnership a couple needs to have been separated for two years, while for divorce, a couple needs to have been apart for four years out of the past five.
Caoimhe Connolly, a partner at Moran and Ryan Solicitors on Baggot St in Dublin, specialises in family law and has handled several dissolution decrees of civil partnerships. She’s yet to encounter a same-sex divorce — these will only begin to materialise once the four-year time period elapses, although she says she’s already had inquiries.
“There are some marriages starting to deteriorate relatively early and certainly people have made inquiries,” she says. “But they’re advised of the necessary timelines and have to wait accordingly.”
When it comes to property and inheritance, Connolly says in her experience “same-sex couples face the same issues and difficulties as heterosexual couples”.
She has encountered far fewer same-sex couples with child dependents involved, but says this can pose particular problems.
“There haven’t been children involved in the majority of cases. I’ve had female same-sex clients where one partner has children from a previous relationship. The new female partner can develop a maternal relationship with [the other woman’s] children but doesn’t have many rights because they’re not blood relations and that can be quite sad for them. To date, I haven’t had a case regarding male same-sex couples with children involved.”
Statistics from other countries with legalised same-sex marriage vary as to how divorce rates among LGBT couples measure up against those among heterosexual married people, with most jurisdictions reporting lower or equal rates of divorce for same-sex couples.
Many countries note a gender difference: lesbian couples are more than twice as likely to get a divorce as gay men, the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported.
Is Ireland headed for a spike in divorce applications when the four-year cooling-off period has elapsed? “I think it will be a similar situation to when divorce came in across the board in 1996,” Connolly says. “There might be a small increase in numbers initially that will level out.”
Paula Fagan is the CEO of LGBT Ireland, a helpline and online chat service for LGBT people. They don’t specifically provide couples counselling, but she says callers to the helpline often want to talk about relationships. “I think it’s partly because they know it’s an LGBT person that they’re talking to, that they feel more comfortable,” she says. “We’ll see the relationship, rather than the sexuality.”
LGBT Ireland refers people to counsellors with expertise in LGBT relationships counselling, because, Fagan says, some gay people have reported dissatisfactory responses from therapists.
“I think there’s a fear among LGBT people that they might be misunderstood, but unfortunately in our experience, that can be the reality too,” she says.
“We hear that people have tried couples therapy and the service wasn’t great. Maybe the sexuality was in some way seen as the problem, rather than seeing the problems in the relationship itself.”
We’re coming from a recent history where gay people couldn’t openly mourn the loss of a relationship, Fagan says. “In our work with older people, we see this concept of disenfranchised grief, in the loss of a relationship to either break-up or bereavement. It just wasn’t seen as being as important as losing an opposite-sex partner.”
The dynamics of all relationships rely heavily on individual personalities, and naturally, the same issues such as trust, or learning coping mechanisms for arguments, are the same for all couples, but Fagan says that LGBT couples can face specific issues.
“There can be additional things, like maybe one of the partners isn’t that out, or has suffered a lot of rejection, or has had problems with family members,” she says. “So there can be specificities, but they need to be looked at as part of the person’s journey.”
Fagan says that relationships counsellors need to ensure they are professionally equipped to offer services to their LGBT clients.
“We urge professionals to ensure they offer LGBT-friendly services, and that’s a matter of training, skills and practice.”
Caught up in the euphoria of the marriage referendum result, were there couples that jumped into marriage head-first, ignoring serious relationship flaws?
Fagan doesn’t think so. The high rate of weddings in 2016 is more likely to be as a result of the many older couples who had waited years to tie the knot, she says.
Figures certainly back this. In 2017, the average age of grooms in same-sex marriages was 40.3 and the average age of brides was 40.5, according to the CSO, while in opposite-sex marriages, the average age for grooms and brides was 36.1 years and 34.1 years respectively.
All relationships run the risk of heartbreak, but for many older LGBT people, the rejection and discrimination that was the past norm in Ireland put their relationships under significant strain and often made forming life-long partnerships a near impossibility.
The first love-birds to have tied the knot under the Marriage Act are the pioneers, straddling worlds both old and new. Will their marriages stand the test of time?
“The first wave of marriages tended to be of very established relationships and people who had been together for a long time anyway,” says Fagan. “Will we see more divorces among those couples or less? It’s hard to say. We can only wait and see.”