Developmental Stages of Gay Male Couples

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Developmental Stages of Gay Male Couples
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Summarised from David P. McWhirter, MD and Andrew M. Mattison, MSW, PhD. Chapter: “Psychotherapy for Gay Male Couples”. Book: “A Guide to Psychotherapy with Gay and Lesbian Clients”, Ed. Gonziorek (1982). Original publication McWhirter & Mattison (1984, Prentice Hall 0-13-547661-5)


Over a 5-year period (1974 to 1979), the authors interviewed in depth 156 gay male couples [in the California, San Diego County area] who were not in therapy and had lived together anywhere from 1 to more than 37 years. The mean time in a relationship was 8.7 years, with median being slightly over 5 years.

Six stages of relationship were identified.  The first four stages occurred within the first 10 years of the gay couple’s relationship.

The stages were presented as tentative formulations needing further clinical trial and research validation.

The conceptualisation of developmental stages has been very helpful in the clinical approach to therapy with gay male couples.

Stage One: Blending (First Year)


  • Blending
  • Limerence (falling in love, being romantically in love, intrusive thinking about the desired person, acute longing for reciprocation, sexual attraction).
  • Equality of partnership
  • High sexual activity

Blending is experienced as the intensity of togetherness gay men feel early in their relationships. Their similarities bind them, their differences are mutually overlooked.

Stage Two: Nesting (1 to 3 years)


  • Homemaking
  • Finding compatibility
  • Decline in limerance
  • Ambivalence

By the second year, more attention is paid to their surroundings taking the form of homemaking activities. Couples in this stage also tend to see each other’s shortcomings and discover or create complementarities that enhance compatibility setting the stage for the mixture of positive and negative feelings about the value of the relationship: ambivalence.

Stage Three: Maintaining (3 to 5 years)


  • Individualisation begins
  • Risk-taking
  • Dealing with Conflict
  • Relying on the relationship

Maintaining the relationship depends upon establishing balances between individualisation and togetherness, conflict and its resolution, autonomy and dependence, confusion and understanding. The intense blending of Stage Two clears the path for the re-emergence of the individual differences, indentified here as individualisation. Individualisation requires some necessary risk-taking.

Stage Four: Collaborating (5 to 10 years)


  • Collaborating
  • Productivity
  • Establishing independence
  • Dependability of partners

After 5 years together, couples experience a new sense of security and a decreasing need to process their interactions. The individualisation of Stage Three can progress to the establishment of independence, sustained by the steady, dependable availability of a partner for support, guidance and affirmation.

Stage Five: Trusting (10 to 20 years)


  • Trust
  • Merger of money and possessions
  • Constriction
  • Taking the relationship for granted

Trust develops gradually for most people. The trust of Stage Five includes a mutual lack of possessiveness and a strong positive regard for each other.

Stage Six: Repartnering (20 years and beyond)


  • Attainment of goals
  • Expectation of permanence of the relationship
  • Emergence of personal concerns
  • Awareness of the passage of time

The twentieth anniversary appears to be a special milestone for gay male couples. A surprising number of couples reported a renewal of their relationship after being together for 20 years or more.

Comparing Studies.

When comparing the “Marital Stages” by E. Street (heterosexual relationships) with “Gay Male Partnership Stages” by McWhirter & Mattison, and interesting parallel emerges:-

Marital Stages
Gay Male Partnership Stages
1st Romance Stage One: Blending
2nd Reality Stage Two: Nesting
3rd Power Struggles Stage Three: Maintaining
4th Finding Oneself Stage Four: Collaborating
5th Working through Stage Five: Trusting
6th Mutuality Stage Six: Repartnering

See also Counselling for LGBT Couples.

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