Sue Gill, PhD, Licensed Psychologist

the Days of Our lives 

Exploring the dynamics behind lesbian drama.  Ways to improve boundaries in your relationships, regardless of your gender/preference

Lesbian drama. Just reading those words makes many of us smile and nod and say, “Oh, I know it well.” Why does lesbian drama seem so intense? How is it that we get so easily sucked into it? Is there something special about lesbians that makes us prone to getting sucked into dramatic twists and turns of relationship dynamics?  By the way, if you aren’t a lesbian, you can keep reading this. I have the feeling that lesbian drama exists in your world too—maybe under a different name.

Jane is mad at Kathy because some dyke kept eyeing Kathy when they were out at the bar last weekend. Lisa is figuring out how to keep Claire away from Lisa’s ex when they go the picnic next week so that Claire doesn’t find out that Lisa’s ex and Claire’s ex are dating one another. Sherry couldn’t decide if she would play softball this year because she has friends on three different teams and doesn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. Shannon just hung up the phone after listening to Katie complain about Sara, when Sara calls to complain about Katie. Shannon definitely feels stuck in the middle of that lesbian drama!

Dual Roles

Such drama exists in part because we belong to such a small sub-community that overlapping relationship dynamics are almost inevitable. This can lead to the feeling that everyone has dated one another and that everybody knows each other’s business. In my training as a psychologist, I was taught that I had to be much more careful in situations when relationship roles were likely to overlap. In the world of psychology this is called “dual roles,” and the concept might be a helpful way to guide our understanding of how to reduce the intensity of relationship drama.

Dual roles are often tricky because they blur emotional boundaries, and they have the potential to harm if there is a power differential in the relationship. Plus they feel weird sometimes (think about how you might feel if a professor in a class in which you struggled asked you out on a date). I rely heavily on two principles when dealing with situations where dual roles are likely to exist. The first one I call, “Play on Your Own Side of the Tennis Court.” The second is “never Do Something That You Will later resent.”

“Play on your Own side of the tennis Court.”

This is a hard skill for lesbians to learn. We are always trying to live other peoples’ lives in the name of “helping” them. Is somebody you know in a bad relationship? Tell them, “I am worried about you as it seems that you are in a bad relationship. I am happy to listen to you if you want. Here are some resources.” That’s it. The rest of the job is theirs. You have to let them play their side of the tennis court, make their own decisions, live their life in the way that they choose. Trying to play both sides of the tennis court might involve lots of talking with all of your mutual friends about what to do about the friend who’s in the bad relationship, calling around to find them a therapist, and lots of talking with the friend to convince them that they are in a bad relationship. It will also lead to you feeling burned out and frustrated that your friend won’t take your advice, distance between you and your friend, lots of dissenting opinions among all of your mutual friends about “what to do with our friend who’s in this terrible relationship,” and probably hard feelings on the part of the friend. The real kicker is that all of this “help” will not even lead to any quicker change on the part of the friend. Try to stay on your own side of the tennis court. It works better that way—both in tennis and in relationships.

“Never Do Something That You Will Later Resent.”

This is one way to think about “boundaries,” a concept in mental health that is often discussed but only vaguely understood. Haven’t we all taken a late night phone call from a friend only to hang up pissed off at them for calling so late about something that could have waited? Have you even gotten involved in something sexual that you later regretted, and on reflection felt pressured into? If you feel mad at another person for something you did for or with them or something they did to you, it is a sign that an inner boundary, line, or ethical value that you hold has been violated. This can happen when another person willfully violates a specific request you made (e.g., “Please don’t call me after 10 p.m. unless it’s an emergency.”), or when you did not recognize and voice your own inner preferences. This can be what happened if you notice yourself thinking later, “That was so rude of her. Couldn’t she tell that I wasn’t _______ (fill in your own example here).” This will happen to all of us on occasion, but there are ways to minimize how often it occurs. This is important because if boundary violations become habitual they can ruin any relationship.

To get better at identifying your own inner boundaries, try some of the following tips. before agreeing to do something, ask yourself if there’s a chance you may later resent it. If you feel even a tinge of that possibility, think hard before agreeing to do it! There may be room for compromise where you say, “I am not up for doing that, but how about this?” If compromise doesn’t work, be assured that saying “no” is better than carrying around resentments in your relationships. Pay attention to what is bothering you about the people in your life. Have you clearly expressed your preferences in calm and proactive ways? It is not fair for you to expect people to read your mind.

Lesbian drama may be an inevitable part of living within small lGbT communities. However it can be significantly lessened if you remember to play on your own side of the tennis court and if you never do things that you will later resent. 

written by Sue Gill. Originally Appeared in Our Lives Magazine July/August 2010.