According to census data, there were roughly 125,000 same-sex couples raising approximately 220,000 children in the United States in 2010. Since that time, increasing numbers of same-sex couples have declared committed partnerships, capturing the attention of policymakers and bringing the issue of legal recognition of same-sex partnerships to the forefront of politics.
In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the landmark case of Obergefell v. Hodges and ultimately declared it unconstitutional for any state to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples. In doing so, the Supreme Court said that rights historically awarded to married partners, including adoption rights, must be extended to same-sex couples. Although state legislation traditionally determines specific limitations to adoption rights awarded to married couples, under Obergefell v. Hodges, said spousal rights must apply to all couples equally.
This past summer, a federal court judge ruled adoption by same-sex couples legal in all 50 states. However, judges who make decisions to award parental rights can still create more stringent guidelines or additional hurdles for same-sex couples. So although this ruling is monumental in taking strides toward equality, it does not eliminate subtle discrimination experienced by same-sex couples seeking adoption rights.
As institutional and legal barriers to same-sex marriage and parenthood continue to diminish, counselors are increasingly called on to provide support for same-sex couples who are establishing legally recognized families. CACREP (Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs) accreditation standards require programs to provide counseling students with training for supporting various issues in diverse relationships and families. However, more training and awareness are needed to properly prepare counselors to offer support specifically for same-sex couples and families.
For many years, same-sex couples could not find appropriately trained counselors to provide family and couples therapy. Now same-sex couples feel welcomed and have more referral options for counseling, but counselors still often lack specific training in best practices for supporting these couples and families headed by same-sex parents. Considering the systemic influences that affect same-sex couples, a counseling approach that also considers the systemic context is ideal.
Structural family therapy
Structural family therapy (SFT), developed by Salvador Minuchin, offers a means for counselors to address systemic issues in various contexts. The SFT approach is empirically validated and offers a map for counselors to conceptualize a family system on the basis of the roles the family members play. In addition to examining the family as a system, SFT takes into account the greater societal contexts that have an impact on the family.
Minuchin based his theory on the assumption that each family member plays a role within the family. Using Minuchin’s therapeutic approach, a counselor observes patterns in the family’s interactions to determine the hierarchy within the family system. Subsystems such as spousal, parental and sibling may also be present within the family. Any imbalance in the power, boundaries or roles within the family represents dysfunction in the system.
The goal of SFT is to adapt the structure of the family to the needs of its members to improve the function of the family system. This goal is accomplished in three phases:
1) Joining with the family
2) Enacting interactions within the therapy environment to observe family member roles
3) Creating unbalance to expand current roles, introduce boundaries and accommodate the needs of the family members in the system
As part of the SFT process, the counselor “joins” the family system to correct dysfunction. Minuchin described “joining” as the process of the counselor being accepted by the family to create a therapeutic bond. The trust gained in the joining process creates a therapeutic system that lasts the duration of the counseling relationship. The counselor works to help the family establish clear roles, while deconstructing power within the family system and subsystems. The goal is to create a functional hierarchy that meets the needs of family members.
One advantage to using SFT with same-sex parents is that this approach considers larger systemic influences on the family. Counselors working with same-sex couples may need to address unique systemic challenges. Thus, it is important to raise awareness in the counseling community about such issues so that we can address biases, practice awareness of issues facing the population and have a broad societal view of the family system and societal challenges impacting families with same-sex parents.
The road to parenthood
Traditional conception of children is not an option for same-sex couples. Thus, the road to parenthood for these couples is often emotional, complicated and challenging.
Some of these couples may already have children from previous relationships. SFT provides guidelines for work with blended families, but in many respects, same-sex couples have unique challenges in establishing family systems. In the past, many states would not recognize the adoption of children within same-sex partnerships. For same-sex partners with children from previous relationships, this meant that only the biological parent was able to serve as the legal guardian of these children. This created stress and conflict within relationships because the biological parent’s current partner was left without any legal rights as a parent. Not having legal guardianship of a child can cause same-sex partners to feel unclear about their parental identities. In turn, this may result in conflict within the partnership or struggles to establish a parenting relationship with children.
Egg donation and surrogacy: Not all couples have biological children from previous relationships, but the issue of legal co-guardianship is persistent regardless of how same-sex partners become parents. Same-sex couples may choose to pursue parenthood through surrogacy or through in vitro fertilization using a sperm or egg donor. In both cases, couples must choose which partner will be allowed to have the biological identity as the child’s parent. Because state laws have not always recognized the adoption rights of same-sex couples, the biological parent of the child often maintains all legal rights of guardianship.
Considering recent court rulings, the nonbiological parent may now seek status as a legal guardian. However, this parent may have experienced a lack of power in the family for some time because he or she was previously unable to identify as either a biological or legal parent.
Additionally, decisions must be made regarding the degree to which surrogates or sperm/egg donors will be included in and involved with the family. Thus, these family systems will potentially have multiple layers and subsystems, meaning that the same-sex partners may experience additional stress as they navigate choices concerning the level of connection to donors and surrogates.
Traditional adoption: The Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges acknowledged the possibility of same-sex couples facing continued institutional barriers, specifically naming instances of adoption agencies affiliated with religious organizations denying child placements for these couples. This past summer, a federal judge ruled a state ban on same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional, thus eliminating some systemic barriers to parenthood. Although overt discrimination in denying same-sex couples opportunities for adoption was eliminated, subtle discrimination that reinforces heterosexist standards of parenthood can still force same-sex couples to face stigma and additional stress during the adoption process. Same-sex couples have traditionally encountered legal obstacles, high standards for approval and long waiting periods to become adoptive parents. Historically, these institutional barriers have been substantial, causing many same-sex couples to turn to the foster care system in their pursuit of parenthood.
Foster to adopt: Foster care agencies often permitted same-sex couples to serve as foster parents, but there was always the question of whether the court system would subsequently deny these couples the option to legally adopt. This was often confusing and emotionally distressing for couples hoping to start families and gain the identity of parents. The Supreme Court has addressed these legal barriers, but it is unclear at this point what institutional and social barriers will remain for same-sex foster parents seeking legal adoption.
Additionally, same-sex couple foster parents may experience a lack of institutional support in preparing foster children for placement with a gay or lesbian couple. Thus, the adjustment to the placement can be more stressful for both the couple and the child. Couples may also experience subtle discrimination and a lack of sensitivity regarding pronoun use in record-keeping (for example, suggesting a father and mother caring for children, as opposed to two mothers or two fathers).
In addition to the typical stresses associated with blended families or adoptive parenting relationships, same-sex couples often feel that they must fight to gain recognition in their identities as parents, both legally and socially. This can create high levels of stress within these partnerships.
In 1979, Urie Bronfenbrenner discussed various social and political systems that influence individuals as members of society, including those individuals navigating marriage and parenthood. In addition to considering the legal and institutional challenges faced by same-sex couples in gaining identity as parents, counselors using SFT must consider the influences of the societal systems to which these clients belong. Unfortunately, discrimination and systemic challenges are still present after same-sex couples become parents, and counselors may need to help families navigate additional systemic challenges in raising children.
Institutional and legal challenges: Same-sex couples have long faced institutional barriers in gaining validation and recognition of their partnerships and marriages. Obergefell v. Hodges awarded the right to marry to same-sex couples and extended historically implied rights to same-sex couples who marry. However, states reserve the ultimate power to choose which rights to award (and to what degree) to married couples, including taxation, sharing of property and legal adoption. These discriminatory barriers exist beyond the courts. Among the institutional challenges that present struggles for same-sex couples attempting to establish family systems are division of work, parental leave and guardianship rights in caring for children.
Same-sex couples may experience challenges in deciding how to adapt their work schedules when raising children because of less employer flexibility, especially in the case of gay men. Thus, one partner may become the “breadwinner,” establishing greater financial power within the relationship. Given that legal adoption is not always permitted for nonbiological parents in a same-sex partnership, gaining access to a child’s medical or school records may also be a challenge.
In addition, same-sex couples often face challenges simply in finding a residence for their families. Research shows that landlords have traditionally assumed that same-sex couples will be troublesome tenants. Given limited choices for renting property, one partner may then become the legal owner of the couple’s purchased property. Particularly if this partner is already identified as the breadwinner of the family or the biological parent of the couple’s child, this situation can create a further imbalance of power within the parental subsystem.
Social challenges: Beyond institutional challenges, same-sex parents also experience subtle discrimination in social groups. Same-sex parents may not feel that they fit within traditional parenting roles and thus may not feel as accepted in social groups with heterosexual parents. Socially, same-sex parents can be the targets of hypercriticism for their parenting decisions by heterosexual parents.
Criticism and rejection are not isolated only to social groups. Families of origin may also express disapproval of same-sex couples becoming parents. Ultimately, same-sex couples may feel like outsiders in both social and familial groups, thus creating another source of conflict within the partnership.
Given that they are raising children in a heterosexual-centered society, same-sex parents may lack role models for navigating decisions as parents. When combined with social invalidation, this can leave same-sex parents feeling alone and lost.
Finding social support provides comfort for parents and children who are experiencing hyperawareness of the dominant heterosexual culture. Thus, same-sex parents often seek to create a new “family of choice” for social support. Same-sex parents often worry that their children will be subjected to heteronormative standards and social expectations in school. Children who have same-sex parents may experience discrimination or bias in social groups. Having the social support of other same-sex couples makes it easier for parents and their children to cope with discrimination and heterosexual norms.
Considerations for practice
Under SFT, the counselor joins with the family, becoming a part of the system instead of being a bystander to the process. Once this happens, the counselor will address issues of power, hierarchy, boundaries among family members and rules within the family system. The focus on family roles allows the counselor to adapt to the family system beyond traditional gender roles, which makes SFT ideal for work with same-sex couples and their families. Same-sex couples lack the traditional “mother” and “father” role within the family, so couples establish parenting identities based on their unique family system.
To determine the structure of the family system, a counselor must observe patterns of behavior among family members. In many cases, the lack of traditional gender roles among same-sex couples creates opportunities for greater balance in home and work responsibilities and egalitarian roles in parenting. Same-sex couples often experience greater fluidity and equality in parenting responsibilities than do heterosexual couples. Thus, decision-making in distribution of power within the partnership becomes more intentional.
The more gender-fluid roles of parents in same-sex families may challenge a counselor’s fundamental views of family. Thus, a counselor working with a same-sex couple must be aware of personal biases, or else the counselor may project gender labels onto family members. In addition, in recognizing one parent as more nurturing, it would be important not to automatically project onto the other parent the label of disciplinarian, especially considering the complementary function of parents under SFT. Instead, realize that gender fluidity in parenting roles means that same-sex parents may be sharing aspects of roles as both nurturer and disciplinarian.
In part because families with same-sex parents may not always receive support from biological family members, it is common for these parents to include neighbors or other social supports in their definition of the family system. The SFT approach allows for a more flexible definition of family. Thus, same-sex parents can invite social supports beyond the biological family to participate in family therapy. A large piece of SFT involves examining the authority exercised with children. This provides the counselor with insight regarding the hierarchy within the family system. Remembering that social supports may become an influential part of same-sex families, the counselor should remain open to considering the authority of nonparental figures within the family system.
Counselors must practice awareness of societal influences on families because these challenges often affect the balance of power within the family. Although societal issues may not be the presenting issue within the family, the influence of societal systems is always present. Additionally, counselors must practice ongoing reflection to be aware of biases in their work with this population. Working to eliminate subtle discrimination in the counseling environment — for instance, by creating gender-neutral intake forms — can create a welcoming environment for same-sex couples and their families.
SFT provides a framework to conduct counseling that considers systemic influences on families with same-sex parents. Recognizing the systemic and social barriers that same-sex parents face is a huge first step. Counselors must be aware of their own biases regarding their views of families when working with same-sex parents. In joining with the family system, counselors should be cautious not to assign gender roles to family members. Counselors also must be open to including social supports outside of the immediate family in the counseling relationship.
By practicing awareness of systemic barriers facing same-sex couples and being open to unique family systems, counselors can provide much-needed services to these now legally recognized partners who are navigating the road to parenthood and parenting in a heteronormative world.
Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.
Amanda C. DeDiego is an assistant professor of counseling at the University of Wyoming. She is a national certified counselor and has clinical experience in school, grant program, community and private practice settings with diverse client populations. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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