GCN’s resident agony uncle, Dr. Ray O’Neill has landed a starring role on RTÉ’s new reality series, Then Comes Marriage, which sees engaged couples, gay and straight, go through an intensive weekend of relationship-testing together. Here he talks to Brian Finnegan about the specific issues same-sex couples encounter along the way.
“I’m the only male agony aunt in Ireland’s printed press,” says psychoanalyst Dr. Ray O’Neill, who has been GCN’s resident relationships expert for over seven years. It was his column in these pages that brought him to the attention of the producers of a new RTÉ 2 reality show, called Then Comes Marriage. They were looking for a male couples counselor to provide some gender balance in typically female world.
“A lot of mental health counseling tends to be quite female-dominated and the producers had the intention of not just having a team of women,” Ray adds.
The show, a six-parter, features gives couples the opportunity to prepare for their future life together at a kind of relationship skills bootcamp. Each week three couples decamp to a luxury country house for three days, where aided by Dr. Ray and psychologist, Allison Keating, they get their relationships stress-tested through therapy and other activities. This, the first season, will feature two same-sex couples, male and female, something Ray pushed for from the start.
“There would be marked differences between a female same-sex couple and a male same-sex couple,” says Ray, but one of the things they both share is how much the legacy of internalised homophobia still holds us, despite where we are today in terms of rights. There is a huge amount of doubt and insecurity that’s unconsciously written into us, that we don’t deserve this, that our relationships are less, that our relationships are precarious.”
Of course there are many ways in which the experiences of straight and gay couples overlap, but for same-sex couples there can be added complexity based on perceived gender divides. According to Ray, “Money, sex and housework are the three most important things to couples in terms of where the faultlines break in all couples, but with gay couples there tends to be a presumption that the masc, or the ‘top’, will be the breadwinner, and that the fem, or the bottom is going to do the vast majority of the housework.
“You see it in the question that’s most often asked of gay couples: Which one is the man and which one is the woman? That’s so debilitating, even for heterosexual couples, never mind insulting to same-sex couples, and one of the joys of working with LGBT couples is being able to challenge a lot of that. The gift the LGBT community can give to society at large is the breaking out of the compulsion to define yourself in a really Neolithic way, as ‘man’ and as ‘woman’.”
Another issue gay male couples in particular face is what Ray refers to as the ‘MacDonaldsisation’ of gay sex.
“I had a gay couple in their early 20s who came to me as clients, who wanted to discuss having an open relationship,” he explains. “When I asked them how long they’d been together, they told me four weeks. I said try having a relationship first, but then see what works for you if you want to open it. They felt this almost gay cultural conditioning that said you have to have this conversation because that’s what the gays do.
“Because fucking is so endemic and accessible in our culture with the Grindr world, a lot of gay couples will make the presumption that they can’t be monogamous, and that the only way to manage sexuality is to either have some kind of open relationship or turn a blind eye. There are so few of these couples that have non-monogamous relationships who approach their relationships very ethically and honestly. It’s not at all that I’m a promoter of monogamy, but I’m a huge promoter of honesty and prioritising your primary relationship.
“There is something incredible that happens with sexuality when you know somebody intimately over a long time, that no matter how great a fuck you find on Grindr might be. It’s easy to get McDonald’s sex, but if you want a five course meal, you have to spend time gathering the ingredients to fully enjoy it.”
Given the nature of the material on display, the 18 couples who made it to the final selection for Then Comes Marriage went through a rigorous process. “There are a lot of people drawn to being on television in a very naïve way,” says Ray. “I was shocked at how silly people could be. There were couples who were willing to put themselves in front of a camera who were far from ready.
“I loved that the production company and RTÉ respected that it isn’t some kind of car-crash TV story of a couple. It’s very authentic, real people with very identifiable dynamics and a lot of their privacy was respected. It’s a very brave and courageous thing to do. Even to go into couples counseling under normal circumstances, where there isn’t TV cameras, is a very courageous thing, as was trusting myself and Alison, that we weren’t going to make it into some freak show.”
Away from the cameras, Ray continues his own practice, along with writing his GCN monthly column. “I find it very humbling work and I love it because I get to be with people in an incredibly honest way. It makes small-talk very challenging in the rest of my life.
“Because of it I’ve probably set the bar high in expectations of what I want in a relationship too, and what I won’t put up with. I’m single at the moment and while it would be great to meet someone, I’ve learned from both personal and professional experience that the loneliest people in the world are the people in the wrong relationships. Being single affords me life experiences and opportunities that I couldn’t have if I was part of a couple.”
A second series of Then Comes Marriage has yet to be commissioned, the ratings for the first one will probably determine that, but one way or another, Ray is glad to have been involved. “My faith in the gorgeousness of people was really affirmed,” he says. “There were some amazing couples who despite the pressure involved made it all worthwhile by being so honest and present. My big hope is that a lot of couples watching will think ‘we’re not alone’. That in watching these people have these arguments, or frustrations or disappointments, they will find ways to address their own.
‘Then Comes Marriage’ is at 9pm on RTÉ 2 on Monday nights. This piece appears in GCN 326.
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