Lesbian And Gay Couples: Balancing Work And Relationships

Experiences Of  Dual-Career Lesbian & Gay Couples

Kristen Martinez, a Seattle-based therapist at Pacific NorthWell who specializes in women’s issues and LGBT+ issues, explores the portrayal of lesbian and gay couples in research through her critique of “A Phenomenological Exploration of the Experiences of  Dual-Career Lesbian and Gay Couples”.

A Critique of O’Ryan and McFarland’s “A Phenomenological Exploration of the Experiences of Dual-Career Lesbian and Gay Couples”

Though counseling-related research is becoming increasingly available on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) population, there is still a long way to go with regard to understanding the specific barriers, stressors, resiliency strategies, and assets of the various members of this marginalized community. In their article, “A Phenomenological Exploration of the Experiences of Dual-Career Lesbian and Gay Couples”, O’Ryan and McFarland (2010) elucidate some of these coping mechanisms via a qualitative analysis. This article can be viewed as strong since it received publication within the Journal of Counseling & Development; however, its scope of study is solely limited to lesbian and gay individuals, and doesn’t begin to cover the experiences of bisexual or transgender individuals. While my focus of interest broadly involves the LGBT community, I am most specifically interested in transgender people; but until the counseling literature catches up on transgender experiences, I will be exploring the research available on the LGBT community at large, in whatever discipline it comes from.

            Within the article, the abstract delineates what the title alludes to: a qualitative study focused on lesbian and gay couples’ abilities to intersect their romantic relationship with their individual work environments, emphasizing solidarity in the face of stigmatization. The abstract also mentions implications for counselors, which makes its findings more useful to the real world. The introduction is succinct, describing career counseling’s shift in focus toward holistic thinking, stressing the increase in dual-earner couples in society, and mentioning career counseling’s burgeoning interest in issues of minority clients, including sexual minorities: “Lonborg and Phillips (1996) and Pope (1995) recommended that researchers examine dual-career and multiple-role issues for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people” (O’Ryan & McFarland, 2010, p. 71). In this manner, a very clear rationale is given for the study; however, the needs of bisexual people are not addressed in this article. The literature review is split up into clear divisions: “Dual-Career Couples”; “Career Counseling for Lesbians and Gay Men”; “Counseling for Dual-Career Lesbian and Gay Couples” (O’Ryan & McFarland, 2010, pp. 71-72). There are many articles evaluated within the literature review, but, perhaps because the topic is so specific, much of the literature is not current (within five to ten years of the publication date of 2010); this lack of current literature does provide another rationale for the study.

            O’Ryan and McFarland’s (2010) research methodology is identified as qualitative, with an emphasis on illuminating “themes and relationship at the case level” (p. 72); specifically, research by Moustakas, a leader in the field, is cited by the authors as the basis for the study’s phenomenological perspective. The research design consists of five open-ended questions given by the two researchers (the two authors); the entirety of the questions is viewable as Appendix A at the end of the article. Snowball sampling was used to locate participants; this is a clever way to find participants of such a specific nature, but in its essence it isn’t random (problematic if this were a quantitative study, but a non-issue here in the qualitative realm). Furthermore, some rigorous ways to narrow down participants were developed: “To be selected as participants, couples had to have been in a committed relationship for more than 1 year, and both partners had to have identified themselves as being highly committed to their careers” (O’Ryan & McFarland, 2010, p. 73). Also, participants were selected who would display a broad range of ethnic, cultural, and age-related experiences, which is something to consider given the small sample size of only 5 lesbian couples and 4 gay couples (18 participants total). The authors didn’t specifically mention assessing for internal and external validity, but since this is a qualitative study, they did take their own special precautions: “Research questions were designed and a pilot interview was conducted to validate the approach, design, and overall quality of the interview questions” (O’Ryan & McFarland, 2010, p. 72). Interviews were audiotaped, with one of the authors doing most of the interviewing, and another of the authors observing and taking notes of each interview. The authors presumably protected themselves against error by the processes of verification, triangulation, audit, phenomenological reduction, and horizonalization, which they briefly describe, but since I’m not very familiar with phenomenological studies, I don’t quite understand their rationale for undertaking these procedures. The study seems feasible in nature, due to its (mostly) uncomplicated and inexpensive format. No ethical considerations were mentioned, except when O’Ryan and McFarland (2010) note that “[p]articipants had to have a willingness to recall and describe their experiences” in order to be involved with the study (p. 73).

            O’Ryan and McFarland engaged in data analysis via reading every transcript, then coding and categorizing participants’ statements. Through this analysis, they came across three major themes and ten subthemes of dual-career lesbian and gay couples; the identified themes were “Planfulness”, “Creating Positive Social Networks”, and “Shifting from Marginalization to Consolidation and Integration”, and they are provided with greater detail into their subthemes in Appendix B. The results are given clearly and with regard to detail; as is expected from a qualitative study, much quoting of participants’ perspectives is used to give evidence for the strength of these results and themes with regard to the intersection of relationship and career in gay and lesbian dual-income couples. The discussion section connects the authors’ findings to results found in the extant literature, strengthening the validity of their study.

            The implications for counseling are very concretely focused on career counseling, somewhat focused on marriage and family therapy, but generally viewable within the lens of mental health counseling. After all, even as a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC), I will still come across clients whose issues focus on their careers and/or their romantic relationships. Future research delineates how the three major themes discovered by O’Ryan and McFarland (2010) could be more specifically put into practice by counselors with dual-career lesbian and gay clients (p. 77). The major recommendation for future research involves the experiences of bisexual and transgender individuals; more specifically, the authors pose a question of bisexuals’ multiple-role issues and functioning within dual-career couples. A more broad focus of future research involves couples’ reactions – negative or positive – to counseling.

            I found a major strength of this article to be its emphasis on direct quotes from participants to elaborate on themes and increase awareness of this minority’s perspective navigating the social realm of the workplace. I think a major limitation is the fact that this study solely examined the experiences of lesbian women and gay men, ignoring bisexual and transgender people; more research needs to be done on these populations, in my opinion, than with gay men and lesbian women, but it is a start. Overall, it is a well-done article.


O’Ryan, L. W., & McFarland, W. P. (2010). A phenomenological exploration of the experiences of dual-career lesbian and gay couples. Journal of Counseling & Development, 88, 71-79.

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