Reasonable Expectations

change Jul 13, 2019
"Seeking insight from a professional counselor is a sign of strength and humility. If a person chooses to seek such help, others should respect his or her right to determine the desired outcomes.
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While shifts in sexuality can and do occur for some people, it is unethical to focus professional treatment on an assumption that a change in sexual orientation will or must occur. Again, the individual has the right to define the desired outcome." – Seeking Professional Help, churchofjesuschrist.org

There is a lot of noise in society about the dangers of "conversion therapy". A lot of it focuses on aversive practices, none of which are today practiced by reputable therapists. Most therapy these days that is used in an attempt to change "orientation" is just talk therapy, the same kind of talk therapy any patient would receive by going to a therapist for depression, anxiety, or sexual addictions.

These therapies are generally accepted as effective and safe, without regard to the specific issue the therapy is intended to treat.

Yet there are some people that speak about harm from regular talk therapy. As I've observed and read, that harm seems to stem from two things - outsized expectations about the permanency and effectiveness of therapy, and believing that change must occur in order to achieve happiness or self-worth.

Reputable practitioners of therapies aimed at modifying homosexuality do not claim that they are permanent cures, nor do they claim that everyone will experience change. Note Joseph Nicolosi's words in his seminal work "Reparative Therapy of Male Homosexuality":

In his final work, "Analysis: Terminable and Interminable," Freud concluded that analysis is essentially a lifetime process. This is true in the treatment of homosexuality, which – like many other therapeutic issues such as alcoholism or self-esteem problems – requires an ongoing growth process. Yet while there are no shortcuts to personal growth, how long it takes to reach a goal is not as important as the choice of direction. A sense of progress toward a committed value is what is important. The non-gay homosexual is on the road to unifying his sexuality with his masculine identity. That he can look back over the past months and see a realization of some of the goals to which he has committed – this is what gives hope.

In my own experience, at times progress has been astounding and at others slow. I have backtracked at times. This can be discouraging, but then I remind myself of two things – it takes a long time to change any subconcious process, and I can accept and live with any amount of change, or none at all. Changes – or lack thereof – in my attractions do not determine my self worth.

What's most important to me in these therapies is that the explanations given by Nicolosi and others for my attractions are much more peace-inducing and self-affirming than the common "born that way" idea.

What seems to hurt my progress the most is when others who also experience same-sex attraction tell me I must be "lying to myself". I can think of many examples that prove I am not experiencing self-deception, but, as many people, I can be very influenced by social pressure, and the self-doubt and distress such statments cause are difficult and traumatic. I cannot imagine how discouraging it would be to live in a place where my therapist had to tell me any change I experienced was merely self-deception.

While I have increased in my ability to respond sexually to my wife and decreased in my sexual response toward other men, those are by far the least important and significant changes I have experienced as a result of therapy. For so many years I felt like a little boy in a large person's body, but I am gaining a strong sense of my masculine heritage. I'm coming closer to claiming that power and strength. I am forming strong, fulfilling friendships with other men, and I am a better, more attentive husband and father. None of this change would have been possible without the alternate explanations for homosexual attractions given by Nicolosi, for I would not have realized they were a problem for me in the first place.

Others have also felt similarly. In Nicolosi's work cited above, he quotes a client who says:

I have heard many theories in my search for understanding, but none have rung so true to my life experience as this one. I must say, this strikes at the core of homosexuality. Because of this understanding of myself I have improved in self-esteem, confidence, maturity, and masculinity. It has also reaffirmed the goodness of my being. I walk as a man wounded but healing ... but full of hope today and for the future.

But can these therapies work? Speaking of Robert L. Spitzer's 2001 study of effortful orientation change (Can Some Gay Men and Lesbians Change Their Sexual Orientation? 200 Participants Reporting a Change From Homosexual to Heterosexual Orientation, Archives of Sexual Behavior 32(5):403-417), Lisa Diamond, a lesbian researcher into these issues states:

Spitzer, however, is more concerned with effortful changes effected through cognitive-behavioral strategies, such as "thought stopping," avoidance of situations that trigger same-sex attractions, and social support mobilization. Can these techniques actually alter one's subjective desires? Of course they can–just as attending Weight Watchers meetings and keeping "forbidden" foods out of the house can attenuate a dieter's natural, evolved cravings for salty, fatty, calorie-dense foods. Furthermore, any reader of Shaespeare or Jane Austen will recognize that these cognitive and behavior techniques have been used for hundreds of years by individuals who had the misfortune of becoming attracted to partners of the right sex, but the wrong family, wrong social class, wrong nation, etc. (Reconsidering "Sexual Desire" in the Context of Reparative Therapy, Archives of Sexual Behavior 32(5):429-431)

Diamond goes on to ask a profound question I have addressed at other times and will address again in a later piece:

Just what do we mean by "desire?"

I am profoundly grateful for the contribution of Nicolosi and others to alternate views on the root causes of homosexuality. My gratitue extends also to all who have helped remind me of what I can reasonably expect to change easily and what may take years to change – if it ever does – and that change in attractions does not determine my self-worth or standing before God.

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

After all, the real goal is not change. It is peace.