The Romantic Relationship Challenges of Bisexual Individuals

Relationship issues motivate many bisexuals to enter therapy.

Posted Jul 31, 2016

The prior blog posting made it clear that many bisexual individuals experience physical- and mental-health complications arising from a conflux of invisibility, lack of acceptance by lesbian women, gay men and heterosexual individuals, and limited support.  Their sexual and romantic relationships are likewise impacted by this same constellation of challenges. Societal insistence that one must be gay or straight leads bisexuals to question and even doubt their attraction to both sexes and results in efforts to claim a singular homosexual or heterosexual identity.  This forestalls an exploration of their authentic sexual identity. Also, due to the lack of a supportive community in which to come out, bisexual individuals may be developing and maintaining a bisexual identity in isolation.

A 2005 study of the bisexual community in Ontario, Canada explains other recurrent relationship concerns. [1] 

  • Bisexuals have to negotiate how to come out to partners or potential partners.
  • Bisexuals need to learn how to relate to the other gender in terms of relationships and sex.
  • The difficulty of finding supportive and understanding partners.
  • The importance and challenge of maintaining a bisexual identity while in a relationship.

In their relationships with males, bisexual females reported their romantic partners expected threesomes with another female and perceived of their bisexuality as a threat to their own masculinity. Bisexual women also discussed consistent difficulties dating lesbian women due to resentment in the lesbian community and the pressure to identify as a lesbian while in a relationship with a woman. Bisexual men in relationships with women described their partners’ efforts to be supportive but finding it difficult due to their own identity and self-esteem or, even more problematic, an outright refusal to talk about this issue.

Uncertainty about romantic relationships is often the impetus for professional mental health treatment.  However, once engaged in a therapeutic relationship, other issues are also examined, including social isolation and a lack of access to social support; identity development and the coming-out process; anxiety and depression; self-harm ideation; and, particularly for bisexual youth, a lack of role models and peers.  Sexual health and safety are also prevalent concerns.[2]  When asked what information or education providers should have about bisexuality and bisexuals, time and time again study participants in one survey said the most important thing was for them to know “that we exist” and that being bisexual is a real and legitimate sexual identity and not just a transitional phase.[3]

Unfortunately, there is a paucity of treatment providers knowledgeable about bisexual concerns.  Even programs that pride themselves as competent in working with LGBT people often have little expertise with bisexuals, and they typically receive treatment protocols tailored for lesbian women and gay men. Obviously there is an overlap in these demographics, but bisexuals have particular concerns and issues not experienced by lesbian women and gay men. As one report summarized, “[S]ervices designed for gay and lesbian people frequently leave bisexual people feeling as though no one quite knows what to do with them.”[4] More research is obviously needed regarding this population’s needs, and according to Judy Bradford, director of the Center for Population Research in LGBT Health at the Fenway Institute in Boston, “We just don’t know much about bisexuality right now, and we’re finally starting to do some research in that area.”[5] 

[1] Dobinson, Cheryl, Judy MacDonnell, Elaine Hampson, Jean Clipsham, and Kathy Chow. "Improving the Access and Quality of Public Health Services for Bisexuals." Journal of Bisexuality 5, no. 1 (2005): 39-77.

[2] e.g., Harawa, Nina T., John K. Williams, Hema C. Ramamurthi, Cleo Manago, Sergio Avina, and Marvin Jones. "Sexual Behavior, Sexual Identity, and Substance Abuse among Low-Income Bisexual and Non-Gay-Identifying African American Men Who Have Sex with Men." Archives of Sexual Behavior 37, no. 5 (2008): 748-762.

[3] Dobinson et al., Improving the Access and Quality of Public Health Services for Bisexuals: 60.

[4] Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario. Systems Failure: A Report on the Experiences of Sexual Minorities in Ontario’s Health-Care and Social-Services Systems. (Toronto: Author, 1997): 31.

[5] Somashekhar, Sandhya, “Health Survey Gives Government Its First Large-Scale Data on Gay, Bisexual Population.” Washington Post, July 15, 2014.  Accessed October 6, 2015.