What We All Can Learn From Gay Couples

Margie Nichols, Ph.D.By now most people have heard about John Gottman’s research comparing gay and straight couples, publicized a few years back. Gottman, a respected psychologist and researcher, did a study of gay relationships that revealed that for the most part same and mixed sex couples had similar similar levels of relationship satisfaction, similar problems, and coped with the ups and downs of relationship life in the same ways.  There were differences however: same sex couples were more upbeat in the face of conflict, used more affection and humor during fights, and employed fewer hostile, controlling emotional tactics.  (Ouch. To begin with, who sounds like the more mature, responsible type of couple?)

And usually, when people write about the Gottman study, that’s where the narrative about this research ends.  Too bad, because if you look carefully there’s way more here.  I’d like to expand on Gottman’s findings and interpret them, and then add some observations of my own.                        

In addition to these widely reported findings, Gottman also discovered that

“gay and lesbian partners displayed less belligerence, domineering, and fear tactics with each other than straight couples do……fairness and power-sharing between the partners is more important and more common in gay and lesbian relationships than in straight ones.”

Wow, that’s some powerful stuff!  Why would this be so?  Well, the attributes that gay male and lesbian relationships share,  that mixed gender couples don’t have at all is – automatic equality of gender, and similarity of bodies and acculturation.   In same sex relationships, the two partners, whether they were socialized male or female, were socialized the same way about gender.  Neither assumes consciously or unconsciously that they ‘should’ be dominant or submissive to the other.  Neither have reflexive patterns of thinking or reacting that make them assume either a one-up or one-down power position. In short, sexist roles do not exist in same sex relationships.  Gottman’s finding suggests that straight couples still have some work to do on that patriarchy thing.

I’m not saying that same sex partners don’t have power struggles or that all of them are egalitarian.  But there is not the ‘automatic’ power differential inherent in differently gendered partners. There is no one who thinks he should be the ‘boss’ of the relationships or that her role is to obey.  No one who feels that housework is her responsibility, even if she works, and no one who doesn’t even think about how the chores of daily living get taken care of.

And – here we also learn some lessons from gay and lesbian parents – no one who automatically assumes that it is her duty and responsibility to stay home with the kids, and nobody who thinks he doesn’t have to participate much in child-rearing.  Not to mention no partner who assumes it is her right to stay home if she wants, and no spouse who feels he must shoulder the bread winner role single handedly if his wife wants to be a homemaker.

It’s interesting that, to my knowledge, neither Gottman nor anyone else has tied his findings to traditional gender roles in marriage.  It sounds like the belligerence, domineering, and fear tactics bely a certain dissatisfaction in relationships that don’t ‘value fairness and power-sharing.’  Is it possible that these roles PRODUCE the unhealthy couple interactions?  I’d sure like to see someone study this.

But Gottman also described differences between gay male and lesbian couples, and these can tell us something about gender as well.  Lesbians were more emotionally expressive with both positive and negative emotions- not surprising, that’s stereotypic behavior for women.  More surprising was the finding that gay men whose partners attacked them during conflicts had a much harder time recovering from the negatives, and ‘repair’ attempts were stymied.  Gottman suggests that gay men may need ‘extra help’ to offset this negativity – is this perhaps because in mixed gender relationships the woman plays a larger role in repair than the man, making it less necessary for her mate to recover quickly? This is worth investigating; it has implications for couples therapy, among other things. 

Gottman’s research, intriguing as it is, just scratches the surface of the differences between couples, differences that teach us a great deal.   For example, 40 to 50% of gay male couples are nonmonogamous, and open relationships are way more common among lesbian and bisexual women than in the heterosexual world, although women tend to structure nonmonogamy differently than men.  Kinkiness is way more common among gays and lesbians as well.   It could be that the genetic combinations that predispose one to queerness also predispose towards other forms of variant sexuality.  Or it might be that once you break down cultural taboos about one aspect of sex, other taboos get easier to transgress.  If heterosexuals follow the lead of gay people, those who are repressing their sexual desires might develop the courage to be more honest with themselves and their partners.  That could mean fewer people having affairs and fewer doomed to sexually mismatched marriages.

Gottman just scratched the surface of differences.  Gay men and lesbians tend to be different from each other sexually – they ‘do’ sex differently, and not just in the obvious ways – and these differences can tell us something about male-female sexual differences.  Queers tend to stay friends with their ‘exes’ much more frequently than heterosexuals, even when there are no children involved, and everyone can learn from this how to build family units that maintain connections even after divorce.

The list is long, too long to do justice to in one blog post.  Here’s hoping other researchers follow Gottman’s lead.  For myself, this is a topic I’ll be blogging about frequently in the future.

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