Same-Sex Relationships Are Inherently Different from Those Between One Man and One Woman

Same-Sex Relationships Are Inherently Different from Those Between One Man and One Woman. For many years there was an overriding belief in our society that gay and lesbian couples were inherently different from heterosexual ones. A man and a woman were meant to get together, get married, and have kids. This was the foundation of our society. When a man and a man did that (or a woman and a woman), it was considered unusual, different, not normal. And, given the discrimination gays and lesbians face in all aspects of their lives, it’s not surprising that the assumption was these relationships were lesser — less committed, less serious, less important. This belief was used by many to justify denying same-sex couples marital rights.

Same-Sex Relationships Are Inherently Different from Those Between One Man and One Woman
Same-Sex Relationships Are Inherently Different from Those Between One Man and One Woman

Though gay marriage is just beginning to see widespread support among politicians and the public, researchers have known for decades that when we compare heterosexual with same-sex couples, they are much more alike than different. Moreover, those differences that do exist, do not support the notion that “same-sex” couples are “less” anything — in fact, in many areas same-sex couples have relationship advantages.

Same-Sex Relationships Are Inherently Different from Those Between One Man and One Woman

More Similarities
The first really big comparative study of same and opposite-sex couples was carried out by Blumstein and Schwartz (yes, our very own Pepper Schwartz, one of the authors of this book) in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was a large study funded by the National Science Foundation of over 12,000 people or 6000 couples. The goal was to compare married heterosexual couples, cohabiting heterosexual couples, gay male couples, and lesbian couples.

The general findings could be summed up by saying that married couples and same-sex couples (both lesbian and gay) were more like each other than all three of them were like cohabiting heterosexual couples (mostly because the latter had much more variable commitments to each other). The gender similarities were also striking: gay males were more like cohabiting and married heterosexual males than they were like lesbians or cohabitating or married heterosexual women.

And lesbians were more like cohabiting and married women than they were like anyone else in the study. Gender socialization, attitudes, and behaviors were extraordinarily similar regardless of a person’s sexual orientation (Blumstein and Schwartz, 1983).

Same-Sex Relationships Are Inherently Different from Those Between One Man and One Woman

The research also found that all four kinds of couples share some relationship characteristics when it comes to sex. Regardless of type of relationship, couples had higher satisfaction if they had higher sexual frequency. In addition, equality of initiation and refusal of sex was also associated with higher satisfaction in all four kinds of couples.
The biggest sexual difference was that committed gay male couples were more likely to openly negotiate non monogamy and were more able to tolerate non monogamy without hurting the relationships than the other couples (Blumstein and Schwartz, 1983). Other studies have found that gay male couples may also have particular issues with the impact of a long relationship and aging on the couple’s physical relationship (Peplau and Fingerhut, 2007).

One of the enduring myths about same-sex couples is that their relationships are solely about sex. Obviously, this isn’t true. Like every other couple, same-sex partners have to deal with job demands, housework, lifestyle, and often children. There is a large and interesting base of literature on similarities and differences between how same-sex and opposite-sex couples handle the day-to-day aspects of life together.

A longitudinal study by Kurdek compared both partners from same-sex couples without children with both partners from heterosexual married couples with children. He looked at five central measures of relationship health and found that for half of the comparisons, gay and lesbian partners were similar to heterosexual partners.

There were, of course, some differences but, interestingly, they concluded that the majority of these differences (78%) “reflected better adaptations on the part of the same-sex relationships than the heterosexual relationships.” Specifically, the author analyzed interaction patterns with family and friends, conflict management, and the way each partner filtered information about the relationship.

Same-Sex Relationships Are Inherently Different from Those Between One Man and One Woman

He concluded: Relative to heterosexual partners, partners from gay couples and partners from lesbian couples do not function in ways that place their relationships at risk for distress. In particular, there is no evidence that gay partners and lesbian partners were psychologically maladjusted, that they had high levels of personality traits that predisposed them to relationship problems, that they had dysfunctional working models of their relationships, and that they used ineffective strategies to resolve conflict.
(Kurdek, 2004)

In fact, gay and lesbian couples are often better at conflict management and communication. A study of 75 gay, 51 lesbian, and 108 heterosexual couples who had no children looked at how couples handled conflicts in six areas that were common to all couples: reactions to excessive critical statements; differences on politics and social issues; bringing up personal failings like drinking or smoking too much; lack of trust or lying; intimacy and sex; and lack of time together due to job or school or other commitments.

There were some differences about which issues predominated between couples. Heterosexual couples, for example, argued more frequently about social issues than lesbian or gay male couples, and same-sex couples argued more frequently about trust issues (Kurdek, 1994).

Still, the couples were more alike than different and frequency of overall conflict was similar. Issues about intimacy, personal failings, power, and emotional distance were most important for all couples. These results are similar to those found by numerous researchers over time (e.g. Bryant and Demian, 1994; Storaasli and Markman, 1990; Blumstein and Schwartz, 1983).

Same-Sex Relationships Are Inherently Different from Those Between One Man and One Woman

In addition to the issues being the same, the study also found that couples had similar reactions to the frequency with which they argued. All couples had a decrease in satisfaction over a year’s time if they continued to argue about issues pertaining to personal power and influence in the relationship (Kurdek, 1994).

Some studies have found that same-sex couples have advantages over heterosexual ones in how they communicate and function. A study that compared 92 childless gay male couples with 226 childless heterosexual couples and 312 couples living with children, found that the highest levels of relationship satisfaction and functioning as measured by various assessment instruments was in lesbian couples.

Lesbian and gay male partners have consistently shown higher levels of expressiveness in the relationship which seems to be a key factor in communication and satisfaction with communication (Kurdek, 1987; Miller et al., 2003; Gottman et al., 2003; Kurdek, 2008). (There is some literature, however, that finds lesbians can be too expressive, and that this intense engagement over every little thing within a relationship can engender claustrophobic feelings; Clunis and Green, 1988).

Given these advantages it’s not surprising that in the study of same-sex and opposite-sex couples both with and without children, the most decline in satisfaction over 10 years was among the heterosexual couples with children (Kurdek, 2008). This is a common finding in other studies as well (Twenge et al., 2003).

Another area in which same-sex couples have a slight advantage is in the division of labor such as household chores or childcare. Sharing duties gives couples a sense of solidarity and improves relationship satisfaction, and studies have found that same-sex couples are more equal in their division of labor (Goldberg, 2010; Johnson and O’Connor, 2002). Blumstein and Schwartz (1983) found that gay males and lesbians were more egalitarian in their households.

Same-Sex Relationships Are Inherently Different from Those Between One Man and One Woman

While some of them delegated all of household management to one partner, this pattern was relatively rare. A later study by Carrington (1999) examined the negotiation of these chores and described how they were divided in ways that did not follow gender traditions. In contrast, heterosexual couples show a less egalitarian, more gender-based division of labor which causes strife (Coltrane, 2000; Farr and Patterson, 2013).

Part of household management is about decision making whether in terms of the relationship itself, the housework, or the finances. Blumstein and Schwartz (1983) found that arguing about money management lowered satisfaction in all kinds of couples as did unequal decision making power. Interestingly, financial equality was particularly important for gay couples.

A study by Kurdek and Schmidt (1986) questioned if decision making in general was more shared in cohabitation same sex and opposite-sex couples compared with married couples, reasoning that the former would be more egalitarian. However, they found this was only greatly true among lesbians. This was also found to be the case in the Blumstein and Schwartz study. What was true in this study was that the more shared decision making there was, the happier all couples seemed to be.

Another study looked at tactics of decision making, comparing different kinds of couples. It found that styles varied by gender as well as by type of relationship (Howard et al., 1986). Both heterosexual women and gay men were more likely to use manipulation and supplication to get their way rather than direct confrontation. The authors felt that this similarity might exist because these tactics worked better on male partners (Howard et al., 1986). The authors also found that gay men, heterosexual men, and heterosexual women were more likely than lesbians to use disengagement strategies (stop listening, leave the room, etc.) to get their way (Howard et al., 1986).

Same-Sex Relationships Are Inherently Different from Those Between One Man and One Woman

Still, overall, the authors concluded that there “was no obvious way that homosexual couples differed from heterosexual couples on their use of influence tactics.”

Same-Sex Relationships Are Inherently Different from Those Between One Man and One Woman
Same-Sex Relationships Are Inherently Different from Those Between One Man and One Woman
Same-Sex Relationships Are Inherently Different from Those Between One Man and One Woman

Comparisons of Gays and Lesbians as Parents
Because there have been many custody disputes as well as struggles over the right to adopt children or serve as foster parents, the parenting qualifications of gay men and lesbians, and the effects on children, have been studied by a multitude of researchers. We focus on this but suffice it to say that, while there have been a few outlier studies, the majority of the research shows that same-sex parenting compares favorably with opposite sex parenting.

Social Support
Unfortunately, there is one area in which same-sex couples fare less well than their heterosexual peers and it is ultimately out of their control. Kurdek (2004) explains: “The only area in which gay and lesbian partners fared worse than heterosexual partners was in the area of social support: Gay partners and lesbian partners received less support for their relationships from family members than heterosexual parents did” (2004, p. 896). Other research has also shown that same-sex couples get less support from family and friends than married couples and even cohabiting heterosexual partners get more support (Kurdek and Schmitt, 1986).

Same-Sex Relationships Are Inherently Different from Those Between One Man and One Woman

This may reflect discomfort with same-sex relationships on the part of family or friends or could be a result of the couple attempting to keep a low profile because of fear of disapproval by family or society. We can’t underestimate the difficulty that this lack of support causes nor can we forget about the legal and financial obstacles that laws prohibiting same-sex marriage have created for these couples.

Such impediments take their toll on relationships. As gay marriage becomes more accepted in our society and as more states pass laws legalizing same-sex marriage, we can only hope that these couples get the support they need from family, friends, and community.

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