Till Death Do They Part?

Researchers wonder whether same-sex couples are up to the commitment.

There's an old joke among lesbians, relates Dorsey Green, a Seattle therapist and author of Lesbian Couples and The Lesbian Parenting Book. Question: What do you take on a second date? Answer: A U-Haul.

Commitment phobia doesn't appear to be a problem when two women are involved. "Lesbian couples tend to move in together faster," Green says. And that's not necessarily a good thing. Like many of her colleagues counseling lesbians, Green says, she believes that women may not give themselves enough time to get to know each other: "I argue hard for people to slow down."

It's something worth thinking about as we haltingly enter a new age of gay and lesbian marriage. While there's been tons of attention on the first controversial bursts of weddings and related court maneuverings, few have looked at what makes gay and lesbian relationships work—or falter. It's a neglected subject in academia as well as in the press, but there is some research out there.

A FEW YEARS AGO, psychologist John Gottman, who runs a famed "love lab" at the University of Washington, made a splash when he announced the results of a 12-year study of gay and lesbian couples. The study, based in part on observations of couples talking about problems, offered mostly positive news. Both same-sex and straight couples had much in common, he concluded, as far as overall relationship satisfaction and quality, mirroring much of the research to date. Where they differed, though, same-sex couples had the edge: Gottman contended that they were more upbeat in the face of conflict, used fewer controlling or hostile emotional tactics, and took arguments less personally. The study, however, looked at a very small number of couples—just 42 gay and lesbian couples in all. "It's a good start, but it's just a start," says Christopher Martell, a UW psychologist who has run relationship workshops with Gottman for gay and lesbian couples.

Gottman's findings are also overshadowed by more sobering research. Studies consistently find that gay and lesbian relationships tend not to last as long as heterosexual ones—even in places where gay and lesbian marriage exists. A ground­breaking new study by four researchers in Scandinavia compared the divorce rates among gays, lesbians, and heterosexuals in Norway and Sweden, both of which allow gays and lesbians to form "registered partnerships" that are almost identical legally to marriage. Presented this spring at the annual conference of the Population Association of America, the study by Gunnar Andersson and colleagues found that gay men were 50 percent more likely to divorce than were heterosexual couples in Sweden. Even more interesting, it showed that lesbians were not only more prone to divorce than straight couples but were twice as likely to split up as gay men. In Norway, the researchers found a similar dynamic.

The researchers posit that same-sex couples may break up more often in part because children tend to be involved less frequently. This coincides with what academics and therapists have observed in this country; only here, with marriage until recently out of the question, gays and lesbians have even fewer obstacles to leaving relationships. Professionals who work with same-sex couples also stress that social and family pressures can weigh heavily on relationships. "I've seen very few couples where both sets of in-laws are open and accepting," says local therapist Cynthia Orr.

What, though, accounts for the greater breakup rate among lesbians? Perhaps the tendency to rush relationships is one factor. Larry Kurdek, a psychologist at Wright State University who is a leading researcher on gay and lesbian relationships, suggests another. Because women are considered "relationship experts," he says, many people have assumed that two women would have some kind of super relationship. But two women, both carefully monitoring the ebb and flow of their union and wanting to talk about it, is not necessarily a pretty sight. "They may disagree on how they see it," Kurdek says.

What's more, lesbians can have a particularly hard time dealing with differences in a relationship, according to therapist Green. There's an expectation that because both partners are women, they're supposed to be the same. Green works with women on accepting differences without seeing them as problems. She says one of the biggest differences that crops up in all couples is around sex drive; one partner usually has more of one than the other. Possibly because women have more emotionally complicated sex drives than men, lesbian couples tend to see sexual interest drop off "sooner and more drama­tically" than either straight or gay-male couples, Green says.

A DIFFERENT KIND of sexual issue surfaces among gay men. Not infrequently, they have openly nonmonogamous relationships, according to psychologist Martell. "It doesn't have to create conflict," he maintains. But couples have to negotiate rules. "In couples that make it work, it's not like it's a free-for-all." One couple might declare the house off-limits for affairs. Another might decide that affairs are only OK on business trips. "If those rules are broken, it causes just as much trouble as infidelity in heterosexual relationships," Martell says.

"There's another interesting twist to the monogamy issue," Martell continues. "There can also be envy—not jealousy, but envy." One person can start to wonder why his partner is getting all the sexual attention, tapping into the competitive instinct that tends to exist between men anyway.

If issues like these can stress a relationship, some therapists wonder whether new trends will slow down the breakup rate among gay and lesbian couples. Not only has the prospect of gay marriage raised the bar on relationship longevity, so, too, has the increasing propensity among gay and lesbian couples to have or adopt children. Will gays and lesbians now find themselves staying together for the sake of the kids?

nshapiro@seattleweekly.com

 
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