A number of studies suggest that there are various ways in which gay relationships fare better than heterosexual relationships.
Psychological studies of lesbian and gay couples appear to reveal two key factors that promote healthier relationships and provide examples for all couples: The first is flexibility about gender roles, and the second is equal division of parenting and household tasks.
“It all comes down to greater equality in the relationship,” says Robert-Jay Green, PhD, executive director of the Rockway Institute and a nationally recognized researcher in both family issues and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender relationships.
“Research shows that lesbian and gay couples – by virtue of being composed of two partners of the same gender – have a head start in escaping the traditional gender role divisions that make for power imbalances and dissatisfaction in many heterosexual relationships.”
Green is Distinguished Professor at the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University, the nation’s largest non-profit training institution for doctoral clinical psychologists.
In a series of studies he conducted with Michael Bettinger, PhD, and Ellis Zacks, PhD, lesbian couples were found to be emotionally closer than gay male couples who, in turn, were found to be emotionally closer than heterosexual married couples.
Lesbian and gay male couples also showed dramatically more flexibility in the way they handled rules and roles in the relationship. Thus they avoided the traditional division of labour and division of expressive versus instrumental roles toward which heterosexual couples typically evolve over time despite their best intentions, especially after the birth of children.
More equal relationships for same-sex couples also were confirmed in recent studies by John Gottman, PhD, of the University of Washington, and Robert Levinson, PhD, of the University of California, Berkeley.
Based on observations of couples interacting in conflict situations, these scientists found that same-sex couples were better at resolving disagreements because they approached problems from a position of peer equality, using “softer” starts in the initiation of conflict discussions and more humour during the discussion to avoid escalation of hostilities.
With married heterosexual couples, the researchers observed, there was “much more of a power struggle with someone being invalidated.”
“…the freedom to defy traditional gender-linked parenting roles helped gay men and lesbians take good just as good care of their children yet preserve greater feelings of fairness…”
Other research on parenting also found significant advantages for same-sex couples. In three separate studies, Charlotte Patterson, PhD, at the University of Virginia, Valory Mitchell, PhD, at Alliant International University in San Francisco, and Henny Bos, PhD at the University of Amsterdam found that lesbian partners tend to share parenting and household responsibilities more equally and to be more satisfied with this division of labour.
By contrast, in heterosexual dual-career families, mothers often did much more childcare and housework compared to fathers, regardless of equal hours spent at work. This imbalance often breeds resentment over time.
Psychologist Jerry J. Bigner, PhD, of Colorado State University, found that gay fathers are more nurturing than straight fathers. They are also less likely to limit their parenting role to being only a provider. All of these family researchers concluded that the freedom to defy traditional gender-linked parenting roles helped gay men and lesbians take good just as good care of their children yet preserve greater feelings of fairness in their couple relationships compared to heterosexuals.
Green’s research suggests some lessons straight men could learn from gay men. Heterosexual men need to “stand up to the pressures of conformity from their male peers and relatives” by becoming more flexible in their behaviour and taking on tasks and roles more traditionally assigned to women.
Green believes that heterosexual partners could learn by observing how their lesbian and gay coupled friends share housework, childcare, use softer communication of feelings in conflict situations, and more equally nurturing behaviours toward one another and their children.
“Our research found that the most successful couples demonstrate closeness and flexibility,” said Green.
“We found high levels of both characteristics in 79 percent of lesbian couples, 56 percent of gay male couples, but in only 8 percent of heterosexual married couples. Clearly, the more egalitarian approach taken by same-sex couples is an advantage that could benefit straight couples too,” he concluded.