When I was asked to write an article on relationships I cringed, not because I’m relationship-phobic but because I have come to realise that Psychology textbooks seldom speak to the variation of same-sex relationships.

Research on gay relationships is young, but what seems to be clear is that we are different to our heterosexual friends. What help can science be in assisting us to sustain a healthy, intimate partnership?
The first study to observe how gays and lesbians interact with their partners during conversations wasn’t published until 2003, even though such studies have long been a staple of hetero-couple research. Researchers monitored facial expressions, vocal tones, emotional displays and physical reactions such as changes in heart rate. They evaluated 40 same-sex couples and 40 straight married couples.

The psychologists concluded that gays and lesbians are nicer than straight people during arguments with partners: they are significantly less aggressive, less domineering and less fearful. Gays and lesbians also use humour more often when arguing, which I believe is used as a way to draw attention away from the real issue. The authors concluded that “heterosexual relationships may have a great deal to learn from homosexual relationships.”
This might sound great – science says gays are nicer even when arguing and should be modelled, but the same research also found that when gay men initiate difficult discussions with their partners, the partners are worse than straight or lesbian couples at “repairing” – essentially, making up. The study suggests that couples counsellors should consequently focus on helping gay men learn to repair. I know that I can certainly relate to that hypothesis from personal experience.
The clever academics found that gays and lesbians who exhibit more tension during disagreements are more satisfied with their relationships than those who remain unruffled. For straight people, higher heart rates during squabbles were associated with lower relationship satisfaction. For gays and lesbians, it was just the opposite. Gays conduct their relationships as though they are acting out some cheesy pop song: ‘You have to make my heart beat faster for me to love you.’ For gays, it is apathy that murders relationships, not tension. Straight people more often prefer a leisurely placidity.

Why would gays show more congeniality in arguments, do a worse job of repairing after bad fights and find palpitation satisfying? Researchers have long noted that because gender roles are less relevant in gay and lesbian relationships (as it’s a myth that in “most” gay couples, one partner plays wife) those relationships are often more equal than heterosexual marriages. Both guys do the dishes, both women braai the chops. Straight couples often argue along gender lines: the men are at turns angry and distant, the women more prone to mournful bursts. Gays and lesbians may be less irritable during quarrels because they aren’t forced into a particular role.
Perhaps more than others, gay relationships require conscious effort & attentiveness to foster successful growth & intimacy.

No one is sure why gay men are worse at making up after fights, but a Time Magazine columnist has an interesting theory: it’s less important for their sex lives. It could be possible that because they don’t have women to restrain their evolutionarily male sexual appetites, gay men are more likely than straight and lesbian couples to agree to non-monogamy, which decreases the stakes for not repairing. And according to a study from Norway published in 2006, gay men also consume more porn than anyone else, making them more “partner-independent.”
The same columnist suggested that gay and lesbian couples may prefer more heart-racing during conflict because of what happens to gays and lesbians as kids. Although the world is changing many gay kids still grow up believing that what they want is disgusting. They repress for years, and when they finally do have relationships, they need them to carry sufficient drama into those emotional spaces that were empty for so long. Gays need their relationships to scorch!
That may be one reason gays and lesbians end relationships sooner than heterosexuals. A 2004 paper from the United States reported that over a 12-year period, 21% of gay and lesbian couples broke up; only 14% of married straight couples did. Too many gay relationships are pulled by the crosscurrents of childhood pain, adult expectation and gay-community pathologies like infidelity. The Norwegians also found that members of gay and lesbian couples are significantly more self-conscious than straight married people, “perhaps due to their stigmatised status.”
So what real world advice does science give us to help us in our relationships? Perhaps more than others, gay relationships require conscious effort and attentiveness to foster successful growth and intimacy.
Firstly, attempt to make comparisons between what is written above and your relationship. Can you relate? Sometimes it’s just as simple as cognitively realising your imperfection in order to correct it. Be mindful of your personality quirks, insecurities and societal pressures so that these don’t hinder your connection with your partner.
Even if you’ve been together a long time, never expect your partner to know what your needs are. Mind-reading and making assumptions only lead to misunderstandings and potential conflicts – and as I’ve said, conflict is not our strong point. Learn to be assertive and ask directly for what you want.
Periodically have a “check-in” with your partner to re-examine how the relationship is going and how satisfied you and your partner are. This keeps the channels of communication open and can help renew the relationship, reinforcing the positives, and uncovering areas in need of attention, before things get too misguided and the flame dies. It’s easier to rekindle a dying flame than to relight one that has gone out.
Examine your satisfaction with the roles you play in your relationship. A real advantage of gay relationships is the ability to be flexible with life roles and not to have to ascribe to traditional sex role stereotypes commonly held in heterosexual relationships. Negotiate such roles and tasks openly and freely with your partner, acknowledging areas of strength and talent in this decision-making.
While there are some universal elements to relationships, we gay couples have our own unique and special challenges and benefits to live through that are different than other relationship styles. In fact, we have added burdens and obstacles to overcome living in a homophobic society to make our relationships succeed in the long-term. Due to the complexity and diversity of relationships it is nearly impossible to prescribe the same medicine for all ills, and these are by no means the only tools for keeping a relationship healthy, but kept in mind that they could assist in creating a solid foundation in which to build a relationship of solid gold.

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