The stereotype that couples in same-sex relationships are not as committed as their heterosexual counterparts and are therefore not as psychologically healthy is disputed by two studies featured in the January issue of Developmental Psychology.
Results showed that same-sex relationships were similar to those of opposite-sex couples in many ways. All had positive views of their relationships but those in the more committed relationships (gay and straight) resolved conflict better than the heterosexual dating couples. And lesbian couples worked together especially harmoniously during the laboratory tasks.
The notion that committed same-sex relationships are “atypical, psychologically immature, or malevolent contexts of development was not supported by our findings,” said lead author Glenn I. Roisman, PhD. “Compared with married individuals, committed gay males and lesbians were not less satisfied with their relationships.”
Furthermore, said Roisman, “Gay males and lesbians in this study were generally not different from their committed heterosexual counterparts on how well they interacted with one another, although some evidence emerged the lesbian couples were especially effective at resolving conflict.”
Both studies compared same-sex couples with opposite-sex couples on a number of developmental and relationship factors. The first study examined whether committed same-sex couples differ from engaged and married opposite-sex couples in how well they interacted and how satisfied they were with their partners. Evidence has shown that positive interactions improve the quality of relationships in ways that foster healthy adult development.
Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign compared 30 committed gay male and 30 committed lesbian couples with 50 engaged heterosexual couples and 40 older married heterosexual couples, as well as with dating heterosexual couples. All the partners responded to a questionnaire that documented how positively they interacted with one another on a day to day basis. The couples were also observed during a laboratory task and were monitored for distress by skin conductance and heart rate.
In the second study, researchers from the University of Washington, San Diego State University and the University of Vermont wanted to examine how sexual orientation and legal status affected relationship quality. To do so, they followed 65 male and 138 female same-sex couples with civil unions, 23 male and 61 female same-sex couples not in civil unions and 55 heterosexual married couples over a three-year period. One member of each heterosexual couple was a sibling to a member of a civil union couple.
Both partners in all of the couples answered questions regarding their demographics, status of their relationship, number of children, sexual behavior, frequency of contact with their parents with and without their partners and perceived social support. Partners in same-sex relationships also answered questions regarding disclosure of their sexual orientation to their family, peers and work associates.
The researchers found that same-sex couples were similar to heterosexual couples on most relationships variables, and that the legalized status of a relationship did not seem to be the overriding factor affecting same-sex relationships.
Despite the legal status of their relationships, the civil union couples showed no differences on any of the relationship measures from the same-sex couples who were in committed relationships but not in civil unions. “This may be because those couples in Vermont who sought out the legal protection of a civil union might have legalized their relationship more for symbolic value than for commitment reasons, which did not affect their day-to-day interactions,” said lead author Kimberly F. Balsam, PhD.
However, the same sex-couples who were not in civil unions were more likely to have ended their relationships compared to those couples in same-sex civil unions or heterosexual marriages. This suggests that the protections afforded by a legalized relationship may impact same-sex relationships, something the study’s authors plan to follow up on in future research, said Balsam.
The findings also showed that same-sex couples, regardless of civil union status, were more satisfied with their relationships compared to married heterosexual couples. Same-sex couples reported more positive feelings toward their partners and less conflict than heterosexual married couples, said the authors. They theorized that there may be societal pressures and norms, as well as the presence of legal status as a couple, which may contribute to heterosexual couples staying together even when they are not happy. Alternatively, most long-term same-sex couples have to stay together by their own will and hard work since they don’t have society’s forces on their side, Balsam added.
This was the first study to follow same-sex couples in legalized unions over a period of time. This type of design allows the researchers to monitor changes in the relationships and compare them with changes experienced by both same-sex couples not in civil unions and heterosexual couples. All the couples were comparable with respect to race/ethnicity and age at the time of the study.
STUDY: Adult Romantic Relationships as Contexts of Human Development: A Multimethod Comparison of Same-Sex Couples with Opposite-Sex Dating, Engaged, and Married Dyads,” Glenn I. Roisman, PhD, Eric Clausell, MA, Ashley Holland, MA, Keren Fortuna, MA, and Chryle Elieff, PhD, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Developmental Psychology, Vol. 44, No. 1.