For years, we've been trying to convince straight Americans that, other than the fact that same-sex couples are made up of two men or two women, we operate essentially the same way they do. We fall in love and move in and argue over who hogs the blanket and whose turn it is to take out the trash.
What we have really been trying to tell straight couples-;and ourselves-;is that as gay and lesbian couples, we are their equals, even if we don't get the same legal recognition. Indeed, as a movement, we've hoped and believed that if more straight couples see how we parallel their lives, we will one day move beyond ugly anti-gay rhetoric and move onto such things as recognizing gay and lesbian marriages.
But a new study comparing same-sex couples to heterosexual couples suggests that maybe we've been wrong all along.
When it comes to how we behave as part of a couple, we're not the same as straight people.
Turns out, we're much better.
At least, that's what it seems like from the results of a ground-breaking, 12-year study conducted by clinical psychologist John Gottman, a researcher at the University of Washington.
Gottman and his colleagues looked at 84 couples-;42 straight, 42 same-sex. Of the same-sex couples, half were gay couples, half were lesbian couples. All the couples had been together at least two years before the study started, and the heterosexual and same-sex couples were matched to be roughly equivalent in self-described reports of happiness and satisfaction in their relationships.
Information on how the couples got along and worked out their problems was gleaned in a variety of ways, including video-taping them as they had discussions and arguments, doing repeated interviews, and assessing couples' written self-evaluations.
Describing his findings in a nutshell, Gottman told this to The Los Angeles Times: "If you compared how a person presented a problem in same-sex relationships, they showed less belligerence, less domineering, less sadness, less whining, and more affection humor and joy" than straight couples.
Gottman also found that same-sex couples were much better about talking openly and honestly about their sex lives. To hear him tell it, "What is interesting is when we videotape a heterosexual couple talking about lovemaking, you have no idea what they are talking about."
Interestingly, too, for all those people, both gay and straight, who are so convinced that gay and lesbian couples never "survive," Gottman found that during his 12-year study, 20 percent of gay or lesbian couples split, compared to 38 percent of heterosexual couples. That means in this study, straights broke up almost twice as much as gay or lesbian couples.
Here's some of his other findings about how couples sort out their problems:
Gay and lesbian couples tend to use less controlling or hostile emotional maneuvers on one another than do heterosexual couples. Gottman reports there is more balance of power and equity in same-sex relationships.
He also says that "positivity" is more prevalent when same-sex couples have a fight, as opposed to when heterosexual couples argue. He finds that "negativity" overrides arguments between straight people, whereas gays and lesbians are less defensive and don't take things as personally.
Heterosexual couples also get much more physically upset during a fight than do lesbians or gay men. Gottman told the LA Times he believes this means gay and lesbian couples are better able to comfort and clam each other during or after conflicts, and may affect how quickly and well couples are able to "make up" after a fight.
In comparing gay couples to lesbian couples, Gottman observed that while lesbian couples exhibit more anger during a conflict, they also show more humor and excitement than do gay men. He believes this may be an outgrowth of the fact that, in general, women are more adept at expressing their emotions because society teaches it is acceptable for them to do so, where it often frowns on men doing the same.
Of course, I couldn't help but think of some of my own fights and arguments with lovers past and present while reading about Gottman's study. If he could have videotaped some of them, I'm not so sure he would have concluded that gay men aren't more full of emotion ( ah-hem, some would say drama ) than either straight couples or lesbian ones. I thought of some of the name-calling, and the days of pouting before some of my ex-boyfriends and I made up after our arguments, and I had to chuckle at the finding that as couples, we were "more positive" and better able to make up after a fight.
But the important thing about Gottman's study, of course, is that it goes beyond the singular hysterical or humorous or dramatic anecdotes that all of us could tell, and it looks, in a scientific way, at patterns of groups.
Gottman's, of course, is but one study, and you have to be careful making any generalizations from a sample of only 84 couples. But all in all, gay and lesbian couples come out looking rather mature and stable when compared to straight couples.
His findings are an important and welcome addition to a relatively small body of research on gay and lesbian couples.
Mubarak Dahir receives email at MubarakDah@aol.com