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Birds & Bees

Turns Out the Happy Couple Is . . . Gay?


Many therapists have served the needs of gay and lesbian couples. Like heterosexual couples, same-sex partners seek counseling for everything from a mate whose sloppiness is like nails to a chalkboard to grappling with severely mismatched libidos.

But now, clinical psychologist John Gottman, a research scientist at the University of Washington who has studied heterosexual couples for 28 years, has tailored workshops explicitly for the needs of gay and lesbian couples based upon research that examined the interactions of same-sex couples. The 12-year study, which Gottman co-authored with UC Berkeley professor of psychology Robert Levenson, found similarities and differences in how gay, lesbian and heterosexual couples interact.

"We realized there were a lot of differences when we were observing men and women while studying marriages," said Gottman, who just submitted the study for publication. "We couldn't tell if differences were biological or role-related. We decided to study same-sex couples, and we got interested in them for their own sake."

Gottman and his colleagues found that same-sex couples were much more optimistic in the face of conflict than straight couples. "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," said Gottman. Partners were also less distressed and more positive after a disagreement.

While the research on same-sex unions is sparse, what the few studies focusing on gay and lesbian relationships have found is that same-sex unions are comparable to heterosexual ones in satisfaction and quality. Researchers also found that there are fewer obstacles to leaving in same-sex unions and that they tend to dissolve more often than their heterosexual counterparts. There is more autonomy in gay and lesbian couples. But for gay, lesbian and straight couples alike, the bottom line is the same: When the bad outweighs the good, couples split.

Unlike previous research, which relied on same-sex couples' self-reported perceptions of their relationship, Gottman's study involved objective observations of same-sex couples interacting. The study involved 42 same-sex couples (21 gay and 21 lesbians), all of whom were cohabiting and in a committed relationship of at least two years long. They were compared to 42 heterosexual married couples whose reports of satisfaction in the relationship were roughly equivalent to that of the same-sex couples and who had also been together a minimum of two years.

At the beginning of the study, all couples were videotaped interacting while discussing a number of subjects, including a relationship problem and such innocuous topics as the preceding day's events. During the interactions, each member of the couple's physiological measurements (heartbeat, finger pulse, etc.) were taken to determine how agitated partners became when in conflict. Researchers also examined the couples' own assessments about their relationship--which, according to previous research, tend to be distorted.

Every year thereafter, couples filled out questionnaires about their relationship and were also interviewed about the quality of their relationship by telephone. Of the same-sex couples, 20% broke up at the end of 12 years, compared with 38% of the heterosexual couples. Some married couples participating in the study had children, which may or may not have influenced the higher rate of breakup. However, past research has shown that childless couples' divorce rate is higher than that of couples with children.

A gay couple's candid discussion of sex, videotaped for the purposes of the study, said Gottman, illustrates a main point of the study. "The guy said to his partner: 'How did you like the lovemaking this morning?' " recounted Gottman. " 'Well, you know that your body is not my ideal of a male body that I am most attracted to, and actually I think the neighbor has the perfect male body,' his partner said.

" 'I know, but I asked you how you liked the lovemaking this morning?' "

If a husband said those kinds of things to a wife, it would be explosive, added Gottman. "What is interesting is when we videotape a heterosexual couple talking about lovemaking, you have no idea what they are talking about." Among the study's other findings:

* Same-sex couples use fewer controlling, hostile emotional tactics. Generally, power sharing and fairness are more prevalent among same-sex couples than among heterosexual couples, said Gottman.

* In a fight, same-sex couples take it less personally. "A gay or lesbian person can say something negative in a fight, and a partner is much less likely to be defensive," said Gottman. "Positivity has much more influence in same-sex couples than in heterosexual couples," where negativity triumphs over positivity.

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