Rashida Jones and Zooey Deschanel in a scene from My Idiot Brother.
In October last year I received a flurry of giddy emails from a dear friend in New York declaring that she had fallen in love, or as her email subject heading put it, she had gone ‘BACK TO THE GYNE!’ Although this woman, let’s call her Georgia, had begun her romantic life moored to the Isle of Lesbos, she had since drifted into perilous heterosexual waters and paid a hefty toll: ten years of blasted affections with men who resembled kidney beans in cardigans.
‘I am dating a girl!’ ran her first email. ‘Her name is Lindsay and she is a magical unicorn princess. We met on Monday and it’s fair to say we’re pretty much girlfriends.’ Naturally, I was delighted for her, although the pictures of her and her belle swishing their shiny long hair and cavorting around Central Park in matching lip gloss did become mildly nauseating. I congratulated her, but also worried that maybe the announcement was a little bit hasty. This, she informed me, was very heteronormative thinking: ‘In classic lesbian form, we’ve decided to skip the hetero norm of ‘hanging out’ for a month, then ‘seeing each other’ for a few more months, and have moved straight to dating. I’ll make her my girlfriend (WIFE) by the end of the month.’
It’s still early days (although decades in lesbian years) but the relationship seems enviably good. When apart they Skype constantly (often just gazing in wonderment at each other) they greet each other with thoughtful gifts and on a deeper level they share many of the same values, humour and life experiences. There’s no gender expectations: just a heady mix of imagination and love.
Georgia is not alone in finding greater happiness with the ladies. Last week the Open University published a study of 5,000 people which found that gay and lesbian couples were likely to be happier and more positive about their relationships than heterosexuals. To be more precise, it found that childless people were happier than those with kids, but the most interesting aspect of the study was what it suggested about gay and lesbian relationships :
‘“LGBQ participants (lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer) are more generally positive about and happier with the quality of their relationship and the relationship which they have with their partner” the research concludes. “Heterosexual parents are the group least likely to be there for each other, to make ‘couple time’, to pursue shared interests, to say ‘I love you’ and to talk openly to one another.”
It’s a fascinating turn-around from only thirty years ago when psychological literature pathologised lesbians and gays as disordered and unstable. These days studies suggest that lesbians make better parents and now it seems they also make better lovers, partners and wives.
So what can straighty-one-eighties couples do to be more like gays and lesbians?
1. Learn to communicate: According to the Open University study good communication is considered important by all couples, but it seems that lesbians in particular have this skill nailed. In part, they have the advantage of socialisation. A twelve year study by John Gottman from the University of Washington comparing gay, lesbian and straight couples found that because women are brought up to express their emotions, they tend to be better communicators and to have a more expansive repertoire of emotions to draw upon when responding to events. More specifically, you need to learn to not take every little thing personally in moments of conflict and to use humour and affection when you do have an argument. Gottman says that lesbians tend to keep their attitudes positive when they fight.
2. Share the labour of household chores and family responsibilities: One of the delights of gay and lesbian relationships is that they don’t come with pre-defined gender roles. Nor do the structural disadvantages that women face in the workforce find their way into power-imbalances in their relationships. In the Open University study fights over money and unequal sharing of the labour of housework and parenting rated very highly on straight peoples list of what they liked least in their relationship. This is obviously largely attributable to the fact that women are paid less than men (in fact 17.4% less than men) and so they’re probably going to be more likely to stay at home looking after the kids. For straighties, this is difficult to overcome, but maybe you could start thinking about whether money is really more important than your happiness. Spending equal-time on paid work and parenting responsibilities would surely lead to a richer home-life than a 1950s model of a male breadwinner and a resentful, bored housewife.
3. Become best friends with your partner: Although many straight couples state that being best friends is an ideal for them, this is difficult in a context where they don’t integrate their partner into their friendship group and nor do they have a history of being friends with their exes. For lesbians the cliché tends to be fairly accurate: they remain friends long after the relationship is over and as their partner is often plucked from their group of friends anyway, there’s no problems integrating them into their world. To quote my flatmate Maeve:
"I see my partners as human beings, not just as partners, who will go on being interesting and fabulous long after we’ve broken up."
Of course, for every blissed out New York lesbian couple there are also the lesbian slasher-films: obsessive, tyrannical relationships stranded without the usual support networks of family or work colleagues that straight people can depend on. What is fascinating about the Open University study is that it suggests that gays and lesbians have succeeded in spite of social disadvantage.