Are gay couples happier than straight ones?

Date

Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney

View more articles from Alecia Simmonds

Rashida Jones and Zooey Deschanel in a scene from<i> My Idiot Brother</i>.

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.

23 comments

  • I don't know where to start. But to put it succinctly, sounds like a crock! In my experience most relationships, if the truth be told, are about fumbling around through life, trying to make sense of the non sensical. Neither gender or sexuality give people the 'key' to the executive bathroom of life. I have an alternative quote, to the Gandhi like one about partners all being human beings,which to me is more useful to bear in mind for the person in the new relationship that is to remember "lust has a poor eye for detail".

    Commenter
    InnerNorthbourne
    Location
    Canberra
    Date and time
    January 28, 2014, 7:35AM
    • So that I'm understanding...
      The article is a crock because it is backed up by a survey of 5,000 couples rather then your singular experience?

      Your logic is astounding

      Commenter
      azur
      Date and time
      January 28, 2014, 1:35PM
  • Studies suggest infidelity in male homosexual relationships is near universal. That would probably be the case with straight couplings if women had a similar approach to relationships as men.

    Perhaps openness is correlated with happiness. Regardless, it's interesting that the article avoided the issue entirely.

    Commenter
    Tonic10
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    January 28, 2014, 8:31AM
    • "Studies suggest infidelity in male homosexual relationships is near universal' yeah, and as a gay man i find this asumption that we all sleep around laughable and typical of the sterotypes hetero's love to reinforce. In fact, i have not had nearly as many partners as my heterosexual friends, male AND female.

      Commenter
      David
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      January 28, 2014, 1:27PM
  • It must be tricky having to navigate all the gender-role stereotyping baggage that underpins heterosexuality. You know, men do this, women do that, men don't do that etc!

    On the other hand, given the complete absence of any positive socialisation for GLBT kids when growing up, it is a bloody miracle that us GLBT adults can scratch ourselves, let alone form meaningful and loving relationships! The cards are stacked against us, and it is heartening to read that (at least) the girls seem to have got it licked!

    Commenter
    a perspective
    Date and time
    January 28, 2014, 8:59AM
    • As a gay man, while it pleases me to read articles like this, I feel that I need to add the caveat that all relationships have their ups and downs and struggles and that being gay isn't a golden ticket to a happy relationship.

      For gay men particularly, it can seem to be an endless search of wading through a bunch of single men who just want to hook up in order to try and find "Mr Right".

      On the whole, lesbians and straight couples seem much more "hard wired" to settle down, whereas gay men seem to be continually seeking the next best thing.

      It's not right or wrong, just different.

      Commenter
      Adrian
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      January 28, 2014, 9:16AM
      • While it's great to see that gay couples are happy and, according to this article, happier than straight couples, why is there a need to constantly shout that "gay couples are happier than straight couples" or "gay couples are better parents" or "gay couples are better than you at life"? I understand that gay couples are the minority but discussion like this really just creates a deeper "us vs them" mentality. I'm sure there is a huge number of both straight and gay couples that communicate well, share household chores and family responsibilities and are best friends. There's no need to keep comparing gay couples to straight couples.

        Commenter
        MC
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        January 28, 2014, 9:55AM
        • I've got to wonder about the accuracy of these studies, got a link?

          How were the participants chosen? What % of LGBTi people are in steady relationships compared to heteros? Was the main difference children?

          There's many other questions but I've found a lot of these types of studies to be less than academically rigorous in their methods and findings in the past. Makes good news headlines though doesn't it?

          Commenter
          Freddie Frog
          Date and time
          January 28, 2014, 10:08AM
          • I can assure you there are not many bisexual men out there who are in a great relationship with their partner. Many are meeting men behind their partners back, but only because she had 'cut him off'. There are very few bisexual couples (m/f) out there. However I believe homosexual males and females have a better relationship than male/female couples do - the reasons being many, some relating to their childhood but primarily relating to their lifetime experience from young to mature. It cannot be summarised in a single sentence, but I guess you came as close as possible with part of your last sentence, "...without the usual support networks of family or work colleagues that straight people can depend on..." That lack of support and security brings gay men and women together almost out of a need to feel safe and accepted. My male partner and I have been together for 35 years and never before have I felt so good about myself or so accepted, loved, and supported.

            Commenter
            Dave
            Date and time
            January 28, 2014, 10:56AM
            • Sounds good to me. It could also be that in a world that hasn't always valued our relationships it's been up to us to value them. My partner and I have been together for 20 years - there's been ups and downs but we've always worked things through and we've grown together in the process. Looking around my family and friends I also think two women we have more in common with each other, interests and values wise, than men and women often do.

              Commenter
              Agent 86
              Date and time
              January 28, 2014, 11:08AM

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