Gay relationships and lesbian relationships have unique strengths and challenges. One of the questions Dr. Gottman and his research team were curious about was whether or not there were significant differences in the patterns of relational success and failure between heterosexual and same-sex couples. In pursuit of the question, Gottman conducted a twelve-year study of gay and lesbian couples. While his research concluded that all couple regardless of sexual orientation have many of the same relational struggles and satisfactions, gay couples have several significant particular strengths and a few unique vulnerabilities.
The key finding is that gay relationships and heterosexual relationships are directly comparable in levels of overall satisfaction and quality. While it seems that science of human intimacy and attachment reveals some basic truths that all relationships share, gay relationships display unique strengths and struggles which characterize their interactions, particularly in the area of conflict resolution.
“When it comes to emotions, we think these couples may operate with very different principles than straight couples. Straight couples may have a lot to learn from gay and lesbian relationships,” Dr. John Gottman.
The research discovered that same-sex relationships are more sensitized to sharing power and having an abiding sense of fair-play with each other. This is is a little hinge which swings a big door. Because of this difference, emotions related to “control” issues are decidedly muted in same-sex couples. Especially for gay women.
For example, Gottman’s research shows that with heterosexual couples, it’s easier to sting a partner with a critical comment than it is to delight a partner with a compliment. In same-sex couples, the opposite seems to be true. A positive comment lands better with a gay partner, and criticism doesn’t cut as deep as it does with straight couples.
The research also discovered that gay couples displayed lower levels of relational fear, antagonism, and power grabs than straight couples. Gay couples are also better at softened start-ups, using humor and affectionate language when they complain and seek a change.
There is also less anger and more positivity during and after disagreements with gay couples than with straight couples. Gay couples are better able to handle negativity. The research also discovered that gay couples displayed lower levels of diffuse physiological arousal (DPA). As a result, gay couples can remain calmer during tough conversations and have an overall greater skill in soothing their partner than heterosexual couples.
Gay and lesbian couples may have similar strengths, but conflict management styles are different for lesbians and gay men. According to Gottman’s research, during marital spats, lesbians display more humor, engagement, agitation and even anger, than gay men in a similar situation. Gottman’s research suggests lesbians are simply more emotionally expressive than gay men. Perhaps a relationship between two women allows for an unimpeded flow of emotional expressiveness.
The landmark book, Couple Therapy with Gay Men by David E. Greenan EdD, and Gil Tunnel Ph.D., reminds us that most gay men have grown up marinated in shame about their core identities. Consequently, it’s not unusual for a gay man to internalize a profound degree of self-reliance. This autonomy stood them in good stead while enduring a lonely childhood and adolescence, but it may impair their emotional expressiveness to operate outside the rigid boundaries of the typical male strategies of stonewalling, or in some cases, intimidation or dominance. It’s important for couples therapists to help gay men to become more comfortable with expressions of vulnerability, intimacy and mutual support.
This may be why Gottman’s research indicates that gay men in couples therapy would benefit by noticing their degree of negativity while making complaints. Research indicates that gay men are different from lesbians and straight couples in that their repair skills sometimes need more additional work.
Gay men who initiate complaints may, at high levels of conflict, criticize vehemently, and make it more difficult for their partner to make a successful repair attempt. Gottman concludes that gay men might need more help understandings the systemic impact of their negativity than lesbian or straight couples. It’s lonely growing up gay, and consequently, emotional supports, particularly for young gay men are often lacking. Excessive self-reliance may impede a gay man’s ability to readily find a balance between autonomy and connection.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. using EFT, Gottman Method, and the Developmental Model.