Social Networks, Structural Interdependence, and Conjugal Adjustment in Heterosexual, Gay and Lesbian Couples

Article excerpt

This study examines the social networks and conjugal adjustment of heterosexual, gay, and lesbian couples. Partners of 50 heterosexual, 50 gay, and 33 lesbian couples completed a structured interview (n = 266) about their social networks. The three types of couples did not differ in the partners' separate networks. The joint networks of both gay and lesbian couples were bigger, comprised more friends, but had a similar number of kin, relative to heterosexual couples. Hierarchical multiple regression analyses indicated that for heterosexual couples, more balanced inclusion of the two partners' kin in their joint network predicted better conjugal adjustment. For gay couples, less dependency on both separate and shared friends predicted higher conjugal adjustment, and for lesbian couples, fewer separate friends and less dependency on separate kin led to better adjustment.

The relevance of social networks to conjugal and family adaptation has been emphasized in research traditions as varied as social ecology (Bronfenbrenner, 1988), network analysis (Milardo, 1986;

Key Words: conjugal adjustment, sexual orientation, social network, structural interdependence.

Wellman, 1983), and clinical psychology (Coyne & DeLongis, 1986). For instance, social networks have been associated with marital violence (Mitchell & Hodson, 1986), the household division of labor (Bott, 1971), parenting skills (Jenning, Stagg, & Connors, 1991), and marital satisfaction (e.g., Julien, Markman, Leveille, Chartrand, & Begin, 1994; Parks & Eggert, 1991). However, the theories of and the findings on the associations between social networks and relationship outcomes have been based on samples of heterosexual couples and families. We do not know whether they generalize to same-sex couples. Because the homosexual minority in the industrialized West has become increasingly visible and active in recent years (West & Green, 1997), the growing numbers of individuals who have now identified themselves openly as gay or lesbian or bisexual offer opportunities to examine the structures, processes, and outcomes of their relationships, to test the generalizability of current theories of close relationships (Kurdek, 1995a), and to broaden our understanding of the role of social networks in relationship outcomes.

We studied the social networks of heterosexual, gay, and lesbian couples. Our objectives were to examine whether the social networks of the three types of couples had different structural features and whether the features of the social network predicted conjugal adjustment.

Structurally Created Constraints and Opportunities

According to network analysts, social behavior is determined by the pattern of ties among members of a social network, in addition to the independent effects of personal dispositions or dyadic ties (Milardo, 1988). The particular features of a social network influence social behavior because they create constraints and provide opportunities for accessing resources such as information, wealth, power, affection, and support (Wellman, 1983). For instance, a social network composed of members who know and interact with one another is more likely and more able to coordinate support for one of its members in times of stress than a social network in which the members are loosely connected.

Network analysis has implications for understanding couples' development. When two individuals choose each other for a committed relationship, they also adopt one another's social network of kin and friends. In doing so, they modify a local social structure that affects their access to resources. Conversely, the theory implies that terminating intimate relationships forces the partners to restructure their social environment in ways that have functional implications for access to resources.

Structural Interdependence and Conjugal Outcomes

Milardo (1986) has suggested the concept of structural interdependence as a theoretical basis for linking network structure to conjugal outcomes. …