Assessing Nontraditional Couples: Validity of the Marital Satisfaction Inventory-Revised with Gay, Lesbian, and Cohabiting Heterosexual Couples

By Means-Christensen, Adrienne J.; Snyder, Douglas K. et al. | Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, January 2003 | Go to article overview

Assessing Nontraditional Couples: Validity of the Marital Satisfaction Inventory-Revised with Gay, Lesbian, and Cohabiting Heterosexual Couples


Means-Christensen, Adrienne J., Snyder, Douglas K., Negy, Charles, Journal of Marital and Family Therapy


Thirty-one gay male couples and 28 lesbian couples were compared with 36 cohabiting heterosexual couples using the Marital Satisfaction Inventory-Revised (MSI-R), a multidimensional measure of relationship functioning intended for use with both traditional and nontraditional couples. Analyses of scales' internal consistency and factor structure supported the construct validity of this measure with nontraditional couples. Analyses of mean profiles on the MSI-R indicated that cohabiting opposite-gender and same-gender couples were more alike than different, and were more similar to nondistressed samples of married heterosexual couples from the general community than to couples in therapy. Implications of current findings for clinical assessment and intervention are considered, and directions for future research are proposed.

To what extent does the empirical literature inform clinical assessment and interventions with nontraditional couples? Although the conceptualization of couples has expanded over the last 25 years to include gay male and lesbian couples as well as cohabiting heterosexual dyads, both research and clinical interventions with nontraditional couples have lagged behind. Studies of couple interventions have emphasized married couples as the research participants and intended consumers. Similarly, assessment techniques developed with married heterosexual dyads rarely have been examined for their potential application to nontraditional couples. In the absence of studies examining the generalizability of assessment tools' psychometric properties to cohabiting or gay and lesbian couples, little confidence can be placed in their use for describing relationship functioning or directing clinical interventions in these populations.

Findings concerning the prevalence of nontraditional couples in the United States highlight the importance of examining clinical interventions and assessment techniques with these groups. Research indicates that approximately 4% of men identify themselves as exclusively or mostly gay, and 3% of women identify themselves as exclusively or primarily lesbian (Barringer, 1993), although some studies report somewhat lower percentages (e.g., Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels, 1994). In the United States Census for the year 2000, approximately 11 million Americans (3.8%) identified themselves as cohabiting with an unmarried partner (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001). Same-gender couples constitute approximately 2% of all households, translating into roughly one million same-gender couples throughout the United States (Clark & Fields, 1999). Moreover, state prohibitions against recognizing same-gender couples as married are likely to result in gay male and lesbian couples comprising a disproportionately high percentage of cohabiting dyads but not being identified as such.

Although reliable data regarding participation in couple therapy by nontraditional couples are sparse, the few available findings regarding gay and lesbian couples document the importance of addressing both common and unique concerns and examining clinical techniques specific to this population. Previous research indicates that gay males and lesbians participate in psychotherapy at higher rates than their heterosexual counterparts (Bell & Weinberg, 1978; Morgan, 1992). Modrcin and Wyers (1990) found that 54% of the lesbian couples and 32% of the gay couples in their community sample had previously sought the services of a professional to address problems in their current relationship; moreover, 86% of lesbians and 60% of gay males in their sample stated that they would seek professional help in the future if problems arose in their relationship.

Various factors may contribute to the lag in research and clinical techniques developed specifically for nontraditional couples. One factor may include institutional biases against same-gender couples, including lack of legal equality with married heterosexual couples in most states, historical views of homosexuality as a mental disorder in previous versions of the American Psychiatric Association's (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM; APA, 1952, 1968), and continuing biases against unmarried heterosexual and same-gender couples by many religious denominations and political groups.

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