Are Gay and Lesbian Cohabiting Couples Really Different from Heterosexual Married Couples?

Article excerpt

Both partners from gay and lesbian cohabiting couples without children were compared longitudinally with both partners from heterosexual married couples with children (N at first assessment = 80, 53, and 80 couples, respectively) on variables from 5 domains indicative of relationship health. For 50% of the comparisons, gay and lesbian partners did not differ from heterosexual partners. Seventy-eight percent of the comparisons on which differences were found indicated that gay or lesbian partners functioned better than heterosexual partners did. Because the variables that predicted concurrent relationship quality and relationship stability for heterosexual parents also did so for gay and lesbian partners, I conclude that the processes that regulate relationship functioning generalize across gay, lesbian, and heterosexual couples.

Key Words: gay. lesbian, longitudinal, relationship satisfaction, relationship stability.

Despite the current controversy surrounding same-sex marriage in the United States, there are no reliable estimates of the number of American gay and lesbian couples. Survey data indicate that between 40% and 60% of gay men and between 45% and 80% of lesbians are currently involved in a romantic relationship (Bradford, Ryan, & Rothblum, 1994; Falkner & Garber, 2002; Morris, Balsam, & Rothblum, 2002). Data from the 2000 United States Census (Simmons & O'Connell, 2003) indicate that of the 5.5 million couples who were living together but not married, about 1 in 9 (594,391) involved same-sex couples. Other survey data indicate that between 18% and 28% of gay couples and between 8% and 21% of lesbian couples have lived together 10 or more years (The Advocate sex poll, 2002; Blumstein & Schwartz, 1983; Bryant & Demian, 1994; Falkner & Garber, 2002; Kurdek, 2003a). Because presenting oneself publicly as part of a gay or lesbian couple opens the door for discrimination, abuse, and even violence (Bryant & Demian; Kaiser Family Foundation, 2001; Meyer, 2003), these numbers are likely to be underestimates. Nonetheless, it is clear that despite a general social climate of prejudice against gay men and lesbians, being part of a couple is integral to the lives of many gay men and lesbians.

As one indication of the importance of identifying oneself as part of a couple, some gay and lesbian citizens of the United States are currently arguing that they, just like heterosexual citizens, are entitled to the privileges associated with having their relationships legalized as marriages. These privileges include access to spousal benefits from Social security; veterans', health, and life insurance programs; hospital visitation rights; the ability to make medical decisions for partners; and exemption from state inheritance taxes. They also argue that being deprived of these privileges is unjust because it involves discriminating against a defined class of individuals (Eskridge, 1996). In response, some legislators have counterargued that same-sex marriages violate the sanctity of marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and that legal steps are needed to protect that sanctity. In that vein, 38 states to date have approved Defense of Marriage Acts ensuring that those states need not recognize the legality of same-sex unions effected by other states, and support is growing for an amendment to the Constitution that will define marriage as the legal union of a man and a woman.

Despite extensive media coverage of the same-sex marriage issue, the voice of relevant research is rarely heard. Consequently, my premise is that the complex controversy surrounding same-sex marriage can be examined, in part, as an empirical question of the extent to which gay and lesbian partners differ from heterosexual spouses on variables that matter to long-term relationships. I make no claims that answers to this question will provide a definitive resolution to the controversy, but I do submit that answers to this question will help to inform reasoned discussion of the controversy. …