Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Same-sex couples tend to get along better than others


Newhouse News Service

Watching Silda Wall Spitzer and Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan try to reconcile their idea of "room service'' with their husbands', you might wonder whether same-sex couples are better off. More understanding of each other's needs and nature. Less conflicted about the whole monogamy-means-monogamy concept. Happier, even.

Isn't the problem between men and women -- forgive me, dear -- men and women?

Well, yes and yes.

Same-sex couples are more honest about monogamy and sex, researchers say. They're also more mature, considerate and fairer to each other than heterosexual couples. They're funnier and more affectionate when they argue. Less controlling. They don't take everything so personally.

The findings come from the same famed laboratory that studies thousands of heterosexual couples -- the Gottman researchers in Seattle -- as well as large university studies. After videotaping gay and lesbian couples' discussions, arguments and daily interaction, John Gottman concluded that straight relationships might one day be so healthy -- maybe in about 200 years.

In January, two large studies found much the same -- including that same-sex partners are generally happier than their straight siblings who are married.

"That may sound radical,'' says Esther Rothblum, a professor of Women's Studies at San Diego State University who co-authored one study, "but it's not hugely surprising.''

Gay couples must take large risks in just choosing to live openly, and then they must actively work to stay together because there are few of the societal or outside pressures that can help keep heterosexual couples married even if they're not happy.

And men and women communicate differently and see intimacy differently -- which matters in times of trouble.

"With heterosexual couples, you really have to translate what your partner is saying because they grew up in different worlds, they were socialized in different ways,'' Rothblum says. "That's where same-sex couples have an advantage.''

Still, the course of true love never runs smooth. Same-sex couples still break up over money, monotony, jealousy and misunderstandings. They bring baggage from their childhood and the particular burdens of living as minorities -- such as what to tell relatives about the relationship, public displays of affection or religious beliefs.

For more than 10 years, Mariah Ureel has taught same-sex couples how to work through such issues in classes at Kaiser Permanente. The Portland, Ore., relationship therapist uses Gottman's research and exercises to strengthen bonds, such as building an emotional rainy day account of happy memories to offset bad times.

As a child, she once made "Peace,'' "Love'' and "Joy'' signs and lined up her six younger brothers and sisters on the couch to support their parents' rare date night. As a therapist and educator, she's found gay couples already seem to understand the importance of date nights. "Whether they have kids or not, they're going out all the time, they're dancing, they're having dinner parties,'' Ureel says.

She teaches in part because of her own experience -- Ureel had been committed to her partner for five years when they legally married in 2004 when Oregon's Multnomah County issued marriage licenses to gay couples. (With few role models, the couple wondered, "Do we use the term husband? Wife? Hife?'' They settled on "wifebuns.'')

Her six-week classes start with the agreement that whatever is discussed in the classroom stays there, and then moves on to sharing coming-out stories. She says people immediately benefit by reducing the amount of time lost to anger and sadness. They also rediscover and celebrate what researchers have found -- that same-sex couples tend to have more compassion for each other, freedom from gender roles, and sometimes even double the wardrobe.

As for affairs, betrayal and heartbreak, Rothblum says, monogamy is always difficult to study because the data from many studies are self-reported and people may fear their partner will see their answers. But researchers have concluded that many gays are more frank in talking about sex and monogamy. For some gay men, for instance, having sex outside the relationship is culturally acceptable, but by mutual agreement. "Unlike Spitzer,'' Rothblum says of the former New York governor, "they're not doing it secretly.''

Talking and doing "homework'' exercises about expectations, values, goals and areas of conflict are key elements of the Kaiser classes. But it also helps couples, Ureel says, to realize that "we are not alone.''

©2008 Kalamazoo
© 2008 Michigan Live. All Rights Reserved.

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