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How are Gay and Heterosexual Relationships Different?

In a recent Q&A, we addressed whether the type and amount of relationship conflict differs for gay and heterosexual couples. Aside from level of conflict, though, how do same- and opposite-sex couples stack up?

Contrary to popular belief, relationship health and quality is quite similar across gay, lesbian, and heterosexual partnerships.1 For example, partners in each of these relationship types report almost identical levels of satisfaction with and commitment to their romances on average.2 Relatively few differences have been discovered, and most are rather small. Of the differences identified to date, some suggest that gay and lesbian partners are slightly better off than their heterosexual counterparts, while others imply that they are slightly worse off. One noted advantage of same-sex couples is that they are nicer and use more humor during arguments compared to heterosexual couples.3 This may have something to do with the fact that gay partnerships tend to have much greater equality (i.e., power-sharing) within their relationships, perhaps because they do not adhere as strongly to traditional gender roles.4 Although it is often assumed that one partner must play the “wife” in a same-sex relationship (à la The Birdcage and most other depictions of gay couples in the popular media), gay partners feel less pressure to adopt strict roles and tend to be on more equal footing, which may result in lower intensity arguments.

Despite having less heated debates, same-sex couples tend to break up more frequently.4 Part of the reason for this is likely due to gay and lesbian partners perceiving fewer “barriers” to leaving their relationships. Barriers refer to the potential losses you might suffer emotionally or financially if you were to end a romance. For example, if you and your partner had been introduced to each other’s families, had a shared mortgage and bank account, and had a child together, you would probably be more inclined to try and save that relationship when it hits a rough patch because the meaning and value of these things would change if you were to break up.

Why do same-sex couples report fewer barriers? One reason is because most same-sex partners do not have the legal option of getting married. Marriage solidifies a lot of barriers, particularly those of a financial nature, making it more costly to split up (ever hear of this thing called “divorce?”). Thus, it could be that certain barriers are weaker in gay relationships because they usually do not need to consult attorneys and appear in front of a judge if they want to end their partnerships.

Although I have focused most of this entry on the topic of differences, please keep in mind that basic relationship dynamics are largely the same across most couple types. Thus, when comparing same- and opposite-sex relationships, there are actually far more similarities than there are differences.

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1Kurdek, L. A. (2004). Are gay and lesbian cohabiting couples really different from heterosexual married couples? Journal of Marriage and Family, 66, 880-900.

2 Lehmiller, J. J., & Agnew, C. R. (2006). Marginalized relationships: The impact of social disapproval on romantic relationship commitment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 40-51.

3Gottman, J.M., Levenson, R.W., Swanson, C., Swanson, K., Tyson, R., and Yoshimoto, D., (2003). Observing gay, lesbian and heterosexual couples' relationships: Mathematical modeling of conflict interactions. Journal of Homosexuality, 45, 65-91

4Kurdek, L. A. (1998). Relationship outcomes and their predictors: Longitudinal evidence from heterosexual married, gay cohabiting, and lesbian cohabiting couples. Journal of Marriage and Family, 60, 553-568.

Dr. Justin Lehmiller - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Lehmiller's research program focuses on how secrecy and stigmatization impact relationship quality and physical and psychological health. He also conducts research on commitment, sexuality, and safer-sex practices.

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