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How Gay and Straight Men and Women Influence Their Partners’ Health

Research has long suggested that saying “I do” to a significant other is similar to saying “I do” to better health.1 Married people – especially married men – report better health and live longer than single people.2,3 But marriage itself is not necessarily the reason for these differences; there are many explanations for the health benefits of marriage including increased social support, improved health behaviors by folks who are married, more positive attitudes about health by the married, as well as the benefits of having a partner to help provide health insurance.4,5 

Why are men more likely to experience health benefits in their relationships than are women? Some researchers have suggested that this is because women are socialized to be caretakers. They are more likely than men to take charge of buying nutritious foods, scheduling doctors’ appointments, and ensuring that their partners get their flu shots.6 So, what happens when there is not a woman in the relationship – in other words, what happens when two men are romantically partnered? Or what happens to the health dynamics of a relationship when there are two women in a relationship?

Researchers (including us) have recently examined how gender and relationship experiences influence health by studying heterosexual, gay, and lesbian couples. In a study published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, 20 straight couples, 15 lesbian couples, and 15 gay male couples were compared to each other (the straight couples were married and the lesbian and gay couples were together for 7 years or longer).7 The researchers developed the concept of “health behavior work” to describe and examine the ways that individuals attempt to encourage healthy behaviors (e.g., exercising and avoiding alcohol and drugs) among their partners. They found that among straight couples, women did most of the health behavior work. In contrast, in gay and lesbian couples, both partners were likely to engage in “cooperative health behavior work.” Although some straight couples worked together to achieve health goals like working out at the gym, doing so was much more common in gay and lesbian couples. This finding suggests that men are very capable of health behavior work, even if they are unlikely to engage in it when they are partnered with a woman. The researchers suggest that the cooperative approach to health among gay and lesbian couples is indicative of a greater emphasis on equality and partnership in these relationships.8 

One conclusion to be drawn from this study is that women in straight couples could benefit if their male partners took a greater role in supporting their participation in health behaviors. There is no reason why men can’t make doctor’s appointments or cooperate with their partners to adopt healthy lifestyles. Women would benefit from men’s health behavior work, but so would men if their partners achieved health and longevity.

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1House, J. S., Landis, K. R., & Umberson, D. (1988). Social relationships and health. Science, 241, 540-545.

2Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., & Newton, T. L. (2001). Marriage and health: His and hers. Psychological Bulliten, 127, 472-503. 

3Drefahl, S. (2012). Do the married really live longer? The role of cohabitation and socioeconomic status. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 74, 462-475. DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-3737.2012.00968.x

4Markey, C. N., Markey, P. M., & Gray, H. F. (2007). Romantic relationships and health: An examination of individuals' perceptions of their romantic partners' influences on their health. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 57, 435-445. doi: 10.1007/s11199-007-9266-5.

5Markey, C. N., & Markey, P. M. (2011). Leaving room for complexity in attempts to understand associations between romantic relationships and health: Commentary on Wanic and Kulik. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 65, 313-319. doi: 10.1007/s11199-011-9986-4.

6Markey, C. N., Markey, P. M., Schneider, C., & Brownlee, S. (2005). Marital status and health beliefs: Different relations for men and women. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 53, 443-451. doi: 10.1007/s11199-005-6767-y.

7Reczek, C., & Umberson, D. (2012). Gender, health behavior, and intimate relationships: Lesbian, gay, and straight contexts. Social Science and Medicine, 74, 1783-1790.

8Markey, P. M., & Markey, C. N. (2012, in press). The complementarity of behavioral styles among female same-sex romantic couples. Personal Relationships.

Dr. Charlotte Markey - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Markey's research addresses issues central to both developmental and health psychology. A primary focus of her research is social influences on eating-related behaviors (i.e., eating, dieting, body image) in both parent-child and romantic relationships.

Dr. Patrick Markey - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Markey's research focuses on how behavioral tendencies develop and are expressed within social relationships, including unhealthy dieting, civic behavior, personality judgment, and interpersonal aggression after playing violent video games.

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