Thursday, Jan. 17, 2008
Are Gay Relationships Different?
Michael and I had been together 7 1⁄2 years when I moved out in late 2006. We met at a bar just after Christmas 1998; I had seen Shakespeare in Love with a couple of friends, and I was feeling amorous, looking for Joseph Fiennes. Michael hit on one of my friends first, but the two didn't click, so Michael settled for me.
That was one of our most reliable stories to tell friends over dinner. It never ceased to get the table laughing, Michael and me most of all, because it was preposterous to think we wouldn't have ended up together. We were so happy, our love unshakable.
I went home with Michael the night we met, and figuratively speaking, I didn't leave again for those 7 1⁄2 years. The breakup sucked, the more so because it was no one's fault. Our relationship had begun to suffer the inanition of many marriages at seven years. (The seven-year itch isn't a myth; the U.S. Census Bureau says the median duration of first marriages that end in divorce is 7.9 years.) Michael and I loved each other, but slowly--almost imperceptibly at first--we began to realize we were no longer in love. We were intimate but no longer passionate; we had cats but no kids.
Things drifted for a while. There was some icky couples counseling ("Try a blindfold") and therapeutic spending on vacations, clothes, furniture. We were lost. The night Michael wouldn't stay up to watch The Office finale with me, I knew I had to move out. Yes, he was tired, but if he couldn't give me the length of a sitcom--Jim and Pam are going to kiss!--then we were really done.
What followed for me, in no meaningful order, was intense exercise and weight loss; fugue states punctuated by light psychotherapy, heavy drinking and moderate drug use; really good sex; Italian classes (where I learned to pronounce il mio divorzio perfectly); and marathons of cooking. I had always enjoyed the kitchen, but now I would make pumpkin ravioli from scratch on Thursday and cook a black bass in parchment on Friday and bake an olive-oil cake on Saturday. The fridge was stuffed; my friends were ecstatic and full. But in the mornings, alone before dawn, a jolt of terror: What had I done?
Finally I started reading the academic research on relationships, which is abundant and, surprisingly, often rigorous. I wondered whether Michael and I could have done more to save our union. What impact had our homosexuality had on the longevity, arc and dissolution of our relationship? Had we given up on each other because we were men or because we were gay? Or neither? Friends offered clichés: Some people just aren't meant for each other. But our straight friends usually stayed married. Why not us?
When I was 13, I secretly read my parents' old copy of Dr. David Reuben's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, first published in 1969. Standing nervously at the bookshelf, I was poised to replace the volume quickly if I heard footsteps. The chapter on homosexuality explained, "The homosexual must constantly search for the one man, the one penis, the one experience, that will satisfy him. He is the sexual Diogenes, always looking for the penis that pleases. That is the reason he must change partners endlessly. [In gay marriages] the principals never stop cruising. They may set up housekeeping together, but the parade of penises usually continue [sic] unabated ... Mercifully for both of them, the life expectancy of their relationship together is brief." My face went hot with embarrassment.
I know now that the book was blithe and stupid, but I think many people, gay and straight, assume gay men are worse at maintaining relationships than straight people are. I needed experts, answers. I was also curious if I should be so upset about my breakup. As a society, we treat single people over 30 with condescension or pity, but maybe the problem was that I had hurtled into a serious relationship too young. I know that in my 20s I had wanted to impress my family and my heterosexual friends with my stability. Maybe I should have waited.
Research on gay relationships is young. The first study to observe how gays and lesbians interact with their partners during conversations (monitoring facial expressions, vocal tones, emotional displays and physical reactions like changes in heart rate) wasn't published until 2003, even though such studies have long been a staple of hetero-couple research. John Gottman, a renowned couples therapist who was then at the University of Washington, and Robert Levenson, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, led a team that evaluated 40 same-sex couples and 40 straight married couples. The psychologists concluded that gays and lesbians are nicer than straight people during arguments with partners: they are significantly less belligerent, less domineering and less fearful. Gays and lesbians also use humor more often when arguing (and lesbians use even more humor than gays, which I hereby dub "the Ellen DeGeneres effect"). The authors concluded that "heterosexual relationships may have a great deal to learn from homosexual relationships."
But Gottman and Levenson also found that when gay men initiate difficult discussions with their partners, the partners are worse than straight or lesbian couples at "repairing"--essentially, making up. Gottman and Levenson suggest that couples therapists should thus focus on helping gay men learn to repair.
The therapist Michael and I hired did not encourage us to repair. She didn't have to. Our relationship had become so etiolated and dull that we didn't even have proper fights. We carried an aura of passivity, and the therapist wanted to see passion. She was smart to ask for it. Gottman, Levenson and their colleagues found that gays and lesbians who exhibit more tension during disagreements are more satisfied with their relationships than those who remain unruffled. For straight people, higher heart rates during squabbles were associated with lower relationship satisfaction. For gays and lesbians, it was just the opposite. Gays conduct their relationships as though they are acting out some cheesy pop song: You have to make my heart beat faster for me to love you. For gays, it is apathy that murders relationships, not tension. Straight people more often prefer a lento placidity.
Why would gays show more beneficence in arguments, do a worse job of repairing after bad fights and find palpitation satisfying? Researchers have long noted that because gender roles are less relevant in gay and lesbian relationships--it's a canard that in most gay couples, one partner plays wife--those relationships are often more equal than heterosexual marriages. Both guys do the dishes; both women grill the steaks. Straight couples often argue along gender lines: the men are at turns angry and distant, the women more prone to lugubrious bursts. Gays and lesbians may be less tetchy during quarrels because they aren't forced into a particular role.
"In heterosexual couples," Levenson says, "men become very sensitive to their wives' sadness and anger. It's toxic to most straight men and disappointing. They want their wives to idolize them, and they are very, very good anger detectors. And they don't see any of it as funny. In gay couples, there's a sense of 'We're angry, but isn't this funny?'"
No one is sure why gay men are worse at making up after fights, but I have a theory: it's less important for their sex lives. Probably because they don't have women to restrain their evolutionarily male sexual appetites, gay men are more likely than straight and lesbian couples to agree to nonmonogamy, which decreases the stakes for not repairing. And according to a big study from Norway published in The Journal of Sex Research in 2006, gay men also consume more porn than everyone else, making them more "partner-independent."
Finally, I think gay and lesbian couples may prefer more heart-racing during conflict because of what happens to gays and lesbians as kids. Although the world is changing--more than 3,700 schools now have student clubs that welcome gays--many gay kids still grow up believing that what they want is disgusting. They repress for years, and when they finally do have relationships, they need them to carry sufficient drama into those emotional spaces that were empty for so long. Gays need their relationships to scorch.
That's one reason gays and lesbians end relationships sooner than heterosexuals. In a 2004 paper, psychology professor Lawrence Kurdek of Wright State University in Ohio reported that over a 12-year period, 21% of gay and lesbian couples broke up; only 14% of married straight couples did. Too many gay relationships are pulled by the crosscurrents of childhood pain, adult expectation and gay-community pathologies like meth addiction. Kurdek has also found that members of gay and lesbian couples are significantly more self-conscious than straight married people, "perhaps due to their stigmatized status," he writes.
Legalizing same-sex marriage would probably help prolong gay relationships, if only because of the financial and legal benefits married couples enjoy. Federal benefits are unavailable to lesbian and gay couples even in Massachusetts, the only state that allows those couples to obtain marriage licenses. Kurdek says in a 1998 Journal of Marriage and the Family paper that even though gay and lesbian relationships end more often than straight marriages, they don't degrade any faster. In other words, it takes squabbling gay and straight couples the same amount of time to enter what is known as "the cascade toward divorce." But straight couples more often find a way to stop the cascade. For gays, breaking up usually means simply moving out, not hiring divorce attorneys.
Today Michael and I are friends. On Christmas Eve, we gathered a group, and I made an enthusiastic attempt at the traditional Italian seven-fishes feast. I'm in better shape now than I was in high school, which fits with psychologist Bella DePaulo's finding (in her fascinating 2006 book on single life, Singled Out) that the period around divorce is associated with improvements in health. Divorced men are also, not surprisingly, happier than men stuck in bad marriages.
And yet if ours had been a straight marriage, I have little doubt we would still be together. We had financial security and supportive families. We almost certainly would have had children. This isn't regret--fighting my homosexuality would be like shouting against the rain. But while the researchers are certainly right that straight couples have something to learn from gay couples, I think the inverse is true as well.