People who identify as gay or lesbian report higher relationship quality overall than people who identify as straight – but why?
It’s hard to say exactly what makes a good relationship work so well. A combination of chance, circumstance and personality can all contribute to a happy love life – and sometimes just a special something you can’t quite put your finger on.
But the ephemerality of love doesn’t mean that there aren’t some lessons we can learn from good relationships. And when one study, published in the journal Family Relations, suggested that gay relationships may actually be happier than straight ones it begged the question: what could LGBT couples teach straight couples about love?
Francisco Perales Perez, senior fellow at the University of Queensland and lead author of the research told me that relationship quality was measured using questions about factors like arguments, thoughts of ending the relationship, and “how often partners had stimulating exchanges of ideas”.
“And we found that people who identified as gay or lesbian reported higher relationship quality overall than people who identified as straight in Australia, and the same levels in the UK,” he added.
The research is significant - not only could it help contribute to policy supporting the LGBT community, but researchers even hope that the strategies deployed by LGBT couples “despite individual and institutional discrimination” could help them develop new counselling tools. Perales Perez notes that it’s “remarkable” that these couples appear to be doing so well. “In Australia and the UK, many social groups remain unaccepting of non-heterosexual relationships.”
One area straight couples could certainly learn from relates to domestic and gender roles. Research – including Perez’s – suggests that LGBT couples are more likely to have equitable domestic roles; shared household chores, for example, and less of a focus on gendered behaviours within the household.
Sarah, a bisexual woman in her late 20s, cites this as one of the biggest differences in her relationships with men and women.
“The difference in the gendered dynamic of my household now I’m in a relationship with a woman is absolutely shocking,” she says. “We don’t tend to fight about domestic issues; it’s just sort of assumed that we both have an equal part to play in who does what around the house.”
“And the jobs themselves aren’t gendered – remember when Theresa May and her husband got made fun of because he said they had ‘boy joys’ and ‘girl jobs’? It was stupid, yeah, but that was genuinely my experience of living with men. It’s so much nicer without that pressure or those kinds of assumptions.”
Rachel Davies, senior practice consultant at relationship charity Relate, also points to more progressive gender roles in LGBT relationships.
“It’s not the case that LGBT relationships mirror heterosexual relationships, where there are predefined gender roles that even today can influence how men and women live together,” she explains. “LGBT couples can make it up as they go along and play to their strengths rather than to a gender stereotype.”
“If one person in a lesbian couple has a passion for DIY then there is no gendered assumption that her partner would do the physical stuff in the house,” she continues. “ What you do and how you live your lives can be decided on personality and abilities rather than gender.”
That isn’t to say it’s always easy. Stigma has an impact – perhaps one of the reasons why bisexual people reported the lowest relationship quality. Perales Perez acknowledges that this element of the research poses “difficult questions”: “our study couldn’t explain it,” he said.
“But based on other research, we can speculate that these low levels of relationship quality could be driven by low levels of social support from both the heterosexual and LGB communities, or comparatively poorer mental health amongst people who identify as bisexual,” he says.
Davies notes that many LGBT couples still face intense prejudice – sometimes even from friends and family. “The plus side of this is that it can sometimes mean that LGBT couples really celebrate their sexuality or gender and their relationship,” she says. “Having to fight for or defend your relationship can test it, but it can also make you stronger as a couple.”
Sarah, like Davies, is keen to point out that many of the same difficulties occur for gay and straight couples – “it’s not like being in a relationship with a woman has solved all of my problems or that some of the same issues don’t come up for me now.” Davies notes that many of the problems straight couples face – communication problems, infidelities, financial problems, trust issues, abuse – apply to LGBT couples too.
But many elements – progressive gender roles, a more even share of household chores, resilience – make all of the difference.
“All relationships have their problems,” Sarah continues. “But there are so many elements of heterosexual relationships that just don’t come up in my current relationship at all.”
“It’s not perfect. But I feel so lucky to have learned so much about love.”
Image: Hian Oliveira/Unsplash