Marriage Stability: Are gays better at it?

True confession time. Many years ago, although I considered myself extremely accepting of LGBT individuals (as they say, straight but not narrow), I asked a wonderful lesbian a terrible question. Okay, yes, it was 2004, while my home state of Massachusetts was still trying to decide whether marriage was a right open to all citizens (and not just the straight ones), but still. This 45-year-old woman wore a gold band on her left ring finger that I knew matched the one on her female partner’s left hand, and one of us brought up the subject of the marriage equality debate. At one point in the discussion I asked, “So, have you ever been married?” There was a long pause, and then she replied, “Just the once.” I nearly melted in shame, and so I should have.

Back then, in the early days of broad-based discussion about marriage equality, I’m glad no LGBT person asked me for my opinion about the likelihood that “gay” marriages would be as stable as “straight” ones, because I would probably have embarrassed myself further. After all, I was aware that men were more likely than women to be commitment-averse, and for sure most of society made it harder rather than easier for a gay or lesbian couple to make a go of their relationship. So despite my self-proclaimed progressive attitude, I would have expected straight marriages would be more stable over the long run.

Wrong again.

If I had met the same standard I expect from others—that is, thoughtful analysis before drawing conclusions about complex issues—I would have know better. And I would have been better able to rebuff the insistence from homophobic bigots that “gay” marriage would undermine “real” marriage by redefining the nature of families. But, even though I saw this argument as specious and idiotic, it wasn’t until I had data in hand that I could construct a worldview that supported reality: Comparing the marriages of straight, lesbian, and gay male couples, the most stable of the three might just turn out to be gay men.

If this is, in fact, true, here are some of the reasons that might support it.

1. Homosexual couples don’t enter their relationships with pre-determined ideas about what their partners will do based on gender roles. There could easily be disagreements about who does what, but negotiating through the conflicts is more likely to be based on egalitarian rather than presumed positions.

2. When it comes to day-to-day activities and communication, women understand women better than men do, and men understand men better (a la Henry Higgins in Pygmalian/My Fair Lady: “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?”)

3. Most women know better than to expect from most men the same kind of consideration and sympathy they can get from their close female friends, so their expectations of other women are higher than they are of men. This could make lesbian relationships more challenging than gay male ones, because the women will expect a lot from each other—more than most women expect of husbands—while most men don’t have corresponding high expectations of other men.

4. Historically, men are more likely to find monogamy challenging than women, and it seems gay men are likely to give it even less importance than their straight counterparts; therefore, extra-marital sex is less likely to be something gay men would break up over. A 2009 Scientific American article cites some interesting comparisons.

  • Extra-partnership sex: 59% for gay men, 14.7% for straight men, 13.5 for straight women, 8.25 for lesbians
  • Agreement about having extra sex: 43.7% for gay men, 5% for lesbians, 3.5% for straight couples

5. We all grew up in a culture that expects us to marry—unless we’re gay. So most LGBT adults probably grew up with the expectation that they would not, in fact, marry, not only because there was no legal basis for them to do so, but also because until fairly recently few people believed it should be an option. So it’s unlikely that today’s LGBT married folk got married because it was something they or anyone else expected of them. Too many straight marriages take place for exactly this misguided reason, and this basis doesn’t lend itself to stability.

6. As noted above, men tend to be more commitment-averse than women. For gay men, this very likely means that by the time they decide to marry, they’ve been together long enough, or have been together and then apart and then together again often enough, or both, to feel as though the union is something they don’t want to be without.

If you’d like to read more about the studies and draw your own conclusions, here are a few resources to start with: