June 16th, 2004 Ellen Fagg | Special Section Stories
 

Queer Quarrels

How straight couples can learn to pick better fights.

     
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Ever since Adam first hooked up with that apple-munchin' hoochie Eve, men and women have been arguing about everything--from who will weed the garden to who gets top billing in the bedroom. Since the battle of the sexes has been raging for so long, you'd think humans would have evolved a bit by now in the way we fight with our most significant others. But married couples are still in the Cro-Magnon age when it comes to our do-or-die daily warfare about housework and sex.

But now, a new study reveals that hetero-folk should be spying on their same-sex neighbors to get ahead in the kiss-and-make-up department. That's right. Gay and lesbian couples are more likely to start and maintain an argument in a positive way, and are less likely to react defensively, says Dan Yoshimoto, a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington and a lead researcher of the Relationship Research Institute study. For heterosexual couples, fights often dissolve into a power struggle. Heteros just don't know how to fight fair.

Here's a more provocative summary: "I think that in 200 years heterosexual relationships will be where gay and lesbian relationships are today," according to Dr. John Gottman, Yoshimoto's boss and the director of the Institute's "Love Lab."

Researchers observed 40 gay and lesbian couples over a period of 12 years, then compared communication patterns with those of married straight couples, matching the groups in age, relationship satisfaction, education and income. According to Yoshimoto, the study is the first published report of same-sex couples to combine observations of verbal communication with empirical data and body indicators.

A centerpiece of the research is one striking observation of verbal intercourse that, of course, happens to be about sex. While cameras were rolling in the Love Lab, a gay couple was arguing about their love life when one man said, "You know, you're not my physical type." His partner didn't strike back defensively, didn't escalate the argument, but instead asked what they could do so both of them could experience satisfaction.

Wow.

"Potentially, that comment had all the elements to trigger defensiveness--or divorce--but the conversation just went on," Yoshimoto says. "They didn't need to change the topic, they still managed to talk about scheduling."

Perhaps this particular couple was just more evolved, more intuitively skilled at communicating; after all, in 12 years, researchers had never observed a married couple handle such an explosive comment so calmly--and not too many gay couples, either. But Yoshimoto uses this exchange as an example of how gay and lesbian couples seem better able to negotiate issues of equality in their relationships. They tend to employ humor more often, and seem to take negative cracks less personally than heterosexual couples do.

In fact, according to Yoshimoto's research, gay and lesbian couples are even more successful dividing up the household chores. Gay partners are likely to divide up work on the manly basis of skill, while list-lovin' lesbians split chores by number of tasks.

Larger studies are needed before psychologists can pinpoint all the cultural differences that color same-sex relationships, but Yoshimoto says analysis of thousands and thousands of hours of videotapes--along with pages and pages of body-heat and heart-rate measurements--suggests some common-sense advice all couples could use.

"We know all these things," Yoshimoto says. "Be constructive in conflict. Don't let emotions rule. Being defensive, critical, being contemptuous, being belligerent, and withdrawing from conflict--these are the main things that are corrosive in a relationship. In the end, you don't want to hurt your partner."

Maybe gay and lesbian couples have more incentive to present a united front to the world because they might receive less acceptance of their relationship from families and society. As Yoshimoto says: "For many gay and lesbian couples, it is 100 percent a choice to stay together."

Well, now. Let's recap: It has taken men and women thousands of years to even admit they're from different gender galaxies and try to start bridging the great communication gap. According to researchers, same-sex couples are light-years ahead of the game.


Back to "THE STRAIGHT ISSUE" table of contents.

Dr. John Gottman, a psychologist who founded Seattle's Relationship Research Institute, has been studying how couples argue for more than 30 years.

 
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