This blog was co-authored by Perrin Robinson, M.S.
Are same-sex romantic relationships more or less stable than different-sex relationships? And are changes in legislation and cultural attitudes towards same-sex relationships affecting their stability? Today, sexual minorities are beginning to enjoy some of the same privileges as straight couples, such as legal marriage and protection against employment and housing discrimination in many states. In light of these changes, a fresh look at same-sex relationships and their long-term stability makes sense.
American attitudes towards same-sex relationships today are more supportive than they’ve ever been. Approval of same-sex relationships has been steadily rising since 2009 (Pew Research Center, 2017), and the 2015 Supreme Court decision endorsing same-sex marriage was a win for many lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) individuals. With these social and legal advances, new attention to the stability of same-sex relationships is warranted.
What does same-sex relationship stability look like today?
Researchers at Bowling Green State University (BGSU) analyzed data collected through the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Joyner, Manning, & Bogle, 2017). Their sample of more than 14,000 individuals included three distinct types of couples — different-sex couples, female same-sex couples, and male same-sex couples. Conceptualizing stability in terms of dissolution rates and duration of relationship, the researchers asked: How stable are the relationships for different couple types? And, further, is stability affected by co-residency versus living separately?
Revisiting past trends
Previous research has shown that cohabiting same-sex romantic couples dissolve their relationships at higher rates than different-sex cohabiting or married couples. These differences in stability are believed to arise from differences in relationship rewards, alternatives, or barriers (Lau, 2012). One such barrier is captured in the label “minority stress,” which refers to stressors unique to a minority group, such as LGB individuals (Meyer, 2003). Micro-aggressions, violence, discrimination, harassment, and lack of approval from friends and family are all forms of minority stress that can adversely affect relationship stability.
So which relationships are the least/most stable?
The gaps in the stability of same-sex and different-sex relationships are diminishing. Still, if you thought all relationships would show the same stability today, given the current legal and cultural climate, that is not the case: Overall, same-sex couples reported shorter relationship lengths than different-sex couples (Joyner et al., 2017). And male same-sex couples experienced significantly higher rates of dissolution than female couples or different-sex couples. This is consistent with previous findings: Gay and bisexual men are exposed to minority stressors that can de-stabilize relationships (Meyer, 2003; Lau, 2012). Where these men differ from women in female couples is in their engagement with protective factors: Many men do not emphasize emotional intimacy and minimization of boundaries to the extent that women do (Umberson, Thomeer, Kroeger, Lodge, & Xu, 2015).
Does living together help?
When partners move in together, or co-reside, their dissolution rates change (Joyner et al., 2017). Male and female same-sex couples still end their relationships more often than different-sex couples. However, both male and different-sex couples end their relationships at lower rates while co-residing than when they are dating, but not living together. When considering living together, men, in particular, may select partners with stabilizing characteristics. It is unclear why dissolution rates do not decrease for women in same-sex relationships who choose to co-reside.
What about legal marriage?
Marriage contributes to relationship stability through enforceable trust and relationship-specific investments (Cherlin, 2004). Access to legal marriage, which has only been available to same-sex couples in the U.S. in recent years, will likely affect same-sex relationship stability. Indeed, despite the minority stress experienced by LGB individuals, Joyner and colleagues (2017) discovered that same-sex married couples are at least as stable as, if not more stable than, different-sex married couples.
Other factors of interest
Joyner and colleagues (2017) also uncovered several demographic correlates of relationship stability. These include race — African-American respondents report less stability in relationships than white respondents — and heterogamy (differences in race and age between partners are associated with higher levels of dissolution). Additionally, higher socioeconomic status and a greater number of prior sexual partners are both associated with a higher hazard of dissolution. Some of these correlates may be explained by intersectionality, the theory that inhabiting multiple minority identities (e.g., lesbian, female, and black) can result in a unique set of disadvantages and stressors (Crenshaw, 1991).
Despite persisting differences in stability linked to minority stress, Joyner and colleagues (2017) note that same-sex relationship stability is less different from heterosexual relationships than in years past. This may reflect the more favorable cultural attitudes toward same-sex couples. As the U.S. continues to progress in legislation that protects all couples regardless of sexual orientation, we would expect these differences to diminish even further. The end goal is not that all relationships operate the same way, but rather that patterns of stability reflect differences that are not tied to prejudice and discrimination.
Cherlin, A. J. (2004). The deinstitutionalization of American marriage. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66, 848-861.
Coulter, R. W. S., Kenst, K. S., Bowen, D. J., Scout. (2014). Research funded by the National Institutes of Health on the Health of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Populations. American Journal of Public Health, 104, e105-e112.
Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43, 1241-1299.
Lau, C. Q. (2012). The stability of same-sex cohabitation, different-sex cohabitation, and marriage. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 973-988.
Joyner, Kara, Wendy D. Manning, and Ryan H. Bogle. Forthcoming. “Gender and the Stability of Same-Sex and Different-Sex Relationships among Young Adults.” Demography.
Meyer, I. H. (2003). Prejudice, social stress, and mental health in lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations: Conceptual issues and research evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 674-697
Pew Research Center. (2017, June 26). Changing Attitudes on Gay Marriage. Pew Research Center: Washington, DC.
Umberson, D., Thomeer, M. B., Kroeger, R. A., Lodge, A. C., Xu, M. (2015). Challenge and opportunities for research on same-sex relationships. Journal of Marriage and Family, 77, 96-111