Psychology Today: Do gay and straight couples split up at the same rate?

Psychology Today editor, Kaja Perina penned an article in the January/February, 2007 issue called Queer IQ: The Gay Couple’s Advantage. The subtitle line reads: “Gay relationships are less mired in deception and perhaps even less prone to friction, according to multiple studies.” She develops the idea, with help from Maureen O’Sullivan and John Gottman, that gay couples talk more about sexual matters and need to keep fewer secrets. O’Sullivan is quoted as saying,

Romantic lies are, after all, a sort of Rosetta stone on which gender differences are coyly inscribed. Straight men lie about their commitment to the relationship and about their resources, finds psychologist Maureen O’Sullivan. They are also more likely to lie to keep their partner from getting angry at them, a small but telling testament to the wrath of women. Women, in contrast, lie to flatter a man’s sense of self and to downplay their interest in other men.

Ms. Perina finishes her article with this paragraph:

Whether a same-sex edge to mating intelligence makes for longer unions is unclear. Among the couples Gottman studied, the projected break-up rate for homosexuals, over a four-decade span, is a grim 64 percent (gay men are far more likely to split than are lesbians). The 40-year divorce rate for straight couples in first marriages is 67 percent. To amend George Burns: If you wait long enough, every couple wants different things.

I was puzzled by these numbers and emailed Editor Perina for her sources. She kindly emailed back a reference to a John Gottman et al article in the Journal of Homosexuality. Titled, “Correlates of Gay and Lesbian Couples’ Relationship Satisfaction and Relationship Dissolution” and published in a 2003 issue of Journal of Homosexuality, (Vol. 45, #1), the study examined relationship satisfaction and stability among gay couples. Gottman and team sought to make comparison with heterosexual couples. On page 26, the authors wrote:

For the remaining twelve years of this longitudinal study, data were collected on relationship status. In the years between 1987 and 1999, eight couples broke up (20%), one gay couple and seven lesbian couples. This breakup rate for homosexual couples, if it were to be computed over a 40-year period would be 63.5%, which is quite comparable with Bumpass and Martin’s (1989) 67% breakup rate for first marriages among heterosexual couples within a 40-year period.

First of all I cannot find an article with the reference, “Bumpass and Martin (1989).” I believe the article in question is actually, Martin and Bumpass in the journal Demography but it was not included in the Gottman reference list so I am not sure I have the proper article. Whatever the citation, this rate for straights seemed inflated. A quick check of several sites confirmed that the divorce rate is not that high. According to a 2002 Census Bureau bulletin the divorce rate is not quite 50%. A New York Times article in 2005 quoted Dr. Bumpass as revising downward his early predictions for a much higher rate, with other experts suggesting the rate is closer to 40% and falling. And finally, a recent Demography study found differences between same-sex and opposite-sex couples in Norway and Sweden, especially among lesbians (Hat tip to Bradford Wilcox, for that study). When I alerted Ms. Perina to these data, she wrote back saying (quote with permission):

“Thank you for the clarification. To be honest, I wrestled with whether to include those numbers and now regret doing so.”

She is considering a correction on their website.

The point is not that same-sex couples are incapable of stability (see Gates, nd) but rather that under current circumstances, even in countries with legal supports, there are differences in longevity associated to some degree with sexual orientation of the partners. It may be that all of that honesty isn’t such a good thing…

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  • David Blakeslee

    What possible motivation could Perina have for mischaracterizing the research on heterosexual divorce?

    Her article seems skeptical to the point of cynicism.

    The data she quotes from Gottman is extrapolated (read “poor”) and a very small sample (is it also overrepresented by lesbians?).

    Putting the power of a major popular magazine which purports to be authorititive on psychological matters for the general public with such a distorted focus is……to put it mildly, wrong.

    Great work Warren…she mischaracterizes things in ways we have criticized NARTH and FOTF. God is a god of truth and facts.

  • http://www.exgaywatch.com Timothy Kincaid

    I would be quite surprised if straight relationships were not statistically more stable than gay ones. It’s hard maintaining ANY relationship and gay couples don’t have the extensive social pressures to stay together that straights have.

    And it’s bad enough that society at large ignores the existence of gay couples and the difficulties that they share with every other couple out there, but there are strong forces – family and church – who actively seek to break apart their relationship. I read last week of a lesbian couple that were denied communion at their Catholic church because a letter they wrote to their legislator got public attention. Straight couples don’t have any churches saying “break up or you aren’t welcome”.

    I cringe sometimes when I read the testimonies of some ex-gays and I run across the story of someone who left a long-term relationship to try to become ex-gay. Behind the gleeful tale of one guy “walking away from homosexuality” I can’t help but see the other guy who invested years of trust and commitment only to see a church organization come along and encourage his parter to stomp on his heart.

  • http://www.boxturtlebulletin.com Jim Burroway

    I also agree that married relationships are much more likely to be stable than gay relationships. I’ve always agreed when conservatives assert that marriage has a stabilizing effect. It’s pretty simple really. Chris and I can throw in the bag at the cost of a U-haul. The marriage contract forces people to do more to avoid going through a messy and costly divorce. There’s a built in structural expectation for the couple to at least try to work it out. And yet breakdowns do occure nevertheless.

  • gordo

    I also agree that married relationships are much more likely to be stable than gay relationships.

    I don’t know what “stable” means.

    This is by no means a statistically valid sample, but in observing my friends, the gay relationships are by far more equitable, peaceful, honest, and happy than the straight relationships. No question about it.

    @Jim – yes, you and your partner could call it quits at the drop of a hat, but you know that isn’t the reality. Just because there are less legal hurdles doesn’t make it any easier. It can make it harder – the decision to end it is not as defined – no one asks for a divorce, or makes an appointment with a lawyer. When the end comes, its harder to see that it is really the end and one or both of the partners can go for a long time without any resolution.

  • Michael Bussee

    I am not sure (other than pure curiousity) what difference it makes which couples (gay or straight) are more likely to break up. I know couples of both types who are happy and stable and others who should never have gotten together in the first place.

    Even if they last, staying together is no proof of good adjustment. Some very sick relationships have lasted for decades. Straight couples have the cultural, religious and legal advantage — but are they really doing that much better?

  • http://exgaywatch.com David Roberts

    To be honest, this sounds like a reverse example of Cameron. I think it extremely unlikely that gay couples are as stable, at least not today, as straight marriages. Who knows what the results will be in 100 years, but we can’t get that data until then can we :)

  • http://www.boxturtlebulletin.com Jim Burroway

    Gordo, true all that. I was exaggerating a but to make a point. But I think a distinction can be made between marriage and living together. Unfortunately for Americans outside of MA (and for all Americans when these studies were done) gay couples couldn’t marry, making a strict apples-to-apples comparison impossible.

    Many people tend to think a bit harder before getting married. Not everyone obviously, but generally speaking, getting married is a pretty big deal compared to moving in together. It just makes sense. Not only that, but there’s pretty good evidence for it in the fact that there wasn’t a humongous rush to the registrar in VT (for civil unions), MA an Scandinavia. Not as big a rush as was expected anyway.

  • Lynn David

    Timothy Kincaid [April 11, 2007 @ 12:58 pm] wrote:

    And it’s bad enough that society at large ignores the existence of gay couples and the difficulties that they share with every other couple out there, but there are strong forces – family and church – who actively seek to break apart their relationship. I read last week of a lesbian couple that were denied communion at their Catholic church because a letter they wrote to their legislator got public attention.

    With the Roman Catholic Church it is more or less the same as the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Even in my small parish gay couples have attended church and received communion – together.

    A while back there was a gay couple who sang in a choir in a New York parish. Then they went to Canada and got married. That was no problem. The problem came when they were interviewed for a newspaper article. Their parish priest [possibly at the prodding of his bishop] then had to remove them from particiapation in the choir.

    Then there was the lesbian mother up in Wisconsin who taught a religion class on Sundays for the children of the parish. Her parish priest considered her work in that respect to be exemplary and put her name up for the Bishop’s award in that diocese. When someone else from the parish let it be known to the Bishop that she was a partnered lesbian her name was withdrawn from the list for the award of merit.

    You see each of those acts becomes a political statement for the “homosexual agenda” that the Roman Catholic Church considers that it cannot condone in any way. I even think the lesbian mother was further barred from teaching that religion class by the Bishop.

    I think the point of these incidents is clear. Most existing religious institutions are not at all interested in creating and promoting an ethic for gays and lesbians. If we want an ethic for ourselves, we have to create it either within other more accepting religious institutions or civil goverment or rather both.

    But that often means separation from families. Nearly my entire family heritage in America lies in two rural Catholic Churches and two Catholic Churches in the main town in one county. I have a large extended Roman Catholic family in the area, but there is this thing now between me and all of them that now somehow makes me not up to par with all of them. I hate that feeling.

  • Mary

    I just finished reading Stephanie Conntz’s book The History of Marriage. I found it to be quite well researched and thoughtful.

    One of the things she does mention is the critical purpose of marriage. How it has come from need to obediance to love. With all the social changes, technological advances, greater earning power of women, and newly defined roles of men and women – (and other contributing factors that I am not remembering) the place and purpose for marriage partners and committment have change dramatically over time.

    Her statistics for showing that divorce is leveling off again may be a product of fewer marriages taking place Women are getting married at all ages and life stages. Hence choosing one partner for the remainder of her years rather than choosing two or three over a lifetime.

    She also notes that we have redefined family ( step families, adopted families, blended families, childless families, families with grandparents/ elderly and aging parents living in the same house etc…) and have imposed new reasons and “terms” for marriage. Marriage today is needs to be more negotiable than it has ever been in history.

    With these things in mind – I can see how gay and lesbian couples have more opportunities to define their relationships just like everyone does. Though presures that kept marriages together in times have passed and we all have to figure out who is going to do the shopping, pick up the kids, and have the boss over for dinner. (Real issues of day to day living)

    For gays maybe the division of work is more equal, or the communication more open – but there is no public congratulary or recognition of their commitment and it is my opinion that these would help stabilize their relationships.

    So while we are all trying to figure it out as we go along, it seems that for gays they are trying to figure it out all alone without the usual support that others recieve.

  • gordo

    but there is no public congratulary or recognition of their commitment and it is my opinion that these would help stabilize their relationships.

    If you mean a big party where we’re the center of attention and everyone dresses up and brings presents, well then yes.

    But if you mean the recognition of friends, family, neighbors and coworkers that we’re a couple, that our first names at least are always mentioned together,and that we’re in this for the long haul, then I believe you’re mistaken. The only group that doesn’t recognize us is the federal government who would treat my receipt of health benefits from his employers as ordinary taxable income.

  • David Blakeslee

    “I think the point of these incidents is clear. Most existing religious institutions are not at all interested in creating and promoting an ethic for gays and lesbians. If we want an ethic for ourselves, we have to create it either within other more accepting religious institutions or civil goverment or rather both.”

    Quite the contrary, they have created an ethic of celibacy.

  • http://www.boxturtlebulletin.com Jim Burroway

    I don’t think it’s the party that marriage is all about myself, or necessarily the recognition. But just as straight couples tend to self-select in entering marriage (those somewhat less committed or more leery more likely to move in together), I think we’d see a similar self-selection taking place among gay couples. In fact, the relatively low marriage rates so far (the rates are generally growing however) among gays and lesbians in Mass, Scandinavia and Canda, I think is evidence of this self-selection.

  • http://www.exgaywatch.com Timothy Kincaid

    Gordo,

    I think there are a lot of other times when recognition is denied. Unfortunately, these are when it is most needed. For example, in most states gay couples run into problems when there is:

    a medical emergency,

    a child with a problem at school,

    an unexpected death when there is not a will,

    a contested will from a hostile relative (a second cousin twice removed has more legal standing in most states than a 55-year same-sex partner),

    end of life decisions,

    immigration difficulties,

    and the list goes on.

    When the stresses on a relationship are the greatest, that’s when the state (most of them) and federal governments step in and say “you are nothing – and we will punish you for having this long-term, stable, productive, and societally beneficial relationship”.

    When the hospital tell you “you aren’t family” it can make you wonder why it is that you are going to be hurting your career by cutting back your hours over the next several months to care for this non-family person. When your state says you cannot have any legal connection whatsoever to the colicy child that you are rocking at 4 am, you can ask yourself what you are doing out of bed.

    It tells much about man’s innate desire to find a mate and to love them that any gay couples survive at all.

  • Lynn David

    David Blakeslee wrote:

    Quite the contrary, they have created an ethic of celibacy.

    Yeah, my bad. I’m always forgetting to put the words “sensible,” “rational,” &/or “workable’ as an adjectives in that sentence, thus:

    Most existing religious institutions are not at all interested in creating and promoting a sensible, sane, workable ethic for gays and lesbians.

    How’s that?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/warrenthrockmorton/ Warren

    Lynn David – How’s that? — Not applicable to all. Whether it makes sense to you or not; it does to others and it is one that Jesus specifically spoke about. So for some it is sensible, sane and workable.

  • gordo

    Timothy,

    I’ll all for gay marriage – no argument here. What I have problem with is the way everyone here is just accepting the idea that gay relationships are less stable than straight relationships. Sez who?!

    g

  • linda

    Every statistic I’ve ever read about the multiple partners of nearly all gay men seems to indicate that their relationships are not long lasting. If they have an “open” relationship where both partners sleep around and it lasts longer, well that’s not really quite the same thing .We need to watch the stats of the 5 countries that allow gay marriage and see how long lasting the marriages are. Interesting how the definition of “family” has changed over the years. Step-fathers and mothers have always been around, adoption has been around for a long time and the traditional, accepted definitiion of family has always been “people related by birth, marriage or adoption”. We are not related on a family status in any other relationship outside of marriage, birth or adoption. My best friend of 30 years is not in my family. My wonderful neighbors are not my family. The great “church family” we have at our church is not our family, though we refer to them that way sometimes, we all know that we mean we are members of the same local group of christians who meet regularly together. Today in our school system we teach that a family is “any group of two or more people who love and care about each other”. This is what the sex education class at the school I worked at for many years teaches as the definition of a family. They started teaching this about 1995 or so. For me this is far too shallow and simplistic and I prefer the old definition and believe it is more correct. The newer definition is misleading and unclear at best, especially for children. Linda

  • http://www.exgaywatch.com Timothy Kincaid

    Linda,

    Every statistic I’ve ever read about the multiple partners of nearly all gay men seems to indicate that their relationships are not long lasting.

    That, my dear, is because you are reading the Camerons and making the mistake of not recognizing that it’s comedy. As best I can tell, there are not any reliable statistics about partners of gay men. And there are undoubtedly those who participate at this site who would provide life examples that refute your “nearly all” presumptions.

    The newer definition is misleading and unclear at best, especially for children.

    You have decided that because your definition of family is easier for you, then therefore it sould be the sole definition. Marriage, blood, adoption, and that’s it, baby.

    OK

    I could accept that definition. In Massachusetts I would agree that a family should consist of two married people and their children, natural or adopted (along with the various in-laws, cousins, etc.).

    Except that some want exclusions to who can get married or adopt. They work backwards to get to the definition that you want. The definition that they really want is Family = Heterosexuals. THis is obvious from the numerous “family” organizations out there that have no agenda other than opposing any equal access for gay persons. Saying “marriage, blood, and adoption” is just a way of masking the exclusion when you are trying to control who has access to marriage and adoption.

    But the reality is, Linda, that same-sex attracted persons develop families that are indistinguishable from heterosexual families (both the good and the bad) and that the only distinguishing characteristic is the sex of the parties. You can dance around it with your “definitions”, but ultimately it is that, Linda, which you find objectionable.

    Fortunately, more and more people – including many of those in education – are realizing that you definitions of exclusion are not reality.