Many studies have focused on different-sex relationships, but little is known about same-sex couples' long-term relationships.
A new U.S. study asked 31 same-sex couples to discuss their relationships and to pinpoint factors that contributed to their long-term "success." Relationships ranged in length from 13 to 41 years.
Part of a larger longitudinal study on relationships, the new research is based on 18 female and 13 male same-sex couples. They came from 15 different states, and all had legal relationship status. Twenty-one of the couples were in a civil marriage, and 10 were in a civil union.
Led by Ellen Riggle from the University of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), the study found five factors in particular contributed to couples' relationship success. They are:
- positive communication patterns
- shared values
- sharing experiences, and
- support from others.
The findings appeared online in the Journal of GLBT Family Studies on Feb. 17, 2016.
The couples identified communication as an important factor in their relationship success. Most said that being open and honest with each other and treating each other with respect and kindness helped to maintain their closeness.
Tim, partnered with Kurt for 25 years, believed in talking through issues. "One thing that we do is we communicate a lot," he said. "Sometimes it's effective, sometimes it's bland, sometimes it's very heated, but we don't let things fester for any length of time."
Another couple, Barb and Helen (partnered for 36 years) had adopted the mantra: "Never go to bed angry." As Barb said, "We never go to bed mad; if there has been anything that we did not agree on at the end of the day, it's discussed and cleared out before we go to bed."
After a rough patch in their relationship, Stuart and Ray (partnered for 22 years) started doing "check-ins" with each other, a couple of times a week. The check-ins give each individual time to talk about how they are feeling without any interrupting from the other person. "That's really helped us," Ray said.
Researchers found that many couples considered shared values an important strength in their relationship.
For example, Liz and Irene (partnered for 33 years) felt that their Jewish backgrounds and similar values about money enhanced their relationship.
"I think that we had the benefit of going into a relationship where we had a lot in common in the beginning," said Liz. "We wanted the same things and we had those conversations right in the very beginning. We knew we wanted children. We knew we wanted a particular type of lifestyle."
Irene added, "I also think we're lucky in that we both have the exact same spending habits and the same child-rearing philosophies."
Marc and Dan (partnered for 26 years) came from different backgrounds, yet they shared similar values and goals. "We have a lot in common, our ethics, our politics, our devotion, our commitment," Dan said. "We're the same. We look different, but we think about certain things the same way."
In the current study, relationship commitment acted as a ballast for couples helping each other grow and change within the relationship.
Indeed, Kurt considered commitment even more important than love in sustaining a happy relationship. His partner agreed: "There is no relationship in the world where you are happy all the time. But there are lots of rewards with staying in the relationship and being committed that you would never know about unless you actually get past those difficult times."
Commitment included supporting each other through stressful situations as well as showing appreciation for each other and the relationship.
Couples also talked about being able to lean on each other to become their best selves. Emily, who has a 33-year relationship, said: "I think we try to be sensitive and I think we genuinely want one another to be happy. We will work hard to help the other person achieve whatever they want to achieve."
In addition to relationship commitment, couples discussed how sharing experiences, such traveling together or sharing hobbies buttressed their relationship.
Jackie, partnered with Harriet for 18 years, touted the importance of shared history:
The fact that we have so much fun together. I mean that's just the icing on the cake. And you know when things get difficult or complicated for some reason, we have so much history together and so many wonderful shared experiences that that's what sort of buoys us through the difficult times.
Another couple, Ray and Stuart discussed how having children had strengthened their bond.
Both introverts, Shirley and Judy enjoy sitting at home reading a book or going out to a movie. As Judy remarked, "Seeing friends occasionally, seeing family occasionally. We have a very boring life and we love it. We're not bored, we're content."
Even couples who had different interests recognized the value of spending time together to enhance their relationship. For instance, Delores is an avid gardener. Paula, her partner of 13 years, is not a green thumb, but she doesn't mind raking and mowing the lawn so they can spend time together.
The new research found that relationship longevity was fostered by support from others, especially from family.
As Jackie remarked, "I think having the collective support of our two families has been enormous plus." Her partner Harriet added, "We're the cool aunts. We have so many nephews and nieces and cousins younger than us and that look up to us. And they reach out to us."
Dan and Marc felt a special bond with each other's mother. Marc said: "Dan's mother adored me because there were so many ways that I was different from Dan. And by the same token, my mother adored Dan for exactly the same reason."
Lastly, friends played an important role in bolstering relationships by extending couple's networks and offering support in times of stress.