Sexual Orientation and Romantic Relationships
Sexual orientation, much like an individual’s sex, is biology-based. Our sexual orientation serves as a map that guides us when we search for intimacy. Same-gender and different-gender relationships are composed of the same basic emotional needs but the approaches same-gender couples take to fulfill those needs are remarkably unique. When attempting to understand the similarities and differences between same-gender and different-gender relationships we must keep in mind that the legal and social context of same-gender relationships is not what it once was and is continuing to change. Also, we can’t assume that a specific couple will be equally representative of any larger group. Last but not least, we have to avoid thinking that heterosexuality is what is normal and anything other than being heterosexual or in a different-gender relationship is not normal. We want to understand same-gender relationships for the sake of understanding various ways people can find and enjoy intimacy, not to measure them up to different-gender relationships as if same-gender relationships are less ideal.
Stigma and Prejudice
People with same-gender orientations are part of a minority. Like racial, ethnic, and religious minority groups they experience stigmas and prejudice. Unfortunately, same-gender individuals experience discrimination in public places like schools or workplaces but they also experience discrimination and mistreatment from their own families. They experience dramatically higher rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicidality. Similar to other minorities, even if all legal actions necessary to deem same-gender relationships accepted and stigmas decreased, same-gender relationships would continue to experience prejudice and animosity. For example, the mistreatment they experience ranges from subtle hostility like being laughed at, to not having their romantic partner welcome at family functions, being rejected from jobs because of social media including a same-gender partner, to feeling unsafe making public displays of affection. Same-gender individuals often find themselves preoccupied with worries that people will feel uncomfortable with and object to their relationship. They are often afraid that people will object to who they are because of their sexual orientation. This often leads to internalized homonegativity, a same-gender person’s negative social attitudes toward themselves. When the involuntary tendency to accept and even endorse harsh stereotypes about sexual minorities is developed, mental health is negatively affected. This results in weakened self-esteem, consequently weakening the quality of relationships which decreases the likelihood of a satisfying long-term commitment with an intimate partner. It can even make someone judgmental towards their intimate partner. Then, because they desire someone with a characteristic they reject and suppress in themselves internal conflict arises and complicates everything even more. Experiencing too much discrimination can sometimes decrease how well intimacy is enjoyed in a relationship.
Interestingly, same-gender couples strengthen their relationships through the misfortune they overcome together, reducing the negative effects a challenge could have on them. Another way same-gender couples remain resilient is by joining supportive communities and building families of choice. Same-gender couples are likely to remain friends and continue to socialize even after the end of their relationships. This is not as common among heterosexuals who usually do not truly maintain friendships with exes after they breakup.
Communication, Cooperation, and Conflict
We have all heard that communication is key. Which is true! Communication is key in conflict management. This is especially true for same-gender couples. Most same-gender couples combat more stress, discrimination, and prejudice than the average different-gender couple. On the other hand, same-gender couples have the advantage of not having gender differences, which commonly lead to the dismantling of different-gender relationships by causing power imbalances often leaving women at a disadvantage where they may find themselves in a subservient position to men. Different-gender relationships that are committed are very similar to same-gender relationships that are committed in that both types of intimate partnerships prioritize the same traits in potential romantic partners including but not limited to loyalty, authenticity, integrity, kindness, intelligence, and humor. In addition to a similar experience with intimacy, they also argue about similar topics and make similar investments of resources into parenting. However, same-gender couples don’t need to assert their gender and as a result, they divide labor such as household chores much more equally and fairly than different-gender couples do. Instead of dividing tasks based on which gender they are commonly linked to, they promote equality and practicality by dividing tasks based on personal preference instead.
Then again, if the individuals in a same-gender relationship have different work schedules or do not equally contribute to the relationship financially then they will divide their labor differently, similar to different-gender habits. However, the partner in the same-gender couple that is making a bigger contribution will probably not see their situation as unfair because they won’t link it to being in a subservient role in the relationship like someone might if they were in a different-gender relationship. They don’t assume who will do what based on gender, they actively negotiate because both partners have the same gender. The outcome of having power dynamics diminished to promote equality is that the quality of conversations increases. Same-gender relationships tend to be more equal than different-gender relationships. As a result, they tend to manage difficult conversations about conflict and challenges by using affection and humor while on the other hand, different-gender couples tend to be more aggressive, hostile, intimidating, and complain more. The status hierarchy in different-gender relationships leaves women hostile as they usually have less power than men both in and out of the context of an intimate relationship.
Sexual Activity and Sexual Exclusivity
No matter the sexual orientation or gender, the more fulfilling the sex life of a couple is, the happier the people that make up the couple will be. Studies find that lesbian couples are either not as motivated as other types of couples to have sex, have trouble initiating, or are too socialized to prioritize the other’s emotions than personal needs which leads to sexual passion sharply declining over time because of how sexual needs are repressed. Studies have not however really studied the quality of sex lesbians have been having, only the frequency that they have sex, which leaves out the unique ways that lesbians show affection. Studies have found that lesbian sexual interactions last 45-60 minutes or more to allow time for various sexual behaviors while male and female interactions typically last 15-30 minutes or less. This explains why although lesbians appear to have sex less frequently, the quality of the sex they have is higher and which is why they are more likely to experience orgasm.
Another way same-gender couples are distinct is that gay men are more likely to have sexually open relationships. In a study done in 2000 60% of gay men reported having sex outside of their relationships even after making their commitments to their romantic partners official and in 45% of those partnerships studied, both partners said that having sex with someone other than their partner was ok under some circumstances. Comparable figures for married heterosexual men were 15% and 3.5%. In a study conducted in 2009 gay men said that having an agreement about whether or not to be sexually monogamous was universal and from those men, half reported being in monogamous relationships and the other half said they were in open relationships. It was found that two-thirds of the time, agreements to either be monogamous or open were kept and when partners broke an agreement, they told their partner about half the time. A 2012 report found half of gay men in their 30s in relationships lasting about 6 years were monogamous. 30% agreed to have some type of open relationship and the other 20% disagreed over how monogamous or open they actually were in their relationships. Gay men do not necessarily avoid monogamous relationships or find them to be difficult. They separate their stable, supportive, affectionate connections with their romantic partners from sexual interactions with someone other than their primary partner. 40% of gay couples aspire to maintain committed relationships while still pursuing outside sexual partners, which is far higher than the number of lesbian or male and female couples willing to explore that and maintain that. Across many interviews, gay men emphasize how they separate sex from intimate lovemaking in their relationships and how they balance their needs for stable relationships against lust for outside sexual encounters. The themes found in these interviews were mutual need for trust, appreciation from partners for individual feelings of jealousy, valuing clear guidelines set for sexual behaviors with outsiders, and honest discussion for when guidelines agreed upon are violated. The themes also addressed issues of power and control needing to be acknowledged because partners with fewer outside options or a stronger desire for sexual exclusivity can face difficulty when they agree to be in an open relationship. Some couples ask for full disclosure when outside sexual encounters occur. Other couples prefer to follow a strict “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, and some people maintain an open relationship in silence, never discussing it at all. Gay men in open relationships might have certain privileges monogamous relationships don’t offer but they also have a unique set of challenges because emotion is just as much of a natural male trait as sexual desire is.
Through a heteronormative lens, Jim Obergefell and John Arthur are the gay couple who changed the history of marriage in the United States. Ironically, Jim Obergefell does not see it that way. He simply sees himself as having been blessed enough to fall and stay in love for a long time. Many people in same-gender relationships have the fact that they are gay labeled as their most distinguishing feature but do not see it as such. However, facing stigma, prejudice, and being discriminated against so frequently creates demands on same-gender couples like internalized homonegativity which often leaves couples disagreeing on how “out” to be. Same-gender couples rely heavily on their families of choice and communities they find for the support they need and might not find as easily as different-gender relationships. People in same-gender and different-gender relationships share the same basic needs. What differentiates them is that the approaches same-gender couples take to fulfill those needs are special and unique. Same-gender couples, both gay and lesbian, emphasize equality and fairness more than a different-gender couple of a man and a woman does which allows them to cooperate and manage conflict with increased sensitivity to each partner’s needs and emotions. There is also an undeniable difference between same-gender relationships and different-gender relationships when it comes to sexual behavior. Lesbian sex tends to occur less frequently than heterosexual sex, but on average, lesbian sex lasts much longer and has been found to have a higher probability of leading to orgasm for women. Gay men report having a higher desire for sex than lesbians and heterosexuals. There is definitely something special about the way same-gender couples are intimate, manage conflict, divide labor, and maintain their love. Interestingly, it seems that sex and gender, more than the sexual orientation of individuals in a partnership, are the primary causes for this. Male and female sexuality does not fundamentally change as a result of sexual orientation, but the way they express their sexuality is different in same-gender relationships. For example, lesbian women behave differently than heterosexual women do when expressing female sexual desires, starting with prolonged time invested in sexual interactions. Gay men differ from heterosexual men by reflecting a stronger sex drive, which characterizes males in general. Both different-gender and same-gender couples find themselves questioning compatibility based on personalities, values, and beliefs. Both types of couples do their best to navigate the highs and lows of life and challenges such as how to raise one partner’s self-esteem, financial budgets, religion and spirituality, politics, etc. Just like different-gender relationships, same-gender relationships create the responsibility for partners to do their best to keep promises to each other, avoid unnecessary arguing as much as humanly possible, continuously strengthen their bond, nourish each other without forgetting self-care, and maintain intimacy with their significant others.
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