Will Gay Marriages be More Successful than Traditional Ones? (Hint: Quite Possibly)

Please read Why Marriage Fail before continuing, especially if you intend to unload your opinions (and possible hatred) in the Comments thread.

Now that gay marriage is legal in my home state of New York, I’m wondering how successful these unions will actually be. In a previous post, Why Marriages Fail, I delineated some of the major reasons why many marriages do not thrive, either by dint of divorce or simply due to misery within the relationship. Are all of those points valid for homosexual couples as well? Unfortunately, gay marriage is a relatively new topic of research for psychologists, so therefore speculation is the dominant force at this point. That said, let’s go through the pitfalls seen in traditional marriage and see if they are applicable to gay ones.

1) Marriage requires compatibility not just at the point of saying ‘I do,’ but across the entire life span.

This is equally valid for gay couples. Unless there is research of which I’m not aware that suggests gay people maintain their personalities over time more so than heterosexuals, gay marriages are just as likely to struggle with this aspect of lifelong commitment.

2) Assuming that marriage implies monogamy, the institution itself is counterintuitive to biology.

This point is difficult to address, as at least one study suggests that monogamy is not a central feature of many gay marriages. In fact, a study at San Francisco State University found approximately 50% of gay couples have sex outside of the relationship. However, this is not a secret, as many partners both know and approve of this behavior. Experts in this area, as well as many gay couples, suggest that although this may seem counterintuitive to the institution, this feature may lead to a stronger relationship. Why an open marriage seems to work more effectively in homosexual relationships versus heterosexual ones is not clear, although several of my gay clients over the years have pointed to evolutionary ideas: “there are no sperm wars going on, no rivals. My partner isn’t going to inseminate (or be inseminated by) someone else and pass on their genes.”

3) There is far too much emphasis on ‘weddings’ as opposed to ‘marriages.’

Anyone is prone to focusing much more on his/her wedding day than the relationship itself. That said, my own anecdotal evidence suggests that homosexual couples don’t zoom in on the traditional, “this is the most important day of my life” mindset that gets so many people into trouble, almost by definition: it’s not a traditional relationship. I’m sure you can find gay Bridezillas all over the country, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say the issue of hyperfocusing on the day of matrimony is more likely, although certainly not exclusively, to be seen in heterosexual couples.*

4) Many couples do not know how to fight fairly.

I’ve seen this problem in both gay and straight couples, professionally and personally, in equal proportion. This is just a sad feature of many relationships. No advantage here for either.

5) Marriages solve problems.

As stated in Why Marriages Fail, marriages amplify, not diminish, problems. This won’t change, regardless of sexual orientation. With gay New York couples now able to marry freely, will they make the same error as heterosexual couples? Only time will tell us that.

6) People settle for less than what they want.

Again, clinical experience suggests this is a universal phenomenon, not a heterosexual one, and only time will tell us if the legalization of marriage will significantly alter this behavior in homosexual people.

7) Couples assume they are immune to reasons 1-6 and believe that hard work isn’t part of the deal. They think that love, sex, children or some combination thereof will be enough.

Both heterosexual and homosexual couples seem particularly bummed when the real work of a relationship kicks in. That said, given the battles that gay couples have had to fight just to receive anything resembling equality, are they perhaps at an advantage for working harder as a team? Could an “us against the world” philosophy help two people work harder than a couple that is embraced by tradition? I don’t have the answer to that, but such an outcome wouldn’t surprise me.

If we’re keeping a scorecard here, it looks as though homosexual marriage has an advantage over tradition. I hope you recognize that what is on paper here doesn’t necessarily translate to the real world. But suppose it does? Would it be a bad thing if, 20 years from now, new research emerges that patently demonstrated gay marriages are happier, longer, more satisfying? That would actually be fantastic. Why? Because aside from the Bible thumping homophobes of the world who wouldn’t read that research anyway, the rest of us would look closely and perhaps say, “what are they doing right that we aren’t?” I’ve always been a proponent of gay marriage; not only because I believe that anyone should be able to marry the person he/she chooses, but also for a more subtle reason: heterosexual marriage is, at best, a significantly flawed institution. If straight people suck at it, why not give someone else a chance? And if gay marriage works better than traditional marriage, let’s not just celebrate, but educate ourselves about it. It’s such curiosity and understanding that makes resistance to meaningful change a pointless endeavor; instead, it allows us to embrace what might serve to actually improve the world.

* A gay colleague suggested to me that homosexual couples have often waited years for the right to marry and simply want to get the process completed. Other couples fear that their rights could be repealed and therefore don’t plan extravagant weddings. “Maybe this will change as gay marriages become more commonplace but, for now, a large number of gay couples would prefer to invade City Hall instead of planning this single day that is all time and energy consuming,” he added.

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19 Responses to “Will Gay Marriages be More Successful than Traditional Ones? (Hint: Quite Possibly)”

  1. BL1Y says:

    On the communication issue, it might be easier for gay couples to keep a good marriage. Men and women tend to communicate differently, so a same-sex couple ought to have fewer communication barriers.

    But, the big factor I think will be that getting gay-married is probably a bigger deal than straight weddings. You may have to find a different state to get married in and will have to deal with scorn from peripheral family members. Knowing that it will be harder, you’re less likely to run into it, and may wait for someone who’s worth it.

    The “us against the world” thing might backfire. If your marriage is based on a common struggle, rather than the strength of your relationship, it’s going to go downhill quick, especially if the world decides it’s no longer fighting you. And, having fought hard for marriage rights, many gay couples may feel guilty about breaking up, like they’re letting down the cause and confirming the fears of their opponents. A divorce is a failed marriage, but staying in a bad union is an even bigger failure.

  2. Nora says:

    “If straight people suck at it, why not give someone else a chance?” That argument is good enough for me!

  3. Annie says:

    My neighbors across the street are a gay couple and they don’t seem to be involved in a healthy relationship. They are constantly fighting; they throw objects, yell, hit each other to the point that we worry that one of them will get hurt. Over here gets in custody or reported for “domestic” violence so we don’t even bother calling the police. In fact, there’s a lot of domestic violence going on among gay couples that is not reported. I believe the same rules apply to heterosexuals, especially lately that many heterosexual couples are deciding not to get married and move in together to form a family.

  4. Annie says:


    Communication woman to woman is harder. Try visting a female dominating place. Gossips are spread around, constant fights, etc.

  5. Catherine says:

    As someone who, until recently, worked with the aforementioned bible thumping homophobes of the world (or at least those who vote and live in the US), I say, thank f**king God that NY became the sixth state to allow gay marriage.

    I do hope that gay married couples eventually are able to help heterosexual couples have happy marriages. That is such a nice thought.

    Mostly, though, I hope that legal gay marriage helps those who are too afraid to be who they really are. The statistics on gay teenagers who commit suicide is heartbreaking. Maybe this will make homophobic assholes climb into the closet and shut up.

  6. m says:

    i agree with your article,my only problem is the word marriage.what is the problem in calling it civil union.maarriage is a man and a women has always been,if we want to add another dimension to it lsts call it some thing else.why such a big deal,if all they want are the benefits of marriage they have it.civil union or whatever is fine,not marriage.only myopinion

  7. Christopher says:

    An interesting article; while I wouldn’t take issue with the idea that open relationships and polyamoury are more commonplace amongst gay couples (all research suggests they are, by quite a big margin, especially amongst gay men) I would like to note that plenty of heterosexuals have open or polyamorous relationships too.

    BL1Y: Maybe; on the other hand, partnerships of all kinds thrive in opposition. Not if it’s the only reason, sure, but a common foe is wonderful for driving people together.

    m: I live in the UK, where (I believe) same-sex couples and only same-sex couples may have a civil partnership, and hetereosexual-and-only-heterosexual couples may have a marriage. To me, this isn’t very important, but I certainly understand the sentiment I get from others that even if it confers equal legal rights in the eyes of the law (though the ceremonies still have very strongly differing regulations), it still marginalises and lessens the social power of that communion, and has the potential to be a route to more active discrimination.

  8. Saina says:

    Gay marriages are more successful than traditional ones because the choice gays make is a more trying one. The whole society has set their eyes on them. For that matter they try their level best to keep together and ashame the naysayers.

    The straight couples on the other side have nothing to prove. To them marrying and divorcing is what happens on a daily basis. There is therefore nothing new and no one will say that we thought as much, that this is going to happen. For that matter straight couples often break up quickly and easily as opposed to gay couples.

  9. Chris says:

    Congratulations to New York for having the stones to recognize the value in basic human decency. This is one trend I’d like to see go nationwide, because quite frankly, this country has a lot of real problems to not have to waste the time debating whether or not someone has the right to get married due to their sexual orientation.

  10. Kev says:

    Interesting NYT Sunday Mag article on topic this weekend: Married, With Infidelities: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/03/magazine/infidelity-will-keep-us-together.html?_r=1&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha210&pagewanted=all

    “In the feminist revolution, rather than extending to women “the same latitude and license and pressure-release valve that men had always enjoyed,” we extended to men the confines women had always endured. “And it’s been a disaster for marriage.””

  11. harry says:

    Thanks ShrinkTalk
    I do not like the word marriage..
    I agree with #4..There is no way you will avoid fighting in a relationship..
    Learning how to fight 50-50 is vital..

  12. Jill says:

    I believe that one reason why so many same-sex couples don’t engage in monogamy is due to the lack of support from the external community for our relationships. When you hear the messages “you are a second class citizen” and “your relationship is not as important as a straight persons”, then there is little to compel you to make the effort to make a relationship work. When a gay couple goes to break up, there is no institution in place to encourage them to reconcile or work things out – so people either go their separate ways or adopt a more open relationship.

    One of the main drivers for getting married myself was that I wanted our friends and families to witness our vows and then pledge to support us and hold us accountable to the promises we made that day. Marriage is hard work and we had to create our own support network to ensure that when times get tough, there are people in our lives who will help us remember why we chose to get married in the first place. Since society at large isn’t able to provide that support, we opted to create our own support system.

    As for the debate over the word “marriage,” I think it’s important to remember that marriage is both a civil and a religious institution. You can get married in a church before God, but until you go down to City Hall and apply for a marriage license, you are not legally married. So perhaps we should call the legal relationship a “civil union” for ALL couples and leave “marriage” for the religious sacrament. While I consider myself to be married, I really don’t care what the government wants to call it – just give me the same 1000+ rights and privileges that are granted to straight couples when they make the same commitment that I made to my partner.

  13. Pete says:

    Jill’s point on the use of the word marriage is the key sticking point. To get the same rights as any heterosexual couple getting a marriage license at city hall, my brother and his partner had to spend hundreds of dollars on legal fees. That’s inequality.

    I agree, we should search-replace the word “marriage” with “civil union” in our legal system, and that concludes the entire debate.

  14. Joe says:

    This is a beautiful article. As a gay man in a relationship (my partner and I have been together longer than my heterosexual brother and his ex-wife were together), I am not yet married (stupid Prop 8), but I was lucky enough to see the effect that same sex marriage had on me and the entire gay community here in California. I never in my life could imagine the sea change that occurred. And in the end everything seemed so simple: We had all believed we weren’t supposed to be in long-term relationships because that’s what society told us. Before marriage was legal for us, I, along with most of my friends, were single and pretty happy to be so. After marriage was legal for us, I, along with most of my friends, are all in committed, long-term relationships. I had always looked at it as setting the same expectation for all of us, gay or straight.

    Whether our marriages will be more or less successful than heterosexual ones does remain to be seen, but with a 50% failure of heterosexual marriages, it seems the bar has been set pretty low. My point amongst gay relationships is that no one ever had to write a book “Men are from Mars, Men are from Mars.” I’m incredibly blessed to have a partner who has such similar interests to me. While finding that is difficult in any relationship, my experience is that it’s easier for couples of the same sex than it is for those of the opposite sex.

    My guess is that it’s pretty much a wash whether each one is “better” or worse. I do know that gay couples do continue to face discrimination, even in the face of legalization of marriage equality. Just as passing the Civil Rights Act didn’t remove racism, nor will passing equal rights for gay people remove homophobia. These continue to present challenges that heterosexuals do not face, regardless of the legal equalities. But it is getting better.

    Regardless, I do believe that we’re not going to see the end of civilization as we know it that many have predicted, just for a simple reason: We haven’t seen it anywhere else. Today marked the 6th anniversary of SSM becoming legal is all of Canada (and had been legal a couple years in other provinces). The change for most people has been almost imperceptible, except for the fact one segment of the population now has equal treatment under the law. And the sun still rises over PEI and sets over BC.

    But still, I’ll be making popcorn and watching and seeing!

  15. JP says:

    Catherine says:

    “Mostly, though, I hope that legal gay marriage helps those who are too afraid to be who they really are. The statistics on gay teenagers who commit suicide is heartbreaking. Maybe this will make homophobic assholes climb into the closet and shut up.”

    Now, can we finally get to work isolate the genetic problem and figure out a way to fix it in utero.

    That will solve your problem once and for all.

  16. Robin says:

    This might sound bad, but I think gay marriages are far more likely to succeed because of the zero chance of an unplanned pregnancy. Straight couples have children for the most idiotic reasons: it’s what adults do, or a baby will be someone to love the parents or complete the parents or save the parents relationship. And then there’s parents who are just too lazy and stupid to even bother with birth control. Not everybody wants to or even should be parents. If it was as difficult for straight couples to have kids as it currently is for gay couples, we’d definitely have vastly fewer pregancies overall. But every child would be very wanted, and more likely loved.
    Fewer unplanned pregnancies=far greater chances of a happy marriage.

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