No Different

Researchers Mackey and O'Brien find issues in same-sex relationships are similar to those in marriages

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

Prof. Richard Mackey (GSSW) and Assoc. Prof. Bernard O'Brien (SOE) look beyond the statistics in their research on long-lasting relationships, attuned more to the decision-making, conflict resolution and negotiation that fill couples' lives.

Having scrutinized these characteristics in married couples, a study which produced a 1995 book, Mackey and O'Brien turned their attention to same-sex couples. Their recent book, Gay and Lesbian Couples: Voices from Lasting Relationships , draws upon the experiences of partners in 36 committed relationships lasting at least 15 years.

The couples discussed issues such as intimacy, roles, relational fit and conflict, and excerpts of their comments are interposed with analysis by O'Brien, Mackey and Mackey's wife, Ellen, an administrator in the gerontology field who also served as co-author. The subjects talked about joys and stresses, including conflicts over money, family and, in particular, public disclosure of the relationships.

Mackey and O'Brien hope their book can help illuminate the nature of long-term homosexual relationships, given the paucity of research on the subject. Furthermore, they say, the study may contribute to an overall understanding of gender and relationships, sexual preference notwithstanding.

Prof. Richard Mackey (GSSW), left, and Assoc. Prof. Bernard O'Brien (SOE) -- Said O'Brien, "When you come down to it, relationships are relationships. They take work, they involve compromise and bargaining, and can reveal a lot about who we are." (Photo by Gary Gilbert)

"As social scientists," said Mackey, "we study reality and the reality is there are numerous same-sex couples who have enjoyed many years together. But because so much of our experience as a society with homosexuals is based on stereotypes, we have not had a good sense of how these relationships work. We simply wanted to have these couples talk about what they've experienced."

"There were certainly some issues more unique to same-sex couples, but they also discussed things that would be familiar to anyone in a long-term relationship," O'Brien said. "When you come down to it, relationships are relationships. They take work, they involve compromise and bargaining, and can reveal a lot about who we are."

While most of those interviewed tended to be educated, successful professionals, Mackey and O'Brien note, there were important distinctions. Some had been involved in heterosexual relationships, and had even married and had children before settling into their present relationships. Some subjects said parents and relatives were supportive and understanding of their lifestyle, others reported strong disagreement and even rejection.

While such factors might complicate comparisons of heterosexual and same-sex couples, O'Brien and Mackey say, drawing parallels and contrasts can be instructive. Same-sex relationships do not have a legal foundation in the United States, but couples displayed a complex tenacity that was nevertheless similar to that of many long-married couples. They expected to have to work at their relationship and felt compelled to stay together and help fulfill one another.

Mackey and O'Brien found other revealing insights in the gender relationships. For example, women in long-term marriages tended to be more confrontational than their husbands regarding problems in the relationship. Lesbians, however, were less likely to do so early on because they feared endangering the relationship, although this changed over time.

Money tended to be more a source of conflict for female than male couples, the study found. Men were more likely to take a business-like approach to sharing financial resources, O'Brien and Mackey said, but women usually took longer to build trust.

"For women, money is a huge issue," Mackey said. "It relates to autonomy and control, and that can be very hard to work out."

Another area of tension revolved around acknowledging the relationship to friends, acquaintances and the general public. In her interview, Octavia said the problem extended beyond whether it was acceptable to display affection publicly, to the very effect of homophobia itself.

"I can't put my finger on it except to say that there is something very threatening to society about us making a very good go at life without having a man," she explained. "We are just not treated with respect in a lot of situations."

O'Brien and Mackey note, however, that one characteristic appears to be true of both same-sex and heterosexual relationships.

"We found, consistently, that opposites tend to attract," O'Brien said. "They might have similar values, as with married couples, but they would tend to have different temperaments and ways of responding to events. This, again, speaks to the concept of the relationship itself and what it brings to each of us."

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