University of Cincinnati associate professor of psychology Sarah Whitton has been working on improving the way relationship educators help same-sex couples, especially in female pairings. Last week she presented her findings from a study at the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) 49th Annual Convention in Chicago, detailing how lesbian couples in Cincinnati and Denver responded to specific methods of skill-building and communication skills. Inspired by her work with premarital training in graduate school, Dr. Whitton said she was hopeful that the education would be more inclusive of same-sex couples after marriage was legal in Massachusetts, where she was living at the time.
“I realized it was completely full of heterosexist bias. It was horrible,” she said. “Then I was like, ‘Well how do we need to revise it?’ and then did some studies: ‘How can we make it better address the unique needs of same-sex couples?'”
At its most basic, relationship education was set up for “Husband/wife,” “he/she,” “him/her.” Every form of training material was of different sex couples with issues that those of the same sex couldn’t always relate to.
“There are videos out there available of different sex couples that teach [communication] skills, and we know couples learn the skills better when they see the video demonstration of it,” Dr. Whitton said. “But one of the things that drove my adaptation of the other program was same-sex couples saying ‘It’s really alienating to me and I can’t learn from this very well when this couple looks nothing like us and the issues they’re talking about are not issues we relate to.’ So I think that’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned from the couples I’ve worked with: ‘We want to see ourselves up there.'”
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Like any other part of our lives—the media, pop culture, politics, the workplace—visibility and self-recognition is important. And considering that queer women have different sets of issues that heterosexual pairings do, this is especially of interest to Dr. Whitton, who told us about them and how she has adapted proven methods of speaking and listening to help couples become happier and healthier in their long-term relationships. And her work is necessary, because she also found that same-sex female couples are more likely to break up than than different sex or gay male couples.
So why are lesbian couples fighting and more likely to break up?
We’re very in touch with our emotions.
“I think there is a big emphasis in the couples on having emotional intimacy and communicating about emotional issues, which is not a surprise, but just learning how to do that a little bit more effectively,” Dr. Whitton said. “And that’s kind of a big thing we do with the couples.”
We like to process.
“People tend to go on and on and, unfortunately, it’s women who go on and on, whether they’re with a man or with a woman,” Dr. Whitton said. “It’s just hard for everyone to keep track of anything you’re trying to say when you’re going on and on. It’s what we call kitchen sinking—where all of a sudden the problem gets bigger and bigger and bigger because you’re like, ‘And I feel this way, and I think you did this last week, and then you did this three weeks ago.'”