What lesbian couples are fighting about and how they can stop

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.'”

The closet still exists.

“One issue that comes up a lot is how to negotiate relationship disclosure and sort of being out about your relationship in different domains of your life. Just because it’s so tricky—it’s a constant process,” Dr. Whitton said. “It’s not just deciding once that you’re totally out as a couple. And it can lead to a lot of hurt feelings and let’s say one partner doesn’t want to be out at work: the other partner can think, ‘Does she not really love me? Is she not really committed to our relationship? Is she ashamed of it?’ But the other woman could think, ‘Based on the state where I live, I could be fired for my sexual orientation, and that’s my reason for not wanting to be out.’ So that’s a real common issue that comes up.”

Children are part of the conversation.

“One interesting thing is just the high number of couples who have kids from one or both of their previous relationships, so I think a lot of what they’re wanting to talk about is basic step-family issues, really, where it’s hard to bring in a kid from a previous relationship and where that parent/child relationship started before the relationship between the two people and the couple,” Dr. Whitton said. “That’s a real different dynamic than when the couple starts first. So, we see a lot of issues about how do we deal with this child; how do we deal with the ex who, unfortunately when you co-parenting with your ex, you need to be able to still communicate with them and often there are different parenting styles; there may be rejection of a new partner. And so those are really a lot of the issues—forming step-families, basically.”

But it also has to do with having children with your partner as well.

“Getting women on the same page of ‘Are we gonna have kids together and if we do, how are we gonna do it?’ Just kind of thinking it through—’Are we gonna do insemination? Are we gonna do adoption? What kind of adoption would we do? If we did donor insemination, whose gonna carry the children?'” Dr. Whitton said. “Those are just things that—they don’t always have to be a stressful topic at a all, but they’re just additional things there’s not a a clear answer to that couples need to be able to communicate clearly and negotiate so they’re on the same page about it, because where that could be trouble is if they’re not on the same page about it.”

Society is stressful on sexual minorities.

“We know sexual minorities experience more stress on a day-to-day basis in the form of just expiring the same stresses that every person experiences in a stressful chaotic busy world right now,” Dr. Whitton said. “But then having the minority stresses—overt access discrimination and the chronic stress of living in a society that places stigma on you. And so we know from all kinds of couples that the amount of stress they face on the outside of their relationship, the worst they tend to do. There’s great data following the same amount of couples over the same amount of time, and when they are facing more stresses, they are less kind to each other, less forgiving of each other and have more relationship conflict, more likely to break up then at other times in their same relationship. There are also comparisons between couples that show the same thing. Couples face chronic stressers like discrimination or poverty are more likely to break up than other couples.”

There is a lack of support.

“Another reason is how much social support you have,” Dr. Whitton said. “That’s another strong predictor of relationship stability. And we know that while same-sex couples and different sex couples on both domains are just so similar, but one of the most robust differences that shows up over and over again just how much social support they get. In particular from families of origin and institutions in the community. Stress, social support and the legal recognition are really big factors there.”

We didn’t feel as committed without marriage.

“I think one of the biggest reasons [women split up], historically, is because of the lack of marriage that was available,” Dr. Whitotn said. “That has had a huge impact. Among any kind of couple, the more symbols of commitment you have, the more stable you are long-term. But that being said, if you look at data from Norwegian countries that have had marriage for a few decades, they have higher divorce rates, in particular for female couples, even more than male couple, which is kind of a stereotype buster. And then if you look at data from England and the U.S. cohabiting couples, the same-sex couples also break up more often. So it doesn’t seem to entirely be about the legal recognition, although I’m really looking forward to having some data on how that might change things.”

What Dr. Whitton is hoping to help clinicians and graduate students learn is how to effectively work with same-sex couples on these unique circumstances by utilizing not so dissimilar methods from regular relationship training, but with the tools that speak to them. A few tips that could help any relationship:

Slow down.

“To be able to talk to each other about [an issue] and communicate about it can be something so simple,” Dr. Whitton said. “If one person is saying, ‘You don’t love me. You don’t love me because you’re not telling people about our relationship,” and the other person is like “Don’t say that about me. I do love you,’ and they’re not listening to each other very well, they’re not ever getting to the point of it, which is that the first person is feeling rejected and hurt and so there’s a softer emotion behind the anger that typically comes out. So when we teach couples just some of the basic communication skills like, ‘Try to slow down and use the softer emotions that are driving the harder emotions.'”

Don’t be defensive.

Try “hearing what your partner says and then paraphrasing it before you respond with your side,” Dr. Whitton said. “We found a lot of success with that, especially with couples who are misinterpreting why a partner is doing something.”

Use “I” statements.

“’I felt rejected when I learned that you’re not out at work.’ Saying things like that instead of, ‘I can’t believe you didn’t tell people at work about us. Do you not love me?'” Dr. Whitton said. 

Start with a positive.

“A lot of times conflict is really hard between couples because if you love your partner and then she criticizes you, it makes you go, ‘Does she not really like me? Does she hate our relationship? Is she thinking about breaking up with me?'” Dr. Whitton said. “But if you start with a positive like, ‘I think our relationship is going so well and I’m so happy with us, but there’s one thing that’s been going on that’s really hard for me.’ Put it in a bigger context so your partner doesn’t interpret your gripe as something that is threatening to the commitment.”

Listen to her. Seriously.

“The listening is really just shifting how you have conversations so that your first goal when your partner is letting you know something is not to defend yourself against it or even put your view out there but before you do that, stop and acknowledge what your partner’s side was,” Dr. Whitton said. “So oftentimes that’s paraphrasing it or saying, ‘I really understand this is how you felt.’ And a key thing that we teach the women is that if you do that, it doesn’t mean you’re necessarily agreeing with it or that your partner is right. Because that’s the main reason people don’t stop and paraphrase and let their partner know what they’re hearing. So if I say, ‘Oh, you felt rejected, you felt like I didn’t love you when I’m not out at work,’ you think you’re saying that’s true—but you’re not saying it’s true. You’re letting your partner you know that’s the case, and when your partner’s heard that, she’s in a much better place to listen to what the real problem is.”

With the hope of getting clinicians to learn how to be less stigmatizing and develop more skill-sets in cultural diversity, same-sex couples will feel more comfortable getting the relationship counseling that might help keep them together. Dr. Whitton’s study found that the methods she was part of developing were strengthening and provided proven techniques in problem solving and conflict resolution. Now, she wants to get her materials out into the world so that more couples can be given the right tools to succeed, including videos with same-sex female couples arguing, learning how to talk through their issues, and demonstrating  the process for viewers. 

While at the ABCT Convention, Dr. Whitton also hosted a half-hour workshop, inviting anyone who was interested in “directly talking about how to deliver couple interventions in a culturally sensitive way to sexual minorities.”

“It was basic terminology like how gender identity is different from sexual orientation,” she said, noting that while professionals are supposed to be seeking out that continuous training, they don’t always follow through. “Just some common ways you might be inadvertently expressing kind of a heterosexist bias or using a heteronormative framework that might be off-putting.”

“I wanted to provide historical and current social context in which same-sex couples live,” Dr. Whitton said. “Here are the way different sex and same-sex couples are similar and different.” Because we are.