Processing is Real: The Truth Behind Lesbian Relationship Stereotypes

Everyone knows the joke: What does a lesbian bring to the second date? A U-Haul! Lolololol. But is it true or is it an urban legend? Maybe a little of both.

There’s no data on how quickly lesbians really do move in together, so we have to piece the picture together using other data. According to a study done in 1978, 90% of lesbians’ first relationships lasted one to three years. Another study conducted in 1988 indicated the average lesbian relationship length (although not necessarily the first relationship) was about six years. In contrast, as of 2014, the average length of heterosexual relationships was a mere two years and nine months.

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Although the difference between the length of lesbian and straight relationships may seem significant at first blush, it may not actually be: 54% of respondents of the 2014 survey indicated they felt social media played a part in the demise of their relationship, something that was not around during the time of the surveys conducted of lesbian couples. In an article in the 1998 Journal of Marriage and the Family, psychology professor Lawrence Kurdek noted that gay and straight relationships degrade at the same rate, suggesting that if the lesbian community were surveyed again today, the average relationship length probably would have fallen to about three years as well. 

That said, if you’ve ever wondered why it seems like everyone at the gay bar is in a relationship but you, it’s because statistically they are: studies suggest that about 75% of lesbians are in relationships. This is high compared to straight people, only 56% of whom are in relationships. This figure alone suggests that regardless of how long lesbian relationships last, lesbians get into new relationships faster than heterosexuals. U-Haul stereotype confirmed.

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How about the “lesbian urge to merge”—the tendency for lesbian couples to begin wearing similar clothing, sharing interests, and generally blending their identities much to the horror of their friends and outside observers? Since it appears that no studies have been conducted on the topic yet (PhD thesis opportunity!), let’s look at the urge to un-merge instead; to “consciously uncouple,” as it were. Surprisingly, studies conducted in Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the UK, and the US have consistently shown that lesbians have double the divorce rate of gay male couples and straight couples. If lesbian relationships last as long as straight relationships or longer, why are lesbian marriages failing at double the rate of straight marriages?

The answer is mostly tied to gender rather than sexual orientation: women are far more likely to instigate a breakup than men. In the US, for example, 66-80% of heterosexual divorce proceedings are initiated by the wife. Women who want out of their marriages file for divorce much sooner than do men, too. It follows that when there are two women in the marriage, the odds of it ending increase.

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Social scientists have come up with one theory for why women are so quick to end a relationship: women seem to demand a higher “relationship quality” than men. Women, who buy the vast majority of relationship books and initiate the vast majority of relationship counseling, have a minimum desired level of satisfaction in the relationship and if that need is not met, they end it. That’s not the only theory, however. Another, for example, points out that people who have been divorced have higher divorce rates for subsequent marriages, and hypothesizes that since many lesbians are divorced from heterosexual marriages, this affects the success rate of their future (lesbian) marriages as well.

How about the dreaded “lesbian processing”—seemingly unending conversations in which the couple overthinks, overanalyzes, and overdiscusses the relationship well past the point of usefulness? “Processing” as the lesbian version of fighting in a relationship seems to be borne out scientifically: a study by John Gottman, a renowned couples therapist, and Robert Levenson, a psychology professor, concluded that lesbians are good communicators who use fewer “controlling, hostile emotional tactics” such as belligerence, domineering, and fear during arguments than straight people. They also show more affection, anger, humor, excitement, and interest, suggesting they are more emotionally expressive. After a fight, lesbians are more likely to remain positive and take the argument less personally. The study found that lesbians who exhibited more tension during disagreements reported being more satisfied with their relationship than those who were less tense, reinforcing the impression that we thrive just a little bit on our own drama. Processing stereotype confirmed.  

Finally, how about the stereotype that lesbians love cats and that starting a relationship with someone is like Yours, Mine, and Ours pet-style? Stereotype definitively confirmed. Only 62% of the general population owns a pet, but a staggering 86.9% of lesbians have a pet. Of these, 60.2% own cats, while 52.9% own dogs. Guess we really are more cat people than dog people.

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When it comes to lesbian relationship stereotypes, it seems they’re mostly true. Ladies, we’ve been busted!

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