Marriages are notoriously tricky to master. Perhaps this is why heteropessimism — or the notion that heterosexual relationships are so difficult that it is cool to be openly cynical about them — is so trendy. Certainly it explains why marriage advice pervades our cultural zeitgeist, from "The View" commenting on marital sexual harmony to Reddit being littered with anti-wife jokes.
Now a new study from the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships offers new insights into why it can be so tough to master marriage. Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin asked 838 individuals from 418 couples questions to learn more about their successes and failures in dyadic coping, or the process of dealing with stress as a team. While the couples were all middle-aged, some were in same-sex relationships and others were in different-sex relationships, meaning that the authors could focus on sex differences in whether people use positive or negative coping techniques.
The results? As the study itself puts it, "Women married to women are more likely to receive positive support and less likely to receive negative support compared to women married to men. Both men and women in same-sex marriages are more likely to cope with stress collaboratively than their counterparts in different-sex marriages."
"Same-sex couples are more likely to work with their spouses to cope with stress than are different-sex couples," Dr. Yiwen Wang, one of the study's co-authors, told Salon by email. "Despite these differences in dyadic coping behaviors, the beneficial effects of supportive and collaborative dyadic coping as well as the detrimental effects of negative dyadic coping on marital quality are the same for all couples."
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Wang emphasized to Salon that, because the study's findings are descriptive, they cannot definitively ascertain the reason why same-sex couples have healthier ways of coping with stress than different-sex couples. At the same time, Wang offered a few hypotheses.
"One possible explanation is that women in same-sex relationships share common experiences of gender and sexual minority stress and are thus more likely to be on the same page about stress appraisals and communication," Wang told Salon. "It is also possible that same-sex female couples' experiences of discrimination and stress enable them to develop more resilience and better coping skills. The mutual understanding of stressful situations may create a close bond between same-sex spouses, which helps them better navigate and manage stress and provide support to each other."
By contrast, heterosexual partners of different sexes will not be able to draw on the same gender-specific experiences and responses to stress. Indeed, traditional gender roles hold that women should be nurturing and men should be emotionally distant, which "may discourage men and women in different-sex marriages from coping with stress as cooperatively as spouses in same-sex marriages do."
Dr. Debra Umberson, the other co-author of the study, told Salon that if nothing else, their findings further demolish the right-wing myth that same-sex couples are not fit to raise children.
"In response to those who argue that people in same-sex relationships, and their families, are dysfunctional, our research contributes to a growing body of evidence that this is not the case," Umberson wrote to Salon. "If anything, it seems that straight couples can learn something from gay and lesbian couples about effective coping and support. That is, collaborating as a team when dealing with stress, which gay and lesbian couples are more likely to do, is more helpful to spouses and relationships."
The study is not only relevant for same-sex couples, however. By establishing that people from different sexes are more likely to perform unhealthy gender roles when in heterosexual relationships, the study may provide insight into why trends like heteropessimism exist in the first place. If heterosexual people in different-sex relationships want to be happy, they need to learn how to deal with stresses in collaborate and emotionally supportive ways.
"Our findings draw attention to the broader cultural discourses of gender in shaping marital dynamics," Wang explained. "For example, in a heteronormative culture, men are constructed as rational and emotionally unavailable in relationships. They may enact these gender norms with superficial effort or reluctance to help. The provision of negative support may be a social process through which straight men perform and reinforce the cultural ideal of masculinity, but this process is not apparent in same-sex unions."
As Wang noted, same-sex spouses seem to feel less confined by the strictures of hegemonic masculinity. If one's goal is a happy and healthy marriage, that winds up being a good thing.
"Taken together, our study suggests that same-sex relationship may be a relational site where men and women question the traditional gender norms and 'do' or 'undo' gender differently," Wang told Salon.