Do same-sex couples resolve conflicts in a healthier way?

A 12-year long study examines the differences between how same-sex and different-sex couples argue, with some surprising results.

two women sitting on a bench talking after an arguement conflict resolution same-sex relationships

Research suggests same-sex couples resolve conflicts in a healthier way than different-sex couples.

Photo by Irma eyewink on Shutterstock
  • A 12-year long study by the Gottman Institute examines the differences between how same-sex couples and different-sex couples resolve conflicts.
  • Overall, the relationship satisfaction and quality were about the same across all couple types (gay, straight, lesbian). However, the study did find some differences in how same-sex and different-sex couples argue, including using humor to diffuse tense situations, not taking things so personally during an argument, and offering encouragement rather than criticism.
  • No matter the relationship, there are key points to be taken away from this research in how we can all strive for healthier conflict resolution in romantic relationships.

"Gay and lesbian couples, like straight couples, deal with the everyday ups-and-downs of close relationships," Dr. John Gottman of the Gottman Institute explains in his research. Gottman and his team of researchers conducted a 12-year long study that uncovered some of the differences in how same-sex couples and different-sex couples disagree, argue, and resolve conflicts.

Overall, the relationship satisfaction and quality were about the same across all couple types (gay, straight, lesbian). However, the study did find some differences in how same-sex and different-sex couples argue.

"Gay and lesbian couples are more upbeat in the face of conflict," Gottman explains, "Compared to straight couples, gay and lesbian couples use more affection and humor when they bring up a disagreement. They are also likely to remain more positive after a disagreement."

To better understand how same-sex couples are having healthier arguments that lead to conflicts being resolved more constructively, we look at some of Gottman's findings and spoke with a therapist on the topic.

        man and woman fighting conflict resolution in heterosexual marriages

        Heterosexual couples show higher levels of physiological distress during arguments than same-sex couples, impacting their ability to stay calm.

        Photo by B-D-S Piotr Marcinski on Shutterstock

        Same-sex couples use fewer controlling and hostile tactics during disagreements.

        Dr. John Gottman and his colleagues discovered that, during a disagreement, same-sex couples are less likely to display belligerence or domineering attitudes than heterosexual couples.

        "The difference in these 'control' related emotions suggests fairness and power-sharing between the partners is more important and more common in gay and lesbian relationships than in straight ones," Gottman explains.

        Things don't get as personal in same-sex disagreements.

        "In a fight," Gottman says, "gay and lesbian couples take it less personally. In straight couples, it is easier to hurt a partner with a negative comment than to make one's partner feel good with a positive comment. This appears to be reversed in gay and lesbian couples."

        This trend suggests that same-sex couples are able to disagree without taking things personally, whereas straight couples are more likely to be offended when their partner comes to them with a conflict.

        Same-sex couples show low levels of physiological arousal, different-sex couples show higher levels during conflict.

        According to Gottman's observations, unhappy gay and lesbian couples were less likely to show visible signs of aggravation such as elevated heart rate, sweaty palms, and jitteriness. Different-sex couples, on the other hand, had elevated physiological symptoms that signify they may have trouble calming down in order to resolve the conflict constructively.

        Same-sex couples are more likely to try to offer encouragement rather than criticism or lecturing when it comes to lifestyle choices.

        Your partner can have a very positive or very negative impact on your lifestyle. Gottman's study isn't the only research available that examines the differences in same-sex and different-sex marriages.

        A later (2018) study suggests that same-sex couples are much more likely to try to influence each other's lifestyle habits (good or bad) with praise or encouragement. The opposite can be said for different-sex couples who tend to lecture or criticize to prove their point.

        Simple ways every couple can strive towards healthier conflict resolution skills

        two men consoling each other after an argument concept of same-sex conflict resolution

        There are simple ways you and your partner can strive for healthier conflict resolutions in your relationship.

        Photo by ArtOfPhotos on Shutterstock

        While these differences in same-sex and different-sex marriages are important and interesting to observe, there are a few universal goals that should be placed on any couple trying to better themselves by striving for healthier conflict resolutions.

        Recognize your differences and take space from the other person when you need to.

        Each person brings their own experiences, opinions, values, and beliefs to the relationship. Acknowledging that you are two different people who are bound to disagree on things is a healthy part of any relationship.

        Accepting and even appreciating those differences for what they can bring to your relationship should be something every couple - gay or straight - should keep in mind, especially during conflicts.

        Julie S. Gottman, Ph.D. explains: "If you find that your heart is pounding during an argument, take a break. If you need to leave, you should explain when you're going to come back and rejoin the conversation. During the time when you're apart, don't think about the fight. Instead, practice something that is self-soothing (like reading a book) so that your body can calm down."

        Positivity and laughter might be more important than ever during disagreements.

        While it may feel strange to crack a joke during an argument, this 2003 study suggests that one of the reasons same-sex arguments may be healthier is because there is an air of humor and positivity to them. It's important to end a disagreement on a positive note, and same-sex couples do this far more often than different-sex couples, according to Dr. Gottman's research.

        Equality, understanding, and respect should be paramount in any relationship.

        Perhaps one of the reasons same-sex couples are able to resolve conflicts in a healthier way is because they aren't tied to traditional societal roles or the ideas of how they are "supposed" to relate to each other. This kind of freedom allows the couple to create their own dynamic. When possible, try to understand or sympathize with the other person's point of view. If you have two very different opinions on something, attempt to communicate your side respectfully and, perhaps more important, really listen to and acknowledge their feelings.

        Respect and understanding are two crucial ingredients to a healthy relationship and these are things every couple should strive for.

        Iron Age discoveries uncovered outside London, including a ‘murder’ victim

        A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.

        Photo Credit: HS2
        Culture & Religion
        • A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
        • The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
        • An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
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        Are we really addicted to technology?

        Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

        Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
        Technology & Innovation

        This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

        In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

        But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

        In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

        Popularizing medical language

        What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

        To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

        If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

        LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

        "Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

        "We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

        "These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

        The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

        "If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

        Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

        But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

        Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

        In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

        "That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

        "Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

        Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

        Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

        "It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

        Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

        People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

        JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

        There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

        For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

        "For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

        "Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

        In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

        "None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

        "I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

        Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

        "The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

        "And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

        This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

        "Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

        Learned helplessness

        The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

        "The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

        So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

        "A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

        Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

        "If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

        But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

        For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

        Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

        The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

        According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

        Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
        Strange Maps
        • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
        • Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
        • The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
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