College of LAS « Illinois

Research

Love Knows No Gender

Sexual orientation seems to have little impact on the quality of romantic relationships.

Illustration of male and female symbols

When Glenn Roisman launched one of the largest multi-method studies to date to determine the quality of romantic relationships among same-sex couples as compared to opposite sex couples, he realized the results would be discussed in relation to the current contentious debate regarding gay marriage in this country. Unlike that debate, usually fraught with heated opinion instead of rational fact, the LAS assistant professor of psychology and a winner of an early Scientific Achievement Award from the Society for Research in Child Development, approached his task as a good, old-fashioned empirical question.

“Science hardly gets any air time with respect to this issue. I do a lot of basic science work that is usually framed in terms of a theoretical argument that gets built up from within the science. So what’s odd about this research in particular is you sort of have to start with those non-scientific stereotypes that people have.

“My primary interest was taking a series of theoretical questions that come from attachment theory that have almost exclusively been addressed within the context of opposite sex relationships over to the realm of same-sex relationships.”

Attachment theory is the tendency to seek closeness to another person and feel secure when that person is present.

Results of Roisman’s study show that there are few detectable differences in the quality of relationships between committed same-sex couples and committed engaged and married heterosexual couples. High rates of security exist in gay and lesbian relationships.

Additionally Roisman found that lesbian couples tend to resolve a conflict a little more effectively than heterosexual couples. Although the study did not attempt to solve the reason why there was better interaction among female couples, Roisman says his findings were consistent with previous studies.

“Those investigators found that lesbian couples are more likely than heterosexuals to endorse an ethic of equality in their relationships, which may in part explain our findings. An alternative possibility is simply that it is easier to interact with someone of the same sex.”

This study of couples from rural and semi-rural areas of Champaign County examined the quality of same- and opposite-sex relationships through “self- and partner-reports, laboratory observations, and measures of physiological reactivity” in couples’ interactions.

During long interviews, subjects were also measured by the narratives they told about their early childhood experiences. The manner in which those stories are told is key, Roisman says, because they are associated with success or failure in both future adult relationships and in parenting. “We’re primarily interested in the coherence of those narratives because individuals who tell an internally consistent, complete, and relevant story about their early experiences are more effective in their romantic relationships and are more effective with their children.”

That important narrative of childhood experience in adult couples dovetails well with the primary focus of much of the research that Roisman conducts. He is a co-principal investigator on a longitudinal study funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of more than 1,000 children who have been tracked from one month of age to, currently, 15 years old. He also served as a graduate student on a similar study of infants into adulthood.

“Through long-term studies of this kind we’ve been able to demonstrate that the quality of early experiences is associated with future adult behavior.

“For example, children who, as infants, had a secure relationship with their mother tend to have a good, high-quality relationship with their romantic partner.”

Same sex couples on average told coherent stories about their early experiences. Roisman’s conclusion? “Same-sex couples are among the most secure individuals we’ve seen in the laboratory across all the kinds of couples we’ve studied.”

Roisman knows the findings by himself and graduate student Eric Clausell may not change negative views toward gay parenting or gay marriage but he is pleased to know that he has added scientific facts to the debate. “Whenever you do work focused on issues that people in society are talking about, you want to be careful to do things well and to be as objective as you can be.”

By Stephen J. Lyons
Winter 2008