By Ian Kerner PhD, LMFT
Couples of all orientations find themselves struggling with the same issues, from mismatched libidos to sex ruts to infidelity. "The underlying dynamics are identical," says Emily Nagoski, sex educator and author of A Scientific Guide to Successful Relationships.
"They may play out differently because of the differences in gender or because of external social pressures, but the rules are the same, and there's some clear indications that gay couples are actually better at following those rules than straight couples!"
Nagoski pointed me to a 12-year study of same-sex couples by eminent marriage therapist Dr. John Gottman, which concluded that all couple types, straight or gay, have many of the same issues and the same paths to staying happy together. But Gottman's research also indicated that gay/lesbian couples are more upbeat in the face of conflict and, compared to straight couples, use more affection and humor when they bring up a disagreement.
"When it comes to emotions, we think these couples may operate with very different principles than straight couples," says Gottman. "Straight couples may have a lot to learn from gay and lesbian relationships."
Studies suggest, for instance, that gay male couples tend to have sex more often than any other type of couples, while lesbian couples tend to have the least amount of sex. Since women often value emotional intimacy over sexual intimacy, low sex drive may not be a concern.
Likewise, two men who have strong libidos may be able to accommodate their sexual desires within an open relationship.
"A number of my gay clients prefer to be sexually open but emotionally monogamous," says sex and relationship therapist Joe Kort. "They can have lovers on the side and not have it be a threat to the relationship."
It's a type of male coupledom that sex columnist Dan Savage has famously termed "monogamish," but it's not necessarily unique to gay relationships.
"Overall, men are good at compartmentalizing sexual and emotional feelings," explains Kort. "It's a guy thing, not a gay thing."
At the same time, gay and lesbian couples can have unique concerns that just don't exist in straight relationships. For example, "each partner may be in a different stage of coming out," says Kort.
"If one partner is more 'out,' he or she may push for things that the other partner might not feel comfortable with yet, like meeting one another's families or being physically affectionate in public."
Gender can also play a big role in the way couples relate to each other, in and out of the bedroom, and same-sex couples are no exception.
In general, says Kort, women tend to focus on emotional intimacy, while men can be more emotionally distant. Lesbian and gay couples may benefit from counseling when both partners strongly have these characteristics. In other words, a female couple may be so closely bonded that they want to work on nurturing their individual selves, while counseling can help a male couple learn how to better open up to each other.
If you're considering counseling, it pays to do your research. "Your therapist doesn't have to be gay or lesbian, but he or she should be absolutely be gay and lesbian-informed, not just gay and lesbian-friendly," explains Kort.
That includes having deep insight into the often-subtle differences between same-sex and heterosexual couples, from concerns about discrimination and being 'out,' to childhood influences, to sexual issues.