Stages of Gay Relationship Development



Stages of Healthy Gay Relationships

Intro To Domestic Violence

Introduction to Gay Male Domestic Violence

Treatment Of Domestic Violence

Treatment Of Domestic Violence

DV Links


Before discussing what is obviously development of dysfunctional relationship processes, a review of healthy gay couples' development would be helpful. While there are many that wish to present gay relationships as inherently dysfunctional (see for example link 1, and link 2), work by respected authors such as Gottman and Julien (Julien et al, 2003) indicate otherwise. Gay and lesbian couples seek the same kind of mutually supportive, romantic, and emotionally intimate bonds as straight couples. They struggle with the same issues of finances, intimacy, and extended family as straight couples. They define relationship satisfaction in largely the same way as well.

One of the earliest and most well known models of gay couple development was that of McWhirter and Mattison (1984, 1987a, 1987b). While perhaps seeming outdated, their model is a very clear one; it was based on interviews with over 150 normal male couples over a five year study, and is still consistent with more modern couples research today.

McWhirter and Mattison conceptualized gay relationships as consisting of six stages. They began their discussion of their model, however, by discussing the climate in which gay relationships develop. They noted that:

"Heterosexual couples do not grapple with issues about roles, finances, ownerships, and social obligations in the same way as gay men do. The heterosexual couple that was concerned about acceptance by their mutual families was exceptional, whereas this was the rule for homosexual couples.... Heterosexual couples lived with some expectation that their relationships were to last "until death do us part," whereas gay couples wondered if their relationships could survive. Heterosexual couples have a wide variety of models for their partnerships... Gay men have only the same heterosexual models, including their own families, which they may try to emulate but find unsuitable.... Non-gay people rarely question the rightness or wrongness of their sexual orientation, but at some point gay persons do." (p. 3)

While they made these comments over 15 years ago, it is worth noting that in many respects, little has changed:
  • The debate over gay marriage has stirred many negative comments in the media, with some seeming bent on citing any research they can find (even if outdated and irrelevant) to continue to present gay men as child molesters who would harm children (see for example link). This issue is directly relevant, as marriage is a protective factor against violence. Waite and Gallagher argue that this is in large part due, internally, to the commitment that the married people make to each other, and, externally, to the social support our society provides for marriages. This raises the question of whether gay couples granted the right to marry would experience the same benefits. Interestingly, Gallagher thinks not and is against gay marriage as a result. Waite, on the other hand, is unsure, as it is difficult to predict whether society would really give the same support to gay couples. One could argue convincingly, however, that by denying marriage and the legal, religious, and familial support it should bring to gay couples, society discriminates and harms gay couples by placing them at an increased risk for relationship violence.

  • Many polls have been conducted about gay marriage. Some were conducted and reported honestly, some were conducted and slanted in their reporting, and some were simply removed or hidden when the results were not to the polltakers' liking. Perhaps the overall summary comes down to this: Over 50% of Americans are against gay marriage, but over 50% of Americans are against a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage and against impeaching the judge from Massachusetts who ruled that the State must provide for gay marriages. Clearly, equal support for gay and lesbian couples is still a contentious and hotly debated issue in our country.

  • Some argue gay marriages would be unstable, and would only lead to the diluting of marriage as a sacred institution (see link). Others point out that in Danish society, only 15% of gay marriages end in divorce, compared to 46% of straight ones. Gottman and colleagues (2003b) based on their 12 year longitudinal study reported that 20% of their gay and lesbian couples ended their relationships, and extrapolated to a 40 year period this would yield a divorce rate of 63.5%, slightly less than the comparable statistic for straight couples of 67%.

  • Only 14 states (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin) have laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. As noted later in this paper, legal discrimination complicates the recognition and treatment of domestic violence, as well as the protection of gay and lesbian victims of domestic violence.

  • After September 11th, 2001, Jerry Falwell actually blamed the terrorist bombings on God's displeasure with America over feminists, abortions, and gays and lesbians, with Pat Robertson supporting this opinion (see link).
Thus, the formation of healthy gay relationships is still housed in a society that is, to a large extent, ambivalent at best and aggressive at worst toward gays. Nonetheless, what follows is a short summary of McWhirter and Mattison's (1984) six stages of development in healthy gay relationships.

Blending - Stage 1 - Year 1
This first stage entails the "unification" of the couple into a single unit. Each man is happy to no longer feel isolated and alone, spends most of his free time with his partner, and experiences strong feelings of romantic love and frequent sexual activity during this time. They balance responsibilities, household rules, and their mutual goals, as well as come to know each others' strengths and weaknesses.
This can be a very difficult time for couples, in that two men may both be socialized to be decision makers, bread winners, and "the dominant one" in the relationship. This can cause great difficulty negotiating decisions, coping with a partner who makes more money or has higher status, and learning to admit a need for and to rely on the support of the other.

Of note, Gottman has found that gay/lesbian couples are "more upbeat" when facing problems, are less likely to use negative communication styles (e.g., belligerence and intimidation), and become less physiologically aroused during conflict compared to straight couples. This last point is especially salient, as Gottman argues that becoming overly "worked up" during arguments is especially likely to undermine effective communication.
Nesting - Stage 2 - Years 2 and 3
The second stage is marked by "homemaking," or strengthening the commitment the couple has. They find compatibility though acceptance of each other's personality differences and styles, strengths and weaknesses, and needs and goals. The loss of limerence (or the "end of the honeymoon") is common during this time as well, but is paired with a more realistic view of the relationship and the partner.
The "eye opening experience" this marks is not the experience of only gay couples, however. Benjamin Franklin said, "Keep your eyes wide-open before marriage, half-shut afterwards." This means that you should objectively judge your partner before you decide to marry, but once married remember not to judge them as harshly. Of note, Gottman has found that gay/lesbian couples are more likely to "take it less personally" when their partner points out some characteristic or flaw they find less desirable compared to straight couples. Thus, gay couples may accept some degree of negativity in a relationship, and be more reality based in their view of their partner.

Kurdek (1994) offered that years two and three were often the most stressful on gay relationships, and many reported they felt less family support for their relationship when compared to straight couples. They may be denied the "wisdom" many mothers pass to their daughters and many fathers pass to their sons about successful marriages, as well as support for rituals, building and home and life together, and personal growth through this time.
Maintaining - Stage 3 - Years 4 and 5
The third stage is when the couple balances their own individual identities against the couples' traditions and rituals. This can be a difficult time, as each may return to making friends outside the relationship, may begin new hobbies or interests, and may want to renegotiate previously set relationship rules.
Waite and Gallagher argue that the religious, social, financial, and familial structure around straight marriages is what prevents them from dissolving so easily during a similar stage. During this time, the stress of parenting, the demands of career, and the need for time alone seem very strong, and if unbalanced, these needs can lead the partners to develop a sense of emotional isolation from each other.

Gottman discusses his idea of Positive Sentiment Override (PSO) which basically means that when couples are happy, they tend to ignore the small difficulties and focus instead on the positive experiences and aspects of the relationship, sometimes in a ratio of noting 20 positive experiences for every 1 negative experience. Kurdek (1994) found similar results in that, on the one hand, when gay men were happy in their relationships, they consistently related the benefits of the relationship as high, the costs as low, and the temptation of other possible partners as weak. On the other hand, when gay men were generally unhappy in their lives, they reported lower relationship satisfaction, higher cost, and a stronger temptation to find another partner, and this held even when there was no obvious stress in the relationship.
Building - Stage 4 - Years 6 through 10
The fourth stage is marked by the settling of any left-over issues from Stage Three, and the couple is left with the sense that their connection is "dependable" and that they know each other very well. They have established a new balance of dependence/independence and can now collaborate on goals such as career building, vocational changes, and retirement planning.
Interestingly, Gottman in his research on straight couples (see link) has found that the beginning and ending of this stage is often the time when straight couples divorce. If they do not resolve conflict at the beginning of their own Stage Four (between five to seven years), they are prone to divorce to end their unhappiness, and seek satisfying relationships elsewhere. If they fail to rebuild their connection at the end of their own Stage Four (10 to 12 years), they are prone to end the marriage due to loss of intimacy and connection.

Some have noted that gay relationships are more likely to be non-monogamous, arguing that this marks gay marriages as being nothing like straight marriages that show "real commitment." Put another way, some argue that non-monogamous gay relationships lack a fundamental attribute required of a "real commitment." There are two ways to respond to this.
One response would be to correct this erroneous notion. Gottman notes that 20-25% of straight men in research studies will admit to having had an affair (although we can not know how many men have had an affair but would not admit to it). While women were half as likely as men to have affairs in the 1970s, in the last 30 years they have "caught up" to men in terms of infidelity. It is possible that married men who have affairs only marry women who do too, and thus the overall rate of affairs in marriages is still only 20-25%. However, if even half of the men having affairs are not married to women having affairs, we are still talking about affairs in one third (30-37%) of straight couples. Pittman and Pittman-Wagers (1995) quote even higher estimates of affairs indicating that 50% of husbands and 30-40% of wives have affairs, and that 90% of first marriage divorces involve one or both partners having an affair. Thus, to discuss gay and straight couples, but focus exclusively on non-monogamy in gay couples, is blatantly misleading.

A second response would be to return to what matters with regard to relationship satisfaction. Kurdek (1994) found that relationship satisfaction was more related to social support and similarity between partners with regard to emotional investment and expressiveness. This held true for gay, straight, and lesbian couples. Monogamy, however, was not related to relationship satisfaction for gay men. Thus, even if monogamy was a key difference between gay and straight couples, it may not be one that gay couples place great weight on, and so may not matter. Other research has found that in regards to relationship satisfaction, the details of the gay couples' agreement about sex and fidelity may not matter, but the adherence to that agreement does (Bryant and Demien, 1994).

For those reading this with shock now, a similar argument for straight couples might go as follows. In straight couples, household responsibilities are divided rather unequally, with women doing more of the housework (especially if there are children), even when they work outside the home just as much as the men do (REFERENCE). Gay and lesbian couples are more egalitarian about these duties (Julien et al, 2003). One could ask how a straight couple, working to build a home and life together, could be based on a relationship where one person habitually did more of the work. One could then argue that most straight couples thus lacked a fundamental element required for a "real commitment."

However, the same counter-arguments would apply. While very large disparities between the work men and women do to support the home (especially if there are children) are related to relationship dissatisfaction, small differences are not. Thus, even if work to support the home was a key difference between gay and straight relationships, women's 10 additional hours a week of housework in a home with children may not be one that straight couples place great weight on, and so may not matter.
Releasing - Stage 5 - Years 10 through 20
In the fifth stage, the couple comes to trust each other completely, with no need "to change him." The relationship is more likely marked by close friendship and companionship, and greater relationship satisfaction (Kurdek, 1989). Money and resources are no longer shared, so much as simply owned by both.
McWhirter and Mattison note the risk in this stage is that the men may start to find their life with the other to be boring, may sleep apart, may take each other for granted and share little about themselves, or may experience a "mid-life crisis" and grow more distant. This is consistent with Gottman's concerns about straight couples moving through their own version of this stage as well, and losing intimacy and closeness.
Renewing - Stage 6
Stage six might be considered the "retirement" stage of the relationship, when the couple has financial security, more time for each other, and more time for their own thoughts and activities. While health issues may become more salient, also salient during this time are issues associated with the meaning of life, and a sense of productivity or stagnation across one's life, similar to Erikson's "Integrity versus Despair" stage of psychosocial development.
Grossman and colleagues (2003) report on their interviews with gay men, bisexuals, and lesbians over 60, and found a correlation between low self-esteem and experiences of victimization. In fact, 63% reported experiencing verbal abuse, 16% reported physical assault, 11% reported having objects thrown at them, and 12% reported being threatened with a gun or shot at. Further, 20% reported experiencing employment discrimination, 7% reported experiencing housing discrimination, and 29% reported being threatened with "outing," or the disclosure of their sexual orientation without their permission. They found that 93% reported having lost at least one close friends to AIDS, and 47% reported having lost three or more friends to AIDS.

Despite this, 84% rated their mental health as "good to excellent," 44% were "partnered," and the average participant reported having 6.3 close friends. In describing these people, Grossman and colleagues explain the average man they interviewed would have been 44 when homosexuality was declassified as a mental disorder, and removed from the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. He would have been 52 when the first case of AIDS was reported, and would have been 69 when Ellen Degeneres "came out" on national television. This timeline nicely puts into perspective the very different concerns of today's "gay and gray" population compared to older gays and lesbians 30 years from now.

Of course, one of the major changes since this model was published is that more gay couples are having and/or raising children. Child development, adolescent development, and the separation of adult children from the family of origin to couples and form their own nuclear families is not worked into this model.

Also not included in this model is the role of commitment ceremonies and civil unions. The June 2004 issue of Journal of Family Psychology began with three articles on Gay Couples who have had Civil Unions.

Solomon, Rothblum, and Balsam compared about 300 lesbian and gay couples who had civil unions in Vermont to about 200 lesbian and gay couples who had not, and about 400 heterosexual married couples. The interesting thing about this study was that the sample of lesbian and gay couples who had not had Civil Unions were obtained by asking friends of the couples who had to participate, and the sample of married heterosexual couples were obtained by asking siblings of the lesbian and gay couples who had Civil Unions to participate. Thus, they were able to obtain three samples of people who were similar in age, ethnicity, education... making comparisons easier.

The results were hardly shocking but were interesting:
  • lesbians and gays were no different from married heterosexuals in terms of religion during childhood, but 35-40% of lesbians and gays no longer identified as being part of a religious group as adults compared to 16% of married heterosexuals
  • heterosexual women reported performing more housework and almost all childcare compared to their male partners, while lesbians and gays reported more equal division of labor in the home, with heterosexual women spending twice as much time per week doing housework
  • lesbians and gay men reported receiving more support from friends than families; however, among lesbians and gays, those who had Civil Unions felt more support from their families than those who had not
  • while heterosexual women were more likely to initiate contact with their in-laws than lesbians, gay men in civil unions and married heterosexual men were equally likely to initiate contact with their in-laws, and more likely to do so than gay men without Civil Unions
  • lesbians who had Civil Unions were more "out" than those who had not
  • heterosexuals were more likely to have been in their relationship longer, with gay men who had not had Civil Unions being more likely to have discussed ending their relationship
  • while lesbians and heterosexuals were more likely to be living across urban and suburban areas, gay men were three times more likely to live in cities than their brothers

Patterson, commenting on Solomon et al.'s findings, notes that in many cases, gays and lesbians were more similar to each other than to married heterosexuals, indicating sexual orientation likely has more of an impact on the experiences of gays and lesbians than does Civil Union status. Green, commenting on Solomon et al.'s findings, follows up with this idea, arguing that lesbian and gay couples have three significant hurdles to overcome, and that seeking Civil Unions might be one way couples would indicate progress at overcoming these hurdles.
Hurdle One: Homophobia
Green discusses briefly the kinds of homophobia gay and lesbian couples face, consistent with Patterson's note of employment and religious discrimination for gays and lesbians.

Hurdle Two: Lack of Templates for Couplehood
Green discusses the lack of clear guidelines for coupling, commitment, and living together. He notes that a kind of relational ambiguity results. Heterosexuals clearly know the difference between dating, living together, being engaged, being married, and having a wedding, as each is marked by some clear demarcation or ritual, but lesbians and gays do not have such clarity as their relationships are not recognized by churches and States by and large. They don't receive the same level of support from the State or Federal government either.

Hurdle Three: Family Support
Green discusses the difficulties heterosexual families hve understanding the prejudice against gays and lesbians, and helping their gay and lesbian children and siblings cope with these experiences. Barring a clear relationship status, some families don't know how to respond to a gay or lesbian family member's partner, or how to support their family member's relationship. Such ambiguity for family leaves many gays and lesbians to create a "Family of Choice" composed of gay and lesbian friends instead for support.

All three articles propose many research ideas for learning about gay and lesbian couples over the next few years as the legal landscape changes, and Civil Unions become more common and accessible.

Soloman, S. E., Rothblum, E. D., and Balsam, K. F. (2004). Pioneers in Partnership: Lesbian and Gay couples in Civil Unions Compared With Those Not in Civil Unions and Married Heterosexual Siblings. Journal of Family Psychology, 18(2), 275-286.

Patterson, C. J. (2004). What Difference Does a Civil Union Make? Changing Public Policies and the Experiences of Same-Sex Couples: Comment on Solomon, Rothblum, and Balsam (2004). Journal of Family Psychology, 18(2), 287-289.

Green, R. J. (2004). Rick and Resilience in Lesbian and Gay Couples: Comment on Solomon, Rothblum, and Balsam (2004). Journal of Family Psychology, 18(2), 290-292.