Psychology Today: Do gay and straight couples split up at the same rate?

Psychology Today editor, Kaja Perina penned an article in the January/February, 2007 issue called Queer IQ: The Gay Couple’s Advantage. The subtitle line reads: “Gay relationships are less mired in deception and perhaps even less prone to friction, according to multiple studies.” She develops the idea, with help from Maureen O’Sullivan and John Gottman, that gay couples talk more about sexual matters and need to keep fewer secrets. O’Sullivan is quoted as saying,

Romantic lies are, after all, a sort of Rosetta stone on which gender differences are coyly inscribed. Straight men lie about their commitment to the relationship and about their resources, finds psychologist Maureen O’Sullivan. They are also more likely to lie to keep their partner from getting angry at them, a small but telling testament to the wrath of women. Women, in contrast, lie to flatter a man’s sense of self and to downplay their interest in other men.

Ms. Perina finishes her article with this paragraph:

Whether a same-sex edge to mating intelligence makes for longer unions is unclear. Among the couples Gottman studied, the projected break-up rate for homosexuals, over a four-decade span, is a grim 64 percent (gay men are far more likely to split than are lesbians). The 40-year divorce rate for straight couples in first marriages is 67 percent. To amend George Burns: If you wait long enough, every couple wants different things.

I was puzzled by these numbers and emailed Editor Perina for her sources. She kindly emailed back a reference to a John Gottman et al article in the Journal of Homosexuality. Titled, “Correlates of Gay and Lesbian Couples’ Relationship Satisfaction and Relationship Dissolution” and published in a 2003 issue of Journal of Homosexuality, (Vol. 45, #1), the study examined relationship satisfaction and stability among gay couples. Gottman and team sought to make comparison with heterosexual couples. On page 26, the authors wrote:

For the remaining twelve years of this longitudinal study, data were collected on relationship status. In the years between 1987 and 1999, eight couples broke up (20%), one gay couple and seven lesbian couples. This breakup rate for homosexual couples, if it were to be computed over a 40-year period would be 63.5%, which is quite comparable with Bumpass and Martin’s (1989) 67% breakup rate for first marriages among heterosexual couples within a 40-year period.

First of all I cannot find an article with the reference, “Bumpass and Martin (1989).” I believe the article in question is actually, Martin and Bumpass in the journal Demography but it was not included in the Gottman reference list so I am not sure I have the proper article. Whatever the citation, this rate for straights seemed inflated. A quick check of several sites confirmed that the divorce rate is not that high. According to a 2002 Census Bureau bulletin the divorce rate is not quite 50%. A New York Times article in 2005 quoted Dr. Bumpass as revising downward his early predictions for a much higher rate, with other experts suggesting the rate is closer to 40% and falling. And finally, a recent Demography study found differences between same-sex and opposite-sex couples in Norway and Sweden, especially among lesbians (Hat tip to Bradford Wilcox, for that study). When I alerted Ms. Perina to these data, she wrote back saying (quote with permission):

“Thank you for the clarification. To be honest, I wrestled with whether to include those numbers and now regret doing so.”

She is considering a correction on their website.

The point is not that same-sex couples are incapable of stability (see Gates, nd) but rather that under current circumstances, even in countries with legal supports, there are differences in longevity associated to some degree with sexual orientation of the partners. It may be that all of that honesty isn’t such a good thing…