What is a Relationship?

Sarah R. Young & Sean G. Massey

The word relationship can refer to a variety of different types of social interaction. Relationship research typically focuses on interpersonal relationships, which are deep, close relationships between two or more people. These relationships are sometimes described in other ways, as friendships, a couple, or a marriage. Research exploring LGBTQ interpersonal relationships is often centered around intimate or sexual relationships that are described using terms like partnership, couple, a marriage, or just a relationship.

How do LGBTQ Relationships Form?

Relationships vary in terms of the internal and external resources that strengthen the relationship, contributing to the well-being of the members in the relationship, and that help them cope with the various stressors they have to confront both individually and as a couple (Fincham and Beach, 2010). The availability of external resources is a changing landscape for same-sex couples (Rostosky and Riggle, 2017).

For example, Rosenfeld, Thomas, and Falcon (2014) found that gay men, lesbians, and middle-aged heterosexualsthose looking for mates in what they term “a thin market”are more likely to rely on the Internet to find a partner. In their nationally representative longitudinal survey “How Couples Meet and Stay Together (HCMST)” of over 4000 adults, Rosenfeld and Thomas (2012) found that on average although both heterosexual and same-sex couples reported meeting primarily through friends, recent trends (since 2009) suggest that the number of couples from both groups meeting online is increasing, with same-sex couples being significantly more likely to meet online than heterosexual couples.

Queer Resistance

The infinity heart, a symbol of polyamory.

Some same-sex relationships, with or without children, follow the expected norms regarding monogamy and exclusivity. Some relationships “queer”, or stray from, traditional relationship norms, including polyamorous relationships (three or more committed partners); multi-parent families (often a male platonic friend and the biological father who is involved, usually with two women partners who are also raising a child or children); or platonic partnering (often a queer man and woman who are friends and partner to raise a child) (Adams, 2019). By queering these relationships, there can certainly be a burden, including judgement and discrimination. On the other hand, there can also be strength including freedom, creativity, and setting up a family or relationship that is tailor-made to the people involved.

In a study of 1000 gay men in Britain, approximately 40% indicated that they were or had been in an open relationship (Gremore, 2016). In a study of gay male couples in the San Francisco Bay Area, Hoff and Beougher (2010) found that agreements guiding open-relationships varied considerably among gay male couples, with most having rules or conditions regarding extra-relational sex. In a related study Hoff et al, (2010) found that about equal numbers reported having agreements to allow sex with people outside the relationship (47%) and agreements to be monogamous (45%), with some (8%) reporting disagreements. Other studies have found slightly higher levels of monogamy (52.8%) with fewer couples reporting open (13.0%), monogamish (14.9%), or discrepant (19.3%) relationships (Parsons, 2012). Whitton, Weitbrecht, & Kuryluk (2015) reported even higher rates of agreement to be monogamous (74%).

However, most people maintain a strong bias in favor of monogamous relationships, viewing them more favorably than consensual non-monogamous relationships in terms of their potential for providing relationship and sexual satisfaction (Conley, Moors, Matsick, & Ziegler, 2012). Interestingly, little evidence exists to support this view. Monogamous relationships are also seen as more likely to preserve sexual health. However, most couples have little assurance that their partners remain faithful forever, nor do they have evidence that non-monogamists are less likely to practice safer sex. These biases are reflected in negative media representations and the views of mental health providers and politicians (Conley, Moors, Matsick, & Ziegler 2012).

A group representing the polyamorous community at San Francisco Pride 2004.

While the AIDS epidemic fueled the study of sex among men who have sex with men, there are significantly fewer studies of the sexual agreements of lesbian and bisexual female couples. “The Ultimate Lesbian Sex Survey” conducted by the online magazine Autostraddle (2015), asked “lady-types who sleep with lady-types” about their relationship agreements. Of the over 8566 who completed the survey, 56% reported being in a monogamous relationship, 15% in a non-monogamous relationship, and 29% reported not being in a relationship. When asked about their preferred type of relationship, 62% said Monogamy, 22% said mostly monogamy, 6% said open relationship, 5.3% polyamory, and the rest a range of other configurations, such as “triad”, “polyfidelity”, and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”.

Relationship Quality

The field of relationship studies, which prior to 2015 was not uniformly open to same-sex couples, is now a site of inquiry about LGBTQ relationship quality, longevity, and impact. Much of the literature on same-sex relationship quality focuses on comparing LGBTQ people’s dating, cohabitation, and marriage pathways and experiences to heterosexual people (Kamen et al. 2011). This work has has repeatedly found that LGBTQ relationships experience the same level of satisfaction compared to non-LGBTQ relationships, and that similar variables predict both stability and overall satisfaction in these relationships (Kamen et al. 2011; Frost & Meyer; Payne et. al, 2019). In many ways, the outcome of this research has shown repeatedly that LGBTQ relationships are just as well adjusted and experience similar stressors as their heterosexual counterparts.

LGBTQ people, as stigmatized minorities, can experience higher rates of mental and physical health challenges, such as mood and anxiety disorders, compared to heterosexual and cisgender people (Meyer, 2016; Meyer 2003). This unique stress, called Minority Stress, impacts LGBTQ relationships both internally (internalized heterosexim) and externally (experiences of discrimination), and has a negative effect on relationship quality and satisfaction (Frost & Meyer, 2009). One way to explain the connection is that internalized stigma increases the likelihood for experiencing depression, and depression produces stress on a relationship (Frost & Meyer, 2009). In one sample of 142 gay men, trust in relationships was impacted by experiences of discrimination when measuring overall relationship satisfaction (Kamen et al, 2011). In this same sample, those with lower internalized heterosexism had a greater sense of commitment and higher levels of relationship satisfaction (Kamen et al., 2011).

Minority Stress Process in Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Populations. Chart made by the CDC.

This provides unique challenges for LGBTQ couples and families, compared to their straight and cisgender counterparts, as these couples often have to navigate judgment and rejection from their families of origin and in a variety of systems including employment and faith communities. As mentioned earlier, non-heteronormative couples (e.g., Polyamorous LGBTQ couples), may face even more relationship scrutiny from others, although the impact of such scrutiny remains underexplored in the research.

Additional factors that impact heterosexual and cisgender relationships also impact LGBTQ relationships, including dating violence and divorce. Prevalence of dating violence among LGBTQ adolescents, although not as robust a line of inquiry as for heterosexual youth and adults, is higher than national averages for all adolescents (Dank et al., 2014; Gillum, 2017). In addition, experiences of dating violence in adolescence appears to predicts the perpetuation of these experiences into college,as well as other behaviors (such as not using condoms) that put these youth at risk as they enter adulthood (Gillum, 2017) making the recognition and prevention of relationship and dating violence with LGBTQ communities important to address. Some researchers and practitioners theorize that the lack of consistent and positive role modeling and inclusion of healthy LGBTQ relationships in sex education curriculum and from parents and mentors creates a vacuum of information for how to negotiate healthy relationships, particularly for adolescents (Marrow, 2004; Gillum, 2017) Thus, one way to improve relationship quality for LGBTQ couples and families is to ensure inclusive curriculum and access to information that includes queer couples and families across the lifespan.

For those who opt to enter the normative relationship of legal marriage, they may later opt to seek a legal divorce. While the process of initiating a divorce has become a fairly equal process between same-sex and different-sex couples, rates of divorce may be different. In several UK-based studies, lesbians were twice as likely to seek a divorce compared to gay men (Bulman, 2017). In reporting on these statistics, one sociologist theorized that higher rates of divorce among queer and lesbian women can be explained by women entering commitment sooner and having higher standards for the relationship overall (Bulman, 2017).

As discussed above, a number of limitations currently exist in accuratelysampling LGBTQ couples. These challenges may be become more pronounced if the Trump Administration is successful in modifying the questions related to same-sex partnerships that were included in the 2010 U.S. Census questionnaire, if the public’s opinion of the LGBTQ community is influenced by the current administration’s anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, or if the resulting increases in anti-LGBTQ discrimination and violence inhibit future participation in research.