Holding hands with someone you love in public may seem like a carefree display of affection, but for people in same sex relationships it is still a risky thing to do.
Despite progress in our attitudes to gay partnerships, the findings of Enduring Love?, our two-year study into how modern couples maintain relationships, suggest that some among the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning+ (representing other sexual identities) (LGBTQ+) community still fear reprisals that prevent them from giving this outward sign of affection.
The 2013 Natsal (National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles) and 2008 British Social Attitudes surveys show increasing social tolerance of lesbian and gay lifestyles in Britain and greater sexual experimentation among women and young queer couples. Same sex marriage was legalised in 2014. While homophobia is still a live issue, it may still come as a surprise that some gay couples are still disinclined or afraid to hold hands while walking among the wider public.
Despite this our study found that same sex couples and child-free couples reported being among the happiest in their relationship. Our study included a large survey of about 5000 people (around 12% of whom were LGBTQ+) and in depth interviews with 50 couples (70% heterosexual, 30% LGBTQ+), where we discussed relationships, hopes and fears.
Despite the concern some expressed at “going public” with their relationship in the interviews, LGBTQ+ respondents to the survey revealed that in general they were more positive about the quality of their relationship than their heterosexual equivalents. Responding to questions on sex, intimacy, being together and sharing values they rated their relationships more highly. And it appears their commitment to making their relationship work and their appreciation of everyday practices is greater than heterosexual counterparts who are perhaps more inclined to take things for granted.
Of course, same sex couples weren’t the only ones who were happy. The face-to-face interviews revealed that the older heterosexual couples and those who were in a second long-term relationship were often more inclined to reflect on how their relationship was working. Rather than writing off past relationships as a mistake or failure, couples were able to draw on lessons learned to enrich their lives today.
Mums and dads
Being spontaneous and putting time into one’s relationship can be harder when children come along and the survey found parenthood shapes relationship quality more than any other factor. Among survey respondents, who came from all ages and backgrounds, we found it was more difficult for parents to carry out relationship “maintenance” than it was for child-free couples.
But again, LGBTQ+ parents scored higher on this than heterosexual couples. This may mean that LGBTQ+ parents prioritise their relationship more than heterosexual ones but relationship duration may also play a part here. It was found that 44% of heterosexual survey participants had been in their relationship for 20+ years, compared with LGBTQ+ parents whose relationship was likely to be between six and 10 years long. What is clear is that tensions between parenting and partnering uniformly have an adverse impact on relationships.
Although having children does affect the amount of work today’s couples are able to put into the relationship, this doesn’t mean parents are miserable. In fact, mothers came out as the happiest in their lives overall. They cited their children as the most important people in their lives, over and above their partners, which suggests that having a child brings extra value and dimension to women’s lives.
Conversely, fathers were more likely to name their partner as the most important person in their lives and, overall men placed more emphasis on the importance of sex in the relationship, whereas mothers were extremely keen to receive a cup of tea in bed, with or without the sex.
In a society where much research has been conducted into the stresses on relationships and marriage breakdowns, these findings reveal some positive and affirming things about couples. They are concerned with the quality of their relationships, they value the seemingly mundane and small gestures (that cup of tea in bed, stacking the dishwasher, putting out the bins) and seem prepared to work through difficulties – some of which reinforce their relationship, rather than pulling it apart.
But if there’s one thing we learned from our study, it’s that there is no single notion of the happy couple.
Jacqui Gabb receives funding from ESRC