One point of this website is to have a discussion about healthy lesbian relationships. It’s especially relevant now that we have achieved marriage equality in the United States (and many other countries). Some data that has come out of Europe, as well as other sociological studies, have shown a consistent pattern of very high break up rates (much higher than for heterosexuals or gay men even) between female same-sex couples in live in, civil union, and domestic partnership type arrangements. I think it is important for us as a community to have a discussion about these seemingly very high rates of break ups and therefore turmoil that happen in same-sex relationships between women. It is also important for queer women whose personalities that don’t fit with a traditional monogamous marriage (and would prefer being single, a serial monogamist, or in an open relationships) to decide what is best for them and to have accurate information about their lifestyles as well. But in general, most lesbians want to find a life partner and multiple studies of married people show a definite correlation for married people in mental health and financial stability. So, it is a topic worth talking about for everyone. Only time will tell how lesbian divorce rates will play out exactly now that marriage is legal in the United Sates and many other countries. I am going to use the term “lesbian relationship” here for convenience acknowledging that there are also bisexual women in same-sex relationships.
The reasons why I think break up rates are so high for female same-sex couples…
1) Even Heterosexual Women Are More Likely to Initiate Divorce
This may just be the bottom line here. Marina Adshade makes this important point in “Are Lesbian Marriages Doomed for Failure.” Women are shown to initiate up to 2/3 of heterosexual divorces (and many studies show women cheat almost as much as men so no, this isn’t the reason). It’s possible women are more demanding of relationship satisfaction and have higher expectations than men (sounds like a stereotype but the divorce stats are what they are). Same sex relationships between women would be much more likely to dissolve based on this fact alone.
2) Lack of Societal Support
Lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals that choose same-sex long-term partners, have been operating outside of the norms of family structure for eternity and have no role models or cultural support to guide them about the differences and nuances of same sex relationships and how they may be similar but also different from heterosexual relationships. We haven’t had any societal support until very recently and this has significantly affected the status of our relationships and our own self-esteem around them. Lesbian relationships are not the only ones affected by cultural issues. For example, black marriages have the highest divorce rate and rates can be significantly higher for most types of interracial couples. Ronald Bailey makes this point in “The Science on Same Sex Marriage” as a reason not to exclude same-sex couples from marriage, despite the levels of the stability of their relationships. And since we are a racially, culturally, and economically diverse group, many of our relationships involve factors surrounding more than one of these issues. Cultural support does affect relationship stability for humans in general. Not just lesbians. Acknowledging this isn’t to promote any kind of victim mentality, just self-awareness. The quality of our relationships are our own responsibility and something we have direct control over.
It’s a common joke but this stereotype exists for a reason. Women jump into moving in together after starting a new relationship quickly before giving it time to see if they are compatible i.e. the stereotypical “Uhauling.” This phenomenon would show a high rate of “quick to commit ” live in partners having their relationships end in sociological research.
4) Sexual Issues
There are things that overall seem to be better about lesbian sex such as the likelihood of having an orgasm and length of time spent. But women in relationships do overall have more trouble keeping their sex lives going. Women aren’t as aggressive about initiating sex in relationships, which may make continuing a sexual bond more difficult. It is well-known that many women, unlike a lot of men, have a pattern of arousal that requires some stimulation first for them to get turned on. If there are two women that aren’t sexual initiators in a relationship, it makes sense that sex may become an issue and may make moving on to a more exciting new relationship more appealing. This is just a theory and there doesn’t seem to be any research on this exact point. But serial monogamy seems to be the norm in our community and maybe this is one reason why.
5) Civil Unions Aren’t Marriage and May be More Unstable
Studies on live in relationships, civil unions, and domestic partner arrangements aren’t the same as studies on actual legalized full marriage equality and those unions are not likely to be as stable. Unmarried heterosexual partners and even ones in “marriage light” civil union arrangements have a higher dissolution rate than marriages. Only time will tell how full marriage equality will affect same-sex partnerships between women.
6) Reasons Gay Male’s Relationships Seem More Stable
They probably aren’t. It’s just that lesbians are more likely to enter into formally committed relationships than gay men. Stats on legal unions seem to show a much larger percentage of lesbians entering these unions in the first place, so gay men’s relationships aren’t more stable in general. They are just more restrained in making commitments to move in together and form legal arrangements (a good thing actually in my opinion). In most statistics in Europe and the US (Denmark seems to be an exception) female couples make up almost half to well over %50 of the unions. This is despite the fact that most studies show there are fewer lesbians than gay men (there are more bisexual women than bisexual men or lesbians but most marry men). So it appears that a much larger percentage of the lesbian community enters these relationships rather than stay single and dating like gay men do. Also some gay men who marry may be older and richer, which has an influence on relationship stability. This needs further study.
7) Is Lack of Children a Reason? Maybe But Rates Still High
In general this most likely has a large affect on why gay men and lesbians aren’t as likely to stay together in long-term relationships or even form them in the first place as divorce rates are higher for heterosexual couples without children. But it doesn’t seem to be the only reason. One study shows that even with children lesbians have a higher break up rate. The National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study (2010) showed a break up rate of 56% versus 36.3% in a comparable study of heterosexuals in the 6th Cycle of the U.S. National Survey of Family Growth (2002). While this study showed the children of lesbian couples are at least as well adjusted as those children of heterosexual couples (which is the consensus of a large majority of this type of research on children) the high break up rate is still hardly ideal. These female couples conceived through artificial insemination so these families were well planned and financially secure but still had higher dissolution rates than for a general sample of heterosexual couples.
8) In Time the Rates will Stabilize
There may have been an influx of overly enthusiastic couples entering civil unions when they were given the right to formally commit to their relationship. But the overall break up rates for lesbians seems to be higher in general regardless of the specific arrangement. However, studies of lesbians before legal arrangements were available at all and studies comparing domestic partnerships and civil unions aren’t an exact comparison to full marriage equality.
9) Does the Small Size of the Lesbian Dating Pool Affect Relationship Stability?
Polls of sexual orientation consistently show lesbians to be under 2% of the population. Bisexual women are much more likely to wind up partnered with men. 2% of the population is still millions of people. But it would be interesting to look at whether lesbians are more likely to partner with people they may not be as compatible with because of the diversity of the community they are in. Lesbians may be more likely to partner with women from different ethnic, cultural, and class backgrounds. This in some ways can be a great thing. But these factors are shown to affect divorce rates. This needs further research.
Pro Lesbian Marriage Argument: Time To Reflect
Marriage is not for everyone and I wish to address other healthy ways of being single or in relationships on this website. Many people report being happier after leaving a bad marriage. This is also a good discussion to have for people to decide if marriage is even right for them so a messy, expensive divorce is avoided. Maybe we will all decide in the lesbian community that we enjoy relationship musical chairs and it makes our lives more exciting. It’s not up to me personally to dictate what the morality of the lesbian community should be. But in general, there is ample data to support stable married relationships correlate with better mental health and financial stability including for gay people. In addition to this, divorce rates for second marriages are higher than for first marriages, supporting the idea that it is in at least some cases better to work through issues with a current spouse rather than divorce. However, some research shows women handle divorces better and are happier to get out of relationships they see as bad than men. There is no one correct formula for all people. And no one should feel bad for failing to live up to some ideal. But our queer young people need to be more aware of these issues around same-sex relationships between lesbians and/or bisexual women. The LGBT community has suffered years or ridicule, condescension, and abuse. We have moved into a new era where most people (at least the LG and Bs) are able to lead a life mostly free of any serious oppression in Western countries. It’s time to move past victimhood and take control of the quality of our own lives. Bringing more attention to this issue will cause opponents of gay equality to argue that we aren’t worthy of parenthood or marriage rights despite the fact many other heterosexual communities have similar problems. But every community be it an ethnic, religious, or queer one needs self-awareness and to take responsibility for the problems members have direct control over. And now is a good time to ask ourselves “What really is right for me” and “How am I going to treat my partner and my relationship.” The point of having this discussion isn’t to depress people, just to promote awareness. I, my friends, and many other women have been in very long, happy, and stable same-sex relationships. This is totally possible for anyone that wants this.
Bringig, Douglas (2000). “These boots are made for walking”: Why most divorce filers are women.” American Law and Economics Review Vol. 2 (1).
Andersson, Noack, Seierstad, Weedon-Fekjær (2006). “The demographics of same-sex marriages in Norway and Sweden.”
Blumstein, Schwartz (1983). American Couples. New York: William Morrow
Gartrell, Henny, Goldberg (2010). “Adolescents of the U.S. National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study: Sexual Orientation, Sexual Behavior, and Sexual Risk Exposure.” Archives of Sexual Behavior.
Kurdek (1998). “Relationship Outcomes and Their Predictors: Longitudinal Evidence from Heterosexual Married, Gay Cohabiting, and Lesbian Cohabiting Couples.” Journal of Marriage and Family.
Rosenfeld (2014). “Couple Longevity in the Era of Same-Sex Marriage in the U.S.” Journal of Marriage and Family.
Ross, Helen; Karen Gask; and Ann Berrington (Autumn 2011). “Civil Partnerships Five Years On.” Office for National Statistics.
Originally Posted 07/18/2015