Catholic same-sex partners might be the ideal leaders of the US Catholic Church’s Pre-Cana programs for straight engaged couples. Why so? As historian Stephanie Coontz wrote in The New York Times recently, “many different-sex couples would have happier and more satisfying marriages if they took a few lessons from their same-sex counterparts.”
As Coontz shows, “sharing domestic tasks has become an increasingly important component of marital stability, and lack of sharing an increasingly powerful predictor of conflict.” And heterosexual couples don’t tend to share tasks as well as gay and lesbian couples do. It turns out that mid-twentieth-century gender roles still follow straight people into marriage—if not initially, once children arrive. Psychologist Darcy Lockman cites recent data showing that in heterosexual marriages both men and women tend to feel household labor and childcare are appropriately divided if the husband does half as much as the wife.
Unsurprisingly, as Coontz notes, women in heterosexual marriages are the most stressed group among all married people. And that stress is correlated with poor relationships. 41 percent of women who do all the dishes say their marriages are in trouble, for instance.
By contrast, same-sex couples don’t slide into gender-stereotyped housekeeping and childcare roles because they can’t. The distinction between “men’s” and “women’s” work is pointless. Their children grow up seeing changing the oil in the car and folding the laundry as equally women’s work, or making dinner and fixing the lawnmower as equally men’s work.
Intriguingly, same-sex couples are also more likely to split particular tasks rather than slip into ruts. And they also spend more child-focused time with their children than straight parents do.
Perhaps most unexpectedly, same-sex couples handle conflict differently than straight couples. Coontz writes,
“John Gottman and Robert Levenson found that gays and lesbians who discussed a disagreement with their partner did so in less belligerent, domineering and fearful ways than different-sex individuals….Same-sex couples used more affection and humor while discussing their disagreements, became less agitated and calmed down more quickly afterward than different-sex couples.
“Even in ordinary daily interactions, people in same-sex unions use more positive methods of influencing a partner…than individuals in different-sex partnerships, offering encouragement and praise rather than criticism, lectures or appeals to guilt.”
Why did the same-sex couples in the studies embrace this healthier style of disagreement? “Possibly because they did not bring the same history of power inequalities to the table,” Coontz says.
To be sure, the Catholic Church teaches that the historical power inequalities of sexism are evil. In his letter on marriage, Pope Francis laments “the excesses of patriarchal cultures,” celebrating instead “the equal dignity of men and women.” Even Pope John Paul II insisted on gender equality in marriage. But Coontz’s research suggests how the popes’ insistence on the different “charisms” of “masculinity” and “femininity” can sabotage their official support for equality, and how same-sex couples can show us the way.
Coontz does leave some important questions unanswered. For instance, why do children of gay couples receive 20 minutes more focused attention per day than children of lesbian couples? Is men’s greater earning power (which may translate to working fewer hours) a factor? Clearly the world’s unequal esteem for men and women has an impact even in gay and lesbian homes.
But the larger truth still stands: Overall, heterosexual marriage is still burdened by mutually reinforcing, destructive personal habits and social inequalities—otherwise known as sin. If the Catholic Church really wants mutually respectful, egalitarian marriages, same-sex couples are the most consistent models out there. How about it, Pre-Cana directors?
The irony stands, too. If the Catholic Church wants to break the grip that sexism and injustice still have on heterosexual marriage, the LGBTQ community is ready with a model that comes closer to Pope John Paul II’s and Pope Francis’s ideal than straight marriages do. And yet gay and lesbian couples are said to be living in sin and are denied the sacrament of marriage. How about it, Pope Francis?
—Cristina Traina, Northwestern University, April 16, 2020