What Straight Husbands Can Learn From Gay Husbands
By David and Constantino Khalaf
As a married same-sex couple, we sometimes meet people who can’t wrap their heads around the idea of a marriage devoid of gender roles. They think that for a marriage to work one person must play the “wife” role and the other the “husband” role, regardless of the gender to which those roles are assigned.
Yet the lack of those clearly defined expectations is what we value most about our marriage. Since neither one of us is “the wife” and both of us are “the husband,” we simply get to be David and Constantino — two individuals with equally valid opinions and differing talents.
We’ve had to learn how to accept each other’s influence, which, according to Dr. John Gottman, is a fundamental principle of keeping a positive perspective in a marriage.
In his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. Gottman reports the findings of his long-term study of 130 heterosexual couples:
Even in the first few months of marriage, men who allowed their wives to influence them had happier relationships and were less likely to eventually divorce than men who resisted their wives’ influence. Statistically speaking, when a man is not willing to share power with his partner there is an 81% chance that his marriage will self-destruct.
From our experience, a strict adherence to traditional gender roles means that one partner must reject the other’s influence. Back when we were engaged, we had a supportive friend from church ask us, earnestly, which one of us would make “final decisions.”
We must have looked confused because she went on to explain that even though she and her husband have a largely egalitarian marriage, it is he who has the final say when they disagree. This, she told us, was something they explicitly determined years ago during premarital counseling.
The notion that “father knows best” may seem antiquated, but whether we admit it or not, it is still deeply ingrained in our culture. Dr. Gottman’s studies published in 1998 indicate that some men have difficulty letting go of the idea that their opinions are the only ones that matter. Ironically, the ones who learn to yield — who convey respect for their spouses’ opinions — are the ones with the happiest marriages. These men are what Dr. Gottman calls emotionally intelligent husbands.
Letting your partner influence you is especially important when it comes to conflict resolution. All couples argue — everyone faces moments of anger, frustration, and other negative emotions — but couples who reduce negativity by deploying repair attempts have stronger marriages. Dr. Gottman’s research also shows that, unfortunately, 65% of men respond to conflict by escalating the negativity and deploying the four horsemen that presage divorce (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling).
“Using one of the four horsemen to escalate a conflict is a telltale sign that a man is resisting his wife’s influence,” Dr. Gottman writes in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. “Rather than acknowledging his wife’s feelings, this kind of husband is using the four horsemen to drown her out, to obliterate her point of view. One way or another, this approach leads to instability in the marriage.”
None of this is to say that women can’t be stubborn too, but the data seems to indicate that men find it harder to let their guard down and yield.
We must admit that being gay hasn’t made us immune to that tendency. We can both be as hardheaded as the next guy, and we don’t like admitting when we’re wrong. The difference in our marriage is that culture hasn’t trained us to automatically assume that our spouse will eventually have to yield. If one of us wants to be stubborn, he better be prepared to justify it by voicing the reasons why he feels so strongly about whatever it is we’re discussing. And by the same token, we had both better be willing to listen.
Our personal experience seems to be backed by science. A 12-year study by Dr. Gottman and Dr. Robert Levenson of the University of California at Berkeley found that same-sex couples are less likely than straight couples to use hostile emotional tactics — including domineering, belligerence, and fear — with each other. And according to Dr. Gottman, “The difference on these ‘control’ related emotions suggests that fairness and power-sharing between the partners is more important and more common in gay and lesbian relationships than in straight ones.”
Learning how to yield not only makes your relationship stronger, it makes you grow as a person. Marriage has taught us to be better friends, better listeners to others, and more open to considering opinions other than our own. Accepting your spouse’s influence may not always come naturally, but the growth you derive from that emotional intelligence leads to healthier relationships not only at home, but in every realm of life.
Want to improve your marriage in 60 seconds or less? Over 40 years of research with thousands of couples has proven a simple fact: small things often can create big changes over time. Got a minute? Sign up here.