This is the latest in a series of interviews with APA Books authors. For this interview, Susan Herman, Developmental Editor and consultant for APA Books, spoke with Sharon S. Rostosky and Ellen D. B. Riggle, professors at University of Kentucky. APA Books published Rostosky & Riggle’s book Happy Together: Thriving as a Same-Sex Couple in Your Family, Workplace, and Community in early 2015.
Note: The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the authors and should not be taken to represent the official views or policies of the American Psychological Association.
Sharon S. Rostosky, PhD, is a licensed psychologist in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. She joined the counseling psychology program at the University of Kentucky in 1999, where she is currently a professor and director of training. Her research, published in more than 60 peer-reviewed journal articles and presented in numerous workshops for professional and general audiences, focuses on minority stress and well-being in individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer and in same-sex couples.
Ellen D. B. Riggle, PhD, is a professor in the departments of Gender and Women’s Studies and Political Science at the University of Kentucky. She is the coeditor of Sexual Identity on the Job and Gays and Lesbians in the Democratic Process. She has published more than 60 articles and chapters in peer-reviewed journals and books.
More information about the work of Dr. Riggle and Dr. Rostosky can be found on their website: www.prismresearch.org.
SH: Happy Together was released a few months shy of the 2015 Supreme Court ruling (Obergefell v. Hodges) that all 50 states in the USA must license and recognize same-sex marriages. What other aspects of the legal landscape have changed since early 2015 regarding same-sex couples?
SR & ER: It’s true that same-sex marriages are legally recognized in all 50 states now. However, there has been an increase in the number of states introducing and passing so-called “religious freedom” laws. The way that many of these laws are worded effectively gives businesses and institutions the right to discriminate against same-sex couples and LGBT individuals and eliminates any legal recourse by the targets of discrimination.
Some states have also introduced legislation that would allow government officials to refuse to issue marriage licenses to or perform marriages for same-sex couples.
Probably the most important aspect of the legal landscape are the things that haven’t changed. For example, it is still legal in the majority of states to discriminate against LGBT people in jobs, services, and housing. Marriage equality itself does not protect same-sex couples or LGBT individuals from discrimination.
Marriage equality also has not automatically led to equal parental rights for same-sex couples in all states. Parental rights are still being questioned in many jurisdictions upon the birth or adoption of a child by same-sex couples.
SH: It’s common to hear about things that put stress on couples, like economic uncertainty, the high cost of child care, or addiction to smartphones and social media. Same-sex and different-sex couples, presumably, deal with all these same issues. What are some distinct concerns touching same-sex couples?
SR & ER: Our research and that of other scholars shows that public debates surrounding anti-LGBT laws increase minority stress. The current political environment has many uncertainties for same-sex couples and there is a real fear that the progress of LGBT rights will be halted and that the protections enacted in the past few years may be repealed. This anxiety puts increased stress on couples that they need to constructively manage.
We wrote Happy Together specifically to help couples develop their strengths to deal with this type of environmental stress.
Because same-sex relationships are still stigmatized, same-sex couples are more likely to experience rejection from members of their family of origin. Imagine not having social support from your family, plus having to make the extra effort to set up appropriate boundaries with one or more especially prejudiced family members.
Same-sex couples may also have to expend more time and energy finding community support than different-sex couples. For instance, same-sex couples may have to work harder to find an LGBTQ-affirmative religious or spiritual community, or an affirmative health service provider.
Same-sex couples also have to negotiate how “out” each partner will be in their respective workplaces, especially if one or both couple members
lack basic workplace protections like inclusive nondiscrimination policies.
Same-sex couples who are parents worry about how their children and family will be treated by neighbors and school personnel. These couples tend to spend more time than other parents advocating at their children’s school.
When they’re also subjected to prejudice based on racial identities, immigration status, economic disadvantage, disability, etc., same-sex couples can face significant stress. What we have learned in our research, however, is that despite these challenges, same-sex couples can and do create enduring and satisfying relationships.
SH: In your clinical work, do you see particular strengths emerging from same-sex couple relationships that you might not see as often with different-sex couples?
SR & ER: Same-sex couples often attribute their relationship satisfaction and longevity to their ability to create meaning and purpose out of their negative experiences. For instance, same-sex couples might draw on their experience to understand and empathize with other marginalized groups and engage in social activism. Same-sex couples often create “families of choice” and rely on these families for social support, as well as provide support for others.
In our many interviews with same-sex couples over the years, we have witnessed how they cope by using humor and expressing appreciation for their similarities and differences.
We’ve also found that same-sex couples are more likely than different-sex couples to equally share responsibility for maintaining their relationship, by actively talking through and negotiating differences. We think this is because, without strict gender roles, same-sex couples feel more free to write their own relationship scripts.
SH: In addition to seeking out LGBTQ-affirming community resources and helping professionals, what can same-sex couples do to lower their stress levels and build themselves up?
SR & ER: For people who like to read, we of course recommend our books. We have translated 15 years of basic research into two accessible books. Our first one, A Positive View of LGBTQ: Embracing Identity and Cultivating Well-being, is a resource for recognizing and using LGBTQ identity strengths. The second book, Happy Together: Thriving as a Same-Sex Couple in Your Family, Workplace, and Community, focuses on helping same-sex couples deal with minority stress. Both books are full of conversation starters and exercises.
One exercise in A Positive View of LGBTQ presents a “starter list” of self-care activities for readers to consider and build upon.
One activity in Happy Together guides couples to reflect on times when they anticipate rejection at work and then discuss how that fear affects their couple relationship. We give examples about how to take anxious thoughts and construct more helpful messages that can help them cope.
When we talk to same-sex couples who have been together 25, 35, 45 years, they tell us that one ‘secret to their success’ as a couple was building on their shared values and engaging in experiences that kept them learning and growing together. Shared values may involve recreational activities, spiritual/religious/educational pursuits, and commitments to making the world a more compassionate and supportive place through artistic expression, volunteerism, or community organizing.
Making a commitment to social change and social action is another powerful way to counter stress. We’ve met couples who engage in social activism on behalf of other oppressed minorities, women, people with AIDS, homeless youth, animals, the environment, food security—and that type of engagement is part of what makes their relationship flourish.
A good piece of advice for same-sex couples (and for anyone) doing social justice activism is to balance it with self-care and couple-care. Couples must keep their relationship healthy and strong because, as Dr. Glenda Russell reminds us, we must take the long view or a “movement perspective” when it comes to bringing about social change.