What Heterosexual Couples Can Learn From Same-Sex Ones
By Susan Donaldson James, ABC News
In this marriage, when there’s a mouse in the house, both spouses run for cover. And when a spider appears, “We have to fight over who has to catch it,” said Kristen Ellis-Henderson, 42, and the mother of two young children.
Ellis-Henderson and her wife, Sarah, 41, have been married since 2011 in New York. But now, as 13 states make same-sex marriage legal, they and other gay families may be redefining what a marriage looks like. The couple, from Sea Cliff, appeared on the cover of Time magazine in March with the headline, “Gay Marriage Already Won.”
And just last week, the high court ruling dismantled the Defense of Marriage Act, which banned same-sex couples from enjoying the same federal marital benefits as heterosexual couples.
“We did not expect the Supreme Court ruling,” Ellis-Henderson said. “We were in shock, but are still elated. It feels like every morning it’s Christmas. Never in my lifetime did I think we’d see equality on this level.’
But with that equality comes an interesting shift in the gender expectations in a marriage. How does the Ellis-Henderson household — with two 4-year-olds they conceived on the same day by in vitro fertilization and delivered just three weeks apart — compare to the male-female union down the street?
“At certain times we go two weeks without the garbage going out,” Ellis-Henderson said. “I know these are stereotypical roles — but neither one of us wants to do hard labor. We have no handyman, no one to fix the toilet. We have to hire someone. We use a landscaper for everything and a neighbor, Mike, down the road to pick up the dead mouse.”
Her wife, Sarah Kate, is a marketing executive who commutes to New York City each day and is the major breadwinner. Kristen, a bass player with the all-female country-rock band Antigone Rising and author of “Times Two,” takes on a larger role as the caregiver.
“I try to be sensitive and every relationship is different,” she said. “Most of our friends are heterosexual and they do laugh how nice it would be. We meet in the middle in our roles and where we handle the children, we are the same.”
But what Kristen-Ellis describes as “having constant back-up” in the mothering arena, something that comes natural to both women, can be a problem.
“There are days when we have to double check that we didn’t give medication twice,” she said. “My friends laugh.”
Sociologists are eager to look at the outcome of same-sex marriages over the long haul and what happens to household dynamics when gender is no longer a part of the equation.
The National Institutes of Health has given $1 million to researchers at San Diego State University to study 1,000 gay and straight couples and their siblings who have been followed over a decade, since 2000 when same-sex civil unions were legalized in Vermont.
“The same-sex couples who got civil unions in Vermont in 2000 will always be the longest legal gay couples in North America,” study author Esther Rothblum told the New York Times, which first reported the grant. “There is so much to learn by following them, but we really know very little. Most of the questions people ask me about same sex marriage, my answer is, ‘We don’t know yet.’ ”
The first data was published in 2004 in the Journal of Family Psychology and then followed up again in 2008 in the journal Developmental Psychology. Initial findings were that these couples were happier than their heterosexual counterparts and reported less conflict and higher levels of intimacy.
Communication was also better, according to the studies, which may be because women feel more comfortable talking to other women and men with male peers.
Some speculate that the absence of gender roles may be part of the reason for more marital tranquility.
“When you are the same gender, there are default assumptions of sharing the burden equally,” said Jay Michaelson, 42, who married Paul Dakin, 46, in New York in 2011. “I tend to cook; he tends to clean. I tend to tidy up; and he cleans. I tend to plan and he is better at social security. The division of labor comes along as experience.”
Both men grew up in traditional families.
“My mother was highly educated, but she had more domestic responsibility,” he said. “My father went to the office every day and came home at night. As we consider having children, we have been thinking how that works. There aren’t any models for how the work gets divided.”
But that is a good thing, according to Michaelson, 42, who is vice president of social justice at the Arcus Foundation and author of the book, “God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality.”
He credits women and some religions for helping to break down barriers. Some aspects of same-sex marriage may end up, in the end, being models for heterosexual ones.
“I don’t think for a second, we would have gotten where we are if we hadn’t had 40 to 50 years of feminism to call gender roles into question,” said Michaelson, who said the conservative Jewish community also made strides.
“The traditional wedding is a little sexist — the purchase of the wife by the husband,” he said. “They came up with a liturgy for gay couples that does not have that. And low and behold, straight couples started using it. It’s more egalitarian and it’s valid under Jewish law. If gay people can have an egalitarian tradition, so can heterosexuals.”
Still, Ellis-Henderson doesn’t think her same-sex marriage is much different from that of her Long Island neighbors, almost all of them heterosexual.
“What can I say?” she said. “More than anything, we are just like any other married couple, raising a family, going through the same struggles and issues, pressed with the same concerns. We just feel very lucky and blessed to have equality — mostly for our kids.”