An Interview with Julie Schwartz Gottman, Ph.D.
Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman has been an advocate for same-sex couples since long before marriage equality. She and her husband, John Gottman, have spent more than thirty years helping couples, both straight and gay, create and maintain greater love and health in their relationships.
As a self-identified feminist who is concerned with issues of social justice, Julie was willing to study homosexuality at a time when gay men and women were considered broken or deviant. While she was pursuing her Ph.D. in clinical psychology in the early 1980s, she became aware of the way in which gay and lesbian parents were discriminated against in child custody cases. These parents typically lost custody during divorce proceedings because they were assumed to be unfit.
“It was a nightmare,” Julie says. “The children would be taken away and given to alcoholic mothers or fathers, drug addicts, grandparents, uncles and aunts—anybody other than the gay or lesbian parent.”
Judges at that time made rulings based on assumptions about what would happen if children were raised by a gay or lesbian parent—namely, that the child would grow up gay or gender-confused (which was considered bad)—even though there was no research to back up those assumptions.
“This was a travesty of justice,” Julie says. “And being a nice Jewish girl, I’m very interested in justice in general and persecution in particular.”
Julie performed the world’s first controlled study on children being raised in the homes of lesbian moms. Her research looked at how daughters raised by their biological lesbian moms after a divorce turned out, as compared to daughters of divorce who were raised by heterosexual single moms or re-mated moms who found new male partners.
“What I found is there were no differences in sexual orientation between three groups of daughters, no differences in gender identity, and in social adjustment also no significant differences,” Julie says.
The only trend she saw was that daughters raised in two-parent households, either gay or straight, had a stronger sense of well-being and security in the world compared to those raised by single parents.
In 2003, John Gottman released the findings of a 12-year study of gay and lesbian couples he conducted with Robert Levenson. The study found that same-sex unions were comparable to heterosexual ones in satisfaction and quality but that there were slight differences in how gay couples interacted and handled conflict.
“What we saw is that [gay and lesbian] relationships tended to be a bit healthier than those of heterosexual couples,” Julie says. “Gay men tended to be much more direct. In terms of conflict management, there was much less physiological flooding. There was more humor during their conflicts. They were often good friends, and they could talk much more directly about sex and therefore had more contented sexual relationships because they really understood each others’ needs. For lesbians, much of that was the same.”
What is it about same-sex relationships that makes them more resilient in the face of conflict? The study didn’t offer conclusions about why, but the Gottmans have developed some possible ideas.
“The conjecture is that there’s a lot of social conditioning that goes on for genders,” Julie says. “Naturally [partners of the same gender] are going to understand each other a little bit better because they understand the social conditioning that each other has gone through. There is also less fear about being vulnerable. But we should take that with a grain of salt—it depends on the region and family culture in which each person was raised.”
Julie says another reason same-sex couples are likely so resilient is because they have already had to face conflict with others as they have established their identity, and in the midst of rejection from family, church, and society, they create other support structures for themselves.
“Another part (of resilience) is that you have community,” Julie says. “Because our culture is homophobic, most gay and lesbian couples have a group around them, if they’re not too isolated, that pulls together because of social persecution. The culture out there can still be hostile and frightening. That outside negativity unites people, and there’s research in groups such as church communities that shows that when a community is tightly knit, they help support marriages to stay together.”
This insight highlights the disservice done by “welcoming” but non-affirming faith communities that allow same-sex couples to attend services but never accept them into the community.
Resilience is an important characteristic of a healthy relationship, even for the Gottmans themselves. As the authorities and experts on marriage, many couples expect them to have everything worked out in their relationship.
“People put us on a pedestal, that we should have the perfect marriage,” Julie says. “So what we do, and we do this every time in our couples workshops, is to talk about how we are in the same soup as everybody else. In front of the audience, we process a regrettable incident that we’ve had, meaning a terrible fight that may end up with John sleeping on the couch. In this way, we work hard to take ourselves off the pedestal and to say that everything we know we’ve learned from the couples who came through our lab. We try to put into practice what we’ve learned, but we’re human too, and sometimes we fail and do a terrible job and have to repair it and work on it like everyone else.”
The Gottman Institute has helped millions of couples improve and repair their relationships through workshops, books, and thought leadership. Not everyone, however, has appreciated their evidence-based approach to relationships, in part because the method espouses an egalitarian approach to marriage. Julie recounts a time that an ultraconservative church in Texas began spreading nasty rumors about them to discredit them and their work.
“We were challenging the notion that men in opposite-sex relationships should have all of the power and all of the decision-making and should never listen and be ‘pussy-whipped’ by their wives,” she says. “We were also challenging that domestic violence is acceptable and saying that it’s not OK for men to keep their women ‘in line.’”
Although Julie has no statistics on how many same-sex couples have used the Gottman Method, she says that in a study conducted by two Certified Gottman Therapists in San Francisco, Gottman Method Couples Therapy proved highly effective in helping to strengthen the relationships of distressed gay and lesbian couples. Also, anecdotally, it appears that more gay and lesbian couples have sought out their resources as homosexuality becomes more widely accepted.
“We’ve noticed in the past three or four years, out of twenty-two years, we’ve had many more lesbian and gay couples coming to our workshops,” Julie says. “Not as many gay guys. There may still be some fear about being in a primarily heterosexual audience. But I’m hoping more will come.”
Julie’s best relationship advice? “Honor each other’s dreams. Ask each other questions about what gives your lives meaning and purpose. What are each partner’s dreams within that life mission and purpose, and how can the other partner support them?”
Excerpted from Modern Kinship: A Queer Guide to Christian Marriage, © 2019 David and Constantino Khalaf. Used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press.
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