What’s Happening with Relationship Education for Same-Sex Couples?

By Sarah Hokanson

Bottom-Line First: Recent couple relationship education programs have been developed to cater to the unique needs of same-sex couples. This blog reviews several studies of same-sex couples in couple relationship education programs and discusses implications and emerging best practices.

In recent years, same-sex relationships have become much more visible. Same-sex couples face many of the same relationship problems opposite-sex couples face, but they also face unique stressors, including sexual minority stress, internalized homophobia, and lack of social support. Research has shown that LGBT individuals experience more mental health problems, including depression and anxiety, which may be due to some of these stressors. Due to the challenges these couples face, couple relationship education (CRE) may be especially important in improving couple functioning and individual mental health. CRE can be tailored for same-sex couples and their specific situations and needs.

A handful of studies in the past decade have looked at the effectiveness of relationship education for same-sex couples with some encouraging, early results. Here are some of their findings:

One study[1] looked at the Rainbow CoupleCARE program, a version of CoupleCARE tailored for LGB couples. The sample was made up of 12 same-sex couples (9 female and 3 male), ages 20-56. Results found: small improvements in relationship satisfaction and commitment; a significant decrease in psychological stress; a significant increase in positive mental health; and a small increase in LGB identity affirmation.

Also, a preliminary evaluation of a CRE program developed for same-sex couples looked at a sample of 11 couples.[2] After completing the program, couples showed moderate improvements in relationship processes, positive effects on stress and relationship support, and increases in relationship satisfaction and quality. This study also showed significant improvements for couples on the waitlist (though not as large as the improvements for couples in the treatment group). This suggests that improvements in relationship functioning may come from couples deciding to invest more time, energy, and commitment in the relationship or from initial assessment tasks.

Another pilot study tested the Strengthening Same-sex Relationships (SSSR) program,[3] a CRE program developed specifically for female same-sex couples. This study had a sample of 37 couples: 17 on the waitlist and 20 in the treatment group. After treatment, couples had significantly less negative and more positive communication as well as significantly greater gains in relationship satisfaction and confidence compared to the waitlist control group. At the 3-month follow-up, participants maintained gains in positive communication but reported some deterioration in relationship satisfaction and confidence. The largest and longest-lasting effects were on couple communication.

A different study looked at the SSSR program[4] developed specifically for male same-sex couples. This study used a randomized waitlist-control group design, and the sample included 20 male couples (M = 40 years old, 83% white) in the Boston area. Compared to the waitlist control group, treatment-group participants had less negative communication and more positive communication, lower perceived stress, and higher relationship satisfaction at the 3-month follow-up. Social support, relationship satisfaction, and relationship stability were not significantly higher by the post-test but had improved by the 3-month follow-up. Overall program satisfaction was high.

Many agree that creating CRE programs tailored for same-sex couples will lead to the best outcomes for same-sex couples, but this takes a lot of time and resources. One study[5] looked at a sample of 49 same-sex couples who participated in ePREP or OurRelationship to measure the effectiveness for same-sex couples of web-based CRE programs designed for opposite-sex couples. The sample included 43 female couples and 6 males couples; participants were largely low-income and non-White. Same-sex couples in the treatment group were compared to a same-sex-couple control group and a treatment group of opposite-sex couples. Compared to the control group of same-sex couples, treatment-group participants showed greater increases in relationship satisfaction, emotional support, and sexual intimacy and showed greater declines in communication conflict, perceived stress, and break-up potential. Also, the treatment group of same-sex couples had similar outcomes to the treatment group of opposite-sex couples, suggesting that the program was equally as effective. In addition, same-sex couples rated their experience as positive, and reported similar levels of satisfaction as different-sex couples.

Together, these studies have some noteworthy implications:

  • Effectiveness: Overall, these studies show that CRE can be effective in helping same-sex couples by improving mental health, relationship processes, and relationship outcomes. These positive effects suggest that CRE can help with areas of vulnerability specific to same-sex couples.
  • High Satisfaction: Multiple studies found high levels of satisfaction with the CRE programs. This suggests that the changes made to programs not only lead to positive outcomes but lead to same-sex couples feeling happy with the content and their experience. CRE programs will be most effective when couples enjoy them and are willing to keep coming.
  • Curriculum Adjustment. Adjusting curriculum to be more relevant for same-sex couples does not decrease effectiveness in helping relationship processes. Changes were made to better suit the needs of same-sex couples, but these did not detract from the content that led to improvements in relationships.
  • Unadjusted Curriculum: Moreover, findings suggest that CRE programs developed for heterosexual couples can have small positive impacts on relationship and individual outcomes for same-sex couples. Though adding specialized information and removing less relevant information can help same-sex couples in their CRE experience, CRE programs not tailored to their needs can also be beneficial. This is important because same-sex couples do attend CRE programs developed for heterosexual couples.
  • Mechanisms of Change. It could be useful to further research the mechanisms leading to relationship change. It would make sense that some mechanisms of change are the same between same-sex couples and different-sex couples, such as communication and dyadic coping. However, there may be additional mechanisms of change specific to same-sex couples, such as changes in identity affirmation and internalized homophobia, that are leading to positive relationship outcomes. Understanding these mechanisms can help us to target these pathways and more effectively help same-sex couples.

Of course, the research in this area is still very young. More research with larger and diverse samples and more rigorous study designs are needed to establish the effectiveness of CRE for same-sex couples and guide further program development.

In addition to positive, early findings, these studies mentioned specific things to pay attention to when creating or adapting programs for same -ex couples. Additional scholarship,[6] including case studies, qualitative studies, and conceptual articles also provided relevant considerations for best practices. Suggestions from this set of articles include the following:

  • Use more inclusive content. CRE programs for heterosexual couples almost exclusively depict opposite-sex couples in pictures, stories, and examples. Developing CRE programs or adjusting programs to be more inclusive for same-sex couples should include removing heterosexual bias and changing content to have examples of same-sex couples. This can make content more relevant and can help couples to feel more comfortable.
  • Remove irrelevant content. Some things discussed in CRE programs for heterosexual couples are not applicable in same-sex relationships. For example, content about gender-role behaviors or gender differences in communication is not going to benefit same-sex couples. Removing or adapting content to focus on the needs of same-sex couples will be more effective.
  • Cater to unique needs. In addition to removing irrelevant content, it is important to add new information. Same-sex couples face some different relationship problems than different-sex couples. Same-sex couples could use education related to dealing with discrimination, relationship disclosure, consensual non-monogamy, finding social support, relationship roles, family planning, parenting, intimacy, and internalized homophobia. Some of this content is specific to same-sex couples (such as content about discrimination and internalized homophobia) and some may be included in CRE for heterosexual couples but will be somewhat different for same-sex couples (such as family planning and relationship roles).
  • Address diversity issues. Participants appreciated inclusion of same-sex couples in program material, but wanted to see more diversity in age, race, etc. In addition, participants expressed a desire to discuss the intersectionality of multiple minority statuses and how having multiple minority identities can impact them.
  • Have group leaders who are similar to participants. Same-sex participants, especially women, expressed more comfort with leaders of the same gender and sexual orientation. Participants may be more comfortable with group leaders who are more like them and have personal experience with the things that participants are facing in their relationships.
  • Build cultural competence in group leaders. Working with same-sex couples requires individuals to learn about factors impacting same-sex couples and to address their own personal biases. Most group leaders have not been trained to work with same-sex couples and have not had much, if any, experience with this population. Being an effective teacher will require providers to be knowledgeable about relevant issues including the effects of discrimination and differences in relationship dynamics and problems. Educators also need to recognize and address their own biases so they can be empathetic and effective teachers.
  • Make it clear that same-sex couples are welcome. When offering CRE programs for same-sex and opposite-sex couples, make it clear that same-sex couples are welcome. This can be done by including pictures of same-sex and different-sex couples in advertising and explicitly stating that all relationship types are welcome. On the other hand, if CRE programs are specifically targeting heterosexual couples, then program leaders should make that clear from the outset so that any same-sex couples can decide whether they want to participate in the program.

 

Endnotes:

[1] Pepping, C. A., Halford, W. K., Cronin, T. J., & Lyons, A. (2020). Couple relationship education for same-sex couples: A preliminary evaluation of rainbow CoupleCARE. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapyhttps://doi.org/10.1080/15332691.2020.1746458

[2] Buzzella, B. A., Whitton, S. W., & Tompson, M. C. (2012). A preliminary evaluation of a relationship education program for male same-sex couples. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice1(4), 306–322. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0030380

[3] Whitton, S. W., Scott, S. B., Dyar, C., Weitbrecht, E. M., Hutsell, D. W., & Kuryluk, A. D. (2017). Piloting relationship education for female same-sex couples: Results of a small randomized waitlist-control trial. Journal of Family Psychology, 31(7), 878–888. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000337

[4] Whitton, S. W., Weitbrecht, E. M., Kuryluk, A. D., & Hutsell, D. W. (2016). A randomized waitlist-controlled trial of culturally sensitive relationship education for male same-sex couples. Journal of Family Psychology30(6), 763–768. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000199

[5] Hatch, S. G., Rothman, K., Roddy, M. K., Dominguez, R. M., Le, Y., & Doss, B. D. (2020). Heteronormative relationship education for same‐gender couples. Family Processhttps://doi.org/10.1111/famp.12548

[6] Pepping, C. A., & Halford, W. K. (2014). Relationship education and therapy for same‐sex couples. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy35(4), 431–444. https://doi.org/10.1002/anzf.1075; Scott, S. B., & Rhoades, G. K. (2014). Relationship education for lesbian couples: Perceived barriers and content considerations. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 13(4), 339–364. https://doi.org/10.1080/15332691.2014.930704; Scott, S. B., Whitton, S. W., & Buzzella, B. A. (2019). Providing relationship interventions to same-sex couples: Clinical considerations, program adaptations, and continuing education. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 26(2), 270–284. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cbpra.2018.03.004; Skogrand, L., Mendez, E., & Higginbotham, B. (2013). Stepfamily education: Case study of two lesbian couples. Marriage & Family Review49(6), 504–519. https://doi.org/10.1080/01494929.2013.772932; Whitton, S. W., Scott, S. B., & Weitbrecht, E. M. (2018). Participant perceptions of relationship education programs adapted for same-sex couples. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy17(3), 181–208. https://doi.org/10.1080/15332691.2017.1372835