Michael and I had been together 7 1⁄2 years when I moved out in late 2006. We met at a bar just after Christmas 1998; I had seen Shakespeare in Love with a couple of friends, and I was feeling amorous, looking for Joseph Fiennes. Michael hit on one of my friends first, but the two didn't click, so Michael settled for me.
That was one of our most reliable stories to tell friends over dinner. It never ceased to get the table laughing, Michael and me most of all, because it was preposterous to think we wouldn't have ended up together. We were so happy, our love unshakable.
I went home with Michael the night we met, and figuratively speaking, I didn't leave again for those 7 1⁄2 years. The breakup sucked, the more so because it was no one's fault. Our relationship had begun to suffer the inanition of many marriages at seven years. (The seven-year itch isn't a myth; the U.S. Census Bureau says the median duration of first marriages that end in divorce is 7.9 years.) Michael and I loved each other, but slowly--almost imperceptibly at first--we began to realize we were no longer in love. We were intimate but no longer passionate; we had cats but no kids.
Things drifted for a while. There was some icky couples counseling ("Try a blindfold") and therapeutic spending on vacations, clothes, furniture. We were lost. The night Michael wouldn't stay up to watch The Office finale with me, I knew I had to move out. Yes, he was tired, but if he couldn't give me the length of a sitcom--Jim and Pam are going to kiss!--then we were really done.
What followed for me, in no meaningful order, was intense exercise and weight loss; fugue states punctuated by light psychotherapy, heavy drinking and moderate drug use; really good sex; Italian classes (where I learned to pronounce il mio divorzio perfectly); and marathons of cooking. I had always enjoyed the kitchen, but now I would make pumpkin ravioli from scratch on Thursday and cook a black bass in parchment on Friday and bake an olive-oil cake on Saturday. The fridge was stuffed; my friends were ecstatic and full. But in the mornings, alone before dawn, a jolt of terror: What had I done?
Finally I started reading the academic research on relationships, which is abundant and, surprisingly, often rigorous. I wondered whether Michael and I could have done more to save our union. What impact had our homosexuality had on the longevity, arc and dissolution of our relationship? Had we given up on each other because we were men or because we were gay? Or neither? Friends offered clichés: Some people just aren't meant for each other. But our straight friends usually stayed married. Why not us?
When I was 13, I secretly read my parents' old copy of Dr. David Reuben's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, first published in 1969. Standing nervously at the bookshelf, I was poised to replace the volume quickly if I heard footsteps. The chapter on homosexuality explained, "The homosexual must constantly search for the one man, the one penis, the one experience, that will satisfy him. He is the sexual Diogenes, always looking for the penis that pleases. That is the reason he must change partners endlessly. [In gay marriages] the principals never stop cruising. They may set up housekeeping together, but the parade of penises usually continue [sic] unabated ... Mercifully for both of them, the life expectancy of their relationship together is brief." My face went hot with embarrassment.
I know now that the book was blithe and stupid, but I think many people, gay and straight, assume gay men are worse at maintaining relationships than straight people are. I needed experts, answers. I was also curious if I should be so upset about my breakup. As a society, we treat single people over 30 with condescension or pity, but maybe the problem was that I had hurtled into a serious relationship too young. I know that in my 20s I had wanted to impress my family and my heterosexual friends with my stability. Maybe I should have waited.
Research on gay relationships is young. The first study to observe how gays and lesbians interact with their partners during conversations (monitoring facial expressions, vocal tones, emotional displays and physical reactions like changes in heart rate) wasn't published until 2003, even though such studies have long been a staple of hetero-couple research. John Gottman, a renowned couples therapist who was then at the University of Washington, and Robert Levenson, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, led a team that evaluated 40 same-sex couples and 40 straight married couples. The psychologists concluded that gays and lesbians are nicer than straight people during arguments with partners: they are significantly less belligerent, less domineering and less fearful. Gays and lesbians also use humor more often when arguing (and lesbians use even more humor than gays, which I hereby dub "the Ellen DeGeneres effect"). The authors concluded that "heterosexual relationships may have a great deal to learn from homosexual relationships."
But Gottman and Levenson also found that when gay men initiate difficult discussions with their partners, the partners are worse than straight or lesbian couples at "repairing"--essentially, making up. Gottman and Levenson suggest that couples therapists should thus focus on helping gay men learn to repair.
The therapist Michael and I hired did not encourage us to repair. She didn't have to. Our relationship had become so etiolated and dull that we didn't even have proper fights. We carried an aura of passivity, and the therapist wanted to see passion. She was smart to ask for it. Gottman, Levenson and their colleagues found that gays and lesbians who exhibit more tension during disagreements are more satisfied with their relationships than those who remain unruffled. For straight people, higher heart rates during squabbles were associated with lower relationship satisfaction. For gays and lesbians, it was just the opposite. Gays conduct their relationships as though they are acting out some cheesy pop song: You have to make my heart beat faster for me to love you. For gays, it is apathy that murders relationships, not tension. Straight people more often prefer a lento placidity.