New research finds that women take the role as advocates for their partner’s health in heterosexual marriages.
For gay and lesbian couples, however, they are more likely to mutually influence each other’s health habits.
Sociologists Drs. Corinne Reczek and Debra Umberson followed 20 long-term heterosexual marriages as well as 15 long-term gay and 15 long-term lesbian partnerships in the United States.
Their findings supported previous research that discovered in heterosexual marriages, women put more effort into encouraging good health habits for their spouses.
In traditional heterosexual marriages, sociologists theorize that from early childhood, the socialization of women into caretaker roles has led to health benefits for husbands.
Researchers say this newest study is among the first of its kind to explore how gay and lesbian couples affect each other’s health habits.
The researchers examined what they called “health work” — defined as any activity or dialogue concerned with enhancing another’s health. In the study, 100 in-depth interviews were conducted with couples involved in 50 long-term relationships — couples who were involved for at least eight years or longer.
The study found that at least one partner in more than three-quarters of the heterosexual, gay and lesbian couples did some form of health work as a result of two reasons: the other partner had bad health habits, or one partner was considered the “health expert.”
Nearly half of the respondents — heterosexual, gay or lesbian — blamed a partner’s unhealthy habits for the other partner’s attempts at intervention.
Among heterosexual couples, men were typically identified as needing the prodding toward healthier lifestyles.
For couples identifying a “health expert,” the researchers say that straight women were almost exclusively identified, while gay and lesbian couples identified one partner as the health expert, regardless of gender.
A dichotomy was discovered in the marital groups as couples “mutually reinforcing” health behaviors were more prominent in gay (80 percent) and lesbian (86 percent) couples versus straight couples (10 percent).
Researchers believe the role variance occurs because of cultural underpinnings that influence the environment in which gay and lesbian couples live, including “a heteronormative and homophobic culture at large, and a non-institutionalized nonheterosexual union.”
“This structure results in a unique relational context for cooperative, more egalitarian health work processes to emerge,” write the authors.
The authors state that the findings suggest that gendered relational context of an intimate partnership shapes the dynamics and explanations for health behavior work.
Source: University of Cincinnati