In her cover story for the latest issue of The Atlantic, Liza Mundy considers what heterosexual couples can learn from gay couples in light of the fact that gay marriages are happier on a variety of metrics than straight ones. One potential source of that greater happiness, the article suggests, is that same-sex couples are more thoughtful and creative in their preparations for marriage than straight couples. Straight couples tend to default to stereotypical gender roles in deciding who will take care of the kids, who will work for pay, and so on. For gay couples, on the other hand, everything is up for negotiation. The result isn't a clean 50-50 split on each chore. Rather, Mundy writes, "One partner might do the same chore regularly, but because there was no default assignment based on gender, such patterns evolved organically, based on preferences and talents."
One person who's been able to witness first-hand the differences in how gay and straight couples negotiate household tasks and other important issues is the Very Reverend Gary Hall, dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Dean Hall performs marriages for straight couples and gay couples alike, and counsels these couples in the months before their wedding day. As part of these premarital meetings, Dean Hall gives couples a list of topics to discuss before they make a lifelong commitment to one another. Mundy writes:
[He] has found that heterosexual couples persist in approaching these topics with stereotypical assumptions. "You start throwing out questions for men and women: 'Who's going to take care of the money?' And the guy says, 'That's me.' And you ask: 'Who's responsible for birth control?' And the guy says, 'That's her department.' " By contrast, he reports, same-sex couples "have thought really hard about how they're going to share the property, the responsibilities, the obligations in a mutual way. They've had to devote much more thought to that than straight couples, because the straight couples pretty much still fall back on old modes."
Dean Hall provided us with a list of the 12 topics he encourages couples to consider before they marry. Some of them come with default gender-role expectations; Dean Hall urges couples, whether gay or straight, to ignore those roles and devise answers that make the most sense for them as people.
1. Affection and Lovemaking
What are your needs in this area? How do they compare with your partner's needs?
2. Careers and Location of Residence
Who is willing to move where for whom? Can you work out a plan--say, this time I move for you, next time you move for me?
3. Relations with others: same and opposite sex
What is your joint toleration for friendships outside the marriage?
4. Division of Household Responsibilities
This is a bigger one than people think. Who does what chores? Are they equitably assigned?
5. Expectations in time of illness, crisis, or being out of sorts
Do you like to be smothered in affection or left alone when you're sick?
6. Time and Relations with relatives and in-laws
When and how often do you get together with in-laws? Every weekend? Major holidays? Where do you spend Christmas and Thanksgiving?
7. Method of Contraception
Whose responsibility is it? What method(s) have you considered or used?
8. Religion and church responsibilities
If you're from differing traditions, how are you going to decide on a faith community?
9. Parenting styles
Consistency is really important. Can you imagine who will be the disciplinarian and who the pushover? If so, can you figure out a way that you won't let kids play you against each other?
10. Money and Finances
Who is in charge of the money? How are financial decisions made? Do both parties know and agree?
11. Play and Recreation
Given the stresses of modern life, have you budgeted adequate time off to be together?
12. Changes, Renewal, Renegotiation of the Contract
Good marriages grow and change as the partners grow and change. How will you adapt your marriage to your growing, changing selves?