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Strengthening Lesbian Relationships: A Pilot Study of Relationship Education for Female Same-Sex Couples

Sarah Whitton, PhD
University of Cincinnati
Award Year: 2013

Initial Abstract

It is well established that stable, satisfying intimate relationships promote the mental health, physical health, and longevity of adults (e.g., Waite & Gallagher, 2000). Unfortunately, lesbian women today face unique challenges to building and maintaining stable relationships, including lack of legal recognition for same-sex relationships, discrimination related to sexual orientation, lack of cultural norms and role models for how to have a successful long-term relationship, and lower levels of community and family support. Consequently, despite typically high levels of relationship satisfaction, intimacy, and compatibility, female same-sex couples breakup more quickly and more often than do heterosexual married couples (Andersson et al., 2006; Kurdek, 2004). This indicates that many lesbian couples could benefit from preventive interventions to promote relationship health and stability. Relationship education represents a growing field of services with demonstrated positive effects on heterosexual relationships (Hawkins et al., 2008), increasingly used as part of widespread efforts to promote the financial, physical, and emotional health of adults and their children. However, existing relationship education programs, designed for heterosexual couples, are generally not appropriate for use with same-sex couples because they are infused with heterosexist bias and do not address the unique challenges faced by same-sex couples (Whitton & Buzzella, 2012). To address this gap in services, we have developed a new relationship education program designed specifically for female same-sex couples. This program, designed to be free of heterosexist bias, includes adaptations of commonly used relationship education content to build core relationship skills (e.g., communication skills training) and newly-developed modules to address the unique challenges lesbian couples may face (e.g., discrimination; challenges to family formation). This proposed project is an initial evaluation of the new program, which will assess its feasibility,
acceptability, and efficacy in improving relationship and individual health outcomes. Specifically, we will conduct a small randomized clinical trial (N = 24 couples) comparing the new program to a 4-week waitlist condition. Program effects on the proposed mechanisms of change (e.g., couple communication and conflict resolution), relationship outcomes (e.g., relationship satisfaction and stability), and individual health outcomes (e.g., depressive and anxiety symptoms, physical health) will be evaluated in comparison to the waitlist control. In addition, we will assess maintenance of treatment gains over a 3 month follow-up period. This study represents an important step in the larger landscape of reducing disparities in the quality of relationship services available to LGBT adults. The proposed study is expected to build the foundation for a large, federally funded future trial by providing acceptability and feasibility information, effect size estimates, and data to inform treatment refinements. As such, it represents the first step in a continuum of research expected to improve prevention and relationshipbased services for LGBT adults.


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