Will Gay Marriages Last as Long as Straight Ones?

Clients (and reporters) often ask me whether I predict that the gay divorce rate will be higher or lower than the straight divorce rate – which most folks believe is about 50%. My answer – a typical lawyer answer, you may say – is yes and no. Here is why there is no clear answer to this fascinating question.
The Straight Divorce Rate
First, it is not so clear how many straight marriages end in divorce – and when. Heterosexual marriage is transportable across state lines, and not every state reports the total number of marriages and divorces each year. Many folks come to this country already married elsewhere, and no one is collecting those statistics. And, since an increasing number of straight couples are living together without marrying, it is hard to figure out whether these non-marital break-ups should be counted in the statistics on divorce.
That being said, the most reliable study on the long-term fate of a large sample of couples that married in 1974 showed that after 25 years, just under half of them were still together. Of the roughly 50% who were no longer together, about one-fourth of those that ended did so because of the death of one spouse, and about three-fourths ended because of divorce. So, that’s about a 40% divorce rate – but that is only after twenty-five years together. Other statistics show that about one-third of marriages eventually end in divorce, with a lower divorce rate for higher-educated and higher-income spouses and a declining divorce rate over the past few decades. My hunch is that a larger percentage of couples simply aren’t marrying at all, and thus never have to bother with a divorce, and that the lives of higher-class folks are more stable overall, hence a lower percentage of divorces.
Calculating the Same-sex Divorce Rate
Trying to calculate the gay divorce rate is going to be incredibly difficult, if not impossible. First, what constitutes a same-sex marriage? Gay marriage is allowed in six states and six foreign countries; in six other states couples can sign up for “all the rights and duties of marriage” but it is called domestic partnership or civil union – so are those folks considered married or not? How do we count those who marry or register where it’s allowed but live in states that don’t recognize those relationships? And, given how new these formal legal relationships are, and especially in light of the lack of federal recognition of state marriages, the “take-up” rate in the gay and lesbian community has been far less than the percentage of committed straight couples that marry. For those who were together for decades and are just now getting married, what should be counted as their date of marriage to measure the duration of their partnership?
There is also a powerful cultural and social dimension to this inquiry that must be taken into account. The marriage model has been the dominant model for straight couples for centuries – kids talk about their marriage plans even before puberty, and the entire social fabric of families, commerce, and religion pushes straight couples to consider marriage as the measure of relationship perfection. It’s an odd dynamic – especially as it turns out that unmarried couples in Sweden tend to stay together longer on average than married couples in this country, but still, the popular perception is that marriage guarantees long-term stability.
By contrast, many in the gay community, and yes, even in the lesbian community, do not frame their relationship in marriage terms. Relationships are more fluid, less likely to be monogamous, don’t necessarily involve cohabitation, and certainly are not always structured as a legal partnership. Those who don’t raise kids or own homes aren’t forced to elect a legal framework for their relationship, and those who are alienated from their parents and extended family don’t face the social pressure to “make it legal.” Recent studies show that as few as 10% of gay men are in a “legal” partnership, and even though the take-up rate is higher for lesbians, it is still only around one-third. Roughly half of the “unmarried” lesbians and gay men are, nonetheless, living in relationships, but for various reasons they choose to keep them informal – even in states like Massachusetts or California where marriage or domestic partnership is an option.
Then, there is the reporting problems at the “back end” of our relationships. There is a long history of neglect of our communities in the funding of statistical studies, and the federal government isn’t about to launch an effort to study the success and failure rates of our marriages. The inter-state complexities and the wider variety of social arrangements will make studying our relationships far more complicated, and finding the couples (especially in non-recognition states) will be next to impossible. And, since sexual orientation isn’t usually tracked even in states that have legalized same-sex marriage, a researcher would have to look at individual licenses to sort between straight and gay marriages – and for some with gender-neutral names further inquiry would be needed.
Bottom line, we don’t know how many gay “marriages” currently end in “divorce,” and chances are we won’t know for decades whether our legal relationships last shorter or longer than the straight ones.
So Why Is It Likely That Same-Sex Marriages Won’t Last So Long?
Despite the paucity of statistical data, now and well into the future, it is nonetheless reasonably prudent to predict that same-sex marriages will be shorter lived than straight ones, for a variety of statistical, sociological and legal reasons, summarized as follows:
1. Same-sex couples are far less likely to raise children together, for obvious biological reasons and because of lingering consequences of a socialization that discourages lesbians and gay men from parenting, and it is well established that having children leads couples to get married and stay married more often.
2. As a result of a long history of discrimination, lesbians and gay men tend to have lower education outcomes and lower incomes (despite the myth of the rich homosexual) and thus are less likely to find themselves in situations where marriage is appropriate – and thus they are less likely to marry in the first place.
3. The lack of social pressure and the lack of extended family and community support makes it far easier for same-sex couples to break up – and the lack of legal structuring makes it far easier for those unmarried same-sex couples to part ways. And, for similar reasons, even if the life-time rate of divorce turns out to be the same, chances are our marriages will tend to end after five or ten years, rather than twenty-five years or longer, which makes a very big difference in our lives, both practically and emotionally.
4. The “culture” of marriage influences the actions of straight couples in many ways – from the selection of partners to the public nature of their marriages to the broader family support for the couple while they are married. Conversely, the absence of this social and cultural framework is bound to make a difference in who gay and lesbian folks pick as partners, how they think about and organize their relationships, and how they approach their relationship problems in the long term. Thus, even those who get married in the formal legal sense are less likely to stay married in the long term.
5. The legal and political volatility has led to some flawed decision-making, for understandable reasons. Straight folks have the luxury of a constant legal environment, with marriages recognized nationally and the law staying roughly the same from year to year. By contrast, we have been whipsawed between court rulings, electoral defeats, and uncertainties about the validity of our relationships, and not surprisingly many same-sex couples have married, or not married, at the wrong time and in the wrong place, leading to a higher instability in those relationships.
6. Touchy as it is to admit, even though there are understandable reasons having to do with a history of discrimination and family mistreatment, my perception is that there has been a higher frequency of emotional instability, alcohol and chemical dependency, and relationship conflicts in our community. It will take a generation or so of true social acceptance of same-sex relationships (especially for younger gay folks, where these attitudes are formed) before these lingering impacts of homophobia will be eradicated, and so it is likely that our relationships will continue to be more turbulent for a few more decades to come.
7. An openness to relationships not working out (and a relative absence of the shame and disfavoring of divorce) may well lead to a healthier willingness to part ways when things are not working out – and to me, when no kids are involved this is not necessarily a bad thing.
And in the end….…..
Hard as it is to study, what really counts for all relationships, gay or straight, is relationship satisfaction, not marriage duration. If unhappy gay marriages end earlier than their straight counterparts, that is not necessary a bad thing; what is more important is to find ways to support our relationships and families regardless of sexual orientation.

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