New Study By Williams Institute on Same-Sex Couples

The Williams Institute is a high-level legal think tank focused on LGBT issues, located at the University of California Los Angeles law school. For the past ten years they have produced some fantastic scholarship,looking at the economic and legal lives of our community. Two of their top researchers, Lee Badgett and Jody Herman, have just published a fascinating report on the numbers and characteristics of same-sex couples that state-register or legally marry. They surveyed the numbers of couples that state-registered as domestic partners (in the eight states that offer marriage-equivalent registration) or have legally married in the six states and the District of Columbia which allow lesbian and gay couples to marry. They also the gender and the age of those who married or registered.

The study also examines the rate of divorce for same-sex couples ,a topic that many of us find especially fascinating. Most interestingly, they also looked at the numbers of couples that are formally ending their relationships, in comparison to the divorce rates for straight couples. The full text of the study can be found at the website of the Williams Institute:

It is worth reading the entire 40 page study, with all their statistics, but here is a thumbnail summary of what these researchers concluded:

1. Approximately 140,000 same-sex couples have either state-registered or married. In some instances states initially allowed only civil union or domestic partnership and offer marriage (such as Connecticut), whereas other jurisdictions only have offered marriage (Massachusetts). They then compared those figures with the reported numbers of same-sex couples (based upon Census data) and concluded that about one-fifth of the acknowledged same-sex couples are in a legally recognized relationship.

2. They compared the number of reported divorces in each jurisdiction per year, and it appears that about 1% of the total number of married or state-registered same-sex couples get divorced each year. By comparison, when compared to the total number of married couples in each state, about 2% of the married straight couples. These statistics are sometimes confusing, since most folks think that half of the marriages end in divorce. But that is over a 25 year time period — only about 1% or 2% of the married couples get divorced in any particular year!

3. Same-sex couples seem more likely to legally formalize their relationship when marriage is an option, as opposed to a marriage-equivalent domestic partnership or civil union registration. This is true when one looks at states that “upgraded” their options to include marriage, as well as comparing marriage states to those which only offer domestic partnership or marriage.

4. Nearly two-thirds of registered or married same-sex couples are lesbians, and only about a third are gay men.

5. A smaller percentage of cohabiting same-sex couples register or marry in comparison to cohabiting straight couples, but if current trends continue the marriage/registration rates will be similar in about ten years.

What do these statistics tells us about what is happening with gay marriage and divorce?

First, the better recognized and more respected institution of marriage is much more attractive to same-sex couples than a legally equivalent registration, such as civil union or domestic partners. This finding is consistent with other sociological studies that have shown that same-sex couples are more interested in the social symbolism and community acceptance that is bestowed by marriage, as opposed to the “dry” technical benefits of a domestic partnership or civil union.

In other words, getting married is more about the emotional symbolism and the societal acceptance, than about a particular state-issued benefit. This should not surprise us — increasingly, gay and lesbian folks seem to be not all that different than straight couples when it comes to love and romance. We lawyers tend to see marriage rights in terms of the legal benefits it confers, but that is not what motivates most couples to get hitched.

Second, marriage is more appealing to women than to men. There are some demographic reasons for this pattern – women are more likely to be raising children, they are more likely to have one partner not employed (and thus needing health benefits), and they tend to have lower incomes than their male counterparts and thus concerned about the legal benefits of marriage. But it is also about our culture: despite the feminist arguments to the contrary, women tend to be more marriage-focused, be they straight or lesbian, and remember, lesbian women are still women. Interestingly, some studies have shown that committed lesbian relationships don’t last longer than gay men’s relationships. It will be fascinating to see whether the married lesbians will stick together longer than the unmarried ones.

Third, what does the lower divorce rate for same-sex couples really mean? My hunch is that it is not the case that gay men or lesbians are more committed to sticking with their marriages than straight folks. Instead, I think that this finding is an indirect result of who is getting married in these early years of same-sex marriage. There’s no statistical data out yet on this particular dynamic, but in my experience as a lawyer working with same-sex couples most of the partners getting married tend to be those who have already been together for some time. They already have weathered the stormy middle years of coupledom, and they are consciously committed to being a family. For that reason we should not be surprised that they are not rushing to get divorced so quickly. Of course, there are a fair number of such couples whose relationships don’t last, but on the whole it’s a rather select group. Think about it – the couples with shakier relationships are not likely to travel across state lines to get married – and there certainly aren’t any “shotgun” marriages in the gay community!

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