It was eight years ago that same-sex marriages became legally recognized in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts after the landmark case of Goodridge v. Department of Public Health.  At that time Massachusetts became the only state in the nation to legally recognize gay and lesbian marriages.

 

Even before the Commonwealth began honoring same-sex marriages, doom and gloom experts predicted a meltdown of family values on the state; that divorce rates would not only skyrocket but Massachusetts would become a cautionary tale for the rest of the country.  It was predicted that gay marriage would cause much grief and stress on the courts due to the massive influx of distinctive and peculiar test cases that would be necessary to create case law to handle same-sex divorce.

 

Just prior to the recognition of same-ex marriage, the Commonwealth boasted the lowest divorce rate in the country, approximately 2.2 divorces per 1000 people in the state.  The year after same-sex marriage was recognized that figure… stayed absolutely constant at 2.2.  In 2005 the number actually dropped to 2.1.  By 2008 the rate of divorce in Massachusetts had dropped to below 2 divorces per 1000 people; the lowest rate of divorce since right before America’s intervention in World War II.

 

Therefore, the rates of divorce did not go up at all, and in fact, divorce rates went down after same-sex marriage was recognized in Massachusetts.   It would be cavalier to say that same-sex marriage actually decreases the likelihood of divorce, though.  Almost assuredly the decline in divorce in Massachusetts (and throughout the entire country), at least in the short term, was due to a poor economy.   As the economy grew worse couples had less and less money to spend on lawyers, finding a place to live and being able to afford two households (one for the Husband and the other for the Wife).  Debt went up, personal savings and wealth went down, savings and retirement funds evaporated.  Maybe the most critical element was that the family’s primary asset- the Marital Home –went down in value and couples could not afford to sell their own home.  Therefore, they stayed together through economic suffering.

 

(Just to close out this topic: contrary to public perception, in the long term the divorce rate has been going down steadily since 1970.  Several factors for this include couples waiting longer before they get married and people at a higher risk for getting divorced not getting married at all and instead cohabiting  or having other less traditional relationships).

 

However, overall, how has same sex marriage impacted the overall divorce rate in the country?

 

First of all, we should identify where same-sex marriage is actually legal in the United States.  As of May  2012, same sex marriage has been legalized in the following eight states: Massachusetts (May 17, 2004), Connecticut (Nov. 12, 2008), Iowa (Apr. 24. 2009), Vermont (Sept. 1, 2009), New Hampshire (Jan. 1, 2010), New York (June 24, 2011), Washington (passed Feb. 14, 2012; effective June 7, 2012), Maryland (passed Mar. 1, 2012; effective Jan. 1, 2013) and the District of Columbia (Mar. 3, 2010). 31 states have constitutional amendments banning gay marriage.

 

How do same-sex couples fair?  Really well, actually.  A recent study made several interesting observations:

 

1. Nearly 150,000 same-sex couples have either married or registered civil unions or domestic partnerships, which constitutes about one-fifth of same-sex couples in the U.S. (or rather, a fifth of those who acknowledged themselves as such in recent United States Census reports).

2. About 1% of the total number of currently-married or registered same-sex couples get divorced each year, in comparison to about 2% of the total number of married straight couples. Note that the percentage of couples that get divorced eventually is about 40%, but only 1% or 2% of them get divorced in any particular year.

3. Couples are more likely to legally formalize their relationship when marriage is an option, as opposed to a marriage-equivalent domestic partnership or civil union registration in states where only those options are allowed.

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 same-sex couples register or marry in comparison to 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, marriage is much more attractive to same-sex couples than a legally equivalent registration as civil union or domestic partners. This finding is consistent with other 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. 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. Lawyers like me 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 that is unemployed (and thus needing health benefits), and they tend to have lower incomes than their male counterparts and thus are concerned about the legal benefits of marriage. However, this may also say something about our culture: despite the feminist arguments to the contrary, women, as a whole, tend to be more marriage-focused, be they straight or lesbian.

 

Women are still women; men are still men.  This is true whether they are lesbian, straight or gay.  Sexuality, it would appear, takes a back-seat to a person’s actual sex.

 

Third, the divorce rate is lower for same-sex couples than straight couples. As I stated above when discussing the divorce rate in Massachusetts since same-sex marriage was recognized in Massachusetts, there is more to this than meets the eye.  Sure, it would be great to say that same-sex couples somehow make marriage more stable, but this is probably not true in and of itself.   More likely, this can be attributed to the types of couples getting married in these early years of same-sex marriage, and not a testament to the stability of lesbian and gay relationships. There’s no statistical data out yet on this particular dynamic, but from experience, the same-sex partners getting married tend to be those who have already been together for some time. They already have weathered the stormy middle years of cohabitation 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. And this just makes sense: the couples with shakier relationships are not likely to travel across state lines to get married.  And as a prominent attorney stated recently, “There certainly aren’t any ‘shotgun’ marriages in the gay community!”

 

Have the courts been overworked by a massive influx of gay related issues related to divorce?  Not noticeably.  Every day people are divorced in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, most of them are straight couples a few gay and/or lesbian couples as well.  So far the courts have been quite capable of handling who gets the stereo or the plasma TV irrespective of whether it belonged in a straight household or a same-sex household.

 

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden declared that they were in favor of same-sex marriage.  While I am sure someone far more clever than I can give a compelling argument as to why same-sex marriages in Massachusetts (or anywhere else for that matter) threatens marriage and will lead to run-away divorce rates in the United States, so far the same-sex divorce revolution has been, for better or worse, much to do about nothing.  People get married and divorced in Massachusetts (and other states) with and without fanfare.  Doom and gloom have been avoided and people of any sexuality are free to marry who they please and are protected by the law should that marriage fail.   It’s a striking testament to the institution of marriage and the process of divorce that both are strong enough to putter along regardless of what some people believe will doom them both.  In the end gay men and lesbian women are no more likely to threaten marriage or increase divorce than your average straight couple.  Close up- whether at the altar or in the court room, gay, straight or lesbian -all look the same in the eyes of the law.

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