The Williams Institute, a prestigious gay-legal think tank located at the University of California Los Angeles, has just released some fascinating statistics. In a comprehensive study, researchers Lee Badgett and Jody Herman surveyed the number of same-sex couples that married or state-registered in civil unions or domestic partnerships. They also looked at the gender and age of those who did so. And most interestingly to me, they also looked at the number of couples that are formally ending their relationships, in comparison to the divorce rate for straight couples. The study can be found on Williams Institute website.
Here is a summary of what these researchers concluded:
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 close to 50%, 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. 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 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. 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, the divorce rate is lower for same-sex couples than straight couples. It would be wonderful to proclaim that this shows that gay folks are more committed to their marriages than straight folks -- and given the recent rash of near instantaneous divorces (think Kardashian) this wouldn't seem that crazy. However, I suspect that 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 in my experience as a lawyer working with same-sex couples, 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!
Despite the uncertainties about statistics and the limited data available, the trends uncovered by this report tell us a lot about the new world of same-sex marriage. The Williams Institute should be commended for their excellent work in documenting these fascinating social trends. Regardless of one's political position on the right of same-sex couples to legally marry, watching these sociological developments is bound to be enlightening for everyone.