Is sameness the kiss of marital demise?

Does marriage thrive on the mystery? To hear religious marriage experts tell it (at least on the covers of their books), marriage is a mystery, the solving of which might just mean its demise. So just keep asking yourself, “What am I doing in this marriage?” Historically, the reason so many marriages survived arguably was because divorce wasn’t an option. So the survival of marriage was due to its external environment not its internal dynamics. Now that the padlock has been blown off the door, people need reasons to stay together, if they want to. Is it the mystery that holds them together? In the debate over marriage rights and homogamous (“same-sex”) marriage, one odd issue has been the relative stability of different forms of marriage. I say “odd” because there is no logical connection between relationship stability and civil rights, but it’s all wrapped up in the sideshow over what kind of marriage is “good” for children. It turns out there is a whole right-wing Christian theory about gay and lesbian relationship stability, which I had naively never heard of. This came to my attention recently when Carlos Maza, a marriage rights activist, went undercover at an “It Takes A Family To Raise A Village” conference put on by the National Organization for Marriage. One of his audio recordings reportedly featured Jenet Erickson, a conservative Christian teaching at Brigham Young University. She offered the students at her session this theory (transcribed by me), which she said she got second hand from Brad Wilcox:

I remember talking about this with Brad Wilcox and he said, he was talking about gay marriage being accepted. And I’ll just make this side comment — we do not have enough research to say it is any kind of law, but I want to be thinking about it, keep it in your mind, because there’s something about same-gender relationships also being unstable — they seem to be less stable just inherently. And he would say … when we look at the Scandinavian countries that accepted gay marriage some years ago … after people could get married as same gender couples after that period of time, when they measured how long a lesbian relationship — and you should know those are most likely to marry, are women, right? — how long those relationships last and the average was 18 months [someone whistles]. And so he just commented that there seems to be something — this is the way he would say it — that women don’t want to hang out, they’re not interesting enough, “They’re too much like me!” He would say, women bonding with women — it’s like there’s something about the difference between genders that allows for stability inherently, because there’s enough difference: “I’m going to stay in this to figure you out. It may take an entire lifetime to get into your brain,” right? He had an interesting thought that I thought was a fascinating idea, that there seems to be something inherently unstable about same gender relationships. We’ve known that about gay relationships with men, but it’s also true of lesbian relationships. And why, why is it this heterosexual dynamic, inherently seems to potentially lead to greater stability. He would say, you’ve got to figure this person out.

(I couldn’t find an email address for Erickson to run this by her. But Wilcox, via email, said it was not an accurate representation of his views.) In the recent scandal over Mark Regnerus’s study, this came up as well, due to his argument that children of any parent who ever had a same-sex relationship were worse off as young adults than those of forever-married-bio-parents. In his self-defense piece, apparently forthcoming in the journal Social Science Research, he returns to the issue of relationship stability. Regnerus writes, about a “study of Norwegian and Swedish same-sex marriages” (referring to this one in Demography) that, “The study authors estimate that in Sweden, 30% of female marriages are likely to end in divorce within 6 years of formation, compared with 20% for male marriages and 13% for heterosexual ones.” That sounds pretty high. He omits two important sentences from the same paragraph of the paper, however:

  • “In Norway, 13% of partnerships of men and 21% of female partnerships are likely to end in divorce within six years from partnership registration.” (Selectively not mentioning the lower rates in Norway. I don’t know where Erickson got that 18-months figure.)
  • “These levels are higher than the corresponding 13% of heterosexual marriages that end in divorce within five years in Sweden, but not high when compared with divorce levels in the United States.” (Selectively not putting the divorce rates in context.)

My not-yet-peer-reviewed lifetable estimate of divorce rates in the U.S. puts the 6-year risk at 19%, so I’d say those Swedish homogamous-divorce rates are a little higher, at least for the first six years. (Before death does them part, I reckon 49% of U.S. marriages are headed for divorce. With rates that high, you have to wonder if there is something inherently unstable about heterogamous relationships.) The authors of that Demography article note that lesbian marriages in Scandinavia feature a high degree of similarity between spouses in terms of demographics such as age, nationality, education and income. This is “usually assumed to enhance marital stability.”

However, some aspects of homogamy, especially in terms of economic characteristics, may be related to less-clear power structures in a couple. This situation may be conducive to a high level of dynamism in the relationship, but perhaps not to the kind of inertia that is related to marital stability.

It gets confusing trying to parse the speculation on the role of sameness and difference here. In this interpretation, sameness creates dynamism and undermines stability. On the other hand, differences associated with unequal power structures produce stability and inertia, which is good. For marriage. Is that good? In general, the research on marriage has indeed shown that difference is not good for the odds of not divorcing:

But is gender difference different? Do couples inherently need to be similar on ethnicity, age, education, religion and income but different on gender — if they want the relationship to last?


Filed under In the news, Research reports

16 responses to “Is sameness the kiss of marital demise?

  1. JHW

    I wish someone could give us a comparable number for six-year dissolution risk among formally-recognized same-sex couples in the US. The raw dissolution rate looks somewhat lower than that of different-sex couples. (The percentages given there should probably be altered to account for non-resident unions, however, whose separations would probably not be accompanied by a formal dissolution; I don’t think this much changes the broad picture, except for states like Vermont where residents formed only about a fifth of the unions.)

    Also, the article in Demography was about registered partnerships in Sweden and Norway, not marriages.


  2. Kim

    I can’t speak to homogamous marriages in Sweden, but Regnerus fails to also put into context the vastly different external factors driving Sweden’s heterogamous marriage rates compared to the US. Sweden, as a much more secular society than the US, has a dramatically higher cohabitation rate and much lower external incentives for getting married (for example, individuals receive the same governmental benefits regardless of marriage or family structure).


    • Kim

      *External factors that have nothing to do with legalized homogamous relationships, I should note, since I know that has been a fallacious argument made by some circles on the topic.


  3. Some points:
    1) Why is it valid to compare the US & Swedish divorce rates?
    2) What percentage of early same-sex marriages are of people who had already been living together long term?
    3) The lesbian relationships I’ve known of have all been May-December, with concomitant power inequality and lasted only a few years. (Don’t know any male-male relationships well enough.)
    4) Familiarity breeds contempt.
    5) Children and grandchildren are a valid reason to stay married in non-abuse circumstances.


  4. I’m no expert on any of this but it seems like there are two issues, here, right? There’s the question (1) of the empirical pattern and (2) of the mechanism(s) responsible for the pattern. The conclusion of the Demography paper is that same-sex marriages are, in fact, less stable in Sweden and Norway. But the author explains this pattern as follows:

    “given this group’s lower exposure to normative pressure to maintain lifelong unions. In addition, if expectations about relationship duration are based on past relationship experience and on the experiences of one’s peers, then lesbians and gay men will probably have lower expectations of relationship duration than will heterosexual people, given the less institutionalized nature of same-sex relationship dynamics” (p. 95)

    This is certainly a more sociologically satisfying (albeit ultimately speculative) explanation than “inherent instability.”

    But how should we think about the author’s claim about economic similarity leading to instability?

    As I said, I don’t know much about this, but there’s a bit of a Durkheimian “Division of Labor” angle on this if you take that last comment seriously. Some types of similarity work to sustain social bonds (mechanical solidarity), others less so (organic solidarity). Cultural forms of similarity (e.g., education, religion) might work to enhance bonds by creating shared objectives or conceptions of life. “Functional” forms of similarity (e.g., both earning good wages) might be destabilizing because neither person must rely on the other. Or maybe I’m just reading too much classical theory these days!


    • Parsons made (up) a case for why having both spouses employed would be bad, because they would be evaluated on the same dimensions of status and thus be competitive. ( Well, it might be OK if the wife had only a minor job, which didn’t form a big part of her identity. And fortunately, he was pretty sure that’s the way things were going to stay:

      “One mechanism which can serve to prevent the kind of ‘invidious comparison’ between husband and wife which might be disruptive of family solidarity is a clear separation of the sex roles such as to insure that they do not come into competition with each other. On the whole, this separation exists in our society, and perhaps the above considerations provide part of the explanation of why the feminist movement has had such difficulty in breaking it down.”


      • why the feminist movement has had such difficulty in breaking it down.

        You don’t throw a frog into boiling water, you heat the water slowly so it doesn’t notice the change until it’s too late.


      • Does the fact that Parsons argued it make any argument with this basic structure necessarily, irretrievably wrong? I thought it would be more of an empirical question.

        C’mon, Philip, didn’t you ever see Mr. Mom? Terri Garr and Michael Keaton really had trouble with their marital stability when they came into competition with each other… 😉 Maybe old Talcott was onto something.


      • Well, if I remember my Brines & Joyner (,a division of labor and inequality in pay between husband and wife has “modest” benefits for marital stability, but the opposite is true for cohabs (they stay together longer under equality conditions). So you gotta consider the institutional context.


      • Thanks. That makes perfect sense, actually, since the cultural meanings (among other things) are different between the two statuses. But it also means that Parsons might not have been entirely wrong, at least as far as marriages are concerned. Need some ethnography to get at the meanings and mechanisms involved here.


    • “Division of Labor” might have been a completely valid reason for marriage persistence in the pre-Socialist world.

      (My 3rd great grandfather married 3 times. When his 1st wife was terminally ill, he hired a widow to care for his 1st wife, his children and the house. When wife #1 died, he still needed the widow woman to care for the children and house. Social pressure dictated that she couldn’t live in the house once the wife died, so they married and had even more children. A couple of years after she died, when he was 74 he married a 45 yo widow with a 9 yo son. No word on whether they had any children.)


  5. Dan Carlson

    Reading this I couldn’t help but think about the following passage:

    “A trace of strangeness in this sense easily enters even the most intimate relationships. In the stage of first passion, erotic relations strongly reject any thought of generalization. A love such as this has never existed before; there is nothing to compare either with the person one loves or with our feelings for that person. An estrangement is wont to set in (whether as cause or effect is hard to decide) at the moment when this feeling of uniqueness disappears from the relationship.” George Simmel “The Stranger” (1908)


  6. micah

    Re: Parsons discussion: It seems to me that in cases where both members of a union have successful careers, it makes it much easier to exit the union than in cases where one member was more or less financially dependent on the other. When neither one depends on the other financially, that in a sense raises the bar for other areas of the relationship. Division of labor leads to inter-dependence, after all.


  7. Intuitive appeal notwithstanding, the “Independence hypothesis” has received mixed results in the empirical research.

    Here’s the latest I know of:

    AJS. 2011 May; 116(6): 1982–2018.
    “She Left, He Left: How Employment and Satisfaction Affect Men’s and Women’s Decisions to Leave Marriages.”
    Liana C. Sayer, Paula England, Paul Allison, and Nicole Kangas
    Most past studies examining determinants of divorce have ignored differences between the factors that elevate wives’ and husbands’ initiation of divorce. We use three waves of the National Survey of Families and Households and a latent class model embedded in a competing-risks event history model to assess distinct predictors of wives and husbands leaving marriages. We assess who left using each ex-spouse’s answer to a question that asked who had wanted the breakup more. We find that when men are not employed, either husbands or wives are more likely to leave. When wives report better than average marital satisfaction, their employment affects neither their nor their husbands’ exits. However, when wives report below average marital satisfaction, their employment makes it more likely that they will leave. We compare findings to predictions from two theories: an institutional perspective that sees divorce to result from a violation of gender-specific norms, and exchange/bargaining theory, which posits that resources allow a spouse to leave if exchange and bargaining fail to provide a satisfactory marriage. To amend the theories to better fit the data, we foreground the asymmetric nature of gender change in recent decades, with women changing more than men.


  8. StraightGrandmother

    Good observations Phillip. I noticed that as well, in Regnerus; rebuttal report how he shifted the conversation from his research that didn’t find but one same sex parent couple, he now makes the shift to instability of same sex relationships, which he never even studied.

    When his apples to apples and oranges to oranges statistics do not bear out his hypothesis he moves on and now says, “Well they are more unstable is why I didn’t find any.” Of course the first study everyone who is opposed to Equal Civil Rights for Sexual Minorities reaches for is the by now *infamous* Norway Study. And Phillip you are right to point out that these were not Civil Marriages, they were Civil Unions. In France where more heterosexuals than homosexuals form PACS (Civil Partnerships) they do not stay together as long as Civil Marriages do. I researched the author of the Norway study and found him to be anti-gay, so no wonder he falsely Titles his study as these were Marriages when they were not. I was *not surprised* in Regnerus’ rebuttal report that he went right away to the Norway study, I have corrected this error about the survey subjects not actually being Civilly Married, at least 100 times. I wonder how the Editor of Demography ever let that study get published with that title? How did that happen?

    Rosenfelt didn’t find any differences in children raised by same sex couples, Potter didn’t find any differences, and actually Regnerus didn’t either when you correctly study children of divorce and single parents. The only one who found differences was Sarantakos in 1996 and those children were mercilessly bullied as he states in his report
    Page 4 of .pdf under Sex Identity-

    “In many cases these children have been harassed or ridiculed by their peers for having a homosexual parent, for ‘being queer’ and even labeled as homosexuals themselves.”

    “Teachers have reported that children who went through such experiences have suffered significantly in social and emotional terms, but also in terms of scholastic achievement, and have developed negative attitudes to school and learning. These children found it very difficult to adjust in school, and to join peer groups in general. Children with such experiences were reported to show more interest in the circles of the acquaintances of their parents than in the peers of the school or their neighborhood. ”

    “In certain cases, heterosexual parents advised their children not to associate with children of homosexuals, or gave instructions to the teachers to keep their children as much as possible away from children of homosexual couples. Teachers also reported exceptional cases where a group of ‘concerned parents’ demanded that three children of homosexuals be removed from their school. Others approached the homosexual parents with the same request.”

    Now Regnerus tells us in his rebuttal what the next attempt will be to use Sociology Research for political purposes, and that is to show that same sex couples break up more often, and that hurts children. However the Longitudinal study of he Lesbian mothers shows that although they did break up more (marriage was not legal for them) they co-parented better after dissolution of the mothers relationship. We already know what the next wave of research for evil will be, the Christian Sociologists are going to now study relationship instability of same sex couples. In fact Maggie Gallagher has written about this when writing about the Regnerus study, why he could not find enough research subjects. Hopefully when this next round of research for evil makes the rounds, the Editors will make sure the Title to the research is correct, not like the guy from Norway.

    The most bizarre theory I ever read why lesbian couples break up more is because the women by living together, their menstrual cycles get synched and there is just to much PMSing going on simultaneously. I kid you not that was put out as the reason.

    Since you mention Brad Wilcox you should take a look at this report that shows via Freedom of Information Act documents that Wilcox, as the Director of the Program that funded Regnerus at the Witherspoon Institute in fact was paid to analyze the data with Regnerus so the Funders were in collusion, they were.


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