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:
- When one spouse goes to church more often that the other, it bodes ill for the marriage’s survival.
- Ethnic and religious intermarriage in the Netherlands increases the odds of divorce.
- Difference between spouses in age or education increases the odds of divorce.
- Racial/ethnic intermarried couples are more likely to divorce (although there is debate about whether intermarriage has an independent effect) and recent research finds higher divorce rates among specific ethnicity/gender combinations.
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?