Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Study: Legal status good for relationships


Robert-Jay Green, Ph.D. Photo: Courtesy Rockway Institute
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Same-sex relationships sanctioned by the state last longer than relationships that are not state-sanctioned, according to a recent study.

The study, which appeared in the journal Developmental Psychology in January, compared same-sex couples in civil unions to married heterosexual couples in Vermont. Vermont was the first place in North America to formally recognize same-sex relationships with civil unions in 2000. Vermont's civil unions also offered researchers their first opportunity to gauge the impact of legal status on same-sex relationships.

The study looked at 65 male and 138 female couples who entered into civil unions during the first year they were available. They were compared to 23 male and 61 female couples not in civil unions and 55 heterosexual married couples who were related to the same-sex couples in civil unions.

The study revealed that 3.8 percent of same-sex relationships and 2.7 percent of heterosexual relationships ended in Vermont since 2002. The difference between the failure rates of these relationships is statistically insignificant, according to study authors.  

In contrast, the relationships of same-sex couples who weren't in civil unions ended 9.3 percent of the time.

"The main importance of the study is that same-sex couples that could get a legal status tend to last longer than [other] same-sex relationships," Robert-Jay Green, Ph.D., executive director of the Rockway Institute in San Francisco, said last week.

The Vermont numbers have national significance, explained Esther Rothblum, professor of women's studies at San Diego State University and co-author of the study. Same-sex couples came to Vermont from across the country to have civil union ceremonies, Rothblum said.

"Only 20 percent of the study participants were from Vermont," Rothblum said, adding that they followed couples in civil unions all over the country.

Follow-up studies in Massachusetts after that state legalized marriage for same-sex couples indicate similar findings in terms of relationship longevity, Rothblum said, adding that she expects studies of married couples in California will yield similar results.

Same-sex couples also reported a higher rate of satisfaction with their relationship and less conflict with their partner as compared to heterosexual couples, the study notes.

"If men are from Mars and women are from Venus then it is actually very remarkable that heterosexual relationships ever work," Rothblum said.

Members of same-sex couples, often socialized to behave in similar ways, "come from the same culture," Rothblum explained.

Communication and conflict resolution, two key factors in satisfied relationships, are easier for same-sex couples because of these similarities.

"The media used to focus, 20, 30 years ago, on homosexual couples as pathological," Rothblum said.

"It's amazing to see that same-sex couples are actually doing better than heterosexual couples," Rothblum said, noting that many institutional forces, from some churches to the federal government, do not support or recognize same-sex relationships.

"To be in a same-sex relationship, given so little support, you really have to have a high functioning relationship to last," Green said.

"They are going to be the best functioning couples in American society," Green added.

Green and the Rockway Institute are currently comparing same-sex couples married in California and Massachusetts to those who can register as domestic partners in Oregon and Washington. Five thousand couples are enrolled in the study, which will last 10 years, Green said. He expects results from the first year of study to be available in the next nine months.

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