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How are same-sex and traditional marriage different?

In the wake of the Supreme Court rulings on the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8, some same-sex marriage advocates are concluding that it is "now a safe time" to talk about the "difference between gay marriage as pitched and as practiced."

In a recent essay subtitled "The Truth About Gay Marriage," Steven Thrasher explains: "In the fight for marriage rights, gay activists have (smartly) put forward couples who embody a familiar form of unity" so that "straight people ... see a life that mirrors their own." This strategy, he writes, has been "a calculated decision to highlight the similarities, not the differences, ... on the road to marriage equality." And it "appears to have been effective politics in changing hearts and minds." (Thrasher's opinion is no outlier; the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association named him their Journalist of the Year 2012.)

Until now, the differences between same-sex and heterosexual relationships have received little public attention. These differences, however, challenge the assumption that "marriage equality" simply means expanding marriage as we now know it to same-sex couples. Specifically, available research reveals that same-sex relationships, on average, depart from the marital norms of prevalence, monogamy and permanence.

Prevalence: Although marriage rates in general are declining, marriage is still the most prevalent heterosexual relationship. Even in those jurisdictions that allow same-sex marriage, however, gays and lesbians are much less likely to marry. For example, in Scandinavia and Canada, where gay marriage is already legal, rates of marriage are much lower than among heterosexuals — 20 percent of lesbians and 5 percent of gay men compared to 50 percent of heterosexuals.

Monogamy: The Gay Couples Study out of San Francisco State University, which followed more than 500 gay couples for a period of years, recently found that half of gay male couples reported having an "open" agreement to engage in infidelities with their partner's knowledge. Similar findings were reported for civil unions in Vermont and in a widely respected study in 2004. A new word is even being used to describe these arrangements — "monogamish."

Permanence: Though decades of high divorce rates have taken their toll on marriage's permanence, same-sex couples, especially lesbian couples, are still significantly more likely to break up than traditional heterosexual ones. Studies of registered partnerships in Scandinavia show male couples breaking up at twice the rate of heterosexual marriages, and lesbian couples breaking up at a rate that is even 77 percent higher than that of gay male couples. That finding is repeated in multiple studies, including in Great Britain where after four years, 88 percent of married opposite sex couples remained together, 67 percent of opposite-sex cohabiting couples and only 37 percent of same-sex cohabiters.

To be very clear, the above-cited research does not — in any way — suggest that the departure among same-sex couples from the norms of prevalence, monogamy and permanence are attributable to an individual's sexual orientation. And the suggestion that it is evidence of any inherent characteristic among gay and lesbian individuals is an affront to the dignity and respect owed to everyone. Thrasher notes that gay-rights groups are reticent to discuss, for example, infidelity among gay men "out of fear that anti-gay activities will bludgeon them with a charge of sexual promiscuity, as a reason to deny them equal rights."

Undoubtedly, many gays and lesbians yearn to experience a lifelong, committed marriage that resembles traditional norms. Some have suggested that it is, in reality, decades of discrimination that have fostered same-sex relationships that do not follow these norms. Among others, Nathaniel Frank at Slate hopes that "legal gay marriage might provide the cultural and legal encouragement for monogamy that the gay community has been missing."

But many others want the reverse — that marriage be changed to adopt the norms among same-sex relationships. Thrasher argues that open, non-monogamous arrangements "can be built right into the institution of marriage."

Dan Savage, the creator of the widely acclaimed "It Gets Better" project, argues with aplomb, "Men were never expected to be monogamous." Author Masha Gessen admits candidly, "we lie that the institution of marriage is not going to change." Hannah Rosin, senior editor at the Atlantic, hopes that non-monogamy "may infect the straight world." And even Frank allows "that the challenges that gay life has leveled at our culture's stodgy and outdated norms can be healthy and positive for everyone."

What is rarely discussed is the possibility that the norms of prevalence, monogamy and permanence, in fact, arise out of the complementarity and mutual dependence of the genders. Indeed, complementarity might explain why, for example, man-woman relationships appear to have higher rates of monogamy than man-man relationships, and higher rates of permanence than woman-woman relationships.

But what does complementarity mean for someone attracted to the same gender? That is an agonizingly difficult question with significant religious, social and moral implications. Though its answer requires great compassion, it should not keep us from having an open discussion about the differences between same-sex relationships and married men and women.

If same-sex relationships will, as some hope and others fear, change marriage, then we should be more honest about what that means for marriage. We owe that especially to children — whose hearts rely so much on marriage.

Jenet Jacob Erickson teaches in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. Her opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU. Michael Erickson is an attorney in Salt Lake City, Utah.