The recent legalization of same-sex marriage in New York got me thinking about how the institution of marriage itself could impact same-sex couples. One provocative question that researchers will undoubtedly explore in the coming years is whether the opportunity to marry could potentially undermine what has historically been one of the greatest strengths of gay and lesbian relationships: equality.
Research has shown that levels of equality tend to be higher among same-sex couples compared to heterosexual couples.1 For instance, gay and lesbian romantic partners are more inclined to share power with one another, to divide household chores evenly, and so on.
Part of the reason for this higher level of equality is because same-sex partners have historically been denied the opportunity to obtain legal recognition for their relationships. Let me explain: Legal marriage provides an incentive for partners to adopt specific roles within their relationship, whereby one partner specializes in being the “breadwinner” and the other specializes in household and/or child-rearing tasks. The incentive for specializing is that marriage protects both partners, regardless of their role. For example, if a marriage ends, assets are split evenly and, if one partner is not employed or earns less money, that partner is usually entitled to financial support. Protections are also in place in the unfortunate event that one partner dies.
In most same-sex relationships, however, no such protections exist. Thus, both partners must remain employed and self-sufficient as a means of protecting their own self-interests. If the relationship ends, both partners are on their own and there is no legal obligation to divide assets evenly or to assist a partner who is more financially vulnerable. Likewise, if one partner passes away, the surviving partner may find him- or herself in extremely poor financial shape.
However, the increasing availability of same-sex marriage may change all of this. If gay and lesbian partners are able to specialize in certain roles without the fear that it could one day come back to haunt them, we may actually see same-sex and heterosexual relationships become even more similar than they already are.
Please note that this article is not meant to imply that marriage will ultimately hurt same-sex partners; rather, same-sex couples will likely derive more benefits than anything. The point is simply to suggest that marriage may allow gay and lesbian partners to adopt more specialized roles within their relationships and, as a result, we may see a corresponding drop on some measures of relationship equality as same-sex marriage becomes more widespread.
1Kurdek, L. A. (1998). Relationship outcomes and their predictors: Longitudinal evidence from heterosexual married, gay cohabiting, and lesbian cohabiting couples. Journal of Marriage and Family, 60, 553-568.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Lehmiller's research program focuses on how secrecy and stigmatization impact relationship quality and physical and psychological health. He also conducts research on commitment, sexuality, and safer-sex practices.
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