An exploratory study of same-sex marriages: how legalization has influenced Massachusetts couplesResearch & Action Report Spring/Summer 2006
IN NOVEMBER OF 2003, THE SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT OF MASSACHUSETTS RULED THAT THE EXCLUSION OF SAME-SEX COUPLES FROM THE INSTITUTION OF MARRIAGE WAS DISCORDANT WITH EXISTING CONSTITUTIONAL PRINCIPLES. In 2004, after the ruling went into effect, the Same-sex Marriage Study Group formed at the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW). Faced with the unique opportunity to study how the recent legalization of samesex marriage affected gay and lesbian couples in Massachusetts, the group designed the Exploratory Study of Same-sex Marriage. Through the study, the team sought to explore the diversity of experiences along the lines of gender, race/ethnicity, and parenting status. The study also examined how children in same-sex-parented families perceived and experienced this social change.
"We seized on this historic moment because we knew that this would never come again,” reports Sumru Erkut, WCW senior research scientist and lead investigator of the exploratory study. “Who were the first to marry? Why did they marry? What kind of reactions did they experience? This data could never be captured again and we knew the responses we would get could serve as baseline information for future research.”
The research team, which included a cross section of more than one dozen WCW staff from a variety of disciplines and roles, interviewed 51 same-sex couples who had been in their relationship for at least one year and who had volunteered to participate in the study. Couples were solicited through word-of-mouth, community
postings with over 80 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender organizations, and advertisements in local newspapers. Every attempt was made to recruit a diverse sample with regard to gender, race and ethnicity, socio-economic status, marital status, and parental status.
Researchers obtained quantitative data from participants through the use of a brief questionnaire, while qualitative data were collected through in-depth, semi-structured interviews, which began with individual meetings with each partner, followed by an interview with the couple, and finally an interview with any participating children aged 8 or older. The interviews provided data on the history of the relationship, the impact of the legalization of same-sex marriage, the place of religion and spirituality in same-sex relationships, and children in same-sex families. Members of the group formed sub-groups dedicated to the analysis of the data in each of the aforementioned areas.
The individual and the relationship
On average, the participating married couples reported being together for about 12 years and unmarried couples for about ten years, though there was no significant difference in the length of relationship, and the range in the length of the relationship was quite wide (less than two years and up to 40 years). Both married and unmarried couples reported high levels of being “out”—living publicly as a gay or lesbian individual. Ninetyfour percent of the participants reported being “ out” to their immediate family and 75 percent reported being “out” to neighbors, coworkers, and extended family. Couples rated their satisfaction with their relationship on a scale of 0 (“extremely unhappy”) to 10 (“extremely happy”) and, on average, gave a rating of 9. Both married and unmarried couples reported being quite happy.
"The majority of the couples we interviewed had been together a relatively long time,” reports Michelle Porche, WCW research scientist. “And overall, most of the couples experienced strong support from their communities—from their families, friends, neighbors—in response to their legal marriage. One area that we hadn’t purposely sought to examine, but came through in many of Nearly three quarters of the couples interviewed chose to mark their commitment publicly in some way. Of those couples, 61 percent had previously participated in a commitment ceremony and, when same-sex marriage became legal, also participated in a legal marriage ceremony. the interviews, was the workplace,” she adds.
"This has opened the door to further analysis and research about the importance of a supportive working environment in the lives of same-sex individuals. Having co-workers celebrate their union in the same way that heterosexual couples are honored was an unexpected and affirming surprise for many. Visibility of same-sex marriage provided opportunities for open discussion of these issues that led to enhanced connections with co-workers.” Porche has begun additional research on workplace support of same-sex marriage.
To marry or not
Nearly three quarters of the couples interviewed chose to mark their commitment publicly in some way. Of those couples, 61 percent had previously participated in a commitment ceremony and, when same-sex marriage became legal, also participated in a legal marriage ceremony. Thirty-six percent who chose to marry did not have a prior commitment ceremony. One couple who had had previously participated in a commitment ceremony chose not to get legally married. And slightly more than one quarter of all of the couples interviewed chose not to publicly mark their commitment with a ceremony of any kind.
“Respondents reflected a wide range of views regarding the importance of marriage and in making choices about their own relationships,” states Porche. “The majority of the couples we interviewed had already long-established their commitments to one another. One interesting aspect of the findings was why some couples chose not to marry. The pressure to confirm to societal norms from which many gay and lesbian individuals had long been excluded, the uncertainty of the future legal status of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, and lack of federal recognition—all contributed to the decision making of some of those couples we interviewed who chose not to marry.”
Religious and spiritual perspectives on legalized marriage
The study revealed that religion and spirituality played a prominent role in couples’ decisions to marry or not to marry, either because of participants’ current practices, their upbringings and families of origin, or their reactions to the involvement of organized religion in the political arena of legalized marriage. This influence was seen even among people who didn’t describe themselves as “religious” or “spiritual.” In fact, an important finding from this section of the study was the extent to which religion influenced people’s decisions not to get married, which is perhaps not surprising considering that many faith traditions actively oppose marriage equality. However, according to Anne Noonan, WCW research scientist, “ A focus on the negative aspects of religion with regard to same-sex marriage is accurate only to a point. Participants also shared experiences of acceptance, support, validation, and integration that arose from their participation in faith communities that are supportive of same-sex relationships and marriage.” Almost half of the sample reported some level of involvement in a faith community, and most of those who did described their faith community or faith tradition as being supportive.
Parenthood’s influence on marriage decisions
Fourteen couples in the study reported having children and there were 27 children among the couples with an average child age of 13 years. The majority of the children were biological children of one of the members of the couple and in most cases the other member had adopted the child. The couples with children had been together as partners for an average of 13 years. Many of the couples interviewed articulated numerous advantages for their children as the result of a legal marriage; couples indicated they expected their children would feel a greater sense of belonging, pride, or permanence by having legally married parents and reported marriage as a protective factor for children. Many children voiced strong opinions about the importance of their parents’ rights to marry. However, previous commitment ceremonies and years of growing up in their families seemed to render the marriage ceremony itself less climactic.
"We were surprised to note the difference in perspectives between parents and children about the actual marriage ceremony,” reports Georgia Hall, WCW research scientist. “The ceremony seemed for many couples a milestone, a protective act, or a legitimizing moment while for children something more ordinary. One wonders if the significance of the ceremony for children will change for them over time.”
As an exploratory study, this project offered a tremendous learning opportunity, not only in regard to the data collected about same-sex couples, but also in the creation of the survey tools and the sample selection. One major limitation of the study was the self-selected nature of the participants. Despite purposeful sampling efforts, obtaining a diverse sample of same-sex couples with regard to race and ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status was challenging, resulting in a largely white, middle-class sample—all of whom were Massachusetts residents. As such, the researchers caution that these results should not be generalized to all same-sex relationships. Also, the findings in this study are very much influenced by the timing of the data collection, which took place within one year of the legalization ruling. Whether future same-sex marriages will be similar to or different from those that took place during the first year of legalization is an empirical question in need of further study.
Study conclusions and next steps
Both married and unmarried couples in the sample> were engaged in long-term relationships, expressed high levels of satisfaction in those relationships, and were comfortable being “out” to family and community. They reflected a wide range of views on the importance of marriage in making choices about their own relationships, while at the same time were like-minded in stressing the importance and value of the legalization of same-sex marriage. They reported that the availability of legal marriage provides sanction and greater equality for intimate relationships, whether or not a couple chooses to marry.
When legal marriage is available to same-sex couples, the ramifications of marrying stretch far beyond the couples themselves. Families, coworkers, and societal institutions’ perceptions of samesex couples can shift toward greater acceptance. The intersection between religion and spirituality and legal same-sex marriage creates a highly complex picture, with a very simple bottom line: the experience of legalized same-sex marriage is influenced by religion, even among people who do not describe themselves as religious or spiritual. The existence of children in the family is a positive influence toward the decision to marry: all of the couples in the study with children chose legal marriage. The overwhelming majority of couples considered the presence or anticipation of children as strong influence on their decision.
“ We see the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts as one more way that the institution of marriage is evolving,” reports Erkut. “ Individual researchers and smaller teams have already begun exploring more specific aspects of the social, personal, and legal expectations of both same-sex and heterosexual marriage and families in general. This initial study has opened the door to many possibilities.”