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-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Same-Sex Relationships Lacking in Stability

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Social scientists have for decades been studying same-sex relationships and how these relationships are similar to (or different from) heterosexual relationships. Many researchers posit that it is social structures—such as legal marriage—that help to make relationships last. In a new study of the stability of same-sex versus heterosexual relationships, Charles Lau of the California Center for Population Research finds that same-sex cohabiters are far more likely to dissolve their relationships than are either heterosexual cohabiters or married couples. And while Lau speculates that a more positive social view of homosexuality and stronger social supports (such as the institutionalization of gay “marriage”) might strengthen such commitments, he also posits that “the elevated rate of dissolution [of same-sex couples]” might be “due to the types of people who enter same-sex unions.”

Lau grounds his work in Levinger’s (1965, 1976) theory of marital cohesion, which suggests that the stability of a relationship is founded upon three factors: 1) “barriers to leaving the relationship,” 2) “rewards from the relationship,” and 3) “attractive alternatives to the relationship.” Given this basis, Lau discusses how today’s social context might influence same-sex couples’ levels of relationship commitment. Lau theorizes, “In sum, the lack of legalized marriage and normative support means that same-sex couples perceive fewer barriers to leaving the union and more alternatives to the relationship compared to both different-sex married and unmarried couples.”

Using very large data samples from longitudinal British studies, Lau demonstrated how “compositional factors [childhood region, childhood family structure, and mother’s education] may explain differences in the stability of same-sex and different-sex unions.” In a second analysis, Lau separated the data by union type to study each type’s “correlates of dissolution.”

And the different “union types” did indeed lead to strikingly different probabilities of union stability. Lau reports, first of all, that both same-sex and different-sex cohabiters were more likely to be from “nontraditional families” than were married couples. Furthermore, “The results show that marriage was the most stable union type. . . . the probability of a union lasting 5 years was .88 for marriage, .67 for different-sex cohabitation, and .37 for same-sex cohabitation.” In second and third models that accounted for the age at which couples entered the union, socioeconomic status, and previous union history (higher-order marriages and cohabitations tend to dissolve at a higher rate), the pattern continued. “In the third model [which accounts for socioeconomic status],” reports Lau, “the dissolution rates for male and female same-sex cohabitation were 7.1 and 5.4 times greater, respectively, than the rates for marriage (p < .001).”

Lau concludes that “compared to married couples, the dissolution rates for male and female same-sex cohabiters were seven and five times higher, respectively.” The rate of dissolution for same-sex cohabiters was about double that of different-sex cohabiters, though female same-sex cohabiters tended to have more stable relationships than male same-sex cohabiters. Lau comments that his findings “are consistent with” his hypothesis that same-sex couples remain together for shorter periods because the obstacles are greater, the rewards fewer, and the alternatives more attractive than for different-sex couples. Nonetheless, Lau also suggests a “competing explanation,” that “the elevated rate of dissolution is due to the types of people who enter same-sex unions.” Such people, he speculates, may be more liberal in their views toward union commitment, and thus less likely to value commitment for its own sake. They perceive other ends to a relationship. Lau blames such attitudes on legal restrictions and social attitudes, however: “Whereas heterosexual life is largely grounded in marriage and childbearing, the lack of legal marriage for same-sex couples and greater difficulty having children means that there is not a logical end point for same-sex relationships (Strohm et al., 2009).”

Lau concludes his study by methodically pointing out its deficiencies—“reliance on self-report data, small samples, and lack of data on attitudes and values,” which he says “point to directions for future research and the need for more data on same-sex couples.” But for the time being, same-sex couples dissolve their unions at a significantly higher rate than do either different-sex married or cohabiting couples.

(Charles Q. Lau, “The Stability of Same-Sex Cohabitation, Different-Sex Cohabitation, and Marriage,” Journal of Marriage and Family 74 [October 2012]: 973-988.)