Same-sex marriage in Canada: the impact of legal marriage on the first cohort of gay and lesbian Canadians to wed.
Same-sex marriage (Laws, regulations and rules)
Same-sex marriage (Social aspects)
Gay couples (Civil rights)
Reissing, Elke D.
|Publication:||Name: The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality Publisher: SIECCAN, The Sex Information and Education Council of Canada Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 SIECCAN, The Sex Information and Education Council of Canada ISSN: 1188-4517|
|Issue:||Date: Fall, 2010 Source Volume: 19 Source Issue: 3|
|Topic:||Event Code: 930 Government regulation; 940 Government regulation (cont); 980 Legal issues & crime; 290 Public affairs Advertising Code: 94 Legal/Government Regulation Computer Subject: Government regulation|
|Geographic:||Geographic Scope: Canada Geographic Code: 1CANA Canada|
Abstract: A ruling of the Court of Appeal for Ontario on June 10,
2003, declared the federal definition of marriage unconstitutional and
thus opened the door for gay and lesbian couples to legally marry in
Ontario. Other provinces followed suit until the federal Civil Marriage
Act on July 20, 2005, made same-sex marriage legal nationwide. Research
on the relationships of gay and lesbian couples that had previously been
limited to cohabiting, unmarried couples could now examine the impact of
legalized marriage on same-sex couples. The present study addressed this
topic in a quantitative assessment of relationship satisfaction and
attachment in 26 married lesbian or gay couples and also in a
qualitative thematic analysis of interviews with 15 of these couples to
determine the impact of legalized marriage on their relationships and to
explore their views about the support they received from society and
their communities. All couples interviewed indicated that being able to
marry had affected them in various ways relationally, political and
socially. The quantitative analysis showed that the 26 couples had
significantly higher levels of relationship satisfaction and
significantly less attachment-related anxiety and avoidance compared to
normative data for married heterosexual couples. Despite some challenges
and struggles, the participants indicated that marriage had an
overwhelmingly positive effect on their lives.
In the last three decades, most Western countries have seen important steps in the advancement of equal rights and protection for all citizens. With respect to gay and lesbian individuals, the Trudeau government's removal of homosexuality from Canada's criminal code in 1969 was an early and significant change. However, it was not until 1996 that it became illegal to discriminate against persons on the basis of their sexual orientation. Following a court decision in 1999, both the federal and provincial governments introduced bills amending laws related to family law, adoption, pension benefits, and income tax to give couples in same-sex relationships the same rights and obligations as heterosexual couples in common-law relationships. Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere (Egale) argued that this change was still not sufficient and that legal recognition of same-sex relationships was necessary to achieve equality.
On June 10, 2003, a ruling of the Court of Appeal for Ontario deemed the definition of marriage (a union of a man and a woman) unconstitutional and redefined marriage to include the "voluntary union for life of two persons to the exclusion of all others." City halls across Ontario were quickly flooded with same-sex couples seeking marriage licenses reflecting a fear that the ruling would be appealed and the opportunity to be legally married lost. British Columbia followed suit on July 8, 2003, and Quebec on March 19, 2004. The federal government's passage of the Civil Marriage Act on July 20, 2005, extended the right to many to same-sex partners across Canada. This legislation created the first cohort of same-sex couples in North America to become legally married. It also provided a unique opportunity to examine the effects of the legalization of same-sex marriage in Canada.
The present quantitative and qualitative study explored these effects in a sample of 26 lesbian and gay married couples. Themes of interest in the study are reflected in the background literature reviewed below.
The impact of marriage on same-sex couples
The practical benefits of legal marriage for same-sex couples include those related to family law, pension and health benefits, income tax, inheritance and power of attorney, and immigration law. These rights are afforded immediately to married couples without the waiting period required of common-law couples. Same-sex married couples are bound by the same responsibilities as heterosexual married couples including decision-making in medical or legal emergencies, spousal support, child support, and division of property upon dissolution of marriage. A recent survey of 558 individuals in same-sex marriages in Massachusetts conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (Ramos, Goldberg, & Badgett, 2009) found that 85% of participants listed legal recognition as one of their top three reasons for getting married. In a phenomenological study of 22 married or soon to be married same-sex couples from Canada and around the world, Alderson (2004) highlighted the importance of practical and legal benefits to the couples interviewed. The legal benefits that these couples identified as having had a particularly significant impact in their relational lives were the opportunities to create families through adoption, to automatically have the right to care for a partner in the case of illness or injury, and to act on other legal matters.
ZicMin (1995) hypothesized that public and legal marriage for same-sex couples living in the United States would increase social support for these couples because of the higher social recognition afforded to legally married couples. As Zicklin anticipated, this has now been shown to be the case in several studies (e.g., Ramos et al., 2009; Balsam, Beauchaine, Rothblum, & Solomon, 2008; Lannutti, 2008). Given that many gay and lesbian couples lack family support (e.g., Kurdek, 2005; 2006), legal marriage might challenge families and public opinion to be more accepting. Family members who opposed a couple's cohabiting outside of marriage might be less negative toward gay or lesbian couples who were legally married and more inclined to provide support (Ramos et al., 2009). Social support from family and friends has been shown to influence commitment to the relationship in gay and lesbian couples in that partners with higher levels of social support also demonstrate higher levels of commitment (Kurdek, 2008a).
Prior to the legalization of same-sex marriage in Canada, a national poll found that 49% of Canadians supported the legalization of same-sex marriage and 46% opposed. Among those aged from 18 to 40, that support was 60% (The Strategic Counsel, 2002). A more recent Angus Reid poll conducted in September, 2009 showed that 61% of Canadians supported the legalization of same-sex marriage and an additional 23% were supportive of same-sex unions (Angus Reid Strategies, 2009). Only 11% felt that same-sex couples should not have any legal recognition.
In some cases, marriage can also have a negative effect on social support for same-sex couples. For example, Lannutti's (2008) qualitative interviews with 26 female couples in Massachusetts in which one partner was bisexual found that some of the bi-women felt that family members (particularly parents) were very unsupportive of their decision to marry. It appeared in some cases that family members may have tolerated the same-sex relationship prior to marriage in the hope that the bisexual partner would once again have relationships with men. Embarrassment at having a lesbian or bisexual daughter was also given as a reason for lack of parental support.
Kurdek (2003) has extensively examined the correlates of relationship satisfaction in gay and lesbian couples in the United States. The comparison groups have been both homosexual and heterosexual couples.
The findings have consistently indicated that similar factors are correlated with relationship satisfaction in heterosexual, gay and lesbian relationships (e.g., Kurdek, 2005; 2006). These factors include arguing about issues related to power and intimacy, attachment styles and behaviours, commitment, and relationship history. Gottman et al. (2003) have also assessed the correlates of relationship satisfaction and dissolution in gay and lesbian couples and found that similar factors predicted satisfaction in heterosexual and gay/lesbian couples.
In their comparative study of cohabiting, married, and remarried heterosexual couples in the U.S., Skinner, Barh, Crane, and Call (2002) found that the cohabiting couples reported lower relationship happiness and fairness. Moore, McCabe, and Brink (2001) similarly reported that married heterosexual couples in Australia had higher levels of intimacy and relationship satisfaction than cohabiting couples. With respect to relationship quality in unmarried same-sex couples, Balsam et al. (2008) compared 203 same-sex couples in civil unions, 84 same-sex couples who were not in civil unions and 55 heterosexual married couples in Vermont. Whether they were in civil unions or not, the sample-sex couples reported more positive relationship quality and less conflict than the heterosexual married participants. However, same-sex couples not in civil unions were more likely to have ended their relationships on three-year follow-up than those who Were in civil unions. Wienke and Hill's (2009) comparative study of 282 partnered gay and lesbian couples and 6,734 legally married heterosexual couples in the U.S. asked about general life happiness rather than relationship happiness or satisfaction in particular. They found that the partnered gay men and lesbian women reported less general happiness with their lives than did the married heterosexual participants.
In another approach to studying relationship quality of partners in different types of cohabiting relationships, Kurdek (2008b) followed 95 lesbian couples, 92 gay male couples, 226 heterosexual couples without children, and 312 heterosexual couples with children. Participants in these cohabiting relationships were contacted every year for 10 years to determine patterns of relationship quality based on the Dyadic Adjustment Scale. Lesbian couples showed the overall highest level of relationship quality and gay male couples showed significantly higher levels of relationship quality compared to heterosexual couples with children. In addition, relationship quality for both gay male and lesbian couples remained constant over the course of the study whereas heterosexual couples showed an accelerated decline in relationship quality at the beginning of cohabitation followed by a second period of accelerated decline if the couple was living with children.
Alderson's (2004) phenomenological exploration provided the first insights into relationship functioning in a predominantly Canadian sample of legally married same-sex couples. Participants in this study noted an increase in commitment and connection, a finding replicated by Ramos et al. (2009) who found that 72% of their sample felt more committed to their partners following marriage and by Lannutti (2008) whose participants expressed greater feelings of love and a closer emotional bond to their partner following legal marriage. With regard to the feeling among some same-sex couples that their relationships seem more egalitarian than they observe in heterosexual couples, Solomon, Rothblum, and Balsam's (2005) study of the division of finances and household tasks among 336 members of same-sex civil unions, 238 members of same-sex couples not in civil unions, and 413 married heterosexual couples in Vermont is of interest. These authors found that lesbian and gay male couples, both those in civil unions and those not, were more egalitarian with respect to money and housework, than heterosexual married couples. Kurdek (2005; 2006) noted similar findings with respect to division of household labour and has also suggested that satisfaction with the division of household labour increases both relationship satisfaction and relationship stability (Kurdek, 2007).
Disclosure of sexual orientation and relationship status has been consistently associated with measures of positive mental health and relationship satisfaction in gay and lesbian persons; and with decreases in internalized homophobia (e.g., Jordan, 2000; Rosario, Hunter, Maguen, Gwadz, & Smith, 2001; Saphira & Glover, 2001). Cabaj and Purcel (1998) hypothesized that legalized marriage would increase disclosure and have a positive impact on relationship satisfaction and internalized homophobia. While this has shown to be the case for some, other individuals have described feelings of anguish when their loved ones respond with anger (e.g., Alderson, 2004; Lannutti, 2008). Same-sex couples who appreciate the formal recognition of a legal marriage may be less hesitant to disclose their same-sex relationship. This was noted in one study where more than 80% of participants indicated that being in a same-sex marriage had caused them to be more likely to come out to coworkers and healthcare providers (Ramos et al., 2009). Further, it has been shown that lesbian women in civil unions demonstrate significantly higher levels of "being out" than lesbian women not in civil unions (Solomon, Rothblum, & Balsam, 2004). Finally, level of "being out" has been shown to be a positive predictor of relationship quality in men such that those men who were more likely to be out demonstrated greater relationship quality at follow-up (Balsam et al., 2008).
Rationale for the current study
The literature reviewed above indicates that many gay and lesbian couples who have married experience not only the practical benefits related to the laws affecting married couples and the social benefits of acknowledgement and societal acceptance but also the relational benefits of increased relationship satisfaction (e.g., Alderson, 2004). In these respects, legal marriage appears to bring to same-sex couples many of the positive benefits experienced by heterosexual couples when they marry. Since this is a new area of research, the particular ways in which legal marriage has impacted on same-sex couples who were previously in long-term relationships warrants further investigation. The current study thus used both qualitative and quantitative methodology to assess the impact of marriage on members of the first cohort of legally-married, Canadian same-sex couples.
Participants were recruited through gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (GLBT) newspapers (e.g., Capital XTra), GLBT advocacy groups and web sites (e.g., Egale) and pro-same-sex marriage web sites (e.g., Canadians for Equal Marriage). Recruitment began in Ontario in response to the initial legislative change and expanded to British Columbia (B.C.) in response to requests from couples who had seen the call for participants on various web sites and who wanted to participate in the study.
Couples who initiated contact through e-mail were e-mailed a package containing information about the study and what participants would be asked to do. Those who contacted us through telephone were provided with this information verbally. Inclusion criteria included (a) being legally married, (b) having lived together for a minimum of one year, and (c) no physical violence in the relationship. Couples who met these criteria and were participating from outside the Ottawa area were e-mailed a questionnaire package, information letter, and consent form. Questionnaires were returned by e-mail through a secured server or mail, and consent forms were sent back by mail to ensure that a signed original was in the file. The first author carried out telephone interviews with both members of the couple on the phone at the same time. Couples in the Ottawa area who were interviewed in person were given the information and consent forms and completed the questionnaires at the time of the interview. This study was approved by the Research Ethics Board of the University of Ottawa.
In addition to requesting demographic information, the questionnaire included the two research instruments described below.
Relationship satisfaction was measured using the Dyadic Adjustment Scale (DAS, Spanier, 1976). This is a widely used self report index of global couple adjustment with well established psychometric properties. Johnson and O'Conner (2001) used the DAS in a study examining parenting in same-sex couples and found that the norms for their study were consistent with published test norms for married heterosexual couples. The DAS may also have utility for comparing same-sex and heterosexual couples because it is somewhat gender neutral in that it primarily uses the terms "partner" and "couple" throughout.
Security and comfort with closeness in relationships was measured using the Experiences in Close Relationships-Revised (ECR-R, Brennan, Clark, & Shaver, 1998). The ECR-R is a 36-item measure of adult attachment in romantic relationships with well established psychometric properties. The measure can be used to measure attachment along two attachment dimensions: avoidance and anxiety. Reliability of the items in both dimensions is high with alphas of .94 for the avoidance dimension and .91 for the anxiety dimension.
The semi-structured, open-ended interview was designed to assess the impact of legal marriage on the couple. Three questions were asked in all of the interviews. These questions were used to stimulate discussion and couples were given time to expand upon their responses prior to being asked a successive question. The questions were: "What were your reasons for getting married?", "How did this change your relationship?", and "What impact did legal marriage have on your family?" Other questions were not structured and were emergent based on the content of the discussions. Interviews lasted between half an hour and an hour and both members of the couple were present in the room or on the phone. Couples were allowed to answer the questions with as much or as little detail as they were comfortable and to take the interview off to different topics that were not included in the interviewer's list of questions. All interviews were carried out by the first author.
Thematic analysis is particularly suited to the relatively new study of same-sex marriage because it is an emergent rather than hypothesis driven methodology. It is appropriate for research topics where no established theories exist, and/or the theories are not specific enough or relevant to the area one is investigating, and/or the research questions are difficult to study with traditional research design and methods (e.g., Fereday & Muir-Cochrane, 2006). Thematic analysis is a qualitative methodology that can be utilized to organize qualitative data into patterns with the goal of eventually developing theories or models to account for phenomena or to explain change (e.g., Taylor & Bogdan, 1984). In the present study, all interviews were transcribed by the principal investigator and the initial screening for general categories and sub-themes was undertaken throughout this process. Two additional independent raters were then asked to read the transcripts and identify categories and themes. All three raters then met, discussed the findings, and agreed on three general global themes, one of which was further broken down into three sub-themes.
Fifty-two individuals completed the quantitative measures, 20 lesbian and 6 gay couples. Due to time zone differences, work schedules and parenting responsibilities, only 15 couples were available to participate in the interview and be included in the qualitative analyses. The mean age of all couples was 48.8 years (range = 23-72 years). The average number of years together was 10.8 years (range = 1-35 years). Five couples had children with one to three children per couple. Twenty-two of the participants reported having had a previous heterosexual relationship. A majority of participants had a postsecondary education (33.4% post graduate, 26.7% undergraduate degree, 11.7% community college diploma) with 6.7%: A majority of participants had a post-secondary education (33.4% post graduate, 26.7% undergraduate degree, 11.7% community college diploma) with 6.7% having a high school diploma and 3.3% having less than a high school diploma. Most had incomes over $75,000 per year with 63.3% above $75,000, 30% at $25-75,000 and 3.3% less than $25,000.
Results of the Dyadic Adjustment Scale measurement indicated that the 26 same-sex couples had a mean relationship satisfaction score of 126.71 with a standard deviation of 8.94. The population mean on this scale for married heterosexual couples is 114 (Spaniel; 1976). Cronbach's alpha for these responses was .926. Thus, the same-sex marriage group in the present study had significantly higher levels of relationship satisfaction than did the sample of married, heterosexual couples reported on by Spanier, t (26) = 7.25,p, < .00l.
The population mean chosen for comparison on tile Experiences in Close Relationships-Revised measure was the Married Population Norm as this is the most rigorous norm for this measure. Other available norms were for clinical populations experiencing psychological and relational distress. Results of the ECR-R suggest that these married heterosexual couples were reporting levels of Attachment Anxiety with an average of 1.79 out of a possible 3.00 t (26) = - 13.59, p < .001 and Attachment Avoidance with an average of 1.60 out of a possible 3.00 t (26) = - 13.832, p < .001 (Brennan, Clark, & Shaver, 1998). Cronbach's alpha for these responses was .611. The same-sex marriage group reported significantly less attachment-related anxiety and avoidance than married norms, t (26 anx) = - 13.59,p < .001 and t (26 avoid) = - 13.832, p < .001 respectively. In addition, all of the couples in the present study fell within the "secure" range of attachment compared to 70% for the normative heterosexual married couples.
Qualitative interview findings
In total, 15 couple interviews were carried out either by telephone or in person. Analysis of differences in interview length, general responsiveness of participants, and content did not reveal any qualitative differences based on method of interview. The three global themes that emerged from every interview were characterized as Social elements, Relational elements, and Political elements. Each theme is described below with representative quotes reflecting representative ideas and thoughts from participants that led to the thematic characterizations.
All of the participants described social elements related to the impact of being legally married on them personally and/or on their relationships. The three sub-themes that fell under the Social category were: (1)the Language of Marriage, (2) Being Out, and (3) Rights and Responsibilities.
Sub-theme 1: The Language of Marriage
Ninety-two percent of participants discussed the impact of the language of marriage as an element of their experience of becoming legally married. Almost all indicated that words such as spouse, marriage, * wife, husband, and daughter-in-law, were understood by everyone and that through this language they felt understood and known by their friends and families in a different way that created a new and deeper acceptance of their partnerships. For most, this language had a very positive influence.
The language of marriage helped us feel more a part of this world. Everyone knows what it means. It helps others start to realize that a relationship is a relationship and we are dealing with the same issues that everyone else deals with. It helped me realize, the word marriage, what was important to me; getting married, having a wedding. The language was really intentional; showing others that that's What we mean. (Tessa, 37)
Only two couples discussed the negative impact of language. In both cases, their families had previously been only minimally tolerant of their relationship and marriage broke the limits of tolerance and caused a breach in their relationships with these family members.
A majority of female participants described their experiences with the word "wife." They discussed how this has been a patriarchal word throughout history and illustrated their struggle with deciding whether to use this word or not. A number of women joked that they would like to have a wife but would not like to be one. A lot of humour and thought was put into these decisions and the majority of participants had chosen to continue using the word spouse or partner. A smaller number of participants chose to reclaim the word wife in a more positive frame or to make up their own word.
... for me it's like reclaiming the word queer or dyke, taking something that's been used as a negative and defining itself. (Grace, 56)
Participants indicated that there was no more mystery about their relationships as everyone knows that a marriage is about a lifelong emotional and sexual relationship that is primary and equal to the relationships that heterosexual couples have with their partners.
The word has taken us from being legal partners to being wives with the status that the word conveys, it puts this relationship into a context that everyone, homophobic or not can understand. (Chris, 50)
Sub-theme 2: Being Out
Three quarters of participants commented on the fact that legalized marriage had an impact on their level of being out. In particular they felt more comfortable and entitled to be out but also a sense of responsibility about the need to be out. They talked about an increased personal level of social awareness and felt that this had come about as a result of their being more out and in particular, as a result of their public declaration of marriage.
It's a problem cause if you're going to have a gay wedding you need to tell people you're gay! It's not that people didn't know, it's that I wasn't silent anymore. (Sue, 36)
Participants discussed the impact that legal marriage had on their own levels of internalized homophobia and the external homophobia of others. In fact, a number of participants observed that they had not even been aware that they had any internalized homophobia until it came time to announce their marriage. They talked about coming out again in a new way with a new found sense of pride and a decreased level of internalized homophobia.
We would have thought that we were really even on the scale of internalized homophobia. I've been out for 25 years and we're out to friends, family, at work in community but this resurfaced issues and dynamics with the decision to wed publicly. I moved from a place of being grateful to feeling entitled...from "Am I really allowed to tell people to come to my wedding" to celebrating, revelling in, and claiming the legitimacy. I used to simply feel grateful for being accepted but now I feel entitled and legitimate. It was another layer of coming out. (Pat, 48)
Seventy-two percent of participants discussed how the language of marriage and the increased "outness" of being married had the combined impact of creating normalization for their relationships and for same-sex couples in general and that these things led to social change. They felt that being out, proud and having affirmed their relationships publicly through marriage showed the world more about their relationships.
Further, they noted that simply living their married lives publicly and openly demonstrated that their relationships were no different than those of their heterosexual peers.
Marriage opens the door for people to know that we're not really any different from any other couple who decides to make a commitment to each other.., and that we get up, go to work, pay our bills, buy gas for our cars, help our kids, and just live ordinary, everyday lives ... I would invite anyone to come into our home to see just how very ordinary we really are! (Helen, 50)
In effect, these participants felt that living their lives and loving publicly has led to greater levels of acceptance and support from their communities.
People have said that having experienced our wedding, they are more willing to challenge other people when the subject comes up which is very affirming. (Will, 40)
Sub-theme 3: Rights and Responsibilities
Three quarters of the participants indicated that the rights and responsibilities of marriage were important to them and that this had an impact on them since getting married. They felt that they and their relationships were full participants in society in the sense that the ability to file taxes together as spouses and to have the immediate practical benefits of marriage, such as receiving immediate spousal health insurance benefits, had given them a newfound sense of empowerment and inclusion in a system that they had been restricted from in the past. These couples embraced the opportunity to be responsible for their partner in all of the legal and social ways that come with marriage and articulated a deep sense of belongingness and feelings of entitlement that had historically been denied to them and their relationships.
All of the participants described experiencing an impact on their relationship through the act of legally marrying their partner. In particular this impact was felt in the areas of family and safety or security. While all couples talked about the impact that legal marriage had on their sense of commitment, the majority reported that it had not changed their level of commitment.
The legal ceremony did not change our level of commitment at all ... our first commitment ceremony three years ago had a tremendous impact ... the unlegal deepened our commitment and the courts simply caught up to us. (Bryn, 37)
Ninety-two percent of participants discussed the impact that legal marriage had on their sense of family and almost all of them described feeling more open to or ready for the idea of having children. They also felt more entitled to apply to adopt and many were, in fact, either in the process of beginning adoption applications or assisted fertilization and some were already pregnant. Among the couples contemplating having children, a number had previously decided not to have children and indicated that being legally married had changed something for them that allowed them for the first time to imagine that they could become parents.
Adoption and parentage was a big part of getting married. We felt it would legitimize us as co-parents and make the child feel more secure. (Leslie, 42)
Most participants talked about family from the perspective of creating family and bringing family together. Some talked with animation and emotion about their experiences of being welcomed into the family of their partner and a number recounted how previously anxious or unaccepting parents had introduced their child's partner to others as their daughter-in-law or son-in-law. Most described this kind of experience as one of the impacts of legal marriage that was tremendously enriching. For example, a woman whose partner's rural father had been very uncomfortable and even negative when his daughter came out to the family describes how over time he had changed his attitude and openly embraced the marriage of his daughter and included her as a full member of the family.
It's the reason that everyone gets married, to feel a part of each other's family ... we really are ... we stopped to get a coffee and I thought he'd want to stay in the truck so I offered to go in and get it but he said he wanted to go in to show off his new daughter-in-law. I call her father "Dad" now and he gets a kick out of it ... he calls us his girls. (Abbie, 38)
In contrast, two couples experienced further distancing from already strained family relationships because their families saw in legal marriage the kind of public profession of love from which they had to withdraw. The couples told these stories with sadness but also with a sense of having made a decision to move forward in deepening their relationship with a full understanding of the potential consequences.
Eighty-six percent of participants also discussed the impact that legal marriage had on their level of safety and security in the relationship with most describing this as a newfound sense of peacefulness and feeling relaxed and at ease in the relationship in ways that they had not before. Among the many who talked about an increased feeling of closeness, a majority indicated that they had been overwhelmed and tremendously surprised that it was even possible to feel closer to the partner they had been with for many years. This is an interesting observation in relation to the couples that did not necessarily feel any greater level of commitment; possibly something did increase in terms of emotional closeness and security. Some couples expressed both awe and anger at the amazement of actually being able to feel closer to someone that they had loved for so long and then at realizing that they had been denied this feeling throughout their relationship.
The minute we got married all of the conversation about security and houses and money stopped ... the bottom line was that when you get married you are taking on a responsibility for that person and if something happens to her it is my problem ... I finally felt safer, more secure and knew that she was not going to walk out the door. (Sue, 36)
I had no idea that I could feel any closer to him than I already did after 35 years together. It is unbelievable and I can't believe that we have been denied this experience all of these years. (Len, 68)
All of the couples talked about the political climate around same-sex marriage and the impact that this element of the issue has had on them. All couples described the importance of being granted legal rights of marriage and full equality in society. In terms of legal rights, all of the participants described their feeling of finally being protected by society. They described a profound sense of safety and security in knowing that they would be able to have the right to make decisions for an ill partner; care for children together and have the benefits related to inheritance and insurance. Almost all talked about the importance of being married for access to parental rights and their desire to be given equal rights under the law in cases of adoption and automatic parental rights to a child born into the marriage. As mentioned above, many of the participants were in the process of starting families at the time of the interviews and these issues were foremost on their minds.
We did insemination a couple of days ago. We were going to do this anyway but I wanted to be legally married before the baby was born. From a legal perspective I want to be legally protected and secure. (Donna, 39)
Most participants also talked about their feeling that legal marriage had the impact of legitimizing their relationships. They reported feeling like they finally existed and were accepted by society and not just by their immediate social circle.
I think that changing the law has set a moral standard by which people's attitudes are changing; it does legitimize it...like corporal punishment. In Sweden they changed the laws and it changed from 90% of people believing that it was okay to hit their kids to only 10% in less than twenty years...it is insisting that cultural change be instigated by government. (Sandra, 43)
It really changed the status that I am allowed to claim in the world. (Dale, 39)
In discussing the political issues related to samesex marriage, 92% of participants indicated that offering same-sex couples civil unions instead of marriage was not acceptable to them and certainly not equal. These couples expressed deep concern about the possibility of a political watering down of the judgment that denying marriage to same-sex couples is unconstitutional.
If civil unions were what was there for everyone then fine but if same-sex couples can only have civil unions where heterosexual couples can have marriage, it isn't fair. It is the same as having to sit at the back of the bus. (Lynn, 39)
Participants in the present study were among the first same-sex couples to get legally married in Canada. Our findings indicate that they experienced primarily positive consequences subsequent to marriage and it is therefore not surprising that this sample showed significantly higher levels of relationship satisfaction and attachment security compared to heterosexual married population norms. While others have reported comparatively high levels of relationship satisfaction and happiness in cohabiting same-sex couples (e.g., Balsam et al., 2008; Kurdek, 2008b), another explanation for this finding may be that couples in this sample have been in committed relationships for extended periods of time and have undoubtedly weathered the inevitable struggles of long-term relationships in a social environment that may not have always been supportive. High scores on attachment and relationship satisfaction. may therefore reflect the fact that these are highly successful couples who simply renewed their commitment by getting married legally.
Our qualitative analyses documented the overall positive experience of marriage for these couples as reflected in the three overarching thematic elements that emerged from their observations: (a) Social elements, (b) Relational elements, and (c) Political elements.
Socially, participants indicated that the language of marriage had an important impact in helping the people in their lives to better understand and validate their relationship. Marriage also increased their level of being out, decreased their own internalized homophobia, and apparently decreased externalized homophobia in the people around them. In many cases, participants were not even aware that they had residual internalized homophobia after having been out for many years. They welcomed taking on the rights and responsibilities of legal marriage and felt that this allowed them to finally be full participants in society.
Relationally, most participants indicated that legal marriage had not deepened their level of commitment to their partners but it did have the effect of helping them feel more fully a part of each others' families. Participants noted that legal marriage had deepened their feelings of closeness to their partners and peacefulness in their relationships and were struck by this unexpected outcome. They said they could not have imagined feeling any closer to their partners after many years of committed deep relationship.
Politically, participants found in the legal right to marry the feeling of being protected by society in terms of inheritance, power of attorney, parenting rights, and other areas where marriage protects partners. In this sense, marriage had a profound impact on their sense of security and entitlement. They were clear that a civil union was not the same as or equal to a legal marriage that provided couples with a measure of equality and legitimization.
In areas where comparisons are possible, the foregoing observations are generally comparable to those in the few other studies of the impact of legal marriage on same sex couples (Alderson, 2004; Lannutti, 2008; Ramos, et al., 2009). One difference is that Alderson (2004) and Ramos et al. (2009) found that their participants felt more committed to their partners whereas that feeling was less apparent in the present study although our couples did comment on an increased sense of closeness to their partner and a greater feeling of peace and relaxation about their relationship status.
Perceived implications of same sex marriage
Although our participants decided to marry for personal reasons, as did the couples studied by Alderson (2004) and Ramos et al. (2009), they also recognized that the positive effects on their relationships also had the potential to impact on society through increased exposure and normalization.
People who had witnessed their marriages and who continued to support them had become more willing to speak out against homophobia and to support governmental initiatives that legalized and now protect same-sex relationships. However, participants also expressed concern that same-sex marriage could have a negative impact on queer culture in that the inclusion of gay and lesbian couples in the traditions of heterosexual society might cause divisions within the GLBTQ community. Would advocates for same-sex marriage and those who reject marriage as sublimation into the dominant patriarchal society become split off from each other? Another concern was that some members of the GLBTQ community who might not be prepared for marriage would decide too quickly, without having contemplated the consequences, and marry simply because they have the opportunity.
Limitations and summary observations
Our comparison of relationship satisfaction and attachment-related anxiety, avoidance and security in heterosexual married couples and same-sex married couples may have been limited by the age of the measure (Spanier, 1976) and by the fact that the scale used was designed for heterosexual respondents. Researchers should now consider psychometric validation of measures on couple function and satisfaction for gay and lesbian married couples. Another limitation was that our participants were highly self-selected couples who were committed and secure enough to make the decision about getting married once the opportunity was available to them. Future investigations may benefit from a comparison group of heterosexual married couples and a sample of same-sex couples chosen to be demographically representative of married couples in general.
While it is important to understand the impact of legalized marriage on this first cohort, over time it will also be necessary to examine the impact of access to marriage on the next generation of LGBT youth. For example, it will be interesting to follow the relational lives of youth who are coming of age in this period of change and increased rights. Future research might also study matched heterosexual and gay and lesbian couples who met their partners after the legalization of same-sex marriage to determine the impact of marriage on couples who had always had marriage as a legal option
Overall, our assessment of the impact of legal marriage on Canadian same-sex couples demonstrated positive impact across the personal, interpersonal, and political realities of the couples. The fact that participants reported feeling legitimized, understood, supported and protected by both society and their communities suggests a compelling impact that extends beyond the individuals to encompass the larger society.
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Heather Macintosh (1), Elke D. Reissing (1), and Heather Andruff (1)
(1) Department of Psychology, University of Ottawa, Ottawa ON
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Elke D. Reissing, Department of Psychology, University of Ottawa, 200 Lees, E-150, Ottawa KIN 6N5. E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org
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