Will Same-Sex Couples Reinvigorate the Declining Institution of Marriage?

Same-sex marriage supporters celebrate the U.S Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In his opinion for the Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges, recognizing same-sex couples’ constitutional right to marry, Justice Anthony Kennedy referred to marriage as “a keystone of our social order” and “a building block of our national community.” Is this still true today? In the late 1940s, nearly 8 in 10 households in the United States were headed by married couples. Now it’s less than half. Marriage is in steady decline.

Perhaps Kennedy’s language is more specifically directed at same-sex couples, who have made marriage a cornerstone issue in the LGBT movement. In the last year alone, the number of married same-sex couples in the United States tripled. 

Yet LGBT activists have also long been on the forefront of efforts to increase the rights and benefits that flow to unmarried couples and their families. They push for increased access to domestic partnership benefits and adoption rights for both same-sex and different-sex unmarried couples. 

As more same-sex couples marry, will same-sex couples fall in line with existing marriage trends or can they reinvigorate a declining social institution? Could the path that they take affect efforts to challenge public policies that privilege marriage as the best way to form families?

In the United States, the marked decline in marriage is much more pronounced among the economically disadvantaged. Married couples are disproportionately educated and wealthy. This concerns policymakers because there’s a growing group of children being raised in families with fewer economic resources who are not afforded the stability that marriage helps to foster. It also means that policies that offer economic benefits to married couples disproportionately go to those who are already advantaged.

Same-sex couples with children tend to have lower levels of education and income when compared with their married different-sex counterparts. This is particularly true in the 13 states where, until Obergefell, same-sex couples were not allowed to marry. In those states, the average income of same-sex couples with children is 15 percent lower than that of different-sex married couples with children. Nationally, the comparable difference is just 2 percent. That’s why providing the nation’s 120,000 same-sex couples with kids access to the increased security of marriage has been an important argument motivating marriage equality proponents.

Will the enthusiasm for marriage that we see today in same-sex couples mean that these economically disadvantaged families will break the mold of marriage privilege? Maybe.

While marriage clearly skews white among different-sex couples, we do not observe the same pattern in same-sex couples. Nearly three-quarters of individuals in different-sex married couples (74 percent) are white, compared with less than two-thirds (64 percent) of those in unmarried different-sex couples. Among same-sex couples, we don’t observe differences in the racial and ethnic characteristics of married and unmarried couples. In both groups, about three-quarters of spouses and partners (77 percent) are white.

The story is a little different when we consider income. Like their different-sex counterparts, same-sex couples with higher incomes are more likely to be married, but economic disparity between married and unmarried couples is lower among same-sex couples. Married same-sex couples’ median household income exceeds their unmarried counterparts by 27 percent. The margin between married and unmarried different-sex couples is much wider at 46 percent.

The differences in the racial and ethnic composition of married and unmarried different-sex couples are even more dramatic among couples with children. Nearly half (49 percent) of unmarried different-sex couples with kids are racial or ethnic minorities, compared with just a third (34 percent) of their married counterparts. Among same-sex couples, the racial and ethnic composition of those with kids doesn’t differ much by marital status. About a third of both married (32 percent) and unmarried (35 percent) same-sex couples with kids are minorities.

Even so, married same-sex couples with kids have more economic resources than their unmarried counterparts. Their median household income is about 43 percent higher. But the economic disparity by marital status is much larger, 82 percent, among different-sex couples with children.

What does this all mean for the potential impact of allowing same-sex couples into the increasingly exclusive marriage club? Financially, same-sex couples seem to be mirroring current trends: The better off you are, the more likely you are to get married. But the economic divide between married and unmarried same-sex couples isn’t as vast as the divide among different-sex couples. Also, unlike different-sex couples, racial and ethnic minorities in same-sex couples are about as likely to be married as whites. So far, same-sex couples are not simply reproducing the marital exclusivity patterns evident in different-sex couples.

If same-sex couples do not replicate current demographic patterns regarding who marries, what might that mean for marriage policy? As they have for decades, same-sex couples may challenge dominant trends in family formation—this time by presenting a more inclusive model of marriage. If demographic divisions between married and unmarried same-sex couples diminish, and married same-sex couples and their children still fare better, it could add support for policies that incentivize marriage as a path toward economic stability.

On the other hand, if same-sex couples end up replicating existing marriage trends, then it offers more evidence that marriage is unpopular or out of reach for those who are more socially and economically marginalized. That may strengthen arguments that question the wisdom of policies that provide economic benefits to already better off married couples and consequently deny those benefits to families most in need. In marriage equality’s wake, debates about the relationships among marriage, family, and equality will not go away. But we will have new insights with which to approach critical questions of family law and policy.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of same-sex marriage at the Supreme Court

Want to hang out with Outward? If you’ll be in or near New York City on Monday, July 13, join June Thomas, J. Bryan Lowder, and Mark Joseph Stern—and special guests Ted Allen, of Queer Eye and Chopped fame, and marriage-equality campaigner extraordinaire Evan Wolfsonfor a queer kiki at an Outward LIVE show, hosted by City Winery. Details and tickets can be found here.