What Does Gay Marriage Do to a State’s Marriage Rate?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
May 23 2012 8:00 AM

Does Gay Marriage Destroy Marriage?

A look at the data.

Brides kiss.
Brides kiss during their wedding ceremony.

Photo by Jacques Zorgman/Newsmakers

A conservative’s fear about gay marriage is that it will destroy the institution of marriage. Generally this fear revolves around apocalyptic visions of what happened in Sodom or just a general sense that a formula that has existed for centuries should not be tampered with. As James Dobson of Focus on the Family has argued:

The legalization of homosexual marriage will quickly destroy the traditional family. ... When the State sanctions homosexual relationships and gives them its blessing, the younger generation becomes confused about sexual identity and quickly loses its understanding of lifelong commitments, emotional bonding, sexual purity, the role of children in a family, and from a spiritual perspective, the “sanctity” of marriage.

Or as Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage said ominously:  “When the government endorses a lie about human nature, there will be consequences.”

Will there be consequences? After all, the United States has always been an unusually marriage-happy nation, much more so than in Europe, where couples are much more likely to shack up and have children and drift into retirement together without ever having made it official. Could it be that gay marriage will tip us in that libertine Swedish direction? Might young heterosexuals decide that if any old person can get hitched these days, why bother with it at all?  

Well, even a culture war can benefit from a little data. Several governments in the United States have already endorsed this so-called lie about human nature, and by tracking what happened to marriage and divorce rates in the subsequent years, you can start to see whether Gallagher’s assertion has any truth to it.

Start with Massachusetts, which endorsed gay marriage in May 2004. That year, the state saw a 16 percent increase in marriage. The reason is, obviously, that gay couples who had been waiting for years to get married were finally able to tie the knot. In the years that followed, the marriage rate normalized but remained higher than it was in the years preceding the legalization. So all in all, there’s no reason to worry that gay marriage is destroying  marriage in Massachusetts.

The other four states that have legalized gay marriage—New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, and New Hampshire—have done it more recently, somewhere between 2008 and 2011. But from the little data we have, it looks as if the pattern will be more or less the same—a temporary jump in marriage followed by a return to virtually the same marriage rates as before gay marriage became legal. Washington, D.C., which started accepting same-sex marriages in March 2010, saw a huge 61.7 percent increase in marriage that year, though it’s too soon to see where it will settle. Again, no signs of the coming apocalypse.

Marriage rates in states with same-sex marriage

The line graph below shows marriage rates in each state that has legalized same-sex marriage. Click the buttons below to toggle different lines. Source: CDC

Another measure of the health of marriage is a state’s divorce rate. Have those changed since gay marriage was introduced? Not really. In each of the five states, divorce rates following legalization have been lower on average than the years preceding it, even as the national divorce rate grew. In 2010, four of the five states had a divorce rate that was lower than both the national divorce rate and the divorce rate of the average state.

Divorce rates in states with same-sex marriage

The line graph below shows divorce rates in each state that has legalized same-sex marriage. Click the buttons below to toggle different lines. Source: CDC

One might argue that these short-term trends are not all that meaningful, that over time the citizens of the states that embrace gay marriage will become infected with an indifference and even hostility to the institution. But in fact the deep underlying trends point in the opposite direction. When it comes to marriage, the coastal, college-educated Obama-loving elites—in other words, the people most likely to support gay marriage and to live in states that condone it—and the less educated social conservatives to whom the notion remains repulsive and apocalyptical have switched places in the last generation, as sociologist Brad Wilcox, the head of the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project, pointed out in his report, “When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America.”

Since the ’70s, the college-educated have become far more likely than anyone else to rate their marriages “happy” or “very happy” and less than half as likely to get divorced; out-of-wedlock births are virtually unheard of among them. Among the majority of Americans without a college degree, the opposite trends are taking hold—soaring rates of single motherhood and a plummeting marriage rate, especially among the young. Marriage, argues Wilcox, has become yet another class privilege in America, the gated community of human relationships, the “private playground of those already blessed with abundance.”

This doesn’t mean, of course, that gay marriage is inspiring elite Americans to get married, or at least that’s unlikely. It just means that support for gay marriage and robust heterosexual marriages are likely to coexist in the same geographic spaces. The pro- and anti-gay-marriage sides are operating from two entirely different experiences of marriage, as sociologist June Carbone argues in “What Does Bristol Palin Have to Do With Same-Sex Marriage?” Among the elites, marriage is a coming together of two autonomous people who are looking for happiness and generally finding it. They are well off and live in an age when gender roles are relatively unrestricted. In their case, the institution is an afterthought. But if Bristol and Levi get to define the terms of the relationship however they like, it doesn’t tend to turn out all that well. On their side of the class divide, the institution is critical, so messing with it in any way is supposedly disastrous. If marriage and divorce rates indicate the health of marriage as an institution, though, the data don’t suggest that it is.

Chris Kirk is Slate's interactives editor. Follow him on Twitter.

Hanna Rosin is the founder of DoubleX and a writer for the Atlantic. She is also the author of The End of Men. Follow her on Twitter.