In the debates on civil marriage equality, we often hear about how legalizing same-sex marriage will “destroy heterosexual marriage,” whatever that means. I have yet to hear a concrete answer to this question: what exactly is supposed to happen in terms of destroying the institution of marriage? The nearest thing I can discern to an answer to this question is that straight married couples will no longer get to lord it over teh gheyz with their shiny state-sanctioned unions, and if that’s the case, then the institution of marriage is in a sorry state already and a few blows to the head will only improve its condition.
I’m still not sure what the warning is supposed to mean, but if we want to talk about divorce rates, then Nate Silver is on the case:
Overall, the states which had enacted a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage as of 1/1/08 saw their divorce rates rise by 0.9 percent over the five-year interval. States which had not adopted a constitutional ban, on the other hand, experienced an 8.0 percent decline, on average, in their divorce rates. Eleven of the 24 states (46 percent) to have altered their constitutions by 1/1/08 to ban gay marriage experienced an overall decline in their divorce rates, but 13 of the 19 which hadn’t did (68 percent).
Translation: divorce is on the decline in the U.S. over the last several years, and the decrease is overall the highest in states which do not ban same-sex marriage in their constitutions. The increases in divorce, meanwhile, have taken place mostly in states that do have constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. There is a loose, but entirely obvious, correlation between more liberal policies regarding civil marriage rights and decreased divorce rates. Of the states which have legalized same-sex marriage and stayed that way (California does not appear on the list, though Maine shows the second-largest decrease after Rhode Island), Connecticut is all alone in experiencing an increase in divorce over five years. In terms of end numbers, the state with the lowest rate of divorce was…Massachusetts, the first state to institute marriage equality. If marriage equality is hurting heterosexual couples, it doesn’t seem to be showing up in their divorce numbers.
The differences are highly statistically significant. Nevertheless, they do not necessarily imply causation. The decision to ban same-sex marriage does not occur randomly throughout the states, but instead is strongly correlated with other factors, such as religiosity and political ideology, which we have made no attempt to account for. Nor do we know in which way the causal arrow might point. It could be that voters who have more marital problems of their own are more inclined to deny the right of marriage to same-sex couples.
If there’s a causal relationship, I suppose it could be that states with the more aggressive stances against same-sex marriage have a lot of closeted gays entering sham marriages, which tend not to work out in the long run, but that probably doesn’t account for the numbers in, say, Nevada, with the highest divorce rate at the end. The kindest thing that could be said about the correlation is that the states with the most troubled marriages are charitable enough to spare same-sex couples the agony. Based on what I hear in debates over same-sex marriage, however, “charitable” doesn’t seem to be the attitude. I don’t think there’s a causal relationship, in the sense that marriage equality makes things better for all the state’s couples. There are too many exceptions in the list for that. I think the correlation is more that a state is more likely to legalize same-sex marriage when its heterosexual marriages are already in relatively good shape. Massachusetts, for example, probably owes more of its marriage success to economic prosperity and social health than to same-sex unions. The numbers in Alaska are probably due more to economic insecurity and social isolation than to the constitutional ban they passed against same-sex marriage–first in the nation!–in 1998. States that have banned same-sex marriage in their constitutions, meanwhile, are mostly finding that keeping teh gheyz out of the institution isn’t having the protective effect they thought it would. (If you ranked the states by end percentages and ignored the changes over time, the difference would be even more striking.) If any sociological factors in particular cause states to ban same-sex marriage, those causal factors do not strengthen the heterosexual unions they aim to protect. Legalizing same-sex marriage, at worst, makes no difference.
(I found this article from Silver linked from The Daily Dish.)