How Same-Sex Marriage Laws Shape Couples’ Mental Health

By Jonathan Adler, Ph.D.
Guest Contributor

When the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately issues a ruling on gay marriage, it will clearly have huge legal and historic implications. As Emily Bazelon at Slate put it, “This is it: The civil rights issue of our generation, in the hands of nine justices.”

A couple marries in Seattle earlier this month. (dbvictoria36/flickr)

A couple marries in Seattle earlier this month. (dbvictoria36/flickr)

But on a more intimate level, the ruling could also have a major effect on the mental health of gay and lesbian couples across the nation.

History rarely crafts natural experiments for studying topics as broad as the relationship between the law and mental health, but the mid-term elections in 2006 provided just that opportunity. With that election, eight states passed constitutional amendments banning the recognition of same-sex marriage, and psychological scientists were watching.

In one study, a national sample of over 1,500 lesbian, gay, and bisexual people completed measures of their mental health six months prior to the election and then again in the month following the election. With this large sample, the researchers were able to compare the mental health of people living in states where constitutional amendments passed (Alabama, Colorado, Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin) with those living in states that have no such amendment, or had one prior to 2006.

In states that passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, lesbians, gays and bisexuals suffered. They reported increased psychological distress in the month after the election, compared to six months before the election, and worse distress compared to gays, lesbians and bisexuals living in states where there were no such amendments on the ballot. “I mean, if that is not dehumanizing, then I don’t know what is…It does make [gay, lesbians, bisexual] people feel like second-class citizens or less than human,” said one participant.

In states that passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, lesbians, gays and bisexuals suffered. They reported increased psychological distress in the month after the election.

The researchers showed that these differences were not due to any systematic pre-existing differences between participants.
In a follow-up study, the researchers found that the passage of these constitutional amendments also impacted the family members of gay and bisexual individuals in similar ways, suggesting that the psychological effects of such legal decisions ripple far beyond those immediately impacted. “When anti-gay marriage amendments are passed, it robs our son of that view of normalcy in relationships. I grieve for him,” said a 54-year old mother of a gay son.

I spoke with Sharon Horne, the Director of Training in Counseling Psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and one of the authors on these studies. She explained just how psychologically devastating these policy decisions can be for real people. “What research has shown is that when these types of decisions are being debated at the state and federal level, LGB [lesbian, gay, bisexual] individuals and their family members are exposed to more negative messages than usual and they are at greater risk for depression and other negative mental health consequences in the face of the legal and policy decisions,” she said. “The Supreme Court cases will be putting out more discussion, which can be very positive for LGB communities, but can also increase exposure to harmful effects—it may put many LGB individuals on alert for the next few months.” As Dr. Horne noted, these studies suggest that the impact of such decisions extends well beyond their short-term effects.

A study that looked broadly at the connections between legal recognition of same-sex relationships and mental health takes the findings one step further. Psychologist Gregory Herek, an expert on LGB mental health, summarized this field of research by writing, “marriage bestows many psychosocial benefits and protections. As a consequence of being denied the right to marry, same-sex couples are more likely than different-sex couples to experience a variety of stressors and thus are at a greater risk for psychological and physical illness.”

Indeed, there is a long history of research documenting the mental health benefits of marriage and those effects may be magnified for same-sex couples whose relationships may provide a shelter against prejudice. Dr. Herek’s review goes on to note that alternatives to marriage, like civil unions and domestic partnerships, don’t go far enough. Despite their legal equivalence, this kind of recognition simply does not confer the same mental health benefits as marriage. While being able to visit one’s partner in the hospital or inherit their property without being taxed as strangers are extremely important, they do not fully succeed in de-stigmatizing same-sex relationships.

In recent polls, roughly half of Americans believe same-sex marriage should be legal, and among people between 18 and 29 years old, nearly three-quarters endorse this position. The vast majority of scientific research has failed to show that there are any differences between same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples that could provide a rational basis against their right to legally marry. Same-sex couples have more equal division of household tasks than opposite-sex couples, they have similar patterns of resolving conflict and child rearing practices, and their children are no more likely to grow up to be gay or lesbian than children raised by opposite-sex parents.

Since the Supreme Court announced it would hear these two cases there has been a great deal of discussion about the legal questions and on enumerating the 1000+ rights that are currently denied to same-sex couples as a result of the federal Defense of Marriage Act and state-level laws and constitutional amendments. (Check out some of the great legal scholars on this topic, like William Eskridge and Kenji Yoshino.) Whatever the Court decides next June, the period of waiting between now and then and the aftermath of the verdicts will not only shape the legal landscape for same-sex couples, it will also shape their emotional and mental health landscape as well.

Jonathan Adler, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass.

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  • Guest

    delighted that this article has spurred so much discussion. I
    appreciate the wide range of insights represented by the comments. I
    will offer a few responses to keep the conversation going.

    First, one of the comments raised the very important reminder not to
    confuse LGBT identity labels with same-sex attraction or sexual
    behavior. These are not fully overlapping dimensions and the law tends
    to interface only with identity labels (to the extent that people are
    willing to declare themselves as belonging to a particular
    legally-recognized category). Not only do these distinctions matter in
    the everyday lives of real people, they also impact the science of
    sexual orientation.
    Here is an article by Professor Ritch Savin-Williams of Cornell University (…, one of the leading scholars in this field, that elaborates the issue with some additional nuance:

    Second, one of the comments pointed to the potential sampling issues
    involved in the studies I referred to, a problem that may limit their
    ability to generalize to all people who adopt LGBT identity labels.
    This is an incredibly important insight, and a concern that I share.
    The few studies I referred to are just the tip of the iceberg, and if
    you read each of them in full, they all mention this issue as a
    potential limitation to their findings. But the challenge of getting a
    representative sample of LGBT people is central to the field. That being
    said, all scientific inquiry operates with a set of implicit
    assumptions and methodological limitations. The fact that science is
    imperfect does not mean that it should not be conducted, or used to
    inform policy. I believe that policy based on imperfect science is
    better than policy not based on science, as long as the blind spots of
    the research are acknowledged. The scientific reports I referred to are
    transparent about their limitations, but researchers in this field
    should strive to do better (and they are).

    Third, I want to correct one of the comments that suggested that the
    traditional focus of marriage has been on child-rearing. Both the
    historical record and the results of scientific research suggest a more
    complicated story. Stephanie Coontz’ book “Marriage, A History: How
    Love Conquered Marriage” (
    suggests that the institution of marriage has evolved quite a bit over
    the course of history and has traditionally been focused on many things
    (most of which are adult-focused), besides child-rearing. The
    scientific perspective also suggests that children of same-sex parents
    do not have any meaningful differences in their development or
    adjustment from children of opposite-sex parents (….
    This has led numerous scientific and clinical practice organizations,
    including the American Psychological Association, the American
    Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association, and the
    American Academy of Pediatrics, to adopt policy positions in favor of
    same-sex marriage.

    Once again, thank you for engaging with the ideas in this article. I
    am certain that this conversation will continue until the Supreme Court
    renders their verdicts, and well beyond.

  • Kodos

    The studies cited in this article all suffer from a variety of methodological flaws or weaknesses, including biased sampling among LGBT participants, restricted outcome examination, and/or the matching of the LGBT sampling group with dissimilar comparison groups.

    Better studies are needed in this area, so it’s disturbing to see – once again – the use of social science data from flawed studies being used to further a particular socio-political agenda.

    If the scientific data is strong, fine. Use it to support socio-political changes in society.

    But if the scientific data is weak, don’t use it for this purpose. Citing flawed studies innumerable times does not make those studies any more accurate, But an appeal to scientific authority like this *will* impress the gullible.

    Which I suspect is the point of this article.

  • WomanBornTS

    Well Npr what about the psychology of those who are same sex attracted but don’t identify as LGB? Could it be they don’t matter in the eyes of you or the Universities? There is quite easily a bias spotted within the psychological community towards the LGBT and an unwillingness to accept that the LGBT isn’t the only way to be same sex attracted or sex and gender diverse.

    • DominateEarth

      No, but it’s monstrously difficult to identify such people to include them in studies, and it is a fair assumption to reason that people who are attracted to the same gender but do not identify as LGB would feel similarly — after all, it’s “same sex marriage” and not “people who identify as LGB only marriage.”

      I wouldn’t call this lack of inclusion a bias, but rather a difficulty in including them in their studies. My girlfriend has never really identified as LBG at all — if anything, she identifies as pansexual, but avoids labels where possible — but that doesn’t mean a study like this one whose population consists of people who are attracted to the same sex in varying degrees would not accurately represent her. In this instance (as in most) the fact that someone doesn’t necessarily identify as LBGTWhatever doesn’t mean that they would necessarily respond much differently — if someone is potentially going to want to marry someone of the same gender, they’ll probably respond similarly to having that right hanging in the balance. I understand that I’m extrapolating slightly here, but from a logical standpoint it doesn’t seem as though labels should really matter.

      • WomanBornTS

        Labels do matter though the LGBT has a troubling history and not everyone is big fan of Gay pride either. Some people view the LGBT as adding stygma to them not removing it. I personally do identify with the Transgender label or movement at all. So that means I do not support the LGBT or Transgender leadership at all. So how is it fair for a doctor to practice transgender care? How is it ethical to use language that attaches a patient to a private group (LGBT)?

    • BH_Mass

      Perhaps you could expand on and clarify this a little bit? Are you talking about folks who identify as Two Spirit people (some Native Americans) and/or “Men Who Sleep With Men (MSM)”? And presumably its female equivalent? The whole discussion of marriage does tend to play into gender binary thinking. I’m a little puzzled, though, by your use of “same-sex attracted” language while arguing around gender diversity. I do understand the difference between sex and gender. I suppose I’m not clear on your thinking about it. Thanks.

      • WomanBornTS

        Bh I’ve met a lot of people that are attracted to members of the same sex that don’t care for the LGBT leadership or the lgbt identities. I’m not talking about Transsexuals, Transgender, or gender non identifying.

  • Lisa Boucher

    This article is more propaganda from “public” radio, in continuing service of a cultural Marxist political agenda.

    By the logic presented here, we should include unions between brothers and sisters into the institution of marriage — because it would relieve their “psychological devastation.”  (Could we be any more melodramatic and manipulative?)

    Never mind that marriage has long been an institution centered on children and the public interest therein.  No, suddenly we must radically alter the meaning of marriage and distort it into an institution centered on adult fulfillment.

    This propaganda campaign is the ultimate expression of the self-centeredness that has been increasing in our society for many years.  Instead of obsessing about the mental health of a tiny minority, let’s consider the health of society as a whole.  It’s a radical concept for narcissists — putting the public interest ahead of individual desire for validation.

    • bsrk7

      A “cultural Marxist political agenda”? Do you even know what Marxism is?

      How do you find that the logic presented here would also be extended to incestuous relationships?

      Even if you consider the institution of marriage to be centered on children (what about all the couples out there unable to conceive, or those that simply don’t want children?), gay marriages can be just as focused on children as straight ones. Unless you think foster children shouldn’t be adopted by homosexuals?

      “Self-centeredness”? I suppose there is something selfish about demanding equal rights. Yes, those homosexuals really should learn to consider the feelings of all the homophobes in this country and selflessly shove themselves back into the closets from whence they came. Gosh, they’re almost as selfish as all those greedy blacks were in the 60′s! Don’t they realize how much trouble we have to go through to treat people equally? It’s just plain rude, that’s what it is.

      I mean, do they think they live in a free country or something? One that was founded on liberty and equality? Pshaw!

    • Lise Johnson

      While I appreciate you have your right to your opinion that the public interest is best served when people conform to your personal values, please know that your personal values are not universal truths. In fact, science suggests that GLB people are equally capable of raising well-balanced, healthy, happy children.: “On the basis of a remarkably consistent body of research on lesbian and
      gay parents and their children, the American Psychological Association
      and other health, professional, and scientific organizations have
      concluded that there is no scientific evidence that parenting
      effectiveness is related to parental sexual orientation.” The primary examples of studies that found different results were not only funded by organizations attempting to prove their conservative agenda (that word goes both ways), but ALSO didn’t actually study committed same sex couples. In the Regnerus study, of the 1.7% studied they identified as being GLB, simply having been in a same sex relationship at any point qualified that individual as being GLB. I can’t believe how many people against same sex marriage don’t understand that gay people can and do marry heterosexuals when they don’t have the courage to live their truth and those people tend to be the ones hurting not only themselves, but also their children and family.
      I personally have two extremely well adjusted friends who both grew up with lesbian mothers in a long term, stable relationship. They are now both married and in really healthy heterosexual partnerships of their own. They also have an enormous amount of compassion for all people. I also have a friend whose father was a closeted homosexual in a heterosexual relationship. He is actually in favor of same sex marriage, despite being pretty conservative, because of the negative effect that his father living a lie had on him and his entire family. I won’t even go into his social/mental state.
      Lastly, consensus on Karl Marx was that he was anti-homosexuality and Marxism as a theory is more about economics involving class systems. There wasn’t much in there about race or homosexuality specifically, but what was said about homosexuality wasn’t favorable. I really wish people would stop using terms they don’t understand. Some information is worse than complete ignorance, as in the case of the Regnerus study, because it SOUNDS convincing. That doesn’t, however, make it right. And in the case of your arguments above, you can shout propaganda, narcissism and Marxism all you want, but truth is overwhelmingly on our side. Love and compassion is always the best path. And though your words hurt me, I am going to take the following five minutes to flow as much love as I can your way. I’m a good person. My partner is not only the love of my life… she’s caring, creative, gentle… I wish people like you could see past our gender- which ultimately means very little- and into our hearts- which say a whole lot more about who we are!

    • Ronnie Maccallister

      Lisa, I’ve been searching online for how to email or message you (can’t find it). In a moment of extreme coherency on this issue, you once posted something about how gay activists purport double standards in letting infertile couples wed, and how government isn’t even allowed to access your medical status in determining which heterosexuals can wed. Your comment was so unbelievably rightious and of clarity that facebook deleted it from a message that I sent to a well-known pro-family activist.

  • sargon_bighorn

    Dr Adler thank you for this article. The SC will NOT be ruling on Marriage, they will be ruling on whether Gay Americas are full citizens and should be afforded equal rights. As you mentioned, when Gay Citizens are treated as equal citizens they do well. Discrimination hurts people. “Marriage” happens to be a vehicle now that allows for discrimination against Gay citizens. Again thank you for bringing this out; the fact that when people are treated equally under the law in a nation like America, they do well.