Marriage equality became a reality in New Zealand in August 2013. How are same-sex couples holding up since?
With divorces rates steady across the Western world, when same-sex couples were granted the right to marry, were they also given the right, "to be as miserable as everyone else," as the marriage-equality joke goes?
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According to the official data from Births, Deaths, and Marriages, the year after the passing of the Marriage Amendment (Definition of Marriage) Act 2013 saw 926 same-sex marriages registered in New Zealand, of which 520 were between female couples and 406 were between male couples. In 2018, 20,949 marriages and civil unions were registered to New Zealand residents. Of these, 510 were same-sex marriages or civil unions. The stats would suggest this is roughly on par with the previous five years of same-sex nuptials.
On the other side of the world, however, the statistics were starting to show something most people had not considered.
In the 2018 calendar year, 900 same-sex couples divorced in the UK, according to data gathered by The Economist. Most notably, three-quarters of those divorces had been from lesbian couples.
More lesbians than gay men get married. It's a fairly common cultural norm to see lesbians in relationships far more quickly than gay men. According to some jokes, they seem to rent a U-Haul and move in with each other on their third date, suggesting it's possible they get married faster than gay men too.
But does this quick relationship evolution from dates to girlfriends to wives come with a curse of marriages running their course sooner?
In the UK, gay men represented 44 per cent of same-sex marriages in 2018 data. A gender gap opens up between gay men and lesbians, however, when we see gay men only representing 26 per cent of divorcees in that same year. And while more gay men entered into civil unions (or civil partnerships in the UK) between 2004 and 2018, notably more women dissolved them.
Before I argue this is a British anomaly, the Netherlands has seen the same trend of much higher divorce rates among females in same-sex relationships. In the ten years following the Dutch passing of marriage equality, twice as many lesbian marriages resulted in divorce, compared to a low failure rate of 15 per cent among gay men's marriages.
Perhaps the answer lies in the ways male same-sex couples seem to one-up all others.
Renowned relationship therapist Esther Perel repeatedly highlights in her book State of Affairs the edge gay men have over other couples when dealing with infidelity. Primarily she writes that gay men's outsider status created more of a willingness in the gay men's community to determine their own relationship norms, rather than conforming to heterosexual ones.The bonds that under-write heterosexual and lesbian marriages are thus less likely to be seen as the basis for gay men's marriages.
Perel goes further. When discussing solutions for married couples in a rut, she notes gay men have some advantages. Their willingness to open up relationships to satisfy sexual desires, without assuming it damages the romantic relationship means gay men's marriages are more robust.
Essentially gay men's attitudes towards sex, and more precisely its separation from the basis of a strong and loving marriage, make their marriages more durable. In fact, when sexual necessity is removed, often gay men's marriages are about the romantic desire to trust and rely on a husband. Conversely, Perel offers an example of a lesbian couple in an open relationship where one partner still manages to lie to, and thus cheat on, her wife.
Arguably, it might be better to compare lesbian divorce rates with other marriages where women are participants. Heterosexual divorces see women as far more likely to start divorce proceedings than their husbands. Wives petitioned for nearly two-thirds of such divorces in the last ten years according to The Economist's data. It seems reasonable to suggest that lesbian marriages would probably play to the same ratios.
Maybe it plays to a stereotype, but if men are less likely to start divorce proceedings, two men are much less likely to contemplate splitting up.
Recent studies also suggest that lesbians are twice as likely to have been married or civilly united before. Among these remarried divorcees, the data suggests that second marriages are even more likely to result in divorce than first-timers.
Lawrence Josephs wonders in a recent Psychology Today article, "Maybe it is only wishful thinking that two people could remain reasonably happy in a lifelong sexually exclusive arrangement."
Perhaps in exercising legal marriage equality (and seeing the natural evolution of marriages through several years), now we can all consider ways to achieve divorce equality, too.