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Studying Same-Sex Marriage

August 21, 2013 1:33 p.m.


Esther Rothblum, is a Professor of Women's Studies at San Diego State University and author of the research on same-sex marriages.

Related Story: Studying Same-Sex Marriage


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Now that same-sex marriage is legal again in California, are the question arises will same-sex unions be different from heterosexual marriages? It turns out that a San Diego State University researcher has been looking into that question since the first same-sex unions became legal in Vermont in the year 2000. Now the national institute of health has approved a million dollar grant to continue that research. My guest is Esther Rothblum, professor of Women's Studies at San Diego State University, and author of the research on same-sex marriages. Welcome to the program.

ROTHBLUM: Thank you!

CAVANAUGH: When you first began studying same-sex couples in 2000, what did you want to know?

ROTHBLUM: Well, first of all, they were the first couples in North America who could do anything legal at the time in the form of civil unions. And just to put this into context, this was before any country in the world had same-sex marriage. So people came from all over the U.S. to have these civil unions. And also from Canada because Canada did not yet have same-sex marriage. So we were curious how they differed from their heterosexual married siblings and how they differed from same-sex couples in their friendship circle who had chosen not to legalize their relationship.

CAVANAUGH: This brings me to the actual way you conducted this study. You used people who were in same-sex civil unions and compared their unions with the marriages of some of their siblings?

ROTHBLUM: That's right, yes.

CAVANAUGH: And in embarking on this study, you probably suspected there might be defenses between same-sex and opposite sex marriages. Where did you think those differences might lie?

ROTHBLUM: Well, other studies that have looked at same-sex couples before there was anything legal they could do found that same-sex couples tended to be less religious than their siblings. This is a time when religious organizations are not that welcoming to same-sex couples. We also found that same-sex couples tended to share housework and child care more equitably, and also finances, whereas heterosexual couples often you have a division of labor where men do -- pay for more things, women do more of the child care and housework.

CAVANAUGH: Now, how many people were involved in this study?

ROTHBLUM: We started off by -- it was the first time where we had access to a population, everybody. And we invited the first 4 hundred same-sex couples who had civil unions who also were willing to give us the addresses of their siblings and friends. So we started by contacting 2,400 couples. And we obviously didn't hear back from every couple, but we are following these couples over time as well. So we followed them three years now, and now we're about to start the 10-year follow-up.

CAVANAUGH: Now, where have you found so far the major differences between opposite sex couples and same-sex couples?

ROTHBLUM: The major differences are somewhat demographic. We find that same-sex couples are more highly educated, less religious, less likely to have children, although obviously some of them have children. But also as I mentioned, are more likely to share housework, child care, and so on. We also find that same-sex couples report higher levels of relationship satisfaction and intimacy and do conflict better, meaning they're less likely to run away if there's conflict or avoid the topic and so on.

CAVANAUGH: How did you define intimacy in your questions, both sexual and emotion?

ROTHBLUM: No, there's actually a standard questionnaire about intimacy, how close they feel to their partner. So it wasn't asking about sex, actually.

CAVANAUGH: You found more emotional intimacy with these couples. What do you suppose that is?

ROTHBLUM: Well, you know, if people believe that men are Mars and women are from venous, then I think it helps to have two martiance living together because they're from the same planet and speak the same language and come from the same culture. Heterosexual married couples actually really have to work hard to sort of find out about each other's culture. And many newly wed couples talk about that, how to negotiate conflict or intimacy or child care or housework and so on. So when you have two men in a couple or two women, chances are that they have had similar experiences in terms of how they fight when they have an argument, how they do intimacy, etc.

CAVANAUGH: Now, many heterosexual couples have problems with infidelity. Do same-sex couples typically make the same kinds of promises to each other as opposite sex couples do about faithfulness?

ROTHBLUM: We asked about monogamy. Now, we're relying on people's self-report. We don't know how many exactly people are telling us the truth. There tends to be more of a culture in gay male communities that nonmonogamy is okay than there are in lesbian or heterosexual communities. But for gay male couples, they're more likely therefore to have some kind of an agreement. When is infidelity okay? So it's not like a betrayal, it's sort of part of the relationship. But really very few people typically say that they had an affair or they were unfaithful.

CAVANAUGH: Now, how did you find -- you mentioned this before, how did you find that same-sex couples do divide up duties and tasks around the house?

ROTHBLUM: Well, when you have two women or 2 men, chances are they're both equally good or bad at cleaning the bathroom or vacuuming or changing diapers. One of the challenges that heterosexual women have is that they more likely have more experience than their husbands, so they tend to do more supervision, more correction, more reminding. And also I think they get blamed if the house is a mes. Nobody says, well, it must have been Mike's turn to clean. They say what is Sharon doing that the house is a mess or the children's socks don't mess or they forgot to give their inlaws a birthday present or something like that. So there are a lot of books actually about the struggle of chores for heterosexual couples. There's a book called Chore Wars about that. So same-sex couples may have different backgrounds, but all things being equal, it may be that one person does the vacuuming, are one person does the cleaning, so they divide up the housework more equally.

CAVANAUGH: So does your research tend to break down these gender stereotypes when it comes to who does work in an opposite-sex marriage?

ROTHBLUM: Well, I think that if heterosexual couples have similar backgrounds in child care or housework, they think they would divide it more equally. But that is still a big struggle, even among couples where women work or have highly paid jobs. Same-sex couples probably have fewer blueprints to go on, so they're kind of inventing the system as they any along.

CAVANAUGH: You mentioned that you began your study before there were any same-sex marriages anywhere in the world. Now there are. And I wonder if studies in other countries are sort of finding the out the same thing that your study is revealing about same-sex married couples.

ROTHBLUM: Yeah, we actually at the 3-year follow-up, there were a few places where couples could get married, including Canada, are Massachusetts, which at the time limited marriage to Massachusetts residents. But now for our 10-year follow-up, there are many states where couples can get married. And one of the things we're really going to focus on is are there any defenses between the couples who chose to get married and those who didn't?

CAVANAUGH: In your study when you found out that same-sex couples exhibited more of a level of intimacy, perhaps less conflict in a general way, did you take into consideration that these couples might have been together longer waiting to get married so that they wouldn't -- and they couldn't just get married on a whim, perhaps as some heterosexual couples do?

ROTHBLUM: Interestingly, the heterosexual couples had been married longer than their siblings and same-sex couples had been together. So actually the same-sex couples had not been together as long as the heterosexual couples. But you're right. When civil unions started in Vermont, are the couples who came from all over the country were not newly weds. They had been together for a long time. And I think the same is happening now in California. These are not couples who met a month ago. These are couples who have been together a long time and want to get married now.

CAVANAUGH: Your study is ongoing. You're still surveying the same couples from the year 2000. What kinds of things do you want to know now?

ROTHBLUM: We're always adding new measures, actually. Our questionnaires are getting longer and longer. For the first time we're going to be asking couples about physical health and mental health. We're also going to include some questions about the Supreme Court decision, how people felt about that --


ROTHBLUM: DOMA, yeah. If they're planning to get married because of that. Some of our couples chose not to get married and said, well, there aren't really a lot of benefits yet. So we're asking questions like that as well.

CAVANAUGH: Interesting. What about divorce?

ROTHBLUM: Well, we are very interested in who stays together and who breaks up. And the 3-year follow-up, not a lot of couples had broken up. But we found that more couples who had not had civil unions, more same-sex couples had broken up than same-sex couples in civil unions or than heterosexual married couples. But there were so few that we couldn't really look much more closely at what corresponded with that. Now we're assuming more couples have broken up. So we can see what it was ten years ago that might have give us a sense of who stays together and who breaks up. And I would bet that we're going to find different reasons why heterosexual couples break up and same-sex couples break up, and possibly even why same-sex couples, between two men who break up versus two women who break up.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I know you think there are some things that opposite sex couples could learn from these early findings into same-sex marriage.

ROTHBLUM: Well, I really think they could use their siblings and inlaws in same-sex couples as a model for sharing housework and child care, paying for thing, things like that. Those are the major things where we really see a difference. And the other thing I also want to stay is we always assume when a couple is married, they must be happy, and when they're divorced, they're not. There are married couples who stay together for other reasons than happiness. And we actually find that same-sex couples, again because they didn't have access to marriage, broke up sooner than heterosexual couples. And I think there are more external reasons why heterosexual couples stay married. The inlaws would have a heart attack, the children, etc. And so it'll be interesting to see now that there is same-sex marriage if same-sex couples are also staying together longer.

CAVANAUGH: I understand your point. I'm wondering about the other way around too, if same-sex couples might learn how to stick together through these rough patches the way heterosexual couples have had to learn to do.

ROTHBLUM: Right, right. Some people would say it's important to stick through it. I'm a psychologist by training, and I also would say there are couples who should not be together. So it's an opinion.

CAVANAUGH: What do you think about how the right to marry has affected same-sex relationships?

ROTHBLUM: Well, it's interesting. I think many same-sex couples never thought about it 20 years ago. Who would have guessed that marriage would be the issue? And there are couples where one member wants to get married and one doesn't. They never talked about it because it was never there. Heterosexual couples when they don't want to get married, they would mention that pretty early on. So the marriage issue hassasced them in multiple ways. And now with DOMA, I think it will have real economic benefits in terms of Social Security and immigration and federal income tax and so on.

CAVANAUGH: Is there anything about these findings that actually surprised you?

ROTHBLUM: Well, I always say that researchers should not really be surprised in a big way because research builds on earlier studies. So had we found results that were really different from other same-sex couple studies before there were civilians, I would really worry, wonder why our study was unique. So some of these things we sort of had seen in other studies. But you never know. I think the results about breakups will be very interesting once we see them.

CAVANAUGH: And I think it's probably important to make the point that do you, that while there are differences, the similarities outshine the differences between same-sex couples and heterosexual couples. Isn't that what you found?

ROTHBLUM: Right. I think many people want to be in a satisfying relationship. They want intimacy, they want happiness, they want to live happily ever after, and that definitely goes across all couples.

CAVANAUGH: So when will your latest results about same-sex marriage come out? When will that be published?

ROTHBLUM: Well, we have just sent out the first 100 questionnaires to make sure there are no glitches before we send out the next 1,400. It's the first time our study is online. And of course finding 1,500 people after seven years is a very interesting thing. So I would guess we're going to see our first results in a few months, but before we publish them, we want to make sure they're accurate. So maybe if a few years.

CAVANAUGH: This has all been fascinating. Thank you so much.

ROTHBLUM: Thank you.