Gay Marriage and Divorce

The most prominent argument against allowing same-sex couples to marry is that it somehow harms traditional marriage. Nate Silver argues that the anecdotal evidence would suggest just the opposite:  A tolerant view of marriage coincides with lower divorce rates.

Gay Marriage Divorce RatesOver the past decade or so, divorce has gradually become more uncommon in the United States. Since 2003, however, the decline in divorce rates has been largely confined to states which have not passed a state constitutional ban on gay marriage. These states saw their divorce rates decrease by an average of 8 percent between 2003 and 2008. States which had passed a same-sex marriage ban as of January 1, 2008, however, saw their divorce rates rise by about 1 percent over the same period.

The table below details the divorce rates for the 43 states that reported their divorce statistics to the CDC in both 2003 and 2008. It is calculated by taking the total number of divorces in the state that year, and dividing it by the number of married persons, as reported by the Census Bureau. The result is then multiplied by two, since each divorce involves two people. This is different than how the divorce rate is sometimes calculated, which may be as a share of the overall population rather than the number of married persons; I prefer my approach because it will not penalize a state for having a lot of marriages (and therefore more opportunities for divorce).

Visually, the correlation looks pretty spotty.  Virtually all of the states have affirmatively banned gay marriage and a goodly number have also banned civil unions.  They’re all over the rankings.  Meanwhile, only five states have legalized gay marriage and they’re spread out pretty well, too.   And the states at the very bottom, which have all banned gay marriage, increased by large percentages from very low baselines.  (The exception being Nevada which should, of course, be tossed from the list since it’s a notorious divorce haven.)

Indeed, what’s remarkable from the list is how incredibly small the divorce rate as a share of marriages is across the board.  Aside from Nevada, no state has a rate above 2.58% and most have rates under 2%.

But looks can be deceiving:

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).

gay-marriage-divorce-grouped

But you’re dealing with some mighty small n‘s here.  The top category has one case. The second category consists of  12 states but is utterly meaningless (what’s the difference between banning gay marriage in the constitution vice by statute?).  The third category is virtually every state in the union.

Beyond all that, Nate’s a much more adept statistician than I am.  But even I know that doing correlation analysis to analyze sophisticated social phenomena is absurd.  Unless we’re factoring in the variables known to impact marriage success rate (age at time of marriage, presence of children from prior marriages, different religious backgrounds, financial circumstances, race, prior cohabitation, etc.) so that we’re comparing apples to apples, we have no way of knowing what impact, if any, the legal status of gay marriage has on the overall divorce rate.

Indeed, Nate admits this:

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.

But that doesn’t make sense.  They’re anti-gay, after all.  Why would they want to save gays from an institution that they personally find intolerable?  The much more plausible explanation is that they honestly think gay marriage is immoral and they want to preserve matrimony as a sacramental relationship.

FILED UNDER: Gender Issues, Law and the Courts, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. yetanotherjohn says:

    Also the number of out of state same sex couples that then do not appear on the states divorce records.

  2. So basically Nate does some junk statistics to promote his belief? Predictable.

  3. J.W. Hamner says:

    Well, it’s not like the guy is writing a dissertation about it… he’s just making a rough pass with the appropriate caveats, so I’m not sure all of the criticism is warranted. Just because a post has numbers in it does not mean it’s being passed off as super serious analysis.

  4. Eric Florack says:

    So basically Nate does some junk statistics to promote his belief? Predictable.

    It certainly is.
    It strikes me as interesting that anything that argues for the socially or economically nontraditional, invariably uses anecdotal evidence as the basis for discussion. If somebody arguing for it socially traditional were to try that, we’d see the arguments trounced before the echo died.

  5. James Joyner says:

    Just because a post has numbers in it does not mean it’s being passed off as super serious analysis.

    But it’s often received that way. So it’s worth pointing out that the numbers here don’t mean squat.

  6. Robert Bell says:

    “But that doesn’t make sense. They’re anti-gay, after all. Why would they want to save gays from an institution that they personally find intolerable? The much more plausible explanation is that they honestly think gay marriage is immoral and they want to preserve matrimony as a sacramental relationship.”

    Actually still more plausible is that if, “for whatever reason” people are experiencing higher rates of divorce, then they conclude “marriage is under threat” and therefore use the power of government to legislate against things perceived to be threats …

  7. Tom Maguire says:

    I blame Bush and Cheney. And Osama. Since the 2001/2003 deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, military divorces have risen by much more than the national rates (presumably military plus civilian) shown by Silver.

    If the same Red States that banned gay marriage are also over-represented among military bases and military families (likely!), and the states that backed gay marriage are under-represented (that would basically be New England, America’s demilitarized zone) then a lot of the answer to the changing divorce rates would be found in the military stats.

  8. […] James Joyner: Beyond all that, Nate’s a much more adept statistician than I am.  But even I know that doing correlation analysis to analyze sophisticated social phenomena is absurd.  Unless we’re factoring in the variables known to impact marriage success rate (age at time of marriage, presence of children from prior marriages, different religious backgrounds, financial circumstances, race, prior cohabitation, etc.) so that we’re comparing apples to apples, we have no way of knowing what impact, if any, the legal status of gay marriage has on the overall divorce rate. […]

  9. anjin-san says:

    You know, my gut tells me that marriage is something that happens between a man and a woman. My brain, on the other hand, tells me that equal justice under the law is the cornerstone of our society. And my heart tells me that I know a lot of wonderful people who are gay/lesbian, an there is no good reason that they should not be allowed to enjoy the same rights the rest of us do.

    As for the blather about gay marriage being “nontraditional”, well not that long ago, black people using the same public facilities as whites was a break with tradition too…

  10. tom p says:

    Once again, we get a BS discussion about “gay marraige”…

    They’re anti-gay, after all.

    Say it James, “They are homophobic.” you will feel a whole lot better.

    Why would they want to save gays from an institution that they personally find intolerable?

    Because, if it is not the “gays” fault it is their own. (heaven forbid!!!)

    The much more plausible explanation is that they honestly think gay marriage is immoral and they want to preserve matrimony as a sacramental relationship.

    The much more plausible explanation is that they do not want to take responsibility for their own short comings, ie: “She is a slut”, “I gamble too much”, “I am a whoredog”, “Gold digging bitc*”, “She does too many drugs”, “I drink too much”… etc, etc, ad infinitim…

    Does anybody really honestly think that what is happening 3 doors down has any real affect on what happens within their own doors?

    For my ownself, I am far more concerned about those who feel a yearning for the Appalachian Trail than I am about those who keep behind closed doors what should be kept behind closed doors.

    And if anyone really wants “to preserve matrimony as a sacramental relationship” they can start by preserving their own “sacramental relationships” and let the rest of us worry about ours.

    Children learn, firstmost and primarily, from their parents. Be a good husband. Be a good wife. Be a good parent.

    “Teach your children well.”

  11. JVB says:

    For my ownself, I am far more concerned about those who feel a yearning for the Appalachian Trail than I am about those who keep behind closed doors what should be kept behind closed doors.

    Tell yourself that the next time a city takes a day off to celebrate gay pride…and you are just as disgusting labeling any one with a concern an Appalachian throw-back. You’re a hypocrite. Flamboyant Gays, gosh, I keep seeing Perez Hilton is all his ugly glory, have done more to harm the move to legalize gay marriage than anything. They have done it to themselves. The gays I happen to know, on the other hand, wouldn’t dream of making their sexual preferences or orientation any one else’s business. They are sincere and professional people just carving a place for themselves in this world. Maybe these loud mouthed,ugly and insulting activists need to learn from the gays actually making things work for themselves. I can’t even imagine a ‘straight pride parade’….and yet we have gay pride day/week/month that reminds us not every one wants to be equal, but rather superior and exceptional. And then they wonder why they get rejected time and again. And I’ve never been NEAR Appalachia.

  12. tom p says:

    Tell yourself that the next time a city takes a day off to celebrate gay pride…and you are just as disgusting labeling any one with a concern an Appalachian throw-back.

    OK, reading comprehension is elemental:
    First off my reference to the Appalachian trail was in direct reference to Mark Sanford (Gov of SC in case ya did’n know) who told me a WHOLE LOT MORE ABOUT HIS SOUL MATE IN ARGENTINA THEN I EVER WANTED TO KNOW… All he had to say was “I found somebody else.” and then STFU!

    2nd of all: I HAVE NEVER HEARD OF A CITY TAKING A DAY OFF FOR GAY PRIDE!!!!!!!!!!!!

    3rd of all: I obviously spend a whole lot more time in Appalachia than you… SO SHUT THE F UP!

    gosh, I keep seeing Perez Hilton is all his ugly glory, have done more to harm the move to legalize gay marriage than anything.

    For starters, “Paris Hilton” is a woman!!!!! Are you a troll?

    The gays I happen to know…

    You don’t know any gays, or any one from Appalachia, or Paris Hilton…

    wouldn’t dream of making their sexual preferences or orientation any one else’s business.

    I repeat: reading comprehension is elemental.

    I can’t even imagine a ‘straight pride parade’….

    Try “Columbus Day” or “St. Patty’s Day” or “Veteran’s Day” (ok, the last was a bit of a cheap shot, but how many gay WWII vets do you know of?)

    Maybe these loud mouthed,ugly and insulting activists need to learn from the gays actually making things work for themselves. I can’t even imagine a ‘straight pride parade’….and yet we have gay pride day/week/month that reminds us not every one wants to be equal, but rather superior and exceptional.

    Really, you should stfu while you are a head…

  13. anjin-san says:

    The gays I happen to know, on the other hand, wouldn’t dream of making their sexual preferences or orientation any one else’s business.

    So in your book, its ok to be gay, as long as one, stays humble, keeps quiet, and walks around with eyes downcast.

    You sir, are a great American.

  14. Franklin says:

    For starters, “Paris Hilton” is a woman!!!!! Are you a troll?

    Perez Hilton is a different person than Paris Hilton.

  15. floyd says:

    “”The most prominent argument against allowing same-sex couples to marry is that it somehow harms traditional marriage.””
    “””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””

    This appears to be a perfect “Straw man”.
    Now if he “only had a brain”!
    {or even just a diploma}

  16. An Interested Party says:

    This appears to be a perfect “Straw man”.

    Umm, not to those right wing organs that are making that very argument…try a little harder next time, dear…

  17. tom p says:

    Perez Hilton is a different person than Paris Hilton.

    Franklin, thanx (truly) for the edification. I have no tv. I (half) listen to NPR when I drive, and very little else. I have great big huge holes in my knowledge of “Pop” news.

    For instance: whenever I hear “Paris” Hilton (or maybe it is “Perez” Hilton???) I automatically tune out… I know I don’t care about anything she (or “he”, now) has to say.

  18. tom p says:

    So in your book, its ok to be gay, as long as one, stays humble, keeps quiet, and walks around with eyes downcast.

    Thank you, Anjin…

  19. tom p says:

    Umm, not to those right wing organs that are making that very argument…try a little harder next time, dear…

    Of course, there is an alternate universe… You know, where men do not show public affection for a woman who wears a burka, where even to speak her name is an insult requiring death to the utterer (is that even a word???)…

    Isn’t it much better where men walk down public streets holding hands and kiss each other upon the cheeks, when departing? (as our former Pres did) (thank GOD he did not bow!!!)

    Really guys, can we just put this BS to bed? Please?

  20. Eric Florack says:

    You know, my gut tells me that marriage is something that happens between a man and a woman. My brain, on the other hand, tells me that equal justice under the law is the cornerstone of our society

    That argument only works if you can explain to me how it’s unequal justice. Any homosexual can marry any person of the opposite sex that will have them, just like anyone else. Explain to us EXACTLY how this is unequal.

  21. Eric Florack says:

    (A day later)

    A silence not unexpected, but very telling.