“That result really suggested to us that these same-sex marriage legalizations may be improving the social
environment surrounding gays and lesbians by reducing the
amount of stigma-related stressors that they experience,”
The pressure’s on
Years of evidence have shown that the psychological and
social aspects of committed relationships between same-sex couples largely resemble those of heterosexual partners.
Whether straight or gay, couples form deep emotional
attachments and commitments and face similar issues
concerning intimacy, love, loyalty and stability (Journal of
Family Psychology, 2008). Empirical research also shows that
lesbian and gay couples have levels of relationship satisfaction
similar to or higher than those of heterosexual couples
(Developmental Psychology, 2008). But, psychologists point
out, marriage comes with stressors.
“For people who do have access to marriage, it can be a
really good thing,” Russell says. “But same-sex couples are also
now having to deal with a new pressure in their relationship
— put on them by themselves and by friends and family —
to make decisions about their relationship that weren’t in the
province of couples to make in the past.”
For many same-sex couples, the decision isn’t really a
decision at all: Brown and her partner, for example, are
ecstatic to marry finally, and to enjoy the economic and
social support benefits that such a union bestows. For some
couples, however — particularly those in which one or both
individuals may not be as open about their sexuality at work
or with family — the decision to marry may require more
deliberation, says Clinton Anderson, PhD, director of APA’s
Office on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns.
“Marriage is an important step and a perceived
commitment that affects one’s individual freedom,” he says.
“It also sets up ways in which one will lose the chance to
remain closeted when that feels safer than being out.”
The status of people’s relationships becomes easily
searchable in public records for having taken out a marriage
license and that can create an external forcing of the issue,
“For some couples, there are just more things to consider
— for example, getting married could protect the kids, but
it also might out them at work and put them in a vulnerable
position” at work or with neighbors, she says.
Even those who do choose to marry may face new challenges in
their relationships. For example, if one individual is offered a new
job opportunity in a state that doesn’t allow same-sex marriage, a
move could benefit their family financially but could also negate
access to protections their marriage had offered. Add children to
the equation, and decisions become even more complex.
“They might have to go through the whole rigmarole of
having to figure out how they are going to protect their family
in a new state,” Russell says. “The great job and money might
be really nice, but their second-parent adoption might not be
recognized in that other state.”
Beyond those concerns, some LGB couples just may not be
psychologically prepared for the possibility of marriage, says
Minnesota counseling psychologist Marge Charmoli, PhD.
Her state went from considering a ban on same-sex marriage
in 2012 to legalizing it in 2013.
“When the day suddenly arrived as it did in Minnesota,
same-sex couples weren’t prepared for all of what that meant,
because they hadn’t thought about it,” Charmoli says. “So
now what do they do? Do they have a conventional wedding?
Do they write their own rules?”
One of her clients who had been in a long-term
relationship and had children with her partner wanted to
marry for the legal protection, Charmoli recalls. The client’s
angst was palpable. “She was so anxious — mainly about little
things like what to wear to the ceremony, where to have it.
… I remember her saying, ‘It was never in my best interest
to imagine that same-sex marriage could ever be possible.’”
Other clients have found that family and friends seem more
excited about their ability to wed than they are themselves.
“We are encountering friends — some our age and some
a lot younger — who are getting pressured to marry,” Brown
says. These couples may feel stress to pick a date and plan the
wedding, while they are still getting adjusted to the idea that
same-sex marriage is legal.
“Parents are asking, ‘When are you two going to get
married?’ and ‘When are we going to have grandchildren?’”
Russell says. “It’s the same kinds of pressures other-sex
couples have been facing forever, suddenly coming into the
lives of same-sex couples in a way that hadn’t been there
before. It’s a change for the good, but that still means that
some adaptations need to be made.” n
Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.
• Balsam, K., Beauchaine, T, Rothblum, E.,
& Solomon, S. (2008). Three-year follow-up
of same-sex couples who had civil unions in
Vermont, same-sex couples not in civil unions,
and heterosexual married couples. Developmental
Psychology, 44( 1), 102–116.
• Kurdek, L. (2005). What do we know about
gay and lesbian couples? Current Directions in
Psychological Science, 14( 5), 251–254.
• Kurdek, L. (2008). Change in relationship
quality for partners from lesbian, gay male,
and heterosexual couples. Journal of Family
Psychology, 22( 5), 701–711.