Improved measurement of marriage

The Supreme Court decision on June 26 ensured that same-sex couples have the legal right to marry no matter where they live. The shift in states’ legal recognition of marriage has been rapid, increasing over the course of a just over a decade from one state, Massachusetts, in 2004 to all 50 states in 2015. As a result, new questions have emerged about marriage for same-sex couples and have revealed some of the weaknesses in our national data infrastructure surrounding marriage and family life.

How many marriages to same-sex couples will occur each year? Based on estimates from administrative data and the American Community Survey, in 2013 there were over two million marriages to different-sex couples. There will likely be an initial upswing in marriages among same-sex couples as couples enjoy their new legal right, and then a leveling out in the number of marriages. If same-sex couples marry at the same rate as different-sex couples, around 50,000 marriages a year will occur to same-sex couples. These are simply estimates for same-sex couples and are not based on actual counts. The only data reported to the federal government by states are the counts of the number of marriages (regardless of whether they are to same-sex and different-sex couples). Some states will record counts of marriages to same-sex and different-sex couples, but not all of these data will be reported. Investments in an improved federal marriage and divorce vital statistics system would help to track marriages in the United States.

Another way to determine the levels of marriage is to include questions on surveys about marital status and marital timing. Gary Gates provides a great summary of estimates of marriages to same-sex couples. However, there are issues with marriage estimates for same-sex couples. Errors in the reporting of gender and relationship status have been detected in U.S. Census data. Even small errors in assessments of different-sex marriages are consequential for estimates of same-sex marriages, because of the relatively small number of gay and lesbian couples. Responses to relationship status may grow more accurate after marriage equality. Efforts are underway to improve the measurement of same-sex couples and their relationships in many data collections.

What are marriage rates for gays and lesbians? To calculate marriage rates it is necessary to establish who is at “risk” of marriage. While crude marriage rates are based on the number of marriages per total population, refined marriage rates are based on the number of marriages per unmarried men and women. To estimate refined marriage rates among gays and lesbians, we need accurate counts of the number of unmarried gays and lesbians. To generate these estimates of gays and lesbians at risk of marriage, we need sexual orientation asked in surveys. Asking about sexual orientation in surveys will also afford the opportunity to study people identifying as LGBTQ who are single and not in a couple. Most research relying on population-based samples has focused on sexual minority co-residential couples and ignored both couples who are not living together and single people.

Where do domestic partnerships and civil unions fit into the marriage system? A range of formal relationships exist across states and. It is not clear whether state and municipal defined domestic partnerships and civil unions will remain an option for same-sex as well as different-sex couples. Some same-sex couples in domestic partnerships or civil unions may decide to legally marry while others may decide to retain their current status. States and local municipalities may phase out civil unions and domestic partnerships or convert civil unions into marriages. Surveys are expanding to include measurement of a wide range of formally recognized unions. Challenges will persist in terms of the geographic variation and the potentially varying legal benefits tied to these relationships.

As a nation we value marriage, but we need to do a better job of collecting data and tracking marriage. A challenge for the research community is to ensure the measurement of family life in surveys keeps pace with changing forms of families. These measurement issues have implications for policies and programs targeted at improving the health and well-being of all Americans.

Wendy Manning is a professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University, co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research, and Director of the Center for Family and Demographic Research. (She led the research for the American Sociological Association’s amicus brief for same-sex marriage cases.) Follow her on Twitter at @wmannin.


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