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"Never in Our Lifetime": Legal Marriage for Same-Sex Couples in Long-Term Relationships*

Article excerpt

Abstract:

We present data from 4 lesbian and 5 gay male same-sex couples who have been together 20 years or more. Couples included those legally married and unmarried, with and without children, and were interviewed within the first year legalized same-sex marriage was enacted in Massachusetts. Using life course theory and case study methodology, we investigate supports and constraints related to relationship longevity and how these factors influence the couples' responses to the option of legal marriage decades into their relationships. Seven out of 9 couples married immediately or soon after legalization. The two who did not marry reaffirmed and maintained their commitment. Results are discussed in light of theory and practice within the context of a period of historic change.

Key Words: family diversity, gay/lesbian relationships, marriage, qualitative family research, sexual orientation issues.

Legal marriage for same-sex couples in the United States is limited to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, yet this recent change is unprecedented and marks a historic shift in our understanding of marriage and family. Although established long-term same-sex relationships are not unique (Blumstein & Schwanz, 1983; Mackey, Diemer, & O'Brien, 2004), the recognition of these relationships as legal and legitimate is both novel and controversial. In this paper, we present data from four lesbian and five gay male same-sex couples who have been together 20 years or more and interviewed within the first year a ruling legalizing same-sex marriage was enacted in Massachusetts. Because individuals undergo developmental changes over the course of their relationships and the relationship itself is subject to historical forces that shape family trajectories, we take a life course approach (Elder, 1994, 1998) to answer the following questions: (a) What supports and constraints are related to relationship longevity? and (b) How do these factors influence the couples' decision making in response to the option of legal marriage decades into their relationships?

Elder (1994, 1998) describes four principles of life course dieory, (a) historical time and place, (b) timing in lives, (c) linked lives, and (d) human agency, that apply to die conceptualization of the present study. Same-sex couples in Massachusetts are uniquely positioned, temporally and geographically, to have the opportunity to marry; choices and actions related to this opportunity may reflect the age of the individuals in the couple, the length of the relationship, and the relationship timing, as well as individual supports and constraints that vary in the context of extended family and social circles. We were particularly interested in same-sex couples in long-term relationships because research suggests that the legally (and often religiously) binding marriage contract influences longevity for heterosexual couples whereas the lack of such barriers for leaving may make it easier to end relationships (Kurdek, 2000; Peplau & Spalding, 2000).

Using qualitative methodology, we investigated the decision-making process for couples who suddenly had the opportunity for state government to legally recognize their union. Applying a multifocal life course lens, we sought to identify the factors that guided their decisions to marry or not and to understand how experiences of supports and constraints in their relationship trajectories influenced these decisions. Supports included the timing of the relationship, legal commitments and agreements including home ownership and estate planning, having children, seeking therapeutic help in managing conflicts, and striving to be monogamous role models. Constraints were related to generation and cohort and included stressors of homophobia and heterosexism. We examined responses from couples who had been together for two decades or more, for all intents and purposes "married" yet not married. Using a life course approach also enabled us to explore the role of major milestones in the couples' lives that may have functioned as proxies to legal marriage as markers of commitment. …