Same-Sex Marriage: Implications for Children and Families

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The debate about same-sex marriage is ripe in media and politics today.  Since 1996, when President Bill Clinton signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as exclusive to heterosexuals, several states have passed laws or constitutional amendments defining marriage as between one man and one woman.  Only six states (Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont) and the District of Columbia currently allow same-sex couples to enter into civil marriages.  Two states, Maryland and Washington, are on track to follow suit and allow same-sex marriage, that is, unless voters overturn the law in the upcoming election.  In February of 2012, the California Supreme Court deemed the state’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, however, an appeal is pending. For a state-by-state history of the legalization of same-sex marriage see Infographic: A Turning Point for Gay Marriage sponsored by The Pew Research Center.

One argument frequently contended by opponents of same-sex marriage is that it is harmful to children who are derived from such a union.  However, a thorough investigation of the academic research reveals that this line of reasoning is not so clear-cut.   In a recent publication of the Journal of Marriage and Family, the leading research journal in the field of family systems, Timothy Biblarz, PhD and Judith Stacey, PhD highlight the results from their meta-analysis of scientific studies conducted between 1990 and 2010 that investigate the differences in parenting and child outcomes between same-sex and different-sex couples.  In the article, they reflect that:

Although researchers who examine the impact of parental sex orientation on children reported few significant differences in child outcomes between children raised by heterosexual and lesbian couples (e.g., Tasker, 2005; Telingator & Patterson, 2008), the overwhelming public consensus is that children raised by both a mother and father develop more successfully.

Due to the minimal number of studies in existence that examine male, same-sex couples, findings from Biblarz and Stacey’s study are primarily applicable to female, same-sex couples.  Overall, there are far more similarities than differences among children raised by same-sex couples compared to children raised by different-sex couples.  In regards to the few significant differences, the majority of those discrepancies are in favor of children reared by same-sex couples.  For example, children parented by same-sex, female couples, as compared with children parented by different-sex couples:

  • Have greater security of attachment and fewer behavior problems
  • Are more likely to discuss emotional issues
  • View their parents as more available and dependable
  • Exhibit less aggressive behavior
  • Are more tolerant of gender nonconformity and display less gender chauvinism than their peers

Biblarz and Stacey conclude that, the research to date, does not support the conclusion that children raised by both a mother and a father develop more successfully than children reared by same-sex couples.  “Research has not identified any gender-exclusive parenting abilities (with the partial exception of lactation).”  The consensus of scientific studies on parenting appears to support the conclusion that “two committed, compatible parents” in a “low-conflict relationship” generally facilitate the most successful child outcomes.

In light of this research, the Defense of Marriage Act and the efforts of legislators in the forty-one states that currently ban same-sex marriage, may in fact be demeaning the family as a social institution rather than protecting it.  This is because, researchers have documented the significant positive effects for both couples and children that result from being a part of a marital union.  In their book, The Case for Marriage, Linda Waite, PhD and Maggie Gallagher, PhD highlight these positive outcomes.  In regards to children:

Whether or not parents get and stay married can have long-term consequences for their children, and even their children’s children.  On average, children of married parents are physically and mentally healthier, better educated, and later in life, enjoy more career success than children in other family settings.  Children with married parents are also more likely to escape some of the more common disasters of late-twentieth-century childhood and adolescence.

Waite and Gallagher’s conclusion that children from married families have better outcomes than children from single-parent families has also been extended to children living in cohabiting families.  Susan Brown, PhD and numerous other social science researchers, have discovered that children have worse outcomes when they grow up in cohabiting families as compared to married families.  These findings are important to the debate about same-sex marriage because states that prohibit these marriages are depriving children reared in these unions of the substantial benefits derived from growing up in a family supported by the marital bond.  Judith Seltzer, PhD succinctly summarizes the significant impact of familial relationships in her journal article, Families Formed Outside of Marriage.

Families matter for individuals.  What happens in our families affects how we live our lives, whether we are rich or poor, the languages we speak, the work we do, how healthy we are, and how we feel…A common understanding about the obligations and rights of family members contributes to the institutionalization of family relationships.  General consensus in public opinion about who should be counted as a family member and consistent laws also institutionalize relationships.


To protect the family as an institution, we need continuity in how we define the family so that we can better promote strong and healthy familial relationship.  Legislators need to consider the fact that by banning same-sex marriage, they are further fragmenting family relationships and denying to the children of these unions the benefits of being raised in a marital relationship.

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