The Invisibility of Same-Sex Divorce
When I began conducting qualitative interviews with divorced LGBTQ people in 2017, Jay was the first person I spoke with. He had recently ended a brief marriage to a man named David, and he was eager to share his experiences with me. At the beginning of his interview, after exchanging only a few pleasantries and before I could even ask the first question, Jay blurted out a surprising thank you. “I want to thank you for doing this,” he said. “I think that we need to continue the message, the exposure … we need to talk about this more.” When I asked for clarification, Jay explained what would become a dominant theme of all subsequent interviews: that same-sex divorce remains invisible in our society and that, as a result, LGBTQ people suffer in several unique ways both during and after the divorce process.
As I have come to learn, the dominant image of divorce within our society is one involving different-sex couples. To test this, ask someone you know to picture a divorce. What picture comes to mind for them? Most will likely conjure images of marital conflict, perhaps with children caught in the middle. But whatever that conflict looks like, it will likely involve a different-sex couple. To be sure, if you ask, most people would likely concede that same-sex couples divorce too. But they probably need to be asked before same-sex divorce even enters their thinking. In this sense, the image most of us hold of divorce remains steeped in heteronormativity—the assumption, embedded in social institutions and culture, that all people are heterosexual and that all relationships involve two people of the “opposite” sex.
This may be in part because of how recently marriage equality was achieved. As Jay explained, “I feel like nobody talks about the divorce. Everybody talks about the equality. It’s like, hello, let’s talk about it! If there’s marriage, there’s going to be divorce.” More specifically, Jay and others blame the media and the glaring absence of news stories about same-sex divorce. LGBTQ celebrities like Rosie O’Donnell have ended same-sex marriages, he said, but the media have focused almost exclusively on profiling celebrities and others who had gleefully rushed to the alter after the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. Although such media coverage captured the LGBTQ community’s excitement following this landmark victory for equal rights, it may have left some with the impression that all same-sex couples live happily ever after. However, as Jay and the others I spoke with know all too well, many same-sex marriages end in divorce. In fact, early evidence suggests that same-sex couples divorce at a rate that is comparable to that of different-sex couples. For instance, research conducted by The Williams Institute relied on administrative data from New Hampshire and Vermont, two states that were among the first in the United States to legalize same-sex marriage. The researchers found that in those states, approximately 1.1% of all same-sex marriages end in divorce each year, which is only slightly lower than the national rate for different-sex couples as reported by Michael Rosenfeld in “Couple Longevity in the Era of Same-Sex Marriage in the United States,” an article published in a 2014 issue of Journal of Marriage and Family. Using nationally representative data, Rosenfeld found that when controlling for marriage and marriage-like commitments, same-sex and different-sex couples break up at rates that are statistically indistinguishable.
However, a heteronormative image of divorce, and the invisibility it forces on same-sex divorce, has consequences for LGBTQ people. For instance, Jay told me that the first several lawyers he approached about representing him in his divorce proceedings all told him that despite their expertise in divorce law, they were unfamiliar with same-sex divorce and would not be able to represent him effectively. Furthermore, they could not point him to anyone who knew even the first thing about same-sex divorce. Thus, for all intents and purposes, Jay was denied a vital service because of the invisibility of same-sex divorce. And there are almost certainly many other LGBTQ people across the country who, like Jay, have been forced to navigate the complex challenges of the divorce process with less support than they need simply because individuals in positions to provide this support are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with same-sex divorce.
According to the individuals I interviewed, the consequences of the invisibility of same-sex divorce carry on, even after the divorce has been legally finalized. Several told me that it is especially difficult moving on and connecting with new people. For instance, Rodney told me that his newly acquired status as divorced makes dating difficult because even other gay men are still unaccustomed to same-sex divorce. “You meet someone,” he said, “and they’ll say, ‘Oh, were you married … to a woman?’” As Rodney explained, awkward conversations like these make for bad first dates, and he worries that his dates judge him harshly because his married ended in divorce. In fact, some have indicated that they simply won’t pursue a relationship with someone who is divorced. Similarly, Lauren said that she is deeply afraid that she will have experiences like Rodney’s. As a result, she finds herself withdrawing, fearful that others will be unable to understand the “basic architecture” of her life or, even worse, be judgmental. Frantically imaging what such a conversation might look like, Lauren asked of herself, “Yes, I’m gay, but then like, ‘Oh, you’re divorced and a single parent?’ It’s like, ‘Whoa, what’s up with you?’” Unwilling to risk finding herself caught in an encounter like this, Lauren keeps to herself now that she is divorced. “I think getting divorced is a big closeting force,” she said, “because you don’t want to talk about it, you don’t want to explain it to all of these people … because half of them won’t get it anyway.” Among those I interviewed, such fears were pervasive, even palpable.
But the fact that LGBTQ people experience consequences like these underscores the need for Certified Family Life Educators (CFLEs) to actively serve and support LGBTQ people who are impacted by same-sex divorce. First and foremost, divorce mediators and others who provide education and support for divorcing individuals and their families should make clear that they are LGBTQ-friendly. This can be accomplished in myriad ways, some of them quite simple, like publicizing in LGBTQ community outlets. Given the invisibility of same-sex divorce, clearly stating to the public that you are indeed LGBTQ-friendly would go a long way toward comforting and encouraging LGBTQ people who are in or have gone through the process of dissolving a same-sex marriage, and it may play a small part in undoing the invisibility of same-sex divorce.
In addition, CFLEs who work with individuals after divorce should understand that divorced LGBTQ people face unique challenges that stem from this invisibility. For instance, as my qualitative interviews suggest, they may be especially reluctant to discuss their divorce with others, including family members and friends. As a result, they may go through the divorce process without the full range of emotional and material support they need. In addition, because same-sex marriage and divorce are both such new phenomena, it is likely unclear to many how the broader LGBTQ community will perceive and treat community members who have ended a same-sex marriage. In turn, this may create anxiety among divorced LGBTQ people and cause them to struggle when trying to move on from a marriage by meeting others and exploring new relationships. In one way or another, all the individuals I interviewed experienced at least some of these challenges. As such, CFLEs should be aware of and sensitive to the possibility that LGBTQ individuals will need their support in handling these challenges. In particular, it may be especially helpful to work with LGBTQ individuals on communicating and connecting with others after their divorce.
To be clear, I am not a CFLE. I am a family sociologist actively engaged in basic (rather than applied) research and teaching related to marriage, divorce, and human sexuality. Nonetheless, I recognize the immense value of the work you do as CFLEs, and I share my research with you because I truly believe that my research participants would want me to do so. Indeed, like Jay, most agreed to an interview with me precisely because they hope that research like mine will help same-sex divorce become more visible, especially to professionals who can make a difference. I hope so, too.
Aaron Hoy, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of sociology at Minnesota State University, Mankato. His research and teaching interests include families, especially marriage and divorce, sexualities, sex and gender, and aging and the life course. His research has been published or is forthcoming in a wide range of sociology and interdisciplinary journals, including Sociology Compass, Journal of Homosexuality, and Journal of Divorce and Remarriage.