Study: The Health Benefits of Marriage Don't Apply to Cohabitating Gay Couples

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Marriage is a uniquely healthful institution.

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In a study we failed to cover a couple weeks back (sometimes, you have to pick and choose), researchers at the University of Missouri found that greater mental and physical health is generally seen in married people, who are also less likely to develop chronic conditions than people who are widowed or divorced. It wasn't the first study to suggest that being (happily) married may be good for your health.

Do same-sex couples who live together, but are unable to marry, get the same advantages? From a socioeconomic standpoint, researchers at Michigian State University assumed that this wouldn't be the case. They looked at the self-reported health, on a scale from "poor" to "excellent," of a nationally representative sample of over 3,000 cohabitating same-sex couples, equal parts male and female, as compared to the health of people in heterosexual marriages, as well as single, divorced, and windowed individuals. Per their results, published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, men living with a same-sex partner were 61 percent more likely to report having "poor" or "fair" health than men in heterosexual relationships; the odds were 46 percent higher for gay women than their straight, married peers.

Contrary to their expectations, socioeconomic status -- as measure by education level, poverty, and insurance coverage -- didn't account for these differences. At the same time, it was the only reason why same-sex couples were healthier than single, divorced, or widowed people. Once socioeconomic status had been accounted for, all reported more or less equal health status which, again, was lower than that reported by people in heterosexual marriages.

This means there must be something else making same-sex couples feel less healthy than heterosexual married people. The authors of the study suggest that stress borne from continuing discrimination against homosexuality may be part of the problem. Among all black women, those in same-sex cohabitating relationships had the worst reported health, while gay white women were healthier than straight white women who were either divorced or living with a male partner. This effect wasn't seen for men, and points to the possibility of what the authors call a "triple jeopardy": social stress caused by their sexuality, added on to that experienced by racial minorities and women in general, all could be contributing to their poor health.

But the authors also posit that there could be something inherent to the institution of marriage, beyond the socioeconomic advantage it provides, that contributes to the health effects observed for heterosexual couples. Surprisingly, they didn't look at same-sex married couples as a separate category of people, in fact combining those they identified under the category of cohabitating couples. The authors argue that this should not affect their findings because only small proportion of gay couples in their sample were married, but also because the legal status of same-sex marriages is still so tenuous. Only when gay marriage is entirely sanctioned, they imply, would the particular psychological and social support of marriage, or whatever else that mysterious "something" is, apply to gay spouses, too.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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