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(p. 151) Same-Sex Relationship Dissolution and Divorce: How Will Children Be Affected? 

(p. 151) Same-Sex Relationship Dissolution and Divorce: How Will Children Be Affected?
(p. 151) Same-Sex Relationship Dissolution and Divorce: How Will Children Be Affected?

Rachel H. Farr

, and Abbie E. Goldberg

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date: 17 June 2019

Now that same-sex marriage is a nationwide right in the United States, same-sex divorce is also increasingly a reality. Recent data indicate that the number of married same-sex couples doubled or even tripled over the past few years—there are an estimated 547,000 married same-sex couples, as of June 2017 (Romero, 2017)—and many of these married same-sex couples have children (Gates, 2015). Thus, the number of children with same-sex parents who will experience their parents’ legal divorce will rise in the coming years. Children with same-sex parents have, of course, sometimes experienced their parents’ relationship dissolution. Yet, historically, these relationships have not typically been legally recognized, which had the capacity to create unique forms of stress for families—but at the same time, also had certain advantages as well, as we will discuss (Goldberg & Allen, 2013; Goldberg & Kuvalanka, 2012; Allen, chapter 11, in this volume; Kauffman, chapter 12, in this volume).

A question that is central to the topic of same-sex couple dissolution and divorce, and thus to this chapter, is: What happens for children following the end of their mothers’ or fathers’ romantic relationship? To address this, we draw on (1) the ample literature about children’s adjustment following their heterosexual parents’ divorce, (2) the scant literature regarding the experiences and outcomes of children whose same-sex parents separate or divorce, and (3) the literature on same-sex relationship dissolution.1

Some studies have suggested that female and male couples2 may be at increased risk for relationship dissolution as compared with their heterosexual counterparts; this work, however, was limited in often comparing unmarried same-sex couples to married heterosexual couples (e.g., Kurdek, 2004; Oswald & Clausell, 2006). As social and legal climates have shifted, recent research indicates that rates of break-up are comparable among same- and different-sex couples; such similarity (p. 152) appears particularly true among same-sex couples who are married, in marriage-like relationships, or who are parents (Goldberg & Garcia, 2015; Manning, Brown, & Stykes, 2016; Rosenfeld, 2014; Manning & Joyner, chapter 2, in this volume). Regardless, it is the case that some same-sex couples will not have enduring romantic relationships. This chapter, in turn, provides an overview of available social science research on same-sex relationship dissolution. As many same-sex couples are parents, and divorce can be especially stressful and challenging when couples are also parents, we specifically focus attention on what is known about experiences of relationship dissolution among same-sex parent families. We attend in particular to the antecedents and consequences of same-sex couple dissolution, not only for the partners involved, but also for their children. We draw on both qualitative and quantitative data in our review, given both the paucity of work in this area, and the value of each in terms of enhancing our understanding of understudied and complex phenomena (Goldberg & Allen, 2015).

Again, given that research on same-sex relationship dissolution is relatively new, emerging data are included in the context of the broader literature on heterosexual divorce. Available data suggest that many factors that predict relationship dissatisfaction and disruption for heterosexual couples also do so for same-sex couples (Gottman et al., 2003; Kurdek, 2004; Rostosky & Riggle, chapter 3, in this volume). Thus, it is likely that patterns of adjustment facing same-sex couples post-divorce are similar to those encountered by different-sex couples who split up. In addition, family processes following divorce among lesbian and gay parent families are presumably comparable in many ways to those among heterosexual parent families. Studies that address risk and resilience among children with heterosexual parents who have divorced are presented, as they may be relevant to the experiences of children with same-sex parents who separate or divorce (e.g., Amato, 2010; Greene, Anderson, Forgatch, DeGarmo, & Hetherington, 2012; Lansford, 2009). We also highlight some of the specific issues that face families with same-sex parents who divorce, including unique family and relationship dynamics, lack of cultural models for same-sex divorce, and legal and practical concerns. Finally, we offer evidence-based recommendations and implications for families who may be vulnerable to or experiencing divorce or dissolution, including guidance particularly for same-sex parents and their children.

Risk for Dissolution Among Same-Sex Parenting Couples and the Role of Children

Beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, researchers documented a higher dissolution rate for same-sex couples as compared with heterosexual couples, particularly married heterosexual couples (Blumstein & Schwartz, 1983; Kurdek, 1998). For example, Kurdek (1998) documented dissolution rates of 15% and 7% over a 5-year period among same-sex and heterosexual couples, respectively. Further, among (p. 153) same-sex couples, Blumstein and Schwartz (1983) reported that lesbian couples were more prone to dissolution than were gay couples. In an 11-year follow-up study of lesbian, gay, and heterosexual couples, Kurdek (2004) demonstrated that cohabiting same-sex couples were more likely to have ended their relationship than were married heterosexual couples, particularly heterosexual couples with children. In a study by Gottman and colleagues (2003), the authors reported that 8 of 40 same-sex couples (20%) had broken up over a 12-year period; Kurdek (1992) found that 14% of same-sex cohabiting couples (22 of 153) dissolved their relationships over a 4-year period.

In comparing heterosexual parent and lesbian, gay, and heterosexual nonparent couples, Kurdek (2006) reported that predictors of relationship quality, stability, and commitment—namely, expressiveness, positive perception of one’s partner, social support—were similar across different types of couples, regardless of parenting status. Some studies, though, suggest higher dissolution rates among female same-sex parents than heterosexual parents; whereas others indicate comparable dissolution rates among same-sex and different-sex parenting couples. For instance, among lesbian parents with children conceived through donor insemination, 40 of 73 couples (55%) had dissolved their relationships by the time children were 17 years old, as compared with a 36% divorce rate among heterosexual couples with 17-year-old children in the US National Survey of Family Growth (Gartrell, Bos, & Goldberg, 2011). One recent study comparing same-sex and different-sex couples who adopted children revealed comparable rates of couple dissolution (8%) across a 5-year timespan (i.e., from the time of adoption to 5 years post adoptive placement; Goldberg & Garcia, 2015), yet lesbian parents were more likely to break up (12%) than gay parents (2%). Another recent study indicated that lesbian adoptive couples were more likely to break up (31%) than gay and heterosexual adoptive couples (both 7%) across a 5-year period (Farr, 2017a).

Available data from countries outside the United States generally show similar patterns of dissolution risk among same-sex couples as compared to different-sex couples. In Norway and Sweden, when national data on registered partnerships among same-sex couples were compared with data on married heterosexual couples, same-sex couples were more likely to break up than different-sex couples (13%), with female couples (21% in Norway, 30% in Sweden) twice as likely as male couples (13% in Norway, 20% in Sweden; Andersson, Noack, Seierstad, & Weedon-Fekjaer, 2006). Interestingly, however, relationship dissolution rates were equivalent among same- and different-sex couples with children (Andersson et al., 2006). More recently, Wiik, Seierstad, and Noack (2014), in their large study of relationship dissolution in Norway, found that same-sex couples were more likely to divorce than were different-sex couples. Similar to Andersson et al. (2006), Wiik and colleagues (2014) found that female same-sex couples were more prone to dissolution than their male counterparts (i.e., after 7 years, 26% of female and 20% of male couple relationships had dissolved; after 18 years, 45% of female and 40% of male partnerships had ended). Moreover, having children appeared to be protective for (p. 154) female same-sex couples, but increased the risk for male same-sex couples (Wiik et al., 2014). Among the 13% of same-sex couples reported to be parents, women (24%) were more likely than men (3%) to have children. For female couples, the divorce risk was 49% lower among those with children compared to those without children, but for male couples, the divorce risk was 76% higher among those with children compared to those without children (Wiik et al., 2014).

In the United Kingdom (UK), Lau (2012) employed two large population studies with data from 1974 to 2004, and found that cohabiting (nonmarried) same-sex couples were twice as likely to dissolve their relationships as were cohabiting (nonmarried) heterosexual couples. Lesbian and gay cohabiting (nonmarried) couples were five and seven times more likely, respectively, to break up than were married heterosexual couples (Lau, 2012). Among a smaller sample in the UK, six of 13 (46%) lesbian parenting couples, who were initially assessed when the children were 6 years old, broke up by the time children were 12 years old (MacCallum & Golombok, 2004). In the Netherlands, longitudinal data revealed that same-sex cohabiting couples were 12 and 3 times more likely to dissolve than were different-sex married and cohabiting couples, respectively (Kalmijn, Loeve, & Manting, 2007). Similar to Lau’s (2012) study in the UK, Kalmijn and colleagues found that male same-sex couples were more likely to break up than female same-sex couples. Finally, in a study conducted in Taiwan, same-sex couple relationships were found to be characterized by greater instability than married couples overall, but all childfree couples showed similar relationship patterns in terms of reported feelings of love and relationship satisfaction (Shieh, Hsiao, & Tseng, 2009). A follow-up study revealed results in line with those of Andersson and colleagues (2006), as well as Wiik and colleagues (2014): female same-sex couples appeared to break up at higher rates than male same-sex couples, which women explained as primarily related to infidelity (Shieh, 2016; Shieh et al., 2009).

Even with differences in dissolution rates among same- and different-sex couples, correlates of dissolution—namely relationship satisfaction, commitment, discrepant or low income levels, lower educational attainment, younger ages, and partner age gaps—are similar for all couples across studies (Andersson et al., 2006; Kalmijn et al., 2007; Lau, 2012; Shieh et al., 2009). Thus, available research, only some of which explicitly included couples who are parents, indicates that same-sex unions may be more at risk for dissolution than heterosexual unions but that same- and different-sex couples dissolve their relationships for similar reasons. The higher risk of dissolution for same-sex couples, however, may be moderated by gender composition of the couple, the presence of children, and, as we discuss in the next section, marriage and other legal recognition.

The Role of Legal Recognition of Same-Sex Couple Relationships

There is evidence that legal recognition of same-sex couples’ relationships may reduce dissolution risk. In general, legal recognition (e.g., marriage) is understood (p. 155) to have a “stabilizing” effect on intimate relationships, creating emotional, social, legal, and financial incentives to stay and financial barriers to leaving (Balsam, Beauchaine, Rothblum, & Solomon, 2008; Meezan & Rauch, 2005; Rosenfeld, 2014; Manning & Joyner, chapter 2, in this volume; Rostosky & Riggle, chapter 3, in this volume). Most research indicating higher same-sex dissolution risk has resulted from comparisons of nonmarried cohabiting same-sex couples with married heterosexual couples. Yet new evidence is emerging that compares married different-sex couples to same-sex couples in marriages, civil unions, or other legal relationships. For example, comparing same-sex couples with and without civil unions to married heterosexual couples in the United States, dissolution rates were higher among same-sex couples without legal relationship recognition than same-sex couples in civil unions and married heterosexual couples across a 3-year period (Balsam et al., 2008). Also in the United States, Rosenfeld (2014) found that same-sex couples in marriages or marriage-like relationships (defined as civil unions, domestic partnerships, or other couple relationships with legal obligations differing from marriage) were no more likely than heterosexual married couples to end their relationships, yet female couples were more likely to get both married and divorced than were male couples. In the UK, same-sex couples in civil partnerships were actually found to show fewer dissolutions than married heterosexual couples (Ross, Gask, & Berrington, 2011).

Parenting and Legal Recognition of Same-Sex Couple Relationships

What about the role of children as related to same-sex marriage and marriage-like relationships? In Balsam et al.’s (2008) study, men in civil unions were found to be more likely to have children than male same-sex couples not in civil unions. In comparing same-sex couples in Vermont (civil unions), Massachusetts (marriage), and California (domestic partnerships), female couples were more likely to report having children than were male couples (Rothblum, Balsam, & Solomon, 2008). In Rosenfeld’s (2014) study, the presence of children in the household was not found to be associated with same-sex couple dissolution. Thus, there is some evidence that same-sex couples may be more likely to get married or stay married when they have children together (see also Rostosky & Riggle, chapter 3, in this volume).

Qualitative interview data reveal that same-sex couples who are parents perceive that both marriage and having children contribute to relationship endurance, and that same-sex marriage offered important legal protections and a new sense of security and family identity (Porche & Purvin, 2008). One lesbian mother in Porche and Purvin’s study discussed how getting married to her wife had influenced their child: “She had a boy in her class that would say ‘They’re not married, they can’t be married!’ So I figured it was such a thrill for her to be able to say, with confidence, ‘They’re married, and yes it is legal,’ and ‘I’m just like you’ ” (p. 153).

Indeed, the absence of legal recognition for same-sex couple relationships in the United States led to both challenges and unique advantages for families headed (p. 156) by sexual minority parents. In Farr’s (2017a) longitudinal study with lesbian and gay adoptive parents, who were followed from 2007 to 2014, parents in dissolved couple relationships used a variety of terms to describe their break-up, depending on legal relationship status—e.g., divorce, separation, “no longer a couple but still coparenting” or “no longer a couple but still a family.” One lesbian mother, in her individual in-depth interview, described how although she had been in a relationship with a new partner for 5 years, she and her former partner had remained legally married (a total of about 10 years). This appears to have been the result of the lack of clarity and availability regarding acquiring a same-sex divorce at the time of the study (Ellis, 2013; Wolf, 2014). Indeed, without the option of legal divorce, separating parents have to come to their own agreements about each of their roles and responsibilities with their children and one another (Allen, chapter 11, in this volume; Goldberg & Allen, 2013; Kauffman, chapter 12, in this volume).

Historically, and particularly prior to same-sex marriage rights in the United States, one partner might have legal parenting rights to the couple’s children (if the partner had not adopted or could not legally adopt the children via co-parent or second-parent adoption; Gartrell, Bos, Peyser, Deck, & Rodas, 2011; van Eeden‐Moorefield, Martell, Williams, & Preston, 2011; see also Knauer, chapter 1, in this volume).3 Without legal protections, the nonlegal parent might be forced to sever relationships with children after same-sex relationship dissolution, which could be devastating to parents and children involved (Allen, 2007; Allen, chapter 11, in this volume). The legal parent—often the biological parent, in female same-sex couples who had children via donor insemination—was typically the parent with much greater power (Goldberg & Allen, 2013). In Goldberg and Allen’s (2013) study of young adults who had endured their lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) parents’ relationship dissolution, one young man whose lesbian mothers had dissolved their relationship put it like this: “If [my parents’ split] had been less than incredibly amicable, I think [nonbiological mother] would have been [up against] a lot to get any sort of custody rights. If [biological mother] just decided to be a jerk about it and say, ‘No, sorry,’ that would’ve really sucked for [nonbiological mother], ‘cause she wouldn’t have been able to see [me]” (p. 537). Any sudden loss of a parent or loved one has the potential to adversely affect children; further, as Allen (2007; chapter 11, in this volume) observes, this loss is more likely the loss of the nonlegal, nonbiological parent.

Court custody battles between same-sex parents are likely to increase now with nationwide marriage equality and some resulting divorces of those same-sex marriages. Any resulting custody decisions will likely center on the fitness of the parents (Johnson, O’Connor, & Tornello, 2016). In any child custody determination, the needs of the child are paramount; thus, family courts ultimately pursue “the best interests of the child,” seeking the optimal environment in terms of stability and support in making custody decisions (Goldberg & Allen, 2013; Lansford, 2009). Often, family courts attempt to create joint custody agreements by managing both legal and physical (i.e., residential) custody rights (p. 157) between the two parents, which allows the child to have ongoing relationships with both parents (Dodge, 2006). Biological parents, however, have traditionally been favored by judges over any other parental figures who have taken on childrearing responsibilities (Goldberg & Allen, 2013). There is evidence that this bias continues to operate, even when same-sex couples who were legally married are divorcing and negotiating custody arrangements (Wolf, 2014). Among same-sex parenting couples, children may not be biologically related to either or both parents, yet marriage (as well as legal divorce from that marriage) provides cohesive relationships between parents and children recognized as one family (Dodge, 2006). Although heterosexual marriage has been generally considered as an institutional method of providing legal parenting status to both parents in that marriage, including during child custody decisions that occur in the event of divorce (Dodge, 2006; Pearson, chapter 10, in this volume), it does not appear to be the case that same-sex marriage always provides the same guarantee of legal parenting recognition to any children in that marriage (see Knauer, chapter 1, in this volume).

What Do We Know About Children’s and Parents’ Outcomes After (Same-Sex) Divorce?

Using 2010 Census data, Gates (2015) estimates that at least 200,000 same-sex couples in the United States have children under age 18, and these numbers show variation by race and socioeconomic status. For instance, Black LGB adults are 2.4 times more likely to have children than their White counterparts, and Latinx4 LGB adults are 1.7 times more likely than white LGB adults to be raising children (Gates, 2011). Among all same-sex couples with children, 20% are living at or below the poverty line, compared with 9% of different-sex couples with children (Gates, 2012). Some estimates, aggregating multiple studies, suggest that about 40% of married heterosexual couples with children divorce (Larson, 2011). Conjecturing from these statistics, assuming that dissolution rates for same-sex couples are similar (if not higher), it is possible that at least 80,000 children currently being raised by same-sex couples will experience their parents’ separation or divorce. Ample research from the past 30 years clearly indicates that children with same-sex parents develop on par with their peers with different-sex parents (for reviews, see Biblarz & Stacey, 2010; Goldberg, Gartrell, & Gates, 2014; Moore & Stambolis-Ruhstorfer, 2013; Patterson, 2017). Thus, it is reasonable to think that the adjustment of children who experience the dissolution of their same-sex parents’ relationship would be similar to children who experience the divorce of their heterosexual parents. As with children who have heterosexual parents, children with sexual minority parents need love, validation, support, and material resources following separation or divorce (Meezan & Rauch, 2005). In addition, some experiences of children with same-sex parents might be unique in the face of their parents’ separation.

(p. 158) Meezan and Rauch (2005) write that same-sex marriage will confer three types of benefits to children with married same-sex parents: (1) increasing children’s material well-being as a result of marital benefits such as access to spousal health insurance or family leave policies; (2) increasing the stability and security of same-sex parents’ relationships, thereby benefiting children; and (3) potentially increased social acceptance of same-sex parent families, including greater support and advocacy for children in these families. Yet a related point is Pelts’s (2014) contention that parental marital status influences how children are viewed by peers and society at large, as well as how children access government benefits, such that children of married parents enjoy certain advantages and children with divorced parents experience certain disadvantages in these regards. Thus, just as same-sex marriage might confer social and practical benefits to parents and children in these families, same-sex divorce might serve to disadvantage children by diminishing access to material resources, destabilizing (at least temporarily) family relationships, and potentially exposing children to stigma given their combined status of having sexual minority as well as divorced parents (Lansford, 2009; Oswald & Clausell, 2006; Sachs, chapter 13, in this volume).

Little research has examined children’s response or adjustment to their same-sex parents’ relationship dissolution, but available evidence indicates similarities to children who experience their heterosexual parents’ divorce. In an unpublished dissertation, Turteltaub (2002) interviewed 10 lesbian mothers who represented 5 former couples, as well as 7 of their children; all families had conceived via donor insemination. Children, who averaged 13 years old (and were an average age of 4 at the time of their parents’ separation) were reported by their parents to have difficulty adjusting to the family reorganization that occurs in the wake of parental separation (Turteltaub, 2002), as do children whose heterosexual parents separate (Amato, 2010). Indeed, increased family transitions are among the adaptive challenges that children (and parents) face after divorce (Greene et al., 2012; Lansford, 2009). Yet attention to long-term adjustment is as important as assessing children’s short-term responses to their parents’ relationship dissolution. In another study of 40 separated lesbian mother families with adolescent children through donor insemination, results showed that children generally showed positive life satisfaction and well-being in the years following the separation (Gartrell, Bos, Peyser, et al., 2011).

Some post-separation issues that children face in the wake of their same-sex parents’ dissolution are unique to having sexual minority parents. In one study, young adults (N = 20) who had experienced their same-sex parents’ relationship dissolution noted that the pain they felt about the break-up was accentuated by the lack of legal relationship recognition (Goldberg & Allen, 2013). In essence, they felt that their parents’ relationship dissolution was minimized—and in turn, they felt that outsiders often did not understand or empathize with their profound sadness surrounding their parents’ break-up. In other research, children of lesbian mothers (N = 7) noted difficulties in disclosing to others about their parents’ (p. 159) separation, in light of heteronormative assumptions about having a mother and father rather than two mothers (Turteltaub, 2002). Children also expressed guilt if they had lied to others about their family structure, yet these children also felt protective of and loyal toward their mothers, expressing strong, positive sentiments about their family (Turteltaub, 2002; see also Sachs, chapter 13, in this volume).

Legal safeguards, which have both practical and emotional significance, appear to matter to children’s adjustment to parents’ relationship dissolution. In a longitudinal study of lesbian mothers who separated (N = 40 families), having legal safeguards in place appeared to be linked with greater likelihood of sharing custody, yet no differences were found in adolescents’ well-being as a function of custody decisions (Gartrell, Bos, Peyser, et al., 2011). Moreover, children reported feeling closer to both mothers—biological and nonbiological—when each was recognized as a legal parent (Gartrell, Bos, Peyser, et al., 2011). Thus, legal relationship recognition appears to have implications for child outcomes in same-sex parent families that break up.

Same-sex parent families who experience divorce may also be met with financial challenges (e.g., due to the financial hardship of going from one residence to two residences). After their parents’ separation, children from lesbian parent families have noted some financial hardships related to having two mothers with lower earning power; specifically, children noted feeling constrained by financial issues related to having two residences, having less space, and moving frequently (Turteltaub, 2002). Lesbian adoptive mothers who are separated have also been found to report financial insecurity and worries (Goldberg, Moyer, Black, & Henry, 2015), and other research indicates that same-sex couples who divorce may be at increased risk for financial difficulties (van Eeden-Moorefield et al., 2011). Indeed, research with heterosexual parents also documents substantial changes in financial status after divorce, often with marked declines for women, who often have primary custody of (and caretaking responsibilities for) children (Greene et al., 2012; Lansford, 2009).

As with many heterosexual divorces that lead to remarriages and blended family scenarios (Greene et al., 2012), the seven children in Turteltaub’s (2002) study were all navigating relationships with a new stepparent. A study by Goldberg and Allen (2013), which examined 20 young adults who had experienced their LGB parents’ relationship dissolution and/or the formation of an LGB stepfamily, found that participants generally shared positive feelings toward their LGB stepparents and described few challenges. Challenges mentioned often related to ambiguity or uncertainty about the role of their parents’ new partners (Goldberg & Allen, 2013)—a theme common in stepfamily research among lesbian-, gay-, and heterosexual-parent families (Fine, Coleman, & Ganong, 1998; Ganong & Coleman, 2004).

Several studies have focused on outcomes for same-sex parents, in addition to their children, after separation or divorce. Some of this research has indicated that some aspects of parenting may be uniquely associated with risk for same-sex couple dissolution. For instance, lesbian mothers commonly cite disagreements (p. 160) about parenting or differences in parenting styles as reasons for their relationship ending (Goldberg et al., 2015; Turteltaub, 2002), which likely would make parenting decisions even more difficult post-separation. Similarly, inequities in (and dissatisfaction with) the division of child care responsibilities have been identified among lesbian adoptive mothers as reason for dissolution (Goldberg et al., 2015), yet co-parenting obligations typically continue after breaking up. Among another sample of lesbian adoptive mothers, observations of undermining co-parenting between partners and dissatisfaction with divisions of childcare labor were higher among those parents who later broke up as compared to those in enduring relationships (Farr, 2017b). Some of these difficulties related to childcare labor divisions and coparenting may reflect the tendency of same-sex couples to value egalitarianism and equity in their relationships; as such, it may be particularly stressful when equity in parenting responsibilities is not achieved (e.g., Farr, 2017b; Goldberg et al., 2015; see Rostosky & Riggle, chapter 3, in this volume). As children show lower well-being when exposed to continual conflict between their heterosexual parents after divorce (Amato, 2010; Lansford, 2009), it is also likely that parenting disagreements post dissolution are detrimental for children with same-sex parents. Available evidence from studies of lesbian mothers who have separated show similar patterns: mothers who described their relationships with their former partners as amicable reported their children were coping better than expected (Gartrell, Rodas, Deck, Peyser, & Banks, 2006).

There is clear consensus in the literature about outcomes for children who experience their heterosexual parents’ divorce: While children in these families are at greater risk for adjustment problems than are children from nondivorced families, the great majority do not develop behavioral difficulties as a result of their parents’ divorce (Greene et al., 2012; Lansford, 2009). Similarly, we expect that future research will reveal that some children who experience their same-sex parents’ divorce will show persistent decreases in adaptation, but most will demonstrate typical adjustment. Many children demonstrate responses that are considered normative reactions to parental divorce, such as anger, confusion, anxiety, and sadness upon experiencing their parents’ divorce, but with consistent emotional support and involvement from parents, are often resilient in the face of this family transition (Greene et al., 2012). Amato (2010) discusses the concept of psychological pain resulting from divorce as distinct from effects on psychological adjustment; while the adjustment of many children of divorce is not adversely affected in any enduring way, it is the case that psychological pain often persists. Qualitative interview data from young adults with separated LGB parents are consistent with this notion (Goldberg & Allen, 2013).

Findings from Our Longitudinal Research: Snapshots of Same-Sex Divorcing Parents

Our own research provides some insights about aspects about same-sex couples’ coparenting post divorce, and thus we present some data from our ongoing longitudinal studies on the topics of post-dissolution adjustment and custody (p. 161) arrangements. Both authors are the principal investigators of separate studies of adoptive lesbian, gay, and heterosexual parent families. In both studies, parents were interviewed individually, separately from their partners, about their family and adoption experiences. The interviews conducted in Farr’s study did not specifically involve questions about divorce or separation, but parents in dissolved same-sex couple relationships often discussed details about how their families were navigating the issue. In Goldberg’s longitudinal study of adoptive lesbian, gay, and heterosexual parent families, interviews did include specific questions about separation, divorce, and co-parenting.

There is some evidence that same-sex parents who dissolve their couple relationships show at least temporary declines in psychological adjustment (e.g., Allen, 2007; Farr, 2017b; Goldberg et al., 2015), as do heterosexual parents experiencing divorce (Greene et al., 2012; Lansford, 2009). Poor adjustment may lead to diminished parenting capabilities that negatively affect children across the period of separation or divorce. Notably, though, through a thematic analysis of the qualitative, open-ended interviews, Goldberg and her colleagues found that lesbian adoptive mothers in dissolved couple relationships perceived improved, rather than worsened, co-parenting with their former partners after separation—likely in part because of the lower levels of stress and tension that characterized their relationship post-dissolution (Goldberg et al., 2015). As one woman said, “[Ex-wife] was always the buddy . . . [Now] things are much more equal.”

It may be that lesbian and gay couples are especially unique in devising creative parenting arrangements, as well as being more equally involved in parenting, post-dissolution—possibly in part because of stronger emphasis on values of egalitarianism, and also the lack of legal recognition that has characterized their relationships (Goldberg & Allen, 2013; Goldberg et al., 2015). These possibilities suggest that exploration of post-dissolution custody arrangements in the wake of marriage equality is worthy of future research. For example, Goldberg and colleagues found that lesbian couples who dissolved their relationships were more likely to describe a shared custody arrangement (5 out of 7) than a primary-secondary custody arrangement (2 out of 7) as compared to heterosexual couples (1 of 6 of whom had a shared arrangement, and 5 of whom had a primary-secondary custody arrangement; Goldberg et al., 2015). Sharing custody was viewed by parents as involving largely “friendly” negotiations, given that, as one lesbian mother said, “we both are very invested in what’s best for our child.”

From Farr’s research, parent interviews provide additional insight into the creative and child-centered custody arrangements that lesbian and gay parents in particular had devised. A few, for example, described intentional decisions to live in close proximity to ensure optimal coparenting. As one lesbian mother said, “we are not together anymore but we are living next door to each other in a side by side duplex so we can continue to co-parent closely.” One gay father described a creative family living situation to allow for co-parenting:

(p. 162)

We have been split up as a couple for close to three years. . . . We have an apartment in the basement of our home; it’s a two-bedroom apartment. . . . We each keep a bedroom down there and then week by week more or less one of us is upstairs with the kids in the house and one of us is in the apartment. Our day-to-day contact with the kids is pretty consistent though, I mean we’re amicable enough that we’re able to co-parent. I take the kids to school every day no matter whether I’m up or down and [other parent] does evenings, so yeah that’s a big new part of our family structure.

Intersectionality in Same-Sex Parent Relationship Dissolutions

Existing research on same-sex relationship dissolution has often focused on comparisons of relative risk for dissolution as compared to heterosexual couples, some of which has included attention to the role of children and legal relationship recognition in terms of determining relative risk. Numerous interrelated factors, however, contribute to both the health and decline of romantic relationships. We know little about unique factors that may facilitate the endurance or dissolution of same-sex couple relationships (Rostosky & Riggle, chapter 3, in this volume). In particular, little attention has been paid to the roles of age, race, economic status, gender identity and expression, immigration status, geographic location, urbanicity/rurality, and pathways to parenthood in shaping same-sex relationship trajectories and outcomes. Few studies in this area have included large samples that are racially and socioeconomically diverse. Thus, research is needed that attends to how these factors intersect with sexual orientation and relational context to shape processes and outcomes related to marriage and relationship dissolution among couples who are parents.

Again, although empirical research has rarely examined these intersections, there are some available data regarding the intersection of gender and parenthood status among same-sex couples, such that female same-sex couples are more likely to have children than are male same-sex couples (Rothblum et al., 2008; Wiik et al., 2014). In turn, attention to the role of marriage and divorce in the lives of male and female couples must attend to the different rates of parenthood in these two groups. Gender has also been studied in relation to risk for dissolution, but many questions remain. Specifically, discrepancies in dissolution rates for female versus male same-sex couples have been reported in numerous studies across different cultural contexts; some have concluded that lesbian couples are more prone to dissolution than gay couples (e.g., Andersson et al., 2006; Farr, 2017a; Rosenfeld, 2014; Wiik et al., 2014), others have reported that gay couples are more at risk than lesbian couples (Kalmijn et al., 2007; Lau, 2012), and finally, some have not found significant differences among same-sex and different-sex couple dissolution rates—although the highest rates were reported for female couples, and the lowest (p. 163) levels for male couples (Goldberg & Garcia, 2015). Thus, the potentially unique contributions of gender to same-sex couple relationship dissolution are not yet well understood (see Donnelly, Reczek, & Umberson, chapter 6, in this volume, for a discussion of this point in the illness, caretaking, and bereavement context).

Geographic location has been studied, largely in terms of access to legal relationship recognition in different countries worldwide, and has been shown to be an important variable affecting differential rates of same-sex relationship longevity across different countries with variable same-sex marriage laws, as well as parent–child relationship dynamics, such that the lack of legal parenting recognition can create anxiety for children and parents involved (Balsam et al., 2008; Dominguez & Coppock, chapter 5, in this volume; Gartrell, Bos, Peyser, et al., 2011; Ross et al., 2011). Demographic research has also revealed variations in the numbers of same-sex parents across states, including higher numbers of racial minority than white same-sex parents, and a higher proportion of racial minority same-sex parents live in Southern states as compared to other parts of the United States (Gates, 2011). Thus, now that marriage equality is recognized across the United States, it would be ideal to examine how same-sex-parent families, in different regions and locales, experience parental relationship recognition (i.e., marriage) and divorce similarly and differently (see also Frost & LeBlanc, chapter 4, in this volume, discussing geography and minority stress). For example, do parents and children in urban, more progressive areas experience different community responses to parental marriage and divorce? How and where do they seek support during and after relationship dissolution?

Finally, same-sex couples’ pathways to parenthood, in relation to risk for and processes surrounding relationship dissolution, have not been studied systematically. Yet, research suggests that families formed through adoption, for example, may encounter unique issues that can create stress, such as their children’s multiple prior placements, history of abuse or neglect, and consequent attachment and emotional/behavioral issues (Goldberg, 2010). Indeed, in Goldberg et al.’s (2015) study of lesbian adoptive mothers who were dissolving their relationships, women sometimes cited their children’s special needs (i.e., attachment or behavioral difficulties) as contributing to stress and their ensuing relationship dissolution.5

Implications for Policy, Practice, and Future Research

Research regarding same-sex marriage and divorce is in its infancy, yet available data have several important policy implications. Langbein and Yost (2009), using nationally representative data across US states from 1990 to 2004, evaluated the claim that same-sex marriage will have negative societal impacts, particularly on different-sex marriage, different-sex divorce, and abortion rates, as well as the number of children born to single mothers and who reside in female-headed households. They found no statistically significant adverse effects of same-sex (p. 164) marriage. In fact, states that permitted same-sex marriage showed fewer children in female-headed households and lower abortion rates. Similar results have also been reported in the United States (Badgett, 2004; Dinno & Whitney, 2013) and in the Netherlands (Trandafir, 2013). Thus, same-sex marriage appears to confer several positive societal effects for all parents and children, in addition to specific protections afforded to same-sex couples as well as children with same-sex parents.

Additional research is needed to more rigorously and longitudinally investigate the impact of same-sex divorce on children and parents. Long-term evaluations of same-sex couple relationship health could identify rates, predictors, and timing of relationship dissolution versus endurance, as well as factors leading to successful outcomes in the event of same-sex couple relationship dissolution. Future work should also specifically examine stepparent family formation among same-sex couples, dissolution between parents in which at least one partner is transgender (see Pfieffer & Castenada, chapter 15, in this volume), and dissolution of multiparent families (see Argentino & Fiore, chapter 22, in this volume). This research should incorporate mixed method designs, assessing the perspectives of children and parents both quantitatively and qualitatively, to provide a more comprehensive picture of both the antecedents and sequelae of same-sex couple relationship dissolution. Studies comparing effects for unmarried and married same-sex parenting couples after dissolution would be informative in addressing whether legal relationship recognition limits risk for dissolution. Cross-cultural studies could also be used to more effectively compare a variety of contextual effects, including legal recognition and the roles of parent gender, socioeconomic status, race, culture, and immigration status (see Domínguez, Coppock, & Polanco, chapter 5, in this volume) in same-sex couple relationships and their dissolution.

Challenges of Conducting Research with Same-Sex Couples Who Break Up

As coauthors of this chapter, both of us have been engaged in longitudinal research with same-sex parenting couples. As researchers, we have witnessed the dynamic nature of family life, including the dissolution of some of our participants’ relationships. Neither of us intended to directly study same-sex couple dissolution, or its antecedents or consequences, but we each were faced nonetheless with this topic in our research following couples over time. Farr (2017a) observed dissolution rates that were comparable among gay and heterosexual adoptive couples, but notably higher among lesbian adoptive couples, while Goldberg and Garcia (2015) discovered similar dissolution rates among lesbian, gay, and heterosexual adoptive couples, although, as noted earlier, the highest rates were reported among female couples (12%) and the lowest among male couples (2%; see also Goldberg et al., 2015).

(p. 165) Regardless of whether couples in our individual studies stayed together or not, many parents have continued participating in our studies over time. Some challenges to continuing to assess the family as a unit are worth noting. Farr found that among 56 same-sex couples who initially participated at Wave 1, 10 (18%) had separated by Wave 2, five years later. Among these 10 former couples, both parents generally participated at Wave 2, completing individual interviews and self-report questionnaires. One exception was with family observations—these were conducted at families’ homes with the entire family (both parents and children) in only 3 of 10 cases; rather, it was typically only one of the two parents who took part in this family observation, not both.

Likewise, in her longitudinal study of adoptive families headed by female, male, and heterosexual couples (2005–current), Goldberg documented similar challenges in maintaining contact with, and continuing to include in follow-up assessments, both members of separated and divorced couples. As of 7 years post adoptive placement, the rates of dissolution are 19% for female couples, 4% for gay male couples, and 12% for heterosexual couples. Continuing participation in the most recent assessment point were, among lesbian couples, both partners in five couples, one partner in five couples, with one couple dropping out; among gay male couples, both partners in one couple, and one partner in one couple; and, among heterosexual couples, both partners in one couple, only the wife in four couples, only the husband in one couple, and one couple dropped out.

Phone and e-mail correspondence with participants indicate that there are numerous challenges to continuing to enroll both participants in this research. Such challenges include less consistent and collaborative communication between partners (now that they were separated), whereas before, one partner typically took responsibility for arranging and facilitating both partners’ participation; hostility between partners, precluding both partners from being willing to talk to an interviewer (i.e., they sometimes expressed concern about what the other partner was “saying” about them”); and, the interview process itself had the potential to be too painful (i.e., participants expressed concern that it would bring up difficult memories and feelings, especially since they recalled participation in the study, and being asked similar questions, during happier times).

Obviously, it will not always be possible or even ideal to maintain contact with both partners. However, to enhance the likelihood of participation by at least one and ideally both partners, it may helpful to: (1) remind and reassure participants that their former partners will not have access to their data; (2) have different interviewers interview each partner; (3) emphasize to participants that a focus of the larger project is to understand the experiences of both continuity and divorce/dissolution in relationships, and (4) send correspondence to each partner separately.

(p. 166) Recommendations for Same-Sex Parent Families Experiencing Dissolution

Research on heterosexual divorce reveals that custody mediation and use of collaborative attorneys are promising alternatives to more adversarial court procedures between divorcing parents, and these methods are associated with positive outcomes for parents and children (Emery, Sbarra, & Grover, 2005). Same-sex couples in the process of divorce should also be encouraged to do so collaboratively, if at all possible, and to go through mediation, particularly if children are involved (Geldenhuys & Goodman, chapter 7, in this volume; Gianino et al., chapter 14, in this volume). Extant research on this topic, though scarce, indicates that unmarried lesbian mothers typically negotiate custody arrangements together after separating, without court involvement, and the majority report sharing custody (Gartrell et al., 2006; Goldberg & Allen, 2013; Goldberg et al., 2015; but see Allen, chapter 11, in this volume, for a poignant counterexample). Several studies of same-sex parents indicate amicable relationships between ex-partners who are parents together, which may allow for easier negotiations of coordinating parenting responsibilities (Gartrell et al., 2006; Goldberg & Allen, 2013; Goldberg et al., 2015).

The propensity for sharing parenting involvement and custody might represent unique strengths among divorcing same-sex couples, since they appear more likely to do so than heterosexual divorcing parents (Gartrell, Bos, Peyser, et al., 2011), although more research is certainly needed in this area. This is important, given that shared custody is associated with positive outcomes for children who have experienced heterosexual divorce, especially if their parents’ relationship remains amicable (Emery, 2011; Lansford, 2009). Shared custody has also been found to be more likely among former lesbian partners when both partners were the legal parents of the children (Gartrell, Bos, Peyser, et al., 2011; Goldberg et al., 2015), again highlighting the importance of legal relationship recognition (Goldberg & Allen, 2013; Hertz, chapter 20, in this volume).

Same-sex parenting couples have often reported willingness to access support and mental health services, which may suggest resilience and the ability to cope effectively with challenges, and could translate to favorable outcomes for children over time (Gartrell et al., 2006; Gartrell & Rothblum, Conclusion, in this volume). Support service delivery is likely to be most helpful when professionals understand the historical context of oppression for sexual minorities and incorporate advocacy into their work (Pelts, 2014; van Eeden-Moorefield et al., 2011; Gianino & Sackton, chapter 14, in this volume). Support services related to co-parenting could be particularly useful, as several studies highlight how discrepancies in undermining coparenting may contribute to same-sex relationship dissolution (Farr, 2017b; Goldberg et al., 2015). Given that undermining co-parenting and children’s externalizing behaviors have been found to be significantly associated (p. 167) among lesbian- and gay-parent families (Farr & Patterson, 2013), interventions aimed at promoting supportive co-parenting among separated same-sex couples could benefit children. Such interventions should, of course, be sensitively tailored to the needs and experiences of same-sex couples. For example, they should incorporate recognition of how societal stigmas surrounding same-sex relationships and parenting impact couples as they partner up, end partner relationships, and ultimately form new relationships.


While legal relationship recognition for same-sex couples has increased in the United States and many countries around the world, this also signifies that the numbers of same-sex couples who legally separate and divorce will increase over time. Thus, it is likely that a growing number of children with same-sex parents will experience divorce in their lifetimes. Many experiences of children and parents who live through divorce appear to be similar for those in same-sex and different-sex parent families, yet some experiences seem to be unique for families headed by sexual minority parents. Practice and policy designed to support same-sex parent families in the wake of divorce may be particularly beneficial when attention is given to issues specific to sexual minorities, such as the role of societal stigma. Longitudinal research addressing the timing and predictors of dissolution for same-sex couples holds promise for better understanding rates of dissolution among female and male same-sex couples, as well as outcomes for children and parents in these families after dissolution.

Discussion Questions

  1. 1. How do you think federal marriage recognition, passed by the Supreme Court in June 2015, will impact rates of same-sex relationship dissolution?

  2. 2. In what ways do you think the experiences of children whose same-sex parents divorce are similar to those of children with heterosexual parents who divorce? In what ways do you think their experiences might be different?

  3. 3. Imagine that you are giving advice to a therapist who is about to start seeing, in family therapy, a same-sex divorcing couple and their child. What things should the therapist be especially attentive to? Are there certain unique considerations that the therapist should make, in order to best help the family?

  4. 4. What research is needed on the topic of same-sex-parent families who experience relationship dissolution?

  5. (p. 168) 5. What research methods would be best for future research on same-sex relationship dissolution, particularly among parents with children?


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Suggested Resources

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Gartrell, N., Bos, H., Peyser, H., Deck, A., & Rodas, C. (2011). Family characteristics, custody arrangements, and adolescent psychological well‐being after lesbian mothers break up. Family Relations, 60, 572–585. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3729.2011.00667.xFind this resource:

Goldberg, A. E., & Allen, K. R. (2013). Same-sex relationship dissolution and LGB stepfamily formation: Perspectives of young adults with LGB parents. Family Relations, 62, 529–544. doi:10.1111/fare.12024Find this resource:

Goldberg, A. E., & Garcia, R. (2015). Predictors of relationship dissolution in lesbian, gay, and heterosexual adoptive parents. Journal of Family Psychology, 29, 394–404. doi:10.1037/fam0000095Find this resource:

Goldberg, A. E., Moyer, A. M., Black, K., & Henry, A. (2015). Lesbian and heterosexual adoptive mothers’ experiences of relationship dissolution. Sex Roles, 73, 141–156. doi:10.1007/s11199-014-0432-2Find this resource:

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1. To date, the research on relationship dissolution among LGBT people has focused on same-sex partners, rather than relationships in which one partner is transgender (see Brogan Kator, chapter 17, this volume; Pfeffer & Castenada, chapter 15, this volume).

2. We use the term “lesbian and gay male couples” interchangeably with “female and male couples,” for purposes of brevity. We understand that individual partners within these couples may possess diverse sexual identities (bisexual, queer, etc.).

3. It is important to note that even with the availability of same-sex marriage, legal parenting rights for same-sex partners may still be called into question by some courts in the United States (Knauer, chapter 1, in this volume).

4. The term “Latinx” (pronounced “La-TEEN-ex”) is an alternative to the traditional terms “Latino/a,” and “Latin@.” “Latinx” broadly describes people of Latin American descent through use of gender-neutral and inclusive language (Padilla, 2016).

5. Regarding a contrasting pathway to parenthood, Tasker and Rensten (chapter 9, in this volume) examine unique issues facing same-sex parent families in which one of the parents had children in the context of a prior heterosexual relationship.