When it comes to our health, marriage may be more than just a formality.
A study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior asked same-sex couples who were living together about their health status, and compared their responses to those of heterosexual couples who were married or living together, as well as to people who were divorced, widowed or had never married. The study pooled data from 1,634 women living with same-sex partners and 1,659 men living with their male partners who were part of the National Health Interview Surveys from 1997 to 2009.
Previous research showed that married couples are usually healthier than their non-married counterparts, and the current study confirmed that trend; people in same-sex relationships reported better health than those who were single, but the same-sex partners reported poorer health than heterosexual married couples.
“These same-sex marriage-like relationships represent a very interesting population, not only for politics, but in terms of the health disparities,” says lead study author Hui Liu, an assistant professor of sociology at Michigan State University.
After controlling for the effect of socioeconomic status of health status, me living in same-sex relationships were 61% more likely to report being in fair or poor health compared to men in heterosexual marriages, and women who were living with their female partners were 46% more likely to report the same lower health status compared to women in heterosexual marriages.
The researchers didn’t find variations among race and gender in their comparison of the same-sex and heterosexual couples overall, but they did find differences when they compared women living in same-sex relationships to single women. Black women who were living with their female partners had worse health than black women in any other non-married status. Conversely, same-sex cohabiting white women had better health than heterosexual cohabiters and divorced white women. Why? The researchers speculate that the lower health quality among black women could be related to the higher amount of homophobia and discrimination they may experience living as lesbians, which may adversely influence their health.
In fact, such societal pressures, and the stress that it causes, may explain in part the poorer health of men and women living with their same-sex partners. Liu even suggests that legalizing same-sex marriage might improve health outcomes for same-sex couples and reduce some health disparities seen in American society as well.
“Most of those people in the cohabiting relationships cannot be legally married, so they cannot get the resources related to marriage — for example the health insurance benefits from their spouses,” says Liu. “This is not good for their health. It is also possible that the same-sex couples suffer higher levels of discrimination and higher levels of stress which may also effect their physical health.” In other words, it’s not just the health benefits, but the lowered stigma and psychological support that may come from recognizing gay marriage that could lead to better self-reported health.