We can get married! Now what?

Four years ago as a newly “out” member of the LGBTQ+ community, I cried when I heard the news that same-sex marriage had been legalized in all 50 states. For me, this decision mirrored acceptance, something I longed to feel from my small, rural community.

It seems that since the legalization of same-sex marriage* in the United States, therapeutic discussions about the well-being of LGBTQ+ couples has lagged. Despite the fact that same-sex marriage was legalized in the United States as of June 25, 2015, few studies have focused on LGBTQ+ couples in the US.  The American Psychological Association, a long-standing supporter of the fight for marriage equality, stated that stigma, prejudice, and discrimination against sexual minority individuals is psychologically harmful. However, now that same-sex marriage is legal, psychologists are left with the budding question: What does the legalization of same-sex marriage have on the health and well-being of LGBTQ+ couples?

Despite the existence of research suggesting that legalized same-sex marriage is a catalyst for health and de-stigmatization, we know little about the actual impact of this federal right on LGBTQ+ couples. Much like racism did not disappear after Jim Crow laws were abolished, experiences of homophobia did not magically disappear after same-sex marriage was legalized. LGBTQ+ couples face discrimination, prejudice, and internalized homophobia which can lead to increased levels of minority stress. It is important to explore the impact of minority stress, heightened anxiety, and depression levels on same-sex relationship satisfaction and how legalization of same-sex marriage may impact these rates.

Important questions to ask are:

  • Have the number of instances of discrimination or prejudice experienced by LGBTQ+ couples diminished after the legalization of gay marriage?
  • Do same-sex couples feel more comfortable being “out” in public as a result of this policy?
  • Are same-sex couples experiencing additional familial stressors as a result of legalization of same-sex marriage?
  • Has the overall relationship satisfaction of same-sex couples increased as a result of this policy change?

In an effort to answer the questions above, I offer a few considerations for future research in order to address the minority-stress that LGBTQ+ couples are experiencing. If clinicians can provide therapy to same-sex couples from a minority stress perspective, they may be better equipped to understand the environmental stressors affecting the relationship that have an impact on the couples’ relationship satisfaction.

  1. Understanding the terminology. Given that couples therapists are expected to be multiculturally competent and that vocabulary used within the LGBTQ+ community is constantly evolving and changing, research could be conducted to determine if therapists are knowledgeable about current LGBTQ+ terminology.
  1. Same-sex couples’ experiences after legalization. Research could be conducted to better understand same-sex couples’ experiences of homophobia prior to and after legalization of gay marriage. These data could help us understand if experiences of homophobia among same-sex couples are in any way associated with the legalization of gay marriage in the United States.
  1. Minority stress and relationship satisfaction. Knowing that minority stress is a barrier to mental health among individuals who identify as LGBTQ+, a study could be conducted to determine if minority stress is also associated with relationship satisfaction in same-gender couples.
  1. Differential treatment. Psychologists may be worried about treating same-sex couples differently than they treat heterosexual couples. Studies could be conducted to determine if providing therapy through a minority stress lens would be beneficial for therapeutic outcomes in same-gender couples.
  1. Additional environmental stressors. A Consensual Qualitative Analysis could be conducted to find themes within experiences of engagements and marriages for same-sex couples. This exploratory research could help indicate other environmental stressors same-sex couples may be facing now that marriage is legal in the US.

This is not a comprehensive list of research topics that could be explored on the topic of LGBTQ+ couples. The studies suggested above are merely ways in which we may be able to find out more information about the experiences of LGBTQ+ couples post legalization of same-sex marriage. I believe that the findings could help influence the practice of clinicians who see LGBTQ+ couples.

With this in mind, counseling psychologists may be one of the first fields to discuss therapeutic treatment for LGBTQ+ couples. Counseling psychology emphasizes the importance of acknowledging individual differences between people, which indicates the need to treat each couple in a unique and pointed way that takes into consideration the couples’ intersectionality, experiences, and societal systems that may be impacting the couple.

One way that counseling psychology programs could help confront this need is by contributing to the research gaps that exist between individual LGBTQ+ research and research on LGBTQ+ couples. As psychology graduate programs continue to cultivate heterogeneous cohorts into their programs, my hope is that budding psychologists will continue to conduct research that will help sexual and gender minority communities, and specifically LGBTQ+ couples, in the years to come.

*Note: The term “same-sex couples” was used here because it is the legal term used to describe the law allowing same-sex couples to marry in the United States. For the purpose of this article, LGBTQ+ couples was also used as a way to recognize the diverse sexualities and genders of couples that exist in our community.

 

Jaidelynn K. Rogers (she/her/hers) is a second-year student in the counseling psychology doctoral program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Jaidelynn earned her B.A. in Psychology from Lindenwood University.  Her research interests include LGBTQ+ romantic and sexual relationships, LGBTQ+ couples’ therapy, and therapist competency in working with sexual and gender minority clients.

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