We investigate whether the subjective well-being of individuals in same-sex unions improved following the legalization of same-sex marriage in England and Wales in March 2014. We employ repeated cross-sectional data from the 2011–2016 Annual Population Surveys on 476,411 persons, including 4,112 individuals in coresidential same-sex relationships. The analysis reveals increases in subjective well-being for individuals in same-sex relationships following legalization. Additional analysis documents higher subjective well-being for individuals in married same-sex couples compared with individuals who are in a civil partnership or an informal cohabiting same-sex union. However, the subjective well-being of individuals from same-sex couples increased after legalization among all subgroups considered, including those who cohabited informally. This result hints at a general reduction in structural stigma as an important mechanism behind the improved well-being of individuals in same-sex unions.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Given the presence of universal public health care in Britain, access to health care through a married partner’s employment is likely to be a less relevant mechanism to explain well-being disparities compared with other countries, such as the United States (Gonzales and Blewett 2014).
These data are complemented by annual boost samples. For more information, see https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/methodologies/annualpopulationsurveyapsqmi.
Dropping cases without information on subjective well-being leads to the exclusion of 48 % of the sample, mainly children and respondents not present at the time of interview for whom proxy respondents provided information. Well-being questions were not put to proxy respondents. Sample weights designed for nonresponse on well-being measures are included. We dropped 0.3 % of cases because of missing household-level information. Less than 0.1 % of individuals were excluded because merging household to individual data based on observable characteristics (given the absence of personal identification numbers in the publicly available data) led to unequivocal matches in 99.9 % of cases only (see also footnote 6).
The process leading up to legalization was very similar for England and Wales (Eekelaar 2014), and the well-being of sexual minorities is often studied for both countries jointly (e.g., King et al. 2003). There are therefore no a priori expectations regarding differences across countries in results. Nonetheless, we excluded the 10 % of respondents living in Wales from the analysis in robustness checks (online appendix C); the results remained unchanged.
Listwise case deletion excludes 1.7 % of the original sample. Using multiple imputation renders practically identical results (online appendix D).
Household and personal identification numbers in the APS are available only under a special license agreement to U.K.-based researchers.
Robustness checks based on face-to-face interviews alone displayed very similar substantial results, albeit with lower levels of precision.
Additional tests show that the difference between individuals in a marriage and those in a civil partnership is statistically significant (p = .03).
Carr, D., & Springer, K. W. (2010). Advances in families and health research in the 21st century. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 743–761.
Deeming, C. (2013). Addressing the social determinants of subjective wellbeing: The latest challenge for social policy. Journal of Social Policy, 42, 541–565.
Dolan, P., Peasgood, T., & White, M. (2008). Do we really know what makes us happy? A review of the economic literature on the factors associated with subjective well-being. Journal of Economic Psychology, 29, 94–122.
Donnelly, R., Robinson, B. A., & Umberson, D. (2018). Can spouses buffer the impact of discrimination on depressive symptoms? An examination of same-sex and different-sex marriages. Society and Mental Health, 9, 192–210.
Eekelaar, J. (2014). Perceptions of equality: The road to same-sex marriage in England and Wales. International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family, 28, 1–25.
Frost, D. M., & LeBlanc, A. J. (2014). Nonevent stress contributes to mental health disparities based on sexual orientation: Evidence from a personal projects analysis. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 84, 557–566.
Frost, D. M., LeBlanc, A. J., de Vries, B., Alston-Stepnitz, E., Stephenson, R., & Woodyatt, C. (2017). Couple-level minority stress: An examination of same-sex couples’ unique experiences. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 58, 455–472.
Gates, G. J., & Brown, T. N. T. (2015). Marriage and same-sex couples after Obergefell (Research brief). Los Angeles: Williams Institute, University of California Los Angeles School of Law.
Gerhards, J. (2010). Non-discrimination towards homosexuality: The European Union’s policy and citizens’ attitudes towards homosexuality in 27 European countries. International Sociology, 25, 5–28.
Goldsen, J., Bryan, A. E., Kim, H. J., Muraco, A., Jen, S., & Fredriksen-Goldsen, K. I. (2017). Who says I do: The changing context of marriage and health and quality of life for LGBT older adults. Gerontologist, 57(Suppl. 1), S50–S62.
Gonzales, G. (2014). Same-sex marriage—A prescription for better health. New England Journal of Medicine, 370, 1373–1376.
Gonzales, G., & Blewett, L. A. (2014). National and state-specific health insurance disparities for adults in same-sex relationships. American Journal of Public Health, 104, e95–e104. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2013.301577
Hatzenbuehler, M. L., Keyes, K. M., & Hasin, D. S. (2009). State-level policies and psychiatric morbidity in lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations. American Journal of Public Health, 99, 2275–2281.
Hatzenbuehler, M. L., McLaughlin, K. A., Keyes, K. M., & Hasin, D. S. (2010). The impact of institutional discrimination on psychiatric disorders in lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations: A prospective study. American Journal of Public Health, 100, 452–459.
Hatzenbuehler, M. L., O’Cleirigh, C., Grasso, C., Mayer, K., Safren, S., & Bradford, J. (2012). Effect of same-sex marriage laws on health care use and expenditures in sexual minority men: A quasi-natural experiment. American Journal of Public Health, 102, 285–291.
Helliwell, J. F., & Huang, H. (2014). New measures of the costs of unemployment: Evidence from the subjective well-being of 3.3 million Americans. Economic Inquiry, 52, 1485–1502.
Herek, G. M. (2006). Legal recognition of same-sex relationships in the United States: A social science perspective. American Psychologist, 61, 607–621.
Hicks, S., Tinkler, L., & Allin, P. (2013). Measuring subjective well-being and its potential role in policy: Perspectives from the UK Office for National Statistics. Social Indicators Research, 114, 73–86.
Kail, B. L., Acosta, K. L., & Wright, E. R. (2015). State-level marriage equality and the health of same-sex couples. American Journal of Public Health, 105, 1101–1105.
King, M., McKeown, E., Warner, J., Ramsay, A., Johnson, K., Cort, C., . . . Davidson, O. (2003). Mental health and quality of life of gay men and lesbians in England and Wales: Controlled, cross-sectional study. British Journal of Psychiatry, 183, 552–558.
King, M., Semlyen, J., Tai, S. S., Killaspy, H., Osborn, D., Popelyuk, D., & Nazareth, I. (2008). A systematic review of mental disorder, suicide, and deliberate self harm in lesbian, gay and bisexual people. BMC Psychiatry, 8(article 70). https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-244X-8-70
Kreider, R. M., Bates, N., & Mayol-García, Y. (2017). Improving measurement of same-sex couple households in Census Bureau surveys: Results from recent tests (Working Paper No. SEHSD-WP2017-28). Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau.
Kroeger, R. A., & Powers, D. A. (2019). Examining same-sex couples using dyadic data methods. In R. Schoen (Ed.), Analytical family demography (pp. 157–186). Cham, Switzerland: Springer.
LeBlanc, A. J., Frost, D. M., & Bowen, K. (2018). Legal marriage, unequal recognition, and mental health among same-sex couples. Journal of Marriage and Family, 80, 397–408.
LeBlanc, A. J., Frost, D. M., & Wight, R. G. (2015). Minority stress and stress proliferation among same-sex and other marginalized couples. Journal of Marriage and Family, 77, 40–59.
Pirani, E., & Vignoli, D. (2016). Changes in the satisfaction of cohabitors relative to spouses over time. Journal of Marriage and Family, 78, 598–609.
Rosenfeld, M. J. (2010). Nontraditional families and childhood progress through school. Demography, 47, 755–775.
Ross, H., Gask, K., & Berrington, A. (2011). Civil partnerships five years on. Population Trends, 145, 171–202.
Rostosky, S. S., Riggle, E. D., Horne, S. G., & Miller, A. D. (2009). Marriage amendments and psychological distress in lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) adults. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 56, 56–66.
Sage, D. (2015). Do active labour market policies promote the subjective well-being of the unemployed? Evidence from the UK National Well-Being Programme. Journal of Happiness Studies, 16, 1281–1298.
Thomeer, M. B., LeBlanc, A. J., Frost, D. M., & Bowen, K. (2018). Anticipatory minority stressors among same-sex couples: A relationship timeline approach. Social Psychology Quarterly, 81, 126–148.
Trandafir, M. (2015). Legal recognition of same-sex couples and family formation. Demography, 52, 113–151.
Umberson, D., Donnelly, R., & Pollitt, A. M. (2018). Marriage, social control, and health behavior: A dyadic analysis of same-sex and different-sex couples. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 59, 429–446.
Vespa, J., & Painter, M. A., II. (2011). Cohabitation history, marriage, and wealth accumulation. Demography, 48, 983–1004.
Wight, R. G., LeBlanc, A. J., & Badgett, M. V. L. (2013). Same-sex legal marriage and psychological well-being: Findings from the California Health Interview Survey. American Journal of Public Health, 103, 339–346.
We would like to thank attendants at the 2018 Population Association of America annual meeting (Denver) and the 2018 European Population Conference (Brussels) for their insights and comments. Diederik Boertien acknowledges research funding from the Beatriu de Pinos program of the Generalitat de Catalunya (2016-BP-00121), the EQUALIZE project (ERC-2014-STG-grant agreement No 637768), and the GLOBFAM project (RTI2018-096730-B-I00).
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Electronic supplementary material
About this article
Cite this article
Boertien, D., Vignoli, D. Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage Matters for the Subjective Well-being of Individuals in Same-Sex Unions. Demography 56, 2109–2121 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-019-00822-1
- Subjective well-being
- Same-sex couples
- Structural stigma