This deep-dive into the sky-high high lesbian divorce rate might leave you shocked. The U-Haul bliss doesn’t always last forever.
Dr. Barb Norvell fell in love at first conversation over a dating app in August 2016. The two women chatted about everything from what books they liked to their dreams for the future and felt an instant, deep connection. Then they did what lesbian couples stereotypically do: moved in with each other after one month of dating in the Atlanta area. They got married in Maui less than a year later.
It was only a few months later, in early 2018, that they started to have relationship issues. Their career goals didn’t align well, and Barb felt that her wife was too needy. They divorced in May 2019, less than three years after their first date.
Barb isn’t alone as a divorced lesbian; the state of queer women’s marriages is in crisis. Same-sex female couples are divorcing at a rate double that of marriages between other sex combinations. Could our infamous rush to commitment be the culprit?
Dr. Dorsey Green, PhD, a couples therapist in Seattle and the co-author of the book Lesbian Couples: A Guide to Creating Healthy Relationships, tells GO: “Many lesbians move quickly into permanent or cohabitating relationships. As a result, they have not had time to find out what the relationship is like after the first rush in the romantic stage. What should have been a dating or going steady relationship has become a marriage. Ending marriages is called a divorce; ending a dating relationship is called breaking up. We need more breakups.” Dr. Green identified this fast track as her top hypothesis as to the cause of the high lesbian divorce rate that appears in every country with marriage equality (where data is available).
Let’s start with the country with the most years of information available: The Netherlands, the first country to legalize same-sex marriage in 2001. Thirty percent of female couples married there in 2005 were divorced in 2015, compared to 18 percent of straight couples and 15 percent of gay male couples.
Marriage equality came to Belgium in 2003, and since then, it’s seen the same trend. By the end of 2010, 11 percent of female married couples filed for divorce, compared to 6.7 percent of male couples.
Denmark, Norway, Sweden, England, and Wales all see similar numbers as well. Notably, in England and Wales, the general divorce rate dropped to its lowest since 1973, but it has tripled for same-sex couples. And within same-sex couples’ divorces in 2017, 73 percent were female couples. Data is harder to come by in the U.S., though notably, Julie and Hillary Goodridge — the lesbian couple that paved the way to make Massachusetts the first U.S. state with marriage equality in 2004 — divorced in 2009.
These statistics are rather shocking. There are hypotheses for the results (like Dr. Green’s), but almost no formal research or studies. I asked several experienced couples counselors for any potential reasons for this trend, including Dr. Green as well as Bri McCarroll, MSW, LICSW, and Amy Rollo, LPA, LSSP, LPC-S. U-Hauling was one of the most common themes that emerged, but there were others as well.
Evan Schein, a lawyer from Berkman Bottger Newman & Schein LLP in New York City, tells GO that one reason may involve high expectations. “Based on my experience in working with divorcing couples, I think women, generally speaking, often have higher expectations of relationships,” Schein says. “Therefore the higher the expectations, the greater likelihood of those expectations not being met, which can lead to disappointment and resentment.”
Not only do queer women have higher expectations, but we also move too fast. Of course, committing early is not the sole cause of lesbian divorce. Elizabeth, a 39-year-old in Maryland, was with her ex-wife for 15 years before their 2018 divorce. They waited two years to move in together and were together seven years before having a child. “My advice for lesbians wanting to get married would be to trust your gut and pay attention to red flags,” Elizabeth tells GO. “People don’t ever really change.” For those already married, she advises trying couples counseling before going through with a divorce. “It’s important to know you gave it everything you could. But if the other person isn’t willing to or capable of change, and you can’t be happy unless change happens, there is your answer.”
Statistically, women also end marriages more often than men in opposite-sex relationships, so naturally, a marriage with twice the women might head toward a decision to divorce more often. Female-female couples are also less likely to have children than female-male ones, perhaps allowing divorce to be more likely because there are no children to consider. There could also be a financial factor: Women earn less than men, so statistically, couples made up of two women would have more stress (and potentially conflict) over money. LGBTQ+ community members may also be less likely to have access to premarital counseling the way that non-LGBTQ+ people of faith do.
Divorce lawyer and mediator Rebecca Provder of Moses & Singer tells GO that women in same-sex relationships should prepare themselves. “Strongly consider getting a prenuptial agreement before marriage and discuss your rights with a family law attorney before walking down the aisle,” she says. “Keep in mind that the law governing same-sex divorces is still establishing itself in certain areas, such as where couples have been together for a long duration but only married for a short term.”
No matter the reason for our higher divorce rates, we’ve got some work to do. Even if our higher divorce rates are due to unfair reasons like unequal pay, lack of societal support, or the way women are socialized, we still owe it to ourselves to make our relationships healthier. Whether that means waiting to get married or getting help in a current marriage, we need to collectively put in the work that will make our whole community happier.
Getting married can be a rush of happiness, but pausing an extra year or two before taking the plunge might lead to less heartbreak in the end. Taking a U-Haul trailer to the second date may be a community-wide joke, but it doesn’t lead to laughs when it plays out in reality. Like Dr. Green said, it’s better to have a break-up than a divorce.
Dr. Norvell from Atlanta advises not to “fall in love with a person’s potential. You have to love the person for who they are now, not what they hope to be in the future.”