VoxEU Column

Symbolism matters: The effect of same-sex marriage legalisation on partnership stability

In January 1998, registered partnerships were introduced in Dutch law for both same-sex and different-sex couples. A few years later, in April 2001, the Netherlands became the first country to legalise same-sex marriage. There is little economic or legal difference between registered partnerships and marriage (regarding taxes, for instance, property or inheritance). Given those practical similarities, this column suggests that the symbolism of marriage (the public commitment and sense of prestige and achievement it confers) encourages long-term relationship stability in ways that registered partnerships do not.

Acceptance of same-sex relationships varies substantially by country. In the Netherlands, homosexual acts were decriminalized in 1811 following the integration of the country into the French empire; in France, decriminalisation occurred in 1791 (Waaldijk 2001). In England and Wales, sex between two men was illegal until 1967, when it was decriminalised for men over 21, though only “in private” (meaning, for instance, that men could not have sex in a hotel). Similar decriminalisation was introduced in 1980 in Scotland and in 1982 in Northern Ireland.

Many countries have since introduced registered partnerships or marriages for same-sex couples. Whether these changes to the law have increased partnership stability is an important question. Partnership improves health and happiness while partnership dissolution harms them (Kohn and Averett 2014a, 2014b, Chen and Van Ours 2018). Moreover, children benefit from a stable parental relationship (Prickett et al. 2015, Reczek et al. 2016). The concern that same-sex partnership legalisation may have negative spillovers on traditional different-sex marriages or families is not supported by previous studies (Dillender 2014, 2015). 

If a legal marital arrangement for same-sex couples does not exert a negative influence on different-sex couples, the question remains: does it really improve the stability of same-sex partnerships? If so, is that improvement the causal effect of getting married or merely the selectivity of stable couples into partnership? If there is a causal effect, how much of it can be attributed to the symbolism of marriage, i.e. the public commitment and the marker of individual prestige and achievement? We aim to answer these questions by exploiting same-sex marriage legalisation in the Netherlands as a natural experiment (Chen and Van Ours 2019). 

The evolution of same-sex partnerships in the Netherlands 

Registered partnerships were introduced in the Netherlands on 1 January 1998 for both same-sex and different-sex couples. Registered partners had many of the same rights and duties as married couples with regard to taxes, property, and inheritance. A registered partnership was “almost a clone of marriage” (Waaldijk 2001). After being approved in the Dutch parliament on 1 April 2001, same-sex marriage was legalised. Since then, “a marriage can be contracted by two persons of different sex or of the same sex” (Dutch Civil Code, Article 30, Book 1). For the first time in recorded history, same-sex couples were officially and legally offered marriage equality.

Why would couples transfer their registered partnership to marriage? Little difference separates a registered partnership from marriage in legal rights and responsibilities or economic incentives. What remains is the symbolic significance attached to marriage, i.e. the public commitment and the symbol of individual prestige and personal achievement. When both marriage and registered partnership are options, choosing to enter a marriage rather than a registered partnership may signal a strong public commitment and personal achievement.


Our study makes use of rich administrative microdata from Statistics Netherlands (CBS) that includes personal characteristics such as an individual’s country of origin, gender, birth year and month. There is also detailed information on the marital status of the entire Dutch population, such as the beginning and ending dates of each marriage, the birth year and month of the partner, the country where the partner was born, and their gender. We identified the sexual orientation of every person by comparing their gender with the gender of their partner in every formal partnership (i.e. a registered partnership or marriage). 

To illustrate the nature of our data, we present survival functions of same-sex registered partnerships and marriages in Figure 1, with Panel a showing same-sex female relationships and Panel b same-sex male relationships. In both panels, the graphs at left present survival functions of registered partnerships that started before the legalisation of same-sex marriage. The graphs at right show the same for registered partnerships established after this legalisation. Each graph indicates the transition to marriage and the cumulative transition to marriage and separation. There is a clear difference between the left-hand and right-hand graphs. Registered partnerships recorded before same-sex marriage legalisation are less likely to survive. After ten years, 20% of them transformed to marriage while 10% (males) to 15% (females) ended in separation. Registered partnerships established after the same-sex marriage law are as likely to separate but less likely to transform to marriage, which is clearly related to the choice couples had to marry immediately rather than start with a registered partnership.

Figure 1 Survival probabilities of same-sex registered partnerships that started before and after the introduction of the same-sex marriage law

a) Two women: before (left) and after (right) the same-sex marriage law

b) Two men: before (left) and after (right) the same-sex marriage law

Duration of same-sex partnerships

Our main interest is twofold. First, we explore the effect of same-sex marriage legalisation on the separation hazard. Second, we question whether marriage stabilized its preceding registered partnership. The same-sex marriage law increased separation rates by almost 50% for female partnerships and about 200% for male partnerships. Moreover, registered partnerships that were replaced by marriages were more stable than before. Getting married reduced the separation hazard by 68% for female partnerships and 98% for male ones.

Based on our estimated joint distribution of the two unobserved heterogeneity components in the transition-to-marriage rate and separation hazard, we identify adverse selection for male same-sex registered partnerships. Partnerships that were less likely to dissolve were also less likely to transform into marriage, and partnerships that were more likely to be disrupted were also more likely to become marriage.

Relationships that made the transition to marriage became more stable. Because marriage and registered partnerships are equivalent in legal and economic functions, we attribute the stabilizing effect of marriage to its symbolic significance. We think that the effect of same-sex marriage legalisation on the stability of same-sex partnerships may be caused by disagreement within a couple on their future marital arrangement (after the law, for instance, one partner may have wanted to marry while the other did not). Escalation to a more advanced relationship requires agreement (Farmer and Horowitz 2015). Disagreement may have induced a dissolution of the registered partnership.


In recent decades, marriage has been deinstitutionalized, its legal and economic functions impaired or replaced by other types of relationships. Moreover, differences between registered partnerships and marriage are small, save the divorce costs and symbolic significance attached to marriage, as an enforceable public commitment and a marker of personal achievement. 

Same-sex marriage legalisation is a recent phenomenon that provides an opportunity to study how the symbolism of marriage affects the stability of formal partnerships. We examine how the Dutch same-sex marriage legalisation in 2001 affected the stability of same-sex registered partnerships that were introduced in the Netherlands in 1998. Using a bivariate hazard rate model with marriage and separation as competing risks, and allowing marriage to directly affect the separation rate, we find that same-sex marriage legalisation caused a number of registered partnerships to separate. However, for both females and males, we find that the transformation to marriage has strong and significant effects of on the stability of their relationships. This stabilizing effect was not a selection effect of more stable registered partnerships being more likely to transform into a marriage. Our findings are surprising because the principal difference between registered partnerships and marriages seems to be symbolic, suggesting that the symbolism of marriage has powerful stabilizing effects on interpersonal relationships.


Chen, S and J C van Ours (2019), “Symbolism Matters: The Effect of Same-Sex Marriage Legalization on Partnership Stability”, CEPR Discussion Paper 13901.

Chen, S and J C van Ours (2018), “Subjective well-being and partnership dynamics: Are same-sex relationships different?”, Demography 55 (6): 2299–2320.

Dillender, M (2014), “The death of marriage? The effects of new forms of legal recognition on marriage rates in the United States”, Demography 51(2): 563-585.

Trandafir, M (2015), “Legal recognition of same-sex couples and family formation”, Demography 52(1): 113-151.

Kohn, J L and S L Averett (2014a), “Can’t we just live together? New evidence on the effect of relationship status on health”, Journal of Family and Economic Issues 35 (3): 295–312.

Kohn, J L and S L Averett (2014b), “The effect of relationship status on health with dynamic health and persistent relationships”, Journal of Health Economics 36: 69–83.

Prickett, K C, A Martin-Storey, and R Crosnoe (2015), “A research note on time with children in different- and same-sex two-parent families”, Demography 52 (3): 905–918.

Reczek, C, R Spiker, H Liu, and R Crosnoe (2016), “Family structure and child health: Does the sex composition of parents matter?”, Demography 53 (5): 1605–1630.

Waaldijk, C (2001), “Small change: How the road to same-sex marriage got paved in the Netherlands”, in Legal Recognition of Same-Sex Partnerships: A Study of National, European and International Law, Oxford and Portland: Hart Publishing, 437–464.

3,884 Reads