Psychology and the Prop 8 Ruling

Psychology, same-sex marriage, and 136-pages of legal drama.

Posted Aug 05, 2010

Last night I decided to stay up late and do a bit of bedtime reading. 136-pages of it, to be exact.

Of course, I'm talking about yesterday's ruling by a U.S. District Court that California's ban on same-sex marriage–first introduced in 2008 as Proposition 8–is unconstitutional. OK, so maybe you wouldn't print off the pdf to bring to the beach, but for the most part, the decision is a pretty fascinating read. And as you turn the pages, it becomes easy to forget you're reading a legal document and start thinking you're looking through a psychology course syllabus.

• Take p. 12, for instance, where one of the individual plaintiffs, Kristin Perry (she of the Perry v. Schwarzenegger case nomenclature) is quoted as talking about the psychological power of words when it comes to marriage. "I'm a 45-year-old woman," Perry said on the stand. "I have been in love with a woman for 10 years and I don't have a word to tell anybody about that."

Language is powerful. Its impact on human experience is one that has intrigued psychologists for nearly a century, since even before Benjamin Whorf started spinning tales about Eskimos having 7 different words for snow. Many a cognitive and linguistic psychologist has wrestled with the question of how language colors the way we see the world. And now, in the form of a legal ruling, you also get a sense for how can shape the way we feel.

• Or p. 69, where Judge Walker includes in his 50+ page list of Findings of Fact the psychological and health benefits marriage bestows to its beneficiaries. "Married individuals are less likely to engage in behaviors detrimental to health," he writes. Moreover, marriage has the potential to "improve psychological well-being for married spouses," he concludes.

• Or p. 71, where the opinion begins to explore the definition, measurement, and lifespan consistency of sexual orientation.

• Or p. 77, where it compares opposite-sex and same-sex couples on dimensions like relationship satisfaction, relationship adjustment, and emotional connection.

• Or the ruling's exploration of the societal stigma still placed on gays and lesbians (p. 85), and the extent to which stereotypes and prejudice played a direct role in the original campaign for Prop 8 (p. 98).

• Or its conclusions regarding gender, both in terms of gender roles in marriage and parenting (p. 87) as well as assessing the quantifiable impact of a parent's gender on children's well-being (p. 108).

• Indeed, multiple psychologists actually played a role in the case itself. Like Dr. Anne Peplau, who testified about scientific findings on the psychology of marriage and close relationships. And Dr. Greg Herek, who testified on the psychology of sexual orientation and social stigma. And Dr. Michael Lamb, who testified regarding the developmental psychology of children raised by gay and lesbian parents.


In short, like so many other daily events and news developments, the story of the Prop 8 ruling is also a story about psychology. The 136-page decision has psychology written all over it–often, quite literally so.

But, of course, not all psychological analysis is good psychological analysis. So allow me to leave you with perhaps my favorite excerpt from the ruling–one that I doubt you'll see highlighted on the evening news coverage. It comes on p. 88, taken from a 2008 Prop 8 support piece from the "Protect Marriage" organization:

"When moms are in the park taking care of their kids they always know where those kids are. They have like a, like a radar around... them. They know where those kids are and there's just a, there's a bond between a mom and a kid different from a dad. I'm not saying dads don't have that bond but... it's just different. You know middle of the night mom will wake up. Dad will just sleep, you know, if there's a little noise in the room. And, and when kids get scared they run to mommy. Why? They spent 9 months in mommy. They go back to where they came."

Sheesh. How come my kids didn't get the memo?

Next time they get me up in the middle of the night for a drink of water, help finding a lost blankie, or to change the bulb in the nite lite, maybe I'll try the "go back to where you came from" line.  I'm sure it'll go over well, with all parties involved.