Regnerus Shoots His Own Foot

Rob Tisinai

July 21st, 2014

Mark Regnerus has gotten a lot of flack lately for publicly criticizing a positive Australian report on same-sex parenting, a classic example of the pot calling the kettle incompetent. Hidden in his critique, though, is a little nugget that deserves more attention.

Midway through, Regnerus flogs his notions about the instability of same-sex couples, but then tries to substantiate them by linking to research that proves him wrong — and in doing so, brings to light a study that we should all have bookmarked.

So…thanks, Mark!

A bit of background. We lambasted Regnerus, of course, for presenting his famous study as research into same-sex parenting even though he did not specify outcomes for kids raised by same-sex parents, mostly because he hardly studied any kids raised by same-sex parents. His defense was that grown-up kids like that are hard to find because families like that seem to be unstable, and then he turned this alleged instability into further criticism of same-sex parenting.

He pushes this theme again in his recent critique:

Children fare better in an environment of household stability. In the NFSS, stability was largely absent when an adult child reported a parental same-sex relationship. Hence, their life experiences were (on average) notably more challenging than those of their peers with married mothers and fathers. Some critics felt this was an “unfair” comparison. But if social reality is unfair, there’s not much that any sociologist can do about that.

And also:

But will same-sex parents‘ relationships be more or less stable in the future? On the one hand, we know that same-sex relationships in general—across multiple datasets—remain more fragile than opposite-sex ones (and to be fair, no group is performing all that well).

That link is in his original, and with that link we strike gold.

It leads to an abstract of a research paper by Stanford professor  Michael Rosenfeld called, “Couple Longevity and Formal Unions in the Era of Same-sex Marriage in the United States.” I was surprised by the last sentence of that abstract:

I hypothesize that the higher relationship instability that was reported for same-sex couples in the past was due in part to the lack of options for union formalization available to same-sex couples in the past.

If true, that would actually undercut Regnerus’ argument. Since he linked to this paper, though, I expected to find the hypothesis debunked. But I found the full text and, my, was I surprised. Check this out. It’s worth reading carefully.

In this paper I show that while same-sex couples in the US are more likely to break up than heterosexual couples (Hypothesis 1), the difference in couple longevity is explained by the lower rate of marriage among same-sex couples. Once marriage (and marriage-like unions) are controlled for, same-sex couples and heterosexual couples have statistically indistinguishable rates of break-up, confirming Hypothesis 2 [“that same-sex couples and heterosexual couples would have similar rates of break-up once marriage was controlled for”]. Despite the fact that none of the same-sex couples in the US in the 2009-2012 period enjoyed the same legal benefits and federal recognition as heterosexual married couples (because of the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996), the association between marriage and couple stability was similar for same-sex couples and for heterosexual couples, confirming Hypothesis 3 [“Marriage has a similar positive association with couple longevity for same-sex couples and for heterosexual couples”].

Emphasis added.

That’s great stuff. It not only demolishes an anti-gay talking point, but also wipes out the many arguments built on that talking point. For years, anti-gays have been spouting irrelevant nonsense like Homosexual relationships generally last only a fraction of the time that most marriages last.” Irrelevant nonsense, because even for heterosexuals, relationships are shorter on average than marriages. In fact, from an arithmetic geek’s perspective, if you have just one pre-marital relationship that’s shorter than your marriage, then your average relationship will last only a fraction of the time of your marriage.

But this Regnerus-recommended paper goes further than that. It doesn’t just knock down nonsense arguments. No, it establishes an affirmative case for the stability of same-sex marriages, and thus for same-sex parenting.

I still have to wonder, though: why did Regnerus link to a study that establishes the opposite of what he’s trying to claim? It’s easy to assume he’s just lying, hoping no one investigates his link, but I always keep a few wonderful quotes in mind:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Along with:

You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity

And this wonderful variation on Clarke’s Third Law:

Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.

I mean, come on — even the abstract the appears when you click Regnerus’ link is enough to raise suspicion that he’s missed the target. My best guess is that he seized on the first sentence in the quote I provided, and found himself so tangled in confirmation bias that he completely missed what followed, even though what followed is the crucial piece of information when it comes to evaluating same-sex families (i.e., marriage and marriage-like unions).

At this point it looks like Regnerus has so thoroughly ruined his scientific credibility that he’s gone into denial over it, and now lives in a self-imposed Dunning-Kruger inability to recognize his own incompetence. Not because he’s inherently stupid, but because a rigorous intelligence would threaten his last bastion of support.

However, even this man’s small tragedy has produced some good. Bookmark that Stanford study, and be ready to offer it up as Regnerus-approved proof that Regnerus is wrong.


July 21st, 2014

I have little doubt Regnerus is fully aware of Rosenfeld’s article because in other contexts Regnerus, Allen and their ilk have criticized Rosenfeld for controlling for stability. In fact, Allen published an article in Demography that tried to discredit Rosenfeld by removing his controls and lumping in a bunch of families that could not be sufficiently identified as “gay” (very similar to what Regnerus did when constructing his dubious GF and LM categories.
Regnerus knew exactly what he was doing – he was writing for a non-academic article and knew that his cherry picking would not be noticed.
But great job on picking up on his prevarication Rob – I don’t even bother to read any of his screeds anymore because he so flagrantly twists “facts” to suit his bigotry. Thanks for doing the dirty work for the rest of us!


July 22nd, 2014

Looks like Mark Regnerus is becoming to sociology what David Barton is to history.


July 22nd, 2014

This is a wonderful find, Rob! I wonder if there are any trials coming up where Michael Rosenfeld could testify.


July 22nd, 2014

Another thought: given the findings of studies on gay parenting and the results for their children, especially the latest batch coming out of Australia — where same-sex marriage is not recognized — just imagine what those results would be for the children of married same-sex parents, with the added security and stability that legal recognition would bring to those families.


July 22nd, 2014

Michael Rosenfeld was an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the Michigan marriage equality trial (DeBoer), while Regnerus testified for the state of Michigan. The judge dismissed Regnerus’s testimony as utterly unbelievable, but relied heavily on Rosenfeld as a reliable and credible witness.


July 23rd, 2014

I don’t buy that research any more. Marriage isn’t a tool to force people to stay together. Maybe the trouble of a divorce will make people take longer before they break up, but if a relationship is broken beyond repair, they will split regardless. As they should.


July 23rd, 2014

Then there is the simple fact that at least in the US, most straight couples in a long term relationship will eventually marry. While cohabitation isn’t frowned upon anymore, there is often little to be gained by just living together. Maybe not losing Social Security benefits for old people. The couples who do it for ideological reasons are a tiny minority.

There just isn’t a large comparison group of unmarried, long-term straight couples. And comparing the shorter relationships people have until they find their marriage partner to a marriage is the same sort of BS comparison Regnerus makes.

Priya Lynn

July 23rd, 2014

I’m not buying your argument Steve. People don’t marry every person they have a relationship with because they don’t feel the match is strong enough to be enduring. When someone finds a match they believe to be strong and enduring then they committ to marriage with that person. The strength of the relationship is what seperates non-marriage relationships from marriage relationships – its a perfectly valid comparison.

Hina さん

July 23rd, 2014

While attacking the australian study, Regnerus is peddling once more his NFSS stuff on a French right-wing media…
(And also moaning against judge B. Friedmann.
For those who read French: )


July 23rd, 2014

If there weren’t such a strong social expectation to get married and so many legal incentives to do it, people could just live together and be committed without being married. Marriage and commitment have nothing to do with each other.

In some European countries for example it’s not that unusual for people to live together for many years and not getting married. The German president for example isn’t married to his girlfriend/partner. In the US that would completely unthinkable.

Priya Lynn

July 23rd, 2014

I disagree Steve. Because marriage is expected to be long term, if not permanent people are more careful about how secure their relationship is before they take that step and because of this its a certainty that the average marriage lasts longer than the average relationship. Relationships are something people get into without many reservations because they believe (ususally correctly) that they can get out at any time if it doesn’t work out. So people get into relationships with partners they are much less sure about compared to the surity people have with marriage partners.

That’s not to say that gays and lesbians who haven’t been able to get married haven’t formed committed relationships with partners they were confident would be long term or permanent, its to say that without marriage there’s no way to distinguish a less committed “what-the-hell” relationship from a long term committed relationship based on high confidence that the partners are well suited to each other.

For that reason marriages in general will be longer term than “relationships”. “Relationships” include a large number of partnerships that are tentative and not intended to be long term.


July 23rd, 2014

But they don’t HAVE to be short-term and tentative. There is absolutely nothing that prevents from taking any relationship seriously. Gay or straight.

And lots and lots of people enter into marriages without thinking things through. Especially very religious people. Fundamentalists marry young and often the first person they can find. Because any other relationship is heavily stigmatized and so is sex outside of marriage. That’s precisely why they have higher than average divorce rates. Having shorter relationships to find out what they like would do them a lot of good.

The study just isn’t useful for making such extremely generalized statements. At most it only applies to a single country that has a certain culture about relationships. Also note the fact that in the US, using the term “partner” will usually out you as LGTB. Again, that isn’t true in other countries, where terms like “life partner” are in widespread use by straight couples.

Timothy Kincaid

July 23rd, 2014


I’ve heard that statistic, but actually it is a misunderstanding and a conflation of two different concepts.

People who identify with one of the Evangelical Christian denominations are, indeed, more likely to be divorced than the national average. However, this does not tie to actual adherence of religious teaching.

Those who attend church services regularly are 35% less likely to divorce.

I’m not sure whether those who identify with a brand of faith – but don’t actually attend church – are as likely to follow that faith’s rules on sex. I think it unlikely, but I don’t have data to back it up.

If they do abstain from sex – though otherwise not adhering to their faith – then yes this would be the source of the problem. If not, then something else is going on.

But it is true that the Bible Belt states have higher rates of divorce – as well as a good many other social ills.


July 24th, 2014

Excellent post, Rob! I am so glad you are here at BTB, since Burroway and Kincaid have apparently decided to discontinue the impactful, analytical pieces that made BTB famous. A couple of points:

– The Regnerus’s text you quoted really makes no sense. He asks whether same-sex parents’ relationships might be more or less stable in the future, but then starts to answer his question by asserting that gay couples are more fragile than straight couples. But that’s a non-sequitur. However gay couples compare to straight couples, that is a different question from how gay parents’ relationships in the future will compare to those today. It is like asking whether the Italian economy will expand or contract, and then answering the question by noting that Italy isn’t as wealthy as France. It makes no sense.

– On the narrow point on which you try to nail him, I think his answer would be that he only cited to Rosenfeld for the point that gay relationships have been shown to be more fragile, without regard to the reasons for that fragility. Since Rosenfeld says there is a difference, it is valid to cite him for that narrow point. Of course, it is stupid to cite that study because the rest of it undermines everything else Regnerus says. But the citation itself, he would probably say, is accurate.

– I think it is absurd to subject same-sex couples and opposite sex couples to radically different incentive systems, measure longevity, and then draw conclusions that it is the same-sex attribute which yields relationships of shorter duration. Our side does a really terrible job in explaining just how differently same-sex couples have been treated for the longest time. Usually, you will see some gay spokesperson toss off an jargon like “oppression” or “discrimination.“ But that doesn’t begin to capture the disparate treatment, which was (and is) a 24-hour/day, 360-degree phenomenon, and which was carried out from the largest institutions down to daily interactions with parents and siblings. And it operated universally – whether you lived in New York City or Wasilla Alaska – for the history of the US up until recently.

In that context, it is absurd to measure straight and gay couples, and blithely conclude that the gay couples are more “fragile” because they are gay. I think that the passage of SSM *and* the growing social acceptance of SSM by families and friends of LGBs means that we are finally beginning to see the creation of the right kinds of incentives for long-term healthy gay unions. When I saw that viral video of the marriage proposal in Home Depot, with dozens of friends and family members participating, and with the prospect of an actual legal marriage to follow, I felt like we were at last getting a few drops from the well from which heterosexuals have drunk for centuries.

Priya Lynn

July 24th, 2014

Steve said “But they don’t HAVE to be short-term and tentative. There is absolutely nothing that prevents from taking any relationship seriously. Gay or straight.”.

That’s what I said, but you apparently are so focussed on arguing with me you missed it. The point I was trying to make is that most relationships are short-term and tentative because people are just trying to get to know each other and see if they are “the one”. That’s why when you look at gay “relationships” when gays aren’t allowed to marry they are on average shorter than marriages – the unserious relationships and their length brings down the average for serious committed gay relationships. The same thing would happen if you lumped all heterosexual marriages in with all other heterosexual relationships and averaged their duration, the average duration would be much shorter than if you just looked at marriages (committed relationships with a high degree of confidence in partner compatibility) alone.

Steve said “And lots and lots of people enter into marriages without thinking things through. Especially very religious people. Fundamentalists marry young and often the first person they can find.”.

Yeah, I’d like to see the statistics on people who “marry the first person they can find”. I think it’d be a pretty small group. And those young fundamentalists that have higher divorce rates are very much in the minority as far as marriage in general goes. Most people delay marriage now until something like the late 20’s or early 30’s on average.

I’d be willing to bet that even in those minority of marriages where young fundamentalists hastily marry those marriages on average last longer than “relationships” in general because even then there is more of a committment to staying together long term than there is for most casual dating relationships where there is no committment whatsoever to staying together, where people are just “playing the field”.

Priya Lynn

July 24th, 2014

Timothy said “Those who attend church services regularly are 35% less likely to divorce.”.

That’s not what I’ve read. The information I’ve read says atheists are much less likely to divorce than religious people.

Priya Lynn

July 24th, 2014

And surveys show far fewer people regularly attend church services than claim to do so.

Timothy Kincaid

July 24th, 2014

I haven’t quit, I promise. I’m just crazy busy right now. I’ll be back soon

Timothy Kincaid

July 24th, 2014

Priya Lyn,

I don’t know the stats on atheists and divorce. It may well be that both atheists and those who attend regularly both have lower rates of divorce than the casually affiliated.

And yes, those who say they attend are a larger group than those who actually do. I’m not 100% sure, but I think my stat only includes regular attendees, not those who tell statisticians that they attend.

With active church culture, there is a strong push not to divorce. And it is very common for pastors to spend substantial parts of their ministry serving in counsel for marital and other family issues.

Ben in Oakland

July 24th, 2014

Jason. Not merely a well that they have been drinking from, but a well they have likewise been pissing in.

As you note, though in other words, it isn’t marriage that’s being redefined, it’s gay people– as no longer the cultural, moral, familial, human, sexual, ethical, social, and legal inferiors of any heterosexual, no matter how ignoble or base.

Timothy (TRiG)

July 28th, 2014

I don’t know whether atheists have lower levels of divorce, but I wouldn’t find it surprising. I strongly suspect that atheists (and perhaps, these days, liberal religious people) are less likely to marry in the first place, and certainly get married later in life. If people live as a couple first, and then choose to marry without much social pressure, then it would make sense that the marriage would be more likely to be successful.

This doesn’t say anything much about the success of atheist romantic relationships compared to religious ones. The fact that, for atheists, the relationship can happen without the marriage is rather the point.


Priya Lynn

July 28th, 2014

” The fact that, for atheists, the relationship can happen without the marriage is rather the point.”.

I’m not following you.

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