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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

Married Fathers and Mothers, and Their Children

The intact, biological family remains the gold standard for raising children, according to a new study done at the University of Texas at Austin that has captured widespread attention.

Titled “The New Family Structures Study,” it focuses on young adults between the ages of 18 and 39 raised in various types of households. What it learned in particular about the contrasting well-being of those raised by a parent in a same-sex relationship and those raised by their own married biological parents is what accounts in large part for the high level of interest in the study.

Emotionally, socially and in terms of the quality of their current relationships, young adults who grew up in households with their married mothers and fathers fare significantly better than those raised by a parent in a same-sex relationship, the study indicated.

It measured life outcomes in 40 areas encompassing concerns such as economic well-being, health, fidelity, substance abuse and educational attainment.

Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the university, was the study’s chief investigator. In 2011 he surveyed a random and nationally representative sample of just over 15,000 young adults, receiving completed surveys from 2,988 young adults from different family environments including, for example, traditional families, single-parent and adoptive families, and homes with a stepparent or a parent in a same-sex relationship.

A “debut article” by Regnerus introducing the study findings appears in the July 2012 edition of Social Science Research. His initial article focuses in particular on how young adults who said their mother or father had a same-sex relationship compare with those from “two parent heterosexual married families.”

“I think the study reveals two key findings,” Regnerus told me. The first finding showed “the stability and benefits of the intact, biological family.”

Second, however, Regnerus said the study revealed “the pronounced instability that characterized the households of the previous generation in which a parent had a same-sex relationship.”

When I asked Regnerus what accounted for this instability he responded, “In the era we examined it was uncommon for adult respondents who indicated that a parent had had a same-sex relationship to have spent a considerable number of years with that parent and their same-sex partner.” Many of these young adults experienced an important life disruption at an early age due to the separation or divorce of their biological parents.

The study best captures what might be called an “earlier generation” of children with a parent in a same-sex relationship, Regnerus explained in a university press release. It said the study “did not isolate the effect of having a parent who had a same-sex relationship from other effects such as marital disruptions that preceded or coincided with a parent’s same-sex relationship” or from the social stigma that may have been attached to a parent’s same-sex relationship.

Bishop Cordileone Comments

Bishop Salvatore Cordileone of Oakland, Calif., called the New Family Structure Study to the attention of the U.S. Catholic bishops June 14 when he addressed their national meeting in Atlanta. He is chairman of the bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.

“A well-respected study is attesting to something very basic: Fathers and mothers matter, and married fathers and mothers matter for children,” Bishop Cordileone said.

It is unfortunate, he commented, that “we have come to a point in Western society where the meaning of marriage is being largely eclipsed by a counterfeit version, by a false idea that marriage is just a matter of adult interests and can be manipulated as a product of arbitrary invention.”

Bishop Cordileone expressed his conviction that “many of our young people, who have experienced firsthand the difficulties of broken families and the absence of a father or a mother, know intuitively that such an understanding of marriage cannot stand the test of time and can only lead to further disappointment and hardships.”

In affirming “that children thrive and do best with their mother and father in an intact home,” it can be seen that “the protection of marriage as the union of one man and one woman is a work of justice and is foundational to the good of all, especially for those most vulnerable among us, our children,” Bishop Cordileone concluded.

What the Study Is and Is Not

Regnerus and his colleagues believe the large size of their study’s scientific sample of young adults lends credibility to one of its key findings: that young adults raised in the homes of their married biological parents tend to differ in significant ways from others – particularly, in this case, from those raised by a parent in a same-sex relationship.

The belief expanded in recent times, based on smaller studies employing other methods, that “children from same-sex families display no notable disadvantages when compared to children from other family forms,” the study notes.

Regnerus cautions that while his analysis identifies differences in life outcomes between young adults raised in these contexts, it does not provide evidence to explain what causes these differences. Nor is this a study of “parenting per se,” he has said.

However, Regnerus appears highly confident when he states that the study’s findings “are consistent with a large body of research that suggests that children are most likely to thrive when they are raised by their own married parents.”

These families, he said, “provide a biological link between parents and children, and unparalleled levels of stability, both of which have a long reach in the benefits they afford to children.”

About the author 
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.