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New Relationship and Marital Status Questions: A Reflection of Changes to the Social and Legal Recognition of Same-Sex Couples

Theresa J. DeMaio and Nancy Bates


In August 2009, the Secretary of Commerce directed the Office of Management and Budget to establish a task force to research issues related to the collection and tabulation of marriage and relationship data. One focus of the research was family relationships, particularly with respect to same-sex couples who report being married. This paper reports on the second phase of qualitative research conducted by the Census Bureau under the auspices of the OMB working group.

The first phase involved focus groups conducted primarily with persons in cohabiting same-sex relationships. The groups explored the meaning and interpretation of the current decennial Census and American Community Survey relationship and marital status items (see Bates, DeMaio, Robins and Hicks, 2010). Major conclusions were: (1) both items were perceived to be asking about a legal status (2) few same-sex couples that were not legally married chose “husband/wife” or “now married” (3) most legally married same-sex couples reported “husband/wife” and “now married” (regardless of place of residence), (4) the marital status categories were viewed as inadequate by unmarried same-sex couples, and (5) relationship categories should be re-ordered according to functional equivalence.

As a result of the focus groups and expert panel review, two alternatives were developed for both relationship and marital status. This paper will report testing of these alternatives via one-on-one cognitive interviews conducted with persons from both same and different-sex households. To gauge level of sensitivity and potential backlash to the alternatives, some of the interviews will be conducted among heterosexual married persons residing in traditionally conservative states. We will conclude the paper with recommended wording to be further tested in larger scale quantitative content tests.


Theresa J. DeMaio and Nancy Bates. (2012). New Relationship and Marital Status Questions: A Reflection of Changes to the Social and Legal Recognition of Same-Sex Couples. Center for Survey Measurement Research Report Series (Survey Methodology #2012-02). U.S. Census Bureau. Available online at <>.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Center for Survey Measurement

Published online: January 26, 2012
Last revised: January 26, 2012


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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Research and Methodology Directorate | Center for Survey Measurement | (301) 763-3215 (or |   Last Revised: September 11, 2013