Wednesday, April 10, 2013
Can Same Sex Couples Raise Healthy Children?

Can Same Sex Couples Raise Healthy Children?

In it's deliberations to consider of the legality of same sex marriage, the Supreme Court recently heard arguments from various parties on both sides of this divisive issue. One such supporting argument deserves particular attention for those of us concerned with the health and well being of children. In their recent brief to the Supreme Court, the American Sociological Association states, "Whether a child is raised by same-sex or opposite-sex parents has no bearing on a child's wellbeing". This conclusion is based on various studies that measured such outcomes as "academic performance, cognitive development, social development, psychological health, early sexual activity, and substance abuse" (see Hollingsworth vs Perry, US vs Windsor, NOS. 12-144, 12-307).

However faulty such studies might be (as was addressed quite thoroughly by Napp Nazworth in his recent two part series), I wish to submit that by allowing proponents of same sex marriage to frame the main arguments of this matter, we are allowing ourselves to be distracted from the more genuine central issues that are at stake. It may turn out that same sex couples can raise children just as well as opposite sex couples to achieve success in terms of those various measures. The real problem with this argument is that it draws our attention away from considering the central role that biological fathers and mothers play in our development towards healthy adulthood. And I am afraid this effort is being made not so much out of a willful attempt at distraction as from a gross misunderstanding of the central tenants of human development.

To gain a clear understanding of the important roles our biological fathers and mothers play in our development, we will need to clear the board of our preconceived ideas, and begin again by placing several essential pieces in place and discover how they fit together. The first piece is the most obvious yet essential foundation to our new understanding. We spend nearly one quarter of our lives in the presence of adult caregivers as we mature into adulthood. The second piece will shift us away from a strictly psychological perspective which emphasizes our cognitive and behavioral experience (e.g., the focus in early childhood on our first words and our first steps), and instead correctly places emotional/relational experience at the forefront as the variable which has the greatest impact on our development (see "The Irreducible Needs of Children", by Brazelton & Greenspan, 2000, DeCapo Press).

Let's pause for a moment to consider the magnitude of these first two pieces. As relationship creatures, if we spend 20 odd years in primary relationship experience with adult caregivers (this usually means two opposite sex parents, an obvious prerequisite to bearing children), then we would expect to find a great deal of evidence for the notion that these relationships shape our development in essential ways. First, we can say that this idea has what Ravi Zacharias calls experiential relevancy (one of his three tests for knowing if something is true). Most of us can attest to the great impact our parental relationships have had on us, but then I am faced with this truth every day through the clients I serve in my therapy practice. But let's look at a more poignant example. In his efforts to understand and help married couples, Harville Hendrix discovered that, especially in romantic relationships (although I would argue this is true in all of our adult relationships) our relationship experience with each of our parents plays a major role in not only the selection of our mate, but is most often at the root of significant areas of conflict. In fact, Hendrix would argue those issues need to be embraced as the ingredients for garnering the greatest satisfaction in a marriage (see "Getting The Love You Want" by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., 2001, First Owl Books).

With a focus on the importance of our relationship experience with each of our biological parents in shaping our development during the formative years, we now can add the remaining two pieces to complete our model. For these pieces we draw on the renowned author and developmental theorist Erik Erikson. In his many published works on human development, Erikson defined two stages that I would suggest begin very early in life, and culminate in adolescence and young adulthood. These two stages include the establishment of an identity, and the attainment of intimacy, primarily with a romantic and sexual partner. More than just stages of development, Erikson has in mind the successful achievement of these two essential tasks as paramount to healthy human development (see "Identity: Youth and Crisis", by Erik Erikson, 1968, W.W. Norton).

When we consider these four pieces together, we conclude that the two essential tasks of forming a healthy identity and establishing healthy intimacy are going to be negotiated primarily through our many formative years of relational experience with our two opposite sex parents. More to the point, we are going to be naturally inclined to seek out the establishment of our identity through our relational experience with our same sex parent, and to seek out a special kind of intimacy through our relationship experience with our opposite sex parent. I would argue that indeed the primary roles our parents play in our lives involves helping us in establishing a healthy identity and developing healthy relational intimacy.

With two primary developmental tasks to achieve, and two opposite sex parents to have relational experience with, it seems quite natural that we would pursue one of those tasks with one parent and the other task with the other parent. Indeed, we are naturally inclined to seek out identity affirming experiences with our same sex parent precisely because a central aspect of our identity is rooted in our gender. To understand why we seek intimacy experiences with our opposite sex parents, we need to look individually at boys and girls. The boy seeks intimacy with his mother because she offers a special emotional tenderness and sensitivity that his father does not provide. And the girl seeks intimacy with her father because he represents for her a primary source of strength and security that she naturally is drawn to.

My many years of experience, both professionally and personally, have confirmed over and over the truth of the model offered here. The healthier our parental relationships were growing up, the healthier we became as adults. Conversely, poor parental relationships, or the absence of one or both entirely, had an enormous impact on our lives. Every child I have ever worked with who did not have both biological parents at home raising them suffered this loss, usually to a significant degree. Once we understand this fundamental truth, that we pursue essential developmental tasks with each of our biological parents, and that the absence of either one of them (emotionally or physically) has a huge negative impact on our development, then we begin to realize the fallacy of same sex couples raising children.

The drive the point home in more specific detail, we turn to Joseph Nicolosi, Ph.D. Through his many years of work with men who struggle with same sex attraction, he has found that the primary source of their same sex attraction is rooted in their failure to establish a health sense of male gender identity. This failure in most cases was caused by the lack of a healthy nurturing relationship with their father (see, "Shame and Attachment Loss", by Nicolosi, 2009, Intervarsity Press). For further information, see The National Association of Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (

I have found many of the problems children have to be rooted in a poor or absent parental relationship, same sex attraction or a lack of interest in heterosexual relationships being just some of the possible negative outcomes. Indeed, if unhealthy developmental outcome regarding any number of mental health and substance abuse issues is rooted in unhealthy parental relationships, then why would we expect the development of same sex attraction to be any different in origin. Once we understand the importance of parental relationships in human development, we would look to these experiences when seeking the roots of all developmental outcomes, including sexual orientation.

If two opposite sex parents are necessary to the raising of healthy children, how ironic, then, is the position held by proponents of same sex marriage that they can do the same when in fact they themselves are living out the negative consequences of not having had healthy relationships with two biological parents. They now wish to impose the very same deficits on the next generation of children, and then to declare this arrangement "healthy."

Does that make any sense?

Jeff Pearce is a mental health and substance abuse therapist in private practice who has been working with youth and families for over 25 years. He can be reached at


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