The drama, expectations and divorce rates don’t exactly sell same-sex marital bliss simply because it’s legal.
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A little more than six years ago, my girlfriend and I shared a very special moment together. A little cardboard box had arrived earlier that day via airmail from Las Vegas, which — by nature of its contents — was more than a bit amusing to us both. I hacked through the box with a kitchen knife, more “Dexter” than “Modern Bride,” and we dug through the bubble wrap. Standing there in the kitchen, Meg leaning against the Formica counter, me thinking I should have at least done the dishes, we exchanged rings.
The moment we slipped them on each other’s fingers was strangely still. I don’t think either of us heard the usual sounds sweeping up five stories from our the city street — I couldn’t tell you if there were any sirens, or if the ice cream truck was driving by on its regular route to the ball field. I’m not even sure if it was sunny or raining.
We weren’t standing in a flower-filled chapel or on the sort of wind-swept beach that wedding photographers just love to use as backdrops to “the happiest day of our lives.” We weren’t wearing designer fashions (sorry, Vera) or forcing our friends to observe a moment that, we both agreed, was simply ours to share.
We didn’t technically get married that day. We never went to the courthouse — not that it’s legal in Pennsylvania. We didn’t sign any paperwork for the occasion, apart from the usual greeting cards and handwritten notes on cocktail napkins we tend to surprise each other with for no reason at all. Yet we felt very married — and still do after celebrating our 11th anniversary as a couple this year.
Every time I look at that simple titanium ring on my left hand — when I remove it to before dipping my hands in paint to start a new piece of art, when when it feels a little tight after an indulgent holiday dinner, when I chop vegetables for a party we’re hosting, when I hold her hand under the glow of a movie screen — I think of that moment when the two of us made things a little more official, to each other, at least.
By all accounts, we live like any other ordinary married couple, without the legal validation that would have come with a different set of rings under a different set of circumstances. These rings — our rings — are still symbolic. In exchange for a formal, fabled “big day,” our unmarried contentment comes down to the little things that can sometimes be overlooked or pushed to the back of the closet when bigger shows of love are painstakingly constructed with wedding cakes, flower arrangements and registries.
Our truest, most honest moments tend to be about sharing the predictable, for better or worse, like the rent and the grocery bills, an Instagram-worthy frozen margarita, and a long weekend in Fire Island that we both really, really needed that summer. It’s a life stacked with laundry, bills, weekend chores, Chinese take-out, Netflix binges, and the occasional emergency room visit when someone forgets to take her asthma medication.
Truth is, a lot of our friends don’t even know about that day we exchanged rings, partly because we wear them on our middle fingers, leaving room should we ever decide to make it really, really official. But for us, the commitment doesn’t get more real than when comforting one’s lover after she’s laid off from work or sitting vigil as the other loses her mother to cancer.
The trouble with marriage
Even though the news is sharpened with stories about the fight for same-sex marriage rights from New England to California, neither of us really talks about what it could mean for us. Maybe that’s because it sometimes reminds us of our parents and straight friends, partnerships that aren’t analogous to ours in a lot of ways. With no plans for children or a suburban existence (though a yard would be nice for the dog, we agree), marriage — as hopeful a notion as it is for many same-sex couples today — never quite fit into our life plan, in as much as we have one.
This isn’t to say we both don’t want to see marriage equality in all 50 states — and pronto. Each of us has either volunteered for pro-marriage equality organizations or written persuasively in favor of this fight, the great equalizer of our time. But believing in its virtue and applying it to one’s relationship have become two very different things, at least in our lives.
Personally, I’ve always had my doubts about the fundamentals of marriage for as long as I can remember, despite having parents who were married for almost 40 years. These doubts are stoked whenever I meet married couples who recently tied the knot and who spend most of their time elaborating on the color scheme of their wedding (ecru!), how their pug was the ringbearer (“the pictures are to die for”) or the fact that “it’s just so much pressure finding the right real estate these days.” Marriage turns some people into monsters!
There are also the couples who attempt to drag their friends (some of whom are still paying off college loans) to overseas locales to say “I do,” or who plan themed weddings where everyone is forced to wear ridiculous get-ups or recite sonnets. With these LGBT firsts — and, for the first time, legitimacy in marital rights — comes a certain naivety in thinking that no couple has ever done this before. I’m not so sure I want one big day to symbolize a partnership that, in truth, flourishes over time between two people (and not a guest list of 500).
There’s also the added pressure from the gay community sometimes to consider marrying just because you’ve been paired up for as many seasons as RuPaul has had a “Drag Race,” or partly out of protest, or because of better rent prospects — and sometimes even out of love.
The big question
Meg and I were lucky to witness the first legal marriages in Massachusetts during a vacation in Provincetown in 2004. It was incredibly moving to see the raw energy, streaming tears and jubilation at this turning of the tide of LGBT rights in our lifetime. But as gay marriage has flowed into other states with celebrity twists, we’ve both joked about the inevitable reality shows to come (think: “Real Life: The Horrors of Gay Divorce”).
For many same-sex couples, it’s impossible to escape the question of marriage anymore. We met a lesbian couple this year who had been married last year in New York when marriage first became legal. They shared the same last name and had only recently moved to Philly.
“Would you ever want to get married?” Meg asked me after meeting them that day. It was the first time she seemed semi-serious about the question.
“Not really,” I said.
And that was that.
The next day, I checked Facebook, with marriage still on my mind. I began to see all of the “newish” couples I know interchangeably professing their love for one another, eagerly changing their relationship status updates and sharing unwitting anecdotes from the latest magazine articles and self-help books about “how to make a relationship last,” “how to keep the spark alive” and “why you should tell your partner everything,” even though most of these people had only been together for a few weeks.
Weeks later, many of the relationship status updates were inevitably back to single or “it’s complicated.”
A private affair
As Meg and I now approach our 12th year together (which, by the way, is the linen anniversary, a sign of comfort), neither of us has gotten around to changing our Facebook statuses. We haven’t posted our homespun wisdom about love, and we certainly haven’t invited the world into our bedroom. But if I had to defend the virtues of being happily unmarried, I might say it has a lot to do with the private things that can sometimes get lost beneath the much louder shouts for equality.
Here’s the status update I’ll never post:
We take time to be kind, to listen as much as we share, to laugh at our funny-looking dog, to remember to pick up the other’s favorite flowers from time to time, and take care of what matters. This isn’t to say I don’t get unnecessarily frustrated when she leaves her shoes in the living room or is late for dinner again, or her patience isn’t tested when I refuse to read the IKEA instructions or unwittingly flirt a little too much with a passing stranger, but that’s all part of our happy “unmarriage.”
Despite my own reticence about formal shows of commitment (and marriage), I can’t be absolutely sure that one fine day we won’t make it legal, invite friends and, heck, even hire an Elvis impersonator. Our rings were crafted in Vegas, after all. But we’re in no rush.
And as for the “happily”-married lesbian couple we met earlier this year — they broke up last week. Apparently married life didn’t quite work out as well as they expected. They put 2,000 miles between each other, pending divorce.
As for Meg and me, well, we’ve decided to stay happily committed for now. It’s not that we don’t think we deserve to say “I do” in the eyes of the government and our family and friends; it just feels like we already have.
Natalie Hope McDonald is a freelance writer, editor and fine artist based in Philadelphia. Her work regularly appears in newspapers, magazines and journals, and on websites and blogs around the country.