I remember the night New York enacted marriage equality. My ex and I were at a wedding reception on the East Side, with a beautiful view of the Queensboro Bridge. The news had spread through Twitter and Facebook, and the bride promptly declared that she and her groom could not have asked for a better wedding present. Soon people were coming up to us, congratulating us, and hinting that we might be next.
It made sense, considering we’d been together nine years, and had shared a home for seven. But my heart sank. I loved him. He’s a good man, and in many ways we’d grown up together—having met at 22 and gone into our 30s side by side. We’d made a home for ourselves and our dog over the course of a decade, and yet that evening, when everyone assumed I’d soon be marrying him, I realized I couldn’t. I remember looking at that bridge, wanting to run. Two weeks later, I did.
I left that relationship by walking across a different bridge. I didn’t go east, to Queens, but west, to the rest of the country. I had to walk 500 miles to work up the courage to tell my ex that I couldn’t marry him. I broke both his heart and mine. We’d been each other’s home for so long that I wasn’t sure how either of us could rebuild. But the prospect of legal marriage had forced a decision, and in my heart, despite the tears, I knew leaving was the right one.
You don’t need a state-issued license to fall in love. You don’t need a clerk’s stamp to seal a commitment. Civil marriage is supposed to be mostly about taxes and government benefits. But it’s really more than that. Legal marriage raises the stakes, and whether we recognize it or not, it has a psychological effect. Marrying someone, even in the era of no-fault divorce, comes with obligations that are not easily skirted. Legal marriage changes how a couple is treated by people beyond their circle of friends. Civil marriage constitutes a binding contract that can land you in court.
Breaking up after you’ve lived together as long as my ex and I did is always messy. He and I haven’t spoken in years, and I doubt we ever will. Still, going our separate ways was much easier, and certainly cheaper, than if we had been married. When I speak to friends who have been divorced I can relate to some of the emotional aspects, but I can’t pretend to understand what it feels like to have to use lawyers to fight with someone you once loved.
I don’t make excuses for my actions—I made mistakes in my previous relationships that I regret—but living in a world where legal marriage wasn’t even an option enabled my thoughtlessness. When marriage is not expected, you just sort of coast along. You may be part of a couple, but really, you’re single, and you’re reminded of it every time you check that box in a form. You mean well, and make heartfelt promises, but in the end they’re not enforceable. Instead of tying the proverbial knot, you tie a bunch of little ones here and there. These knots are weak, and you do it all almost without thinking.
The mere option of marriage tests the strength of a relationship sooner or later. The fact that it’s on the table is bound to force conversations about the future, even for long-term couples who choose not to marry. And that changes everything. That forces us to be more intentional. That is, perhaps, the greatest unobserved benefit of legal marriage.
Opponents of same-sex marriage often point to the abundance of casual coupling in the LGBT community as evidence of the alleged impiousness of gay relationships. I would argue that it has been exactly our inability to legally commit that has lowered the stakes in our approach to relationship. If it’s true that “to whom much is given, much will be required” (Luke 12:48), could not the inverse also be true? From whom much is withheld, little can be expected.
Now we’ve been given that responsibility, and that’s the reason I got nervous last week as David and I waited for our marriage license. It wasn’t doubt—I know with certainty that he’s the man I want to marry. But I couldn’t help thinking of the obligations I’m about to undertake. The stakes are higher, but they have to be. That’s what covenant warrants; that’s what marriage means.
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