When a Civil Union Dissolves

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Please check one:           

_____    Married   ______   Single

For most people, this is a simple request, but not for me. Whenever I get to this section on a form it causes me to pause and chew my pen. Technically, I am single and unless the law changes, I always will be. After staring at my choices, eventually I always make a mark in the Single box, consoling myself all the while with the reminder that technicalities don’t have to rule my life. This was the same consolation I offered my parents twelve years ago when I came out to them.

“We’ll never see you get married,” they said, their voices brimming with disappointment. I dismissed their concerns. Despite it being against the law in most states, gay people got married all the time. In 2008, for example, 27 percent of the 564,743 self-identified same sex couples in the U.S. classified themselves as married. That same year, there were an estimated 100,000 same sex weddings. Clearly, the law did not prevent gay couples from joining in unions comparable to marriage and I had no reason to think I’d be any different. I figured I’d meet a woman, fall in love, commit my life to her and eventually have kids. Even if it wasn’t legal, it’d be close enough. 

Besides, that was all a long way off. I was only 22. Marriage was barely a blip on my radar and still wasn’t two years later when I met Kelli. She was 27 and ready for a serious commitment, something along the lines of “till death do us part.” Kelli was kind, smart and pretty—all the things I’d imagined I was looking for in a woman. We fell in love in a matter of weeks and, while it was blissful, it didn’t make me feel any more prepared to say, “I do.”

This quickly became a problem for us. In lesbian relationships, time moves on a continuum similar to dog years. There is no exact formula but based on my experiential calculations, it works out to something like one month equaling one year, which is why it is not entirely unusual for two women to sleep together on the first date, move in together after a month and marry after a year. I was considered a bit of a foot dragger in my community, but I just wasn’t sure whether Kelli, as wonderful as she seemed, was “the one,” so I hemmed and hawed, walked in circles and spent my time praying that a sense of certainty would descend upon me.

“I take marriage very seriously,” I told her whenever the topic came up, which was often. My parents had been married at that point for over thirty years and their love for each other was something I aspired to have in my own life. They were partners and friends and, although I preferred not to think about it, they were lovers, too. So while it was true that my parents set the marriage bar high, every time I talked about how seriously I took marriage, I was stalling. The longer Kelli and I were together, the more I felt like someone had shoved me into a cage full of hungry pit bulls with only a handful of beef jerky.

Our relationship wasn’t bad. We got along well, rarely fought and when we did, never raised our voices. I couldn’t imagine my life without Kelli but, at the same time, I couldn’t say that I was excited about the prospect of promising myself for better or worse. Something was missing. But as the months turned into years, I began to feel a little like a poker player with a bad hand who has been consistently upping the ante. After so much time, there was too much at stake to simply lay down my cards, so I forged ahead trying to bluff my way into happiness. In hindsight, it’s clear that the proverbial writing was on the wall: We just weren’t meant to be. Back then I couldn’t have deciphered that message to save my life.

I was the kind of person who was never sure about anything. As a kid, I would get paralyzed in the candy aisle. “Pick ONE!” my mother would urge, but I would stand there staring at the Kit Kats, Snickers, Nerds and Gobstoppers overwhelmed at the decision until my mother finally threatened me with the prospect of leaving empty-handed. I was plagued by uncertainty. I reasoned that since I felt tentative about even the most minor decisions, I couldn’t expect to feel sure about the more important ones. And so, with that naïve logic, four years into our relationship, I bought Kelli a ring and asked her to marry me. She was thrilled. Kelli had been raised by a single mom; in her eyes marriage, even gay marriage, brought an overwhelming sense of security. It seemed to allow her to believe in forever in a way she just couldn’t otherwise.

Since we lived in Maryland (one of the forty five states that do not sanction gay marriage) we were not legally married. We didn’t have a ceremony, didn’t stand in front of witnesses and publicly express our love and we didn’t recite vows. Still, the moment we exchanged rings, I felt in my heart that we were bound. For me, marriage is a promise, nothing more, nothing less. It’s the intent to commit your life to another person.

Though my notions of marriage were both idealistic and starry eyed, I also knew that there were important differences between what Kelli and I had and a legal union. The Human Rights Campaign puts the number of federal rights bestowed upon a couple who is able to legally marry at 1,138. I didn’t like to think about it, but our lack of legality meant something. It meant that if I were to get in a bad accident, my sister, who struggles with her own mental health issues, would have the right to make decisions about my medical care before Kelli ever would. It meant that Kelli could be denied visitation rights in the hospital.

We both knew that there were ways to navigate around some of these troubling issues, so we went to see a lawyer. We drew up wills that named each other as primary inheritors of one another’s property, living wills that dictated specific wishes in a variety of complicated medical situations; we granted each other power of attorney. With a very thin wall of paper we did our best to protect our marriage, but there were limits. Certain rights would never be extended to us. If Kelli were to get really sick, for example, I would never be able to invoke the Family Medical Leave Act, which allows spouses up to twelve weeks’ leave from a job to care for their loved one. And if Kelli died, I would never be eligible to receive family-related Social Security benefits.

Kelli and I moved quietly into our married life, buying a house together and moving to Delaware. We came home to each other every night, took turns making dinner, talked about the kind of day we’d had and went to bed hand in hand. For a time, I thought that I’d kept enough of a poker face to win the pot with a pair of two’s, but as it turned out, all of the red flags I’d spent so much time ignoring during the first four years of our relationship suddenly came into focus with startling clarity.

On top of that, Kelli wanted kids and I wasn’t ready. To be fair, it wasn’t as though Kelli had never mentioned children before, it was more that her biological clock had started ticking and I simply didn’t seem to have one. When Kelli spotted a cute kid at the gym, she lit up and began babbling silly baby talk. I headed in the opposite direction feeling a deep sense of panic.

Despite my best intentions, Kelli and I didn’t last and though we’d never really been married, technically, that didn’t lessen the devastation of our split. I felt like I was going through a divorce. We divided property, sold our house, dissolved our joint bank accounts, and she moved to Ohio with our two dogs. And beyond all the physical manifestations of our separation, I felt like I had truly failed at something that mattered.

Although Kelli and I haven’t spoken in years, I have heard through the ever so lively gay grapevine that she is now married and has adopted a son. She has even changed her last name. Sometimes, I find myself wondering how she describes our relationship, which ended with a fair amount of bitterness on her end. I have a sneaking suspicion that she probably doesn’t count what we had as a marriage. This is a luxury exclusive to gays since the majority of our unions are not legal. We can diminish a marriage that went bad into something far less significant. I’ll admit that I’ve been tempted by this prospect. With the clarity that accompanies hindsight, I can see that most of my actions during the five years that Kelli and I spent together were a product of fear. It would be easy to dismiss what we had as a silly little mistake, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. The way I see it, Kelli and I are divorcees, a fact that makes my skin crawl, but a fact nonetheless. The truth of the past doesn’t change even when viewed through the spectrum of a very different present. It remains what it was, even when we want it to be something else.

Unless, of course, we’re talking in technical terms, in which case, I’ve been single all my life.



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3 COMMENTS

  1. Really insightful and interesting. Shows how not just the power of the state, but also the power of language is at play in shaping our lives and our understanding of them. Great post for Pride Weekend.

  2. A very moving read. As someone recently married (legally, to a man), I am still searching for what makes our relationship feel different now, whether it really is all that different now because of a piece of paper… I was in serious relationships with women for the majority of my adult years and I will say that marriage seemed to have a stronger meaning then because it would have to be recognized more personally

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