Last July, my boyfriend Jesse and I moved in together. The next day, we went to New York City Hall and got “gay married” — that is, we became (heterosexual) domestic partners. We’re among the many straight couples who have become legally linked, mostly for health insurance and other practical reasons, since domestic partnership became an option in several states as the closest alternative to marriage for gay couples. Now that the Supreme Court is debating the legalities of full-fledged gay marriage, we’re also pondering whether we’ll “have to” get hitched to maintain our benefits, should national marriage equality become a reality. In fact, we know one couple who already got married after losing their health insurance coverage once New York legalized same-sex marriage.
Of course, we’re unequivocally in favor of marriage equality. But this lower “level” of commitment has been worth something in its own right to us — not just for the health benefits, but for the ways it helped us see exactly what we wanted from our relationship.
As wary 30-something New Yorkers, Jesse and I built our couplehood in careful, meticulously plotted, much-debated steps. Even the regular practice of spending the night at each other’s places was up for debate. (We’re really into having our own space and alone time.) We waited ten months before exchanging “I love you”s. We declared our reticence about marriage early and often. Eventually, sleepovers became a practical necessity as well as a key bonding experience. That “I love you” felt real and earned. We became domestic partners when we realized that said status would allow me to be on his health insurance and give us at least a chance of proving our standing with each other in the event of, say, a hospitalization or death. (Also: We can rent cars together without an extra fee!) Of course we wouldn’t have done it if the commitment level weren’t there, but we also wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t have reason to.
And marriage? We’re still saying only if we have to, though that seems like it’s possibly in our future.
That “only if we have to” attitude about each stage of our relationship has lent it a deliberate quality we both take comfort in. We’re analytical people. Call us cold commitmentphobes if you like, but investigating domestic partnership has given me a better understanding of marriage — and even, in a way, made it more romantic to me. What can I say? Having almost gotten married once before, having a say over each other’s do-not-resuscitate orders and sharing our assets without tax penalties sound far more romantic than picking out bridal bouquets and paying too much for cake. Here, a few things I’ve learned about marriage from being domestic partnered:
Domestic partnership is not marriage. We chose it as the simplest, quickest alternative so we could stop paying more than $600 per month for my COBRA health coverage. But no institutions are required to recognize domestic partners’ legal status; many companies simply choose to. Hospitals don’t have to give you a say in your partner’s care and the status doesn’t hold up in court for much. Marriage, in fact, instantly confers more than a thousand benefits and advantages to those who undertake it. Speaking of which …
People get married for good reason! I scoff at the gauzy, taffeta, compulsory nature of heterosexual life commitment. I resist its patriarchal underpinnings. But damn if married people don’t get a lot of great stuff! There are those thousand-plus rights, possible tax advantages (though you don’t always win by filing jointly, I’ve learned), massive legal simplifications if things go badly, and gifts! We have a decent income as successful professionals, but we’d get our new apartment in order faster if we could register.
Divorce is a bitch. Obviously it would be emotionally draining to split up from the person you thought was the love of your life — I truly have a hard time entertaining the idea of someday living without Jesse. But I also know how life goes, and I’m a staunch realist. Having watched others go through New York’s divorce process, complete with a year-long cooling-off period before making it official, I am not eager to participate. So far, this difficulty has served as the main impediment to any marriage plans for us. That’s why I love the ideas that have been floated, at least in theoretical circles, for more sweeping marriage reform than just allowing for gay couples. “Temporary marriage,” “group marriage,” and easier divorces are among them, as this New York Times piece points out. I particularly like the idea of making civil unions the nationally recognized form, and letting people figure out privately what “marriage” is to them.
Weddings are at least part of the problem with marriage. A Marie Claire piece even showed that more couples are simply getting “permanently engaged” as a way to show their commitment without dealing with all the tulle. I understand the allure of that arrangement, though it strikes me as self-defeating. You’re doing this to demonstrate your commitment to the world, to ask society to recognize your status as a couple, but it seems all a permanent engagement would invite is people constantly haranguing you about when the big day is. I dragged my own ill-fated engagement out, so I know. I personally prefer either going through with marriage or taking a stand against it. For Jesse and me, just figuring out that we don’t need a big white ceremony made us consider marriage more seriously. When he came up with the idea that we could have a small ceremony at our Zen Buddhist temple, wearing our black robes, with vows given by our teacher, that had me pondering a wedding seriously for the first time since I swore off marriage. And who knows? Maybe someday it will happen — if we have to, and we want to.