It’s never an easy thing when relationships break. But it can be that much harder to make sense of the experience when your marriage was never acknowledged by your government, your faith, or your community. So today Autumn is here, giving words to her experience, and hopefully, in doing so, reclaiming a little bit of power too.
Language is a funny thing. We all want to name both our joy and our pain. Words can bring us together or tear us apart. Ever since my elopement, I struggled with the word marriage, and what that meant to the union that my home church refused to bless and my government refused to acknowledge. Needless to say, when my partner walked out on our bold little family, I was even more confused about which words I could use, should use, or even wanted to use (although a few expletives definitely made the last list). I wasn’t feeling the c’est la vie philosophy that had so epitomized the last years of my life and my relationship. All I could hear were my Cajun grandmother’s favorite words… Fait accompli. Still French but a little different twist on life. The phrase fait accompli literally translates to an accomplished fact, but in my world, the meaning was more fatalistic. Growing up, things were fait accompli before they even started. My baby sister’s first attempt at gumbo… fait accompli, learning to ice skate in California… fait accompli, my same-sex outlawed union… fait accompli according to my loving well-meaning grandmother. My mama on the other hand called it a divorce. She also now refers to my former partner as “She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named”.
Even now, I still don’t know what to call what I lost or what I have now. Can you get divorced if you were never allowed to be legally married? Can I mourn being a wife if I never was one? Was I dumped like a teenager? Did I have a break up? I searched for words to define my situation; I searched for ways to find others who felt like me, but I couldn’t find any. Every word I tried on was like a bad wedding dress—everyone had an opinion. I began to realize that the narrow conservative definition of marriage steals power from all of us who don’t, can’t, or simply won’t fit its narrow definition. It robs us of more than rights and protections; it robs us of the power to claim both our joy and our pain without judgment from anyone. By its very nature, the end of a relationship can be a lonely thing, but quite literally—and because some people don’t believe in my love—I don’t even have the words to talk about the end of mine. If I must fight to claim “wife” and “marriage” when things are going well, how can I possibly find the strength to claim “ex-wife” and “divorce”? How can I fight the attitude that since I didn’t get married in a church, didn’t sign a legal document, didn’t file joint taxes, my relationship, and therefore its end, is somehow less significant?
The commitment my former partner and I made was not legally recognized by our country nor allowed religious recognition by my church, (a very liberal denomination at that). The former means there are no papers to sign, no lawyers to consult. It also means there are fewer required steps in order to leave the partnership, and no time to reconsider. The latter means I have one fewer place to mourn the end of my relationship, one fewer well from which to draw strength during this difficult time. When we as a society, or as individuals, deny people access to whichever parts of marriage they feel are important (legal, religious, financial, emotional, etc.), we deny people the power to make marriage their own while still feeling like a part of a larger institution. Marriage is tough enough without the added burden of isolation.
I have been blessed during this process with a beautiful community that reminds me that each day holds possibility, and that my value is not diminished by the larger world’s dismissal of my relationship. Regardless of how this journey between c’est la vie and fait accompli pans out for me, what I really want to say is that equal rights should be fait accompli in the most literal way—equal rights should be an accomplished fact for everyone. The happy, the sad, and those of us trudging on the hard path between, we deserve the power to claim any word that helps us. So bit-by-bit, instead of reclaiming “wife,” I take this opportunity to reclaim “ex-wife” and all the power and healing that allows me to receive.
Photo from Autumn’s personal collection