As someone who had a city hall marriage service followed by a wedding a year later, I think there is a lot to be said for the in-between relationship status (what can I say? I like baby steps). Because sometimes when you’re not ready to move from one stage to the next, but you still want something to signify an increased commitment to your partner, the next logical answer is just to carve out an intermediary status all your own and claim it (which we’ve talked a little about previously when discussing why “pre-engaged” is a thing and why, for that first year of “marriage” I called Michael my husfriend). And that is exactly what Kelly and R. did. But Kelly’s post today is about more than just filing for a domestic partnership (though to be clear: RAD). It’s also about creating the definition of your partnership, and then finding a way to assert that definition to the world. Which really, baby steps or big steps, I think that might secretly be what we’re all doing here right? So let’s discuss.
–Maddie for Maternity Leave
Last Summer, after R. had finished his MFA and I had finished my MA, after he had been searching for a job with no success and I had been working one with a bigger salary than I needed, we hit a point where he could no longer pay his rent. We had been living together for more than two years, talking about our wedding as it would be, not as it might be, and it felt like we had been waiting and waiting for the right time to get engaged and start planning this hypothetical wedding. So when push came to shove, and it was time to make a difficult decision, I knew I wanted to cover him, protect him. I made the decision that I was ready to tie my life to his, formally and permanently. But my feminist upbringing and the voice of my mother nagged me. How could I give so much money to a man with nothing to back me up? I had nothing to prove he wouldn’t take the money and run. It seemed like a huge step to take with no documentation of our relationship. So I did what any modern-day lady would do. I went to Google. And that night, I sat him down, and told him I wanted to get a domestic partnership. And he said, “Okay.”
This is not the fairy tale I had in my head. There was no magic proposal where he suddenly told me he could afford a ring and wanted to get married and live happily ever after. Sometimes a wedding (or a not-really-wedding) is just, well, practical. I thought a lot about buying him a ring, maybe even eloping, but we both felt strongly that while our future marriage was about us, a wedding was about our community and the opportunity to share our commitment with them. We still wanted the chance to celebrate with them when the time was right and when we could afford it. So we talked, and kept talking, and really hashed out why this was important to us, why we felt we needed an intermediate step between “relationship” and “marriage.” We talked about what marriage meant to us, and realized we were sort of already there. For us, it wasn’t about the state or our church giving us a whole bunch of rights and recognitions; it was about making a choice to be together, no matter what—unemployment and rent and utilities and groceries and all.
On July 1, 2011, we took the six train downtown and registered as domestic partners in the City of New York. We went alone. We didn’t tell anyone but my parents. We weren’t sure anyone else would understand the decision. We were getting married but we weren’t. We were making a choice that was right for us, but that didn’t fit the neat little picture they show you of what it means to choose to be together. It was intensely personal, but truly public.
I felt so strange, being there together, surrounded by happy couples in their white dresses with their entourages. This was just a few days after same-sex marriage had become legal in New York, and the clerk looked at us like he’d never seen a straight couple get a domestic partnership before. Which made me sad, because I think domestic partnership can be a perfectly valid and important step in joining two lives together, but in the past it’s been used as a consolation prize for LGBT couples, a way to say, “Sorry, you can have some, but not all.” And while I personally think domestic partnership is awesome, it also made me so proud that all the people in line in front of us in New York finally had the option to “upgrade” their status to married, as we one day hoped to do.
In the end, the whole thing felt monumental but tremendously anticlimactic at the same time. When it was over we took a few pictures, went out for a meal, and went home. Life went on. My brother had a beautiful wedding a few months later, and I cried all day.
I know it was the right decision for us, and over time it has softened in my heart. I have shared it casually with a few people, all of whom reacted positively. I started to call R. my partner, instead of my boyfriend. It feels truer. And the tough stuff that lead us to the decision only intensified. In the past year we’ve dealt with more unemployment, I lost two grandmothers in three months, and our financial situation has become strained at times. There have been days I want to just go out and buy my own damn ring and call everyone we know to declare, “We’re getting married! Finally!” But I had my moment to declare our love, and I did it privately. I’m stable, I have what I need. It’s R.’s turn now to reach a point where he feels solid, where he can make the decision to propose, and share what we already know with everyone else. I owe him that. And while some days the waiting feels like carrying around an elephant, and all I want is something to feel happy about, it is always a comfort to know that he’s there, no matter what. That even if I can’t tick “married” on my tax return, I can tick it in my head. And that when we are ready to go public, it will have been worth the wait.
Photo from Kelly’s personal collection