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DOMA’s Gift


One giant leap for equality, and another for recommitment

DOMAs Gift | A Practical Weddingby Aly Windsor

When the DOMA decision was handed down last June, my partner and I celebrated together from our workplaces (that day a local coffee shop and our house, respectively) on G-chat. Exclamation points were flying. I was laughing and crying. The phone rang. After my mother congratulated us, I turned Queen’s “We Are The Champions” way up and danced around the empty house, singing loudly through full-body happy chills, and totally freaking out our poor old-lady dachshunds.

Finally, our six-year marriage could be made federally official! Finally, we would be entitled to some rights and privileges of legal marriage, though it wasn’t totally clear how because we lived in a state with a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage. I began googling the marriage license requirements in all of the states that would grant us one, weighing the travel times and waiting periods and wondering if I could still fit into my wedding dress or if I should go for a shorter, less formal, more sequined one instead.

Later, after NPR finally stopped replaying the courthouse cheers and no news source could tell me just how federal marriage rights would affect us, if at all, here in North Carolina, my enthusiasm waned. We decided to wait to do anything until we knew for sure that a license would benefit us.

Meanwhile, we were just coming out of a very hard year. I’d had a melanoma diagnosis that previous summer that sent me spiraling down into the depths of panic. We didn’t unite over this experience. Instead my severe anxiety and ensuing depression rose up between us like a dark wood. We were both quietly seething, hurting, and feeling helpless and alone. Just as I felt I was finally emerging from my psychological hell that spring, my partner developed mysterious pelvic pain that culminated in major surgery. I was scared but still so disconnected. I said and did what I thought I was supposed to say and do but was still unable to offer meaningful support.

So, when the federal government announced that it would begin recognizing same-sex marriages, at least for tax purposes, I was thrilled, yes, but I also had a bit of an “oh shit” moment. We had a choice to make. We could continue on as we were, “married in our hearts,” but not, let’s face it, altogether invested in each other at the moment, or we could legally bind ourselves together in the way we had long wished for. But if we were going to go with the latter, we were going to have to recite our vows again, and in order to be able to do that without wincing, we had a lot of work to do.

To complicate things, several of our friends in marriages and long-time relationships split up all at once. Throughout our long, bad year, I wondered if we were next. I worried that instead we’d stick it out for many more disconnected years just to divorce after three decades like my own parents did. But when I really tried to imagine life without my partner, I just couldn’t. So I started seeing a therapist. She recommended a book called Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay: A Step-by-Step Guide to Help You Decide Whether to Stay In or Get Out of Your Relationship. I’ve never read a self-help book cover to cover and I’ve never recommended one to anyone else but this one I did and do. It enabled me to see that our relationship was more good than bad and had plenty of potential for being great again. When I finished reading, I was ready to do the work we needed to do to rehabilitate our relationship.

So we did it. We started going on lots of dates and took a trip without the kids to remember what life was like when it was just us two. We had multiple long, hard, tearful conversations about what happened that year and how we felt about it and what we needed from each other if we were going to re-commit. Because ultimately, for us, getting a marriage license was a re-commitment. We didn’t have to legally entangle ourselves any more than we already were (with wills and second-parent adoptions) but we had the opportunity finally to do so and we needed to figure out if we were both as desiring of that as we always assumed we would be.

Few couples are given the chance to decide whether they’d marry each other again six or ten years down the road. Of course every day any couple stays together is a tiny re-commitment. But grand, sweeping ones? Those are way easier in the earlier doe-eyed days of love with all the romantic, wine-filled nights and lazy, sweet morning sleep-ins. At least it was for me. Add kids and health problems and careers and money worries and friends divorcing, and commitment gets much more complex.

If DOMA hadn’t been in place when we married the first time, we wouldn’t have been forced into this state-of-the-union relationship assessment the way we were this past summer. But the ability to legally marry arrived right when we needed it. Without it, who knows how much more time we would have wasted drifting apart or whether we would have found our way back to each other at all.

I never expected to thank the DOMA architects for anything, but I think I just did. May someone among them discover this unintended gift of theirs and have a little rehabilitative “oh shit” moment of their own.

DOMAs Gift | A Practical WeddingAly Windsor is a news editor, mom to two little rascal kids, partner to a sociologist, and blogger at Embrace Release. She’s been illegally wed for six years.

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  • Sarah NCtoPA

    I just heard on WUNC this morning that a judge in Buncombe County is issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Best wishes to you and your partner.

    • Aly Windsor

      Sarah! Are you sure you heard that right? The last I read was that a Buncombe Register of Deeds had accepted applications for licenses but was waiting on the state AG to decide whether he could issue them. I just googled looking for the story you heard and didn’t find anything. If you heard right, that would warrant another whole-house, Queen-blasting celebration! :)

  • Elisabeth

    Really loved this, Aly. Thanks for being brave to write frankly.

    • http://embracerelease.com Aly Windsor

      Thanks, Elisabeth! I felt sheepish about discussing our behind-the-scenes problems *again* on APW but then I thought, how is it helpful to keep this stuff hidden? If more people knew how often good marriages go through rough patches, it can only help.

      • Caroline

        Aly, thank you for discussing your problems again on APW. It has been so helpful to see that drifting apart completely, into anger like my parents did, that it is possible to go through rough patches, drift apart, then Doyle down your commitment and come back together, and that that can be a normal part of relationships. Seriously, so helpful. Thabk you so so so so much for sharing.

      • Elisabeth

        Don’t feel sheepish! You straddle the line of vulnerable honesty perfectly! And in fact, I feel like getting that book as insurance for the inevitable stormy seas ahead is probably a very good thing. Almost like getting to continue the hard conversations we went through during our pre-marital counseling.

  • http://Www.laughterinthelou.com Emma

    I love this.

    • Granola

      Especially the “stick it to the man” tone at the end. That just made my day.

  • Angry Feminist Bitch

    Great post. Honest, helpful, and, ultimately, happy.

    “Few couples are given the chance to decide whether they’d marry each other again six or ten years down the road. Of course every day any couple stays together is a tiny re-commitment. But grand, sweeping ones? Those are way easier in the earlier doe-eyed days of love with all the romantic, wine-filled nights and lazy, sweet morning sleep-ins. At least it was for me. Add kids and health problems and careers and money worries and friends divorcing, and commitment gets much more complex.”

    This is so true. I’ve often thought couples should wait until they’ve been together 10+ years before having the big, public commitment part, as a celebration of their relationship, rather than the presumptive spectacle that weddings often are.

    I’ve been with my hetero partner for going-on seven years, and this really hit home. We don’t really want to get married because of the cultural baggage and assumptions and expectations – and because we feel that the state has no business legitimizing marital-type relationships over other families and lifestyles, gay or straight. But we would do it eventually for legal reasons (say, if we were ever well off enough to own property, or old enough to have amassed Social Security benefits, or sick enough to need medical decision-making rights). Maybe we, as a culture, should encourage couples to revisit their vows and commitments every ten years or so, as a matter of course. Not to consider breaking up so much as to recommit and remember why we’re together in the first place, and to appreciate how much love and strength has grown up between us.

    Dang, you’ve managed to not make me angry anymore, Aly!

    Best wishes to you and your partner on whatever you decide to do.

    • lady brett

      “We don’t really want to get married because of the cultural baggage and assumptions and expectations – and because we feel that the state has no business legitimizing marital-type relationships over other families and lifestyles, gay or straight. But we would do it eventually for legal reasons”

      this, precisely. we’ve been married (“illegally” as we joke) for 2 1/2 years, but now we are struggling immensely with the probability that the benefits will be too logistically important to justify not getting legally married (once all this is ironed out, because for now no one seems to know, but as folks aiming for a single-earner household with foster and/or adopted kids, i can guarantee they’ll benefit us). but for the reasons you said, the idea of participating in legal marriage makes me alternately ill and angry, which is the *last* think i want to feel about one of the very best parts of my life.

      separately, i love what you are saying in this post. sometimes it is so important to have external factors butt in and make you pay attention, and i’m not sure we’re there yet, but i do like the idea of revisiting the vows, and the fact that we are married. (and, of course, the beautiful irony of this.)

      • Angry Feminist Bitch

        Thanks for this. This is why I keep coming back to this site, even though I am ambivalent at best about marriage. The conversations happening here are important and beautiful.

    • Aly Windsor

      Thanks for this! I totally agree that weddings can seem like presumptive spectacles. Our 2007 one basically was. Man were we naive to what we were getting into. But it was still a great party. If you still want to party about each other and your relationship 10 or 20 years later? Now that’s love.

      Also, now that I think about it, we’ll celebrate our 10 year togetherness anniversary next fall. Perhaps it’s time to start planning now… Just kidding. I’m totally done planning weddings. A little family trip back to a functioning DC to finally see the dinosaurs would be nice though.

  • Kat

    I think the Buncombe County reference is to the register there who agreed to accept same sex marriage license applications, but will be holding them until he gets legal advice from the state attorney general. See, e.g., http://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-nn-north-carolina-same-sex-marriage-license-to-samesex-couples-20131015,0,7869644.story#axzz2iScY0Oqx Thus, unfortunately, not as good as news as some of the coverage might have indicated.

  • andee

    I really LOVE all of Aly’s writing. It is so powerful.
    As someone who has come incredibly close to the brink and throwing in the towel on my marriage I am so grateful to see this experience openly discussed. When you’ve been that close it makes you appreciate everything more.

    • Aly Windsor

      Thanks, Andee! Getting to the brink in marriage is so hard. But harder still is the feeling that you can’t talk about it openly, lest you be judged. The more I slowly opened up about some of our issues to a few friends, the more I realized that we just all need to cut the crap more often and stop keeping up appearances. From what I can tell, it’s pretty rare for married people to not have bad years or months now and then.

    • L

      Same here. Thanks, Aly!

      This has been the year of Almost Divorce, and we are starting to see the sun. 5 months of drifting apart and denial, 1 month of standoff WTF?land, and 3 hard months of real work has started to pay off. When friends ask how we have made it, my first answer is: we stayed married. That’s really it. At first, anyway. We wanted to leave, and we stayed, and we worked. And we are working, for the first time in a long time.

      • Aly Windsor

        Congrats on staying married. I really mean that.

  • anon for this!

    Oh my gosh this has me in tears this morning!!

    1. I’m in a lesbian relationship and from NC!! What city are you in? I now live in California, but am watching what is going on in NC on the edge of my seat!

    and 2. Everything else about this!! So beautiful and moving and honest. While I’m not in an identical situation, I can understand what that must be like…I struggle with anxiety and panic big time and this year has probably been the hardest year of my life. I’m also going to doctor today because I have a lump on my right breast and am terrified…don’t know what that has to do with anything, but it certainly hasn’t helped my anxiety and panic.

    Thank you so much for this beautiful post. And congratulations on working on your relationship :)

    • http://embracerelease.com Aly Windsor

      Anon,

      1. We’re in Winston-Salem.
      2. I recently had a breast lump too. The gyn said she thought it was a cyst and sent me for ultrasound. Turned out to be just as mass of fibrocystic tissue. I’m sure you know that more than likely your lump will be benign but I also know that facts and figures are no match for panic. Deep breaths. Take walks. And if you want to email for some moral support: alywindsor@gmail.com

      • ANON FOR THIS!

        I LOVE Winston Salem! I’m from New Bern, on the coast. My dad went to Wake Forest so I grew up going to trips there. I have a diagnostic ultrasound today! Yikes! Thank you so much for offering support. :)

  • Anon

    My partner and I live in NC as well. We are planning an April wedding. On January 9 we will celebrate the third anniversary of our first date. We have literally overcome huge barriers to being in the same place. One is the house she owns and has been on the market for a year and a half. I was living in a one bedroom apartment an hour from her. She was able to get a contract job in my city, which opened the doors to be able to get a townhouse together. We thought we would wait on our wedding until her house sold.

    But then we started to notice a pattern: some friends from church (who are mostly older) started becoming ill and we realized that we didn’t want to have our wedding without them. Our crystal ball was fuzzy and we had no way of knowing when M’s house would sell. So we decided to pick a date, even if it was a year in the planning. Then M was offered a full time job where she works – for much less money. There were no other options available so she took it. It’s a great place but it just doesn’t pay near as much as her last job in another city. We had to stop making payments on her house. We knew this would eventually end in foreclosure or bankruptcy but we couldn’t continue digging a bigger hole trying to maintain her house when we didn’t have the income to match.

    So we’ve been in legal limbo with M’s bank since June. Same month as the DOMA decision. Everyone started asking us when we were going to go get married in another state. We said we would when that piece of paper meant something in NC. Then the IRS said we could file taxes jointly. More questions from more people. All we could say was we’re in legal limbo (M is secretive about this situation so I can’t discuss it with others). We’re waiting for M’s bank to decide if they’re going to grant a deed in lieu of foreclosure. If not, she will be foreclosed on and will probably have to file for bankruptcy. If that ends up happening, her credit will take a huge hit. And we don’t need both of us affected by this legally and financially.

    So we’re waiting. And people continue to ask if we’re getting just church married or legally married (or both!) in April. All I can say is the crystal ball is fuzzy. I am really happy for other couples who can go to another state and get their license (although one bordering ours would be wonderful). But I’m still sad for me and M. This has been really hard on her emotionally and on us as a couple. One ironic blessing of not being able to get married and the IRS not being involved was that there was less pressure to go get married *now.* Who knew that there would be a time in my life when people would be asking “When are you getting married?” One day this will happen for us, too, I’m sure.

    So, Aly, did you and your partner get married in another state? If so, where and what was that like? Thank you for being vulnerable and real with us. I was thinking about just this issue the other day, “Would the couples who’ve had ceremonies now decide to legally bind their lives with their partner’s?” It is a major decision not to be taken lightly.

    • Aly Windsor

      Wow, what a difficult road. I’m so sorry you’re going through that. I wish I had some advice or a way to help but I never been through foreclosure or bankruptcy. Would your credit be affected even if your name isn’t on the house? I’m assuming it would be if you were legally married?

      We did end up getting our marriage legalized in DC. You might have already seen the follow-up post. It was posted a few hours after this one.

      • Anon

        The straight married couples I know who’ve gone through bankruptcy have both had to file together. If we got legally married now and she had to file for bankruptcy, we’d both have to file. At least that’s my understanding. The hardest part was that when we bought the townhouse and got ourselves established, she was on the title and we had joint accounts. In order for my credit to not be affected and for the bank to not see the townhouse as her asset, too, we took her name off the townhouse and the accounts. I really hate it but we get through it knowing that you can do anything when you know it’s not forever. It’s just part of our experience right now but this, too, shall pass.

        I saw your wedding (legalled?) submission story just a short while after I posted. Thanks so much for sharing it with APW. That took some serious determination. And I have to say I LOVE your dress. Beautiful!

    • http://alithompsonart.com Also_Ali

      Anon- my day job is in real estate in a related field. I just asked a coworker with experience in deed in lieu if she could give me tips to speed the process along.

      If you email me at akthomps at gmail dot com, I can relay the info to you.

  • Courtney

    I teared up reading this post. So beautiful. Thank you for both posts today!

  • http://byjacki.com Jacki

    I’m crying :'(
    For lots of reasons.

  • Claire

    Wow. This is one of my favorite posts ever. It acknowledges the hard parts of marriage honestly and also celebrates the good of that commitment (and recomittment). So often you read only the filtered stories about people’s amazing, romantic, “perfect” marriages. What’s really inspiring to me is to be reminded that other people also struggle in their marriages and with their partners and yet STILL CHOOSE that marriage is worthwhile. And then do the work required to make it so.

    It’s oddly empowering to know that those “model marriages” are not just lucky or magically perfect; they are fighting the good fight too. They are sometimes struggling, sometimes failing and then choosing to do better. That makes having a “good” marriage seem more attainable to me.

    Thank you, Aly!

    • Aly Windsor

      “It’s oddly empowering to know that those “model marriages” are not just lucky or magically perfect; they are fighting the good fight too. They are sometimes struggling, sometimes failing and then choosing to do better. That makes having a “good” marriage seem more attainable to me.” EXACTLY.

      Meg asked me to write about the wedding weekend and what came out was this essay instead. I didn’t just want to share our marriage legalization adventure along with lovely photos because that wouldn’t have been the whole story. Worse, it would be a deliberate obfuscation of the truth. And at this point in my life, I’d much rather be open about how messy and sometimes ugly marriage can be than keep up the pretense of a perfect union.

  • Aiyana

    I agree–it is sooo important to share the ups AND downs of life, to admit that life is hard and beautiful, and normalize the whole experience. Thank you for sharing the hard and the beautiful! One of the reasons I wanted to get married is so that we would be somewhat forced into weathering the rough patches, and not just throwing in the towel. I fully expect to have tough months and years, but we will get through them, together.