by 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.
Aly 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.