Fait Accompli

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

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  • My heart goes out to you here. I don’t quite know what to say except I’m so sorry that the world hasn’t caught up to reality and has excluded you from rights that I’ve been able to benefit from. Your relationship is every bit as significant as any legal marriage and legal divorce ever was.

  • Laura

    I’m really sorry this happened to you. All the best as you move forward.

  • Thank you for writing this. It’s monumentally wrong that your marriage, and thus your divorce, was not recognized by our legal system. I can totally see how this would make your experience more difficult as the system minimized your relationship and now minimizes your pain and loss. All the best to you and I hope you take all the time you need to mourn this huge event.

  • Another Meg

    What remains to be seen in our country is, now that some states have made same-sex marriage, what of same-sex divorce? It’s a conversation that needs to happen more often, and I’m so happy it was brought up here. Because there is power in being able to legally protect yourself and have a word that shows what you’ve been through. In so many cases, “divorced” can be as powerful and meaningful as “married” and everyone deserves the protection of such a word. As someone who is divorced, I never realized how handy it is to have a word that explains so quickly a bit of what’s happened. And how privileged I am to be able to use it.

    I am so sorry that you are going through this- losing your family is painful enough without the added trouble of not having a word that can easily explain your situation. You deserve the word every bit as much as I do.

    Hope, love, and hugs from Missouri.

    • KB

      “In so many cases, “divorced” can be as powerful and meaningful as “married” and everyone deserves the protection of such a word. As someone who is divorced, I never realized how handy it is to have a word that explains so quickly a bit of what’s happened.”

      Definitely – for all the people who say that marriage is just a piece of paper, I point to a straight couple that I know who just ended their relationship. They had a wedding ceremony, wore rings, called each other husband/wife – but they never actually got legally married (and weren’t together long enough for a common law marriage). Now they’re not together anymore and it presents SO MANY complications, like who is forced to move out and repaying each other for loans and cars, but also the emotional issues, like “is it a divorce if you were never ‘really’ married?” Even us as their friends struggle with updating people in a conversation that goes something like this – “Well, X and Y got divorced. I guess. Well, she moved out and they broke up.” Being able to divorce doesn’t just give you legal protections, it also sums up in one word the weight of your prior commitment and the complications of ending it in a way that “moving out” and “breaking up” don’t seem to cover.

      • meg

        It’s true. We’ve talked about this on APW before. Divorce is so stigmatized, that we fail to see the huge legal protections that it includes. Not having access to it (legally, at least… my hope is that all LGBTQ couples are able to own the SHIT out of the word emotionally, to hell with the world) proves how important it really is.

        • KB

          It’s so true – I think most people are aware of the legal battles concerning children of LGBTQ couples who divorce, but there are SO many other legal ramifications that you just don’t think of. Like, what if one of you is paying off both of your student loans? What if the car is in your partner’s name, but you use it to get to work to pay for said loans? What if you bought a house together and your partner stops making mortgage payments? It’s not like not-legally-being-married somehow makes it less complicated – in fact, the path to get all that stuff back/settled is a lot clearer if you ARE married because you’re expected to work everything out in the separation agreement. There’s a socially-sanctioned, step-by-step process – it’s practically mandated that you sit down with the other person (or their lawyer) and figure it out. But there aren’t any equivalent rites for a “non-marriage” relationship so there are so many other hoops to jump through, if you choose to do it at all. The flipside of the protections of civil marriage are naturally the protections of civil divorce.

    • Yes. I’m reading “The Commitment” by Dan Savage right now and he talks about how some of the first gay couples who got married in Canada also got divorced. And the same thing happened here in the US.

      Marriage equality is so important in part because we deserve the equal right to divorce. This is particularly the case if the couple has children.

      And Autumn, I am sorry to hear of your break-up/divorce. Strength to you.

  • Wow.

    Mourning a relationship is such a difficult thing, and as someone who is going through it currently, it’s hard to come to grasp with the fact that our marriage just couldn’t be, but we did not fail in it. But despite this, it’s impossible not to feel raw, to feel vulnerable. Add on top of that society’s nearly overwhelming disregard for you and your former relationship, I can only imagine what a lonely, delicate process it is for you.

    I hope with all my heart that you are able to draw strength from your personal community as well as the APW community.

  • Kelsey

    I’m so sorry for your loss, Autumn. I’m also really grateful to you for introducing this topic to everyone’s awareness. We had a family friend marry her ex-partner in Canada a few years back, as a way to get around the fact that the United States (where she and her partner both lived) would not legally recognize their marriage. When they decided to dissolve their union, it was a nightmare. Legally, one or both of them would have to live in Canada for a year to be able to get divorced. It was so disruptive to our friend’s grad schooling, and job hunting, and eventual new relationship. She did, eventually, get things straightened out (without a move to Canada), but that really brought home to me one more way we lose so much but not recognizing gay marriage (and gay divorce) in this country.

  • Beautiful expression of this painful situation.

    Know that those of us who believe in equal marriage rights are holding you up and saying the words with you and for you: marriage, wife, divorce and x-wife. You have every right to claim those words as your own; they describe your experience. Let those who would deny them to you or judge you for your use of them fall to the side, their judgment can fall to the periphery of your grief and mourning, and then your recovery and the new life you create.

    • meg

      “Let those who would deny them to you or judge you for your use of them fall to the side, their judgment can fall to the periphery of your grief and mourning, and then your recovery and the new life you create.”


    • Shiri

      Chelsea, this sounds like what spiritual leaders would say if ordained by APW. Beautiful.

  • CarbonGirl

    Autumn, I never thought about this other side of gay marriage. We often focus on the joyful celebration of love part. But you have so eloquently wrote how equal rights are just as important when a marriage dissolves. No one should minimize your pain because you were not legally married. I also wonder if you or anyone else in your situation had joint assets. How would they be split up? One partner could be taken advantage of without legal recourse.

    I wish you the best with your healing, Autumn, and thank you for your thoughtful writing.

  • <3

  • Jashshea

    I’m so sorry, Autumn. I wish you the best of luck (and internet based support) as you work through your ending.

  • This is the darker side of why same-sex marriage is so so important. It may be darker and less fun to think about than love, commitment, rings, and family but it’s still an incredibly important thing to remember. That I never think about. Thank you for this reminder.

    (Hugs and love to you, Autumn. I’m so sorry you’re going through such a painful situation.)

  • Somebody

    One of the times when I felt the privilege of legal marriage most keenly was when mine almost ended. Like you alluded to, the commitment of our legal marriage and the process required for a legal divorce helped slow us down, helped us work harder on staying together. I don’t know if we would still be married had we not had that level of public commitment and legal entanglement. The experience gave me even more admiration for those who stay together without those extra binds. Until today, I hadn’t even considered the privilege of the language of ended relationships. Thank you so much for sharing.

    Claim whatever language gives you strength and don’t let others define your relationship for you.

    I drew a lot of hope from this quotation during my own dark period–maybe it will give someone else some solace too:
    “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
    ― Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

  • Saskia

    I’ve now written & erased at least 3 comments. Lovely & sad & thought-provoking. Just reminds me once again that this is all personal. It’s not (just) about rights or legal gains. Sometimes it’s just about wishing things could be a little easier for a wonderful & very brave friend. Lots of love & warm thoughts coming your way from NYC.

  • soraya

    “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.”

    This sentence spoke to me most of everything you wrote and I couldn’t agree more!

    I wish you all the best through this difficult time.

  • Thank you for writing this.

    Above and beyond your wise musings on the language itself, I also find it good to see struggle here.

    I hope that doesn’t sound awful.

    I just mean that weddings make us want to believe in the best future and we can so easily get brainwashed by the excitement of them, even here at APW. It’s good to also see when things don’t work out. Because when you’ve broken up it can be so difficult to reconcile the beautiful wedding with what fell apart. It’s good for us to see that a great wedding is not all it takes to hold people together.

    I think APW is a great space to talk about divorce too.

  • Yes, gosh.

    To be denied even negative words seems cruel.

  • Sylvia

    “I want to taste and glory in each day, and never be afraid to experience pain; and never shut myself up in a numb core of nonfeeling, or stop questioning and criticizing life and take the easy way out. To learn and think: to think and live; to live and learn: this always, with new insight, new understanding, and new love.”

    -Made me think of you. You are strong and you will heal. :)

  • Oh, Autumn! My heart is breaking for you. As a queer woman, I really felt this deeply. I am grateful you have a community who supports you and is there for you during this time. The relationship you built and created was valid and meaningful, and you deserve the time and space to mourn this loss. Sending love, Jenni

  • Melissa

    Wishing you all the power and healing possible to get through this (because you will, eventually), with whatever words you need to feel right. Divorce sucks, and it’s hard, and I’m glad to hear your Divorce Elves are helping you through it. Take care of yourself.

  • Hi, Autumn

    First, thanks for sharing such personal and painful thoughts. I hope that taking this risk helps you move forward. You are one delightful young lady and deserve happiness.

    As a member of that “liberal” congregation, I can only say “damn”. I am sorry our leadership at that time was unaware of the significance of your union and did not act to bless it. I am sorry that I and others who disagreed with the action were not more vocal and forceful. I regret that such positive and loving change comes so slowly.

    But it is coming ….

    Voices like yours are important. You have done a wonderful job of setting out the issue in terms both personal and communal. Your words deserve a wider audience and that I can do something about.

    Prayers for healing, some patience, and to continue your thoughtful engagement over things that matter …