Is Divorce The Final Frontier?

One of the things that the marriage equality fight has exploded into my consciousness is the idea that Divorce isn’t that-thing-you-hope-never-happens-in-your-marriage, or even that-thing-you’re-glad-exists-for-couples-that-need-it. Instead, I’ve realized that it is, in fact, an organized legal system for ending one of the most all-powerful contracts most of us will ever enter into. (That, for the uninitiated, is the marriage contract, something most of us are not wise enough to really truly read up on. See past APW discussions of pre-nuptial agreements for raging discussion on that contract.) New York Magazine‘s cover article on Divorce Equality: When Gay Marriage Ends does an excellent job of both helping us navigate through the mechanics of the next frontier of civil rights, and wrapping our heads around what divorce actually means, in both a human and a legal sense. An excerpt from the article:

Divorce, one lawyer tells me, “provides a forum with rules and guidelines to keep people from giving in to their very worst impulses.” For gay couples, though, the Byzantine chaos of current law can yield grotesque results. The problems arise from two main sources: differences among the states in their laws concerning gay relationships, and differences between the states and the federal government, thanks to the Defense of Marriage Act, in their treatment of taxes, pensions, inheritance, and other transfers that may figure in settlements. You needn’t be a “marriage tourist”—one of the many couples who trekked from jurisdiction to jurisdiction to wed repeatedly as marriage became legal in each—to get caught in the flypaper.

It’s a good read, and a better discussion. So read it or scan it, and come back here and share your thoughts and experiences.

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  • Emmy

    Oof, a hard article to read. My fiancé and I started dating when he was divorcing his first wife. It was a less-than-ideal time for several reasons, but experiencing divorce vicariously showed me that it is a really, really painful process. Even “easy” divorces are pretty brutal. I really had no idea—my parents have been happily married for many years, and I just was never that close to it before. It taught me that marriage is very serious business indeed. As you said, “one of the most all-powerful contracts most of us will ever enter into.” Often, I think people don’t give this enough forethought.

    This article also reminds me of advice from a (recently divorced) friend. Before he married, his father told him, “Don’t think about whether you want to be married to this person. Think about whether you want to divorce them.” Bleak, yes, but I appreciated his honesty in sharing it with me. It forces you to examine the hard parts of your relationship: Do you respect and value each other? Do you communicate well? Do you fight fair?

    • meg

      “Don’t think about whether you want to be married to this person. Think about whether you want to divorce them.”

      THIS IS SO SMART, and I’ve never heard this. I’ve dated a lot of people that I wouldn’t trust in a divorce, so boy does that ring true.

      • I want to like this idea, but it’s somewhat idealistic. To paraphrase Liz Gilbert in “Eat Pray Love”: “You don’t really know someone until you divorce them.” Basically, a different side of someone may come out when you break up or divorce, depending on the circumstances (like who is initiating the split, for example).

        It’s a nice idea, but I’d take it with a grain of salt.

        • meg

          Oh, for sure. I’m not saying that someone you love and trust is going to be good to divorce. But I can categorically say that there are plenty of people where marrying them seems ok, and divorcing them seems scary. Um, I dated these people in my 20’s. Red flag.

          Much like the idea that you shouldn’t marry a man (or woman, but given the way our culture raises men… badly, arguably… I find it particularly nail-on-the-head) that you wouldn’t want your son to grow up to be just like.

          • I agree with that part. If someone is selfish or non-communicative (for example) while you’re in a relationship with them, those traits will likely be amplified when breaking up. To the nth degree.

  • Laura

    Awesome, important topic, and I am really excited about Saturday link roundups. You mean I get to check APW on *Saturdays* now too?? Weekends just got a whole lot more interesting.

    • meg

      It’s been fun to start putting them together. I like browsing around the web on Saturdays, in a lazy way, so I’m hoping to facilitate that for others. Plus! I hope you guys will start sharing links over on the APW FB page if you think we should include them, so I can find out about cool stuff online. Plus! I think it will be a fun way to have conversations on random but related topics.

      • catherine

        yay! the one good thing about Mondays are “at least I get APW i nthe morning!” and now weekends! :) :)

  • I can see the possibility of political pundits picking up on these cases of divorce and using them to say “See? Gay marriage ISN’T as strong, like we said!” which would be really sad. I think it would be similar to those who see one woman mess something up, only to declare “See? ALL women are bad at __!”

    Hopefully this is a reminder that gay or straight, humans are humans, with all our beauty and all our messes, too.

    • meg

      Funny story though conservative pundits: straight people are pretty terrible at marriage, yes?

  • Liz

    This article hits home on so many levels. It is another example of how LGBTQ relationships are treated as second-class and not worthy of the same respect in good times, or bad.

    Just over a year ago my partner of 5 years and I “divorced”. We had a large wedding celebration and committed ourselves to each other for better-or-worse before our beloved friends and family. Yet, our marriage was not legal in our state. Domestic partnership was an option, however my ex could never make time to go to the Secretary of State’s office to make it official. (Foreboding of events to come? Totally.) As I read this article I feel lucky that we never made our marriage “official” beyond a joint bank account. I think that says a lot about our relationship, but it also is something that I think about as I look to make a commitment to the love of my life. When we are ready to get married that commitment will now be legal in our state.

    Wither or not marriage equality activists would like me to admit it our not, there is a lot more weight to a legal marriage. Having already gone through a non-legal divorce I enter into a legal relationship with my eyes fully open and it is a much bigger decision this time around.

    We are well on our way to having marriage equality for all couples, I hope the courts will catch up as LGBTQ couples are faced with the same challenges as hetro-couples. The basic understanding that we are all human, in all our glorious imperfection, and we should all be equal under the law, all of them.

    • One More Sara

      I think equality activists would agree with you that legal marriage is a much bigger deal. That’s why they’re fighting so hard for it, right?

  • this is one of the big tragedies, to me, about the piecemeal nature of gay marriage laws. i have known peripherally a number of people who are in the unfortunate situation of being forever married to an ex. most places require nothing but for you to show up and sign things to get married, but require residency to divorce.

    it is like the opposite tragedy of the straight friends i have had who found themselves legally divorcing someone they had never married due to the bizarre nature of common-law marriage in some places.

  • Ahh. This article hurt my heart. My wife and I have been married for nearly three years, and together for three before that. We live in the south, though, so our marriage is not legally recognized. We have joint bank accounts and credit cards and movie rental memberships and a shared lease. We have two cats we adopted together and scads of shared friends. And though I certainly and fervently hope we never, ever have to muddle through anything as messy as the couples in this article, if we did? There’s no protection either way. None while we’re married (“married”) and none if we split up. There is not really a good precedent, as this article points out with heartbreaking clarity.

    And yet. As sad and hard as this is to read– this IS the point. This article puts into words, once again, exactly why there needs to be equality across the board for all of us– in marriage and separation, in life and death, in “prosperity and adversity.”

  • kyley

    I really love the idea of this feature. I’m sure you’re going for something of an open thread on this topics, but I’d love to see some key questions posed to the group to kick off discussion.

  • I was married (legally) to a man, divorced and now am married (not legally) to a woman. A second divorce is my worst fear. Reading this article, it occurred to me that maybe not being able to legally obtain a second divorce should be an even bigger fear.

  • Kate

    The unfair expectations put on gay marriages are similar to the lessons taught to young women. I’ve been told by a number of mentors that if you’re going to be one of the only women in a male-dominated field you have to be the best at what you do, no mistakes allowed. If you’re going to have a gay marriage, it had better be the most perfect marriage ever.

  • Karen

    This article is exactly why I won’t get legally married anywhere until DOMA is overturned. I live in a state that thinks we are legal strangers. Getting legally married in another state just makes things more complicated. in the case of a divorce. No one knows the future and we can’t predict how or when what laws will change. It is not worth the legal mess it would entail.

  • A Single Sarah for certain values of single

    My original DTR talk began with an escape clause. “If we’re going to be here, what’s our plan for getting out? When would that happen?” It doesn’t sound typically romantic/reassuring when I type it out here, but I promise it was one of the most caring conversations I’ve ever had.

    I used to think of marriage as getting rid of the escape clause. (In part. There’s always been more than that. But the for life aspect’s huge.) But APW’s prior discussions on pre-nups, and hearing about multiple friends whose parents divorced after 20+ years, had me primed for this paragraph:
    That’s why Drexel, who is “gay, not married, with a couple of cats,” says that in “conversations with my hypothetical beloved”—and with clients—he very strongly urges “the signing of an agreement that, entirely apart from the financial issues, provides a clear, rational, predictable path through the dissolution process in the unhoped-for event that the relationship should fail. That’s not a zero-sum discussion. That benefits everyone.”

    Because even if my uber-hypothetical unhoped-for divorce wouldn’t be as legally complicated as a gay divorce, state laws ARE complicated and it’s likely I’ll continue being mobile (in an hypothetical marriage). I’m liking the idea of keeping some version of an escape clause, if only so an unhoped-for self is reminded of what a past-self wanted.

  • Suz

    As people have pointed out, it’s unfair that political pundits (or anyone, really!) would use gay divorce to point fingers and say they don’t deserve to be married, look at the failure!

    We also need to be talking about how just because a marriage ends in divorce doesn’t mean that it’s a failure. It doesn’t mean that the couple didn’t have years (or months or decades) of stability & caring & loving one another. Divorce just means that the relationship has ended, it doesn’t nullify everything that came before (as hard as that may be to remember).