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“Standing in those Big Shoes” Why Being Married is so Important

by Laurie Israel, Esq.

I don’t generally find myself agreeing with President Bush, but when he said in 2006 that marriage is the most enduring and important human institution, I couldn’t have agreed with him more. Although I found his conclusion wrong — that gays and lesbians should not be permitted to marry and partake of this vital human institution — I thought his assessment of the importance of marriage absolutely on the right track.

I am one of the people who married in Massachusetts after the ban on same-sex marriage here was lifted. I married Elaine after 17 years of “engagement.”

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The Final Frontier

Prior to our marriage, Elaine and I had completely lost hope that we would ever have a legal, full-fledged marriage during our lifetimes. We were in our late 50s at the time of Goodridge, and had lived through many liberation movements, including gay liberation. But the idea that a legislature or a court would come to the conclusion that we had the right to be legally married seemed so far-fetched, especially given the angry climate toward same-sex marriage on the part of many religious groups. Gay marriage would then be the final frontier, one that would only take place after our deaths.

We also had decided, unlike some of our gay and lesbian colleagues, that we would marry only if we could in our home state (Massachusetts), and only if we were able to enter into a full-fledged legal marriage, with no difference from an opposite-sex marriage. We would not settle for running to Canada to marry, or to Vermont for a “civil union,” which is an entirely separate set of laws than marriage in that state. We would no longer run and hide. We were not willing to be second-class citizens any longer. Better to not marry with pride than to accept anything less than our neighbors next door had — full-fledged marriage, without ifs, ands, or buts.

Goodridge Brings Good News

Eight months later, in November, 2003, the Goodridge decision came out. It was a surprise to everyone. We were shocked and overjoyed. The feeling during the days after Goodridge in the gay and lesbian community (and among our straight allies) was unbelievable. Then Goodridge II came out in February, 2004. That was the case which answered the question whether rights of gays and lesbians would be legally satisfied by a separate system of civil unions for gays and lesbians and “marriage” for straight people. The answer of the court was a terse “no,” followed by beautifully articulated reasoning. The court said that a separate but equal system was inherently unequal, and that gays and lesbians should be able to marry on the exact same basis and with the exact same rules as straight people. It was another joyful day. That was when gay and lesbian people in Massachusetts started making wedding plans in earnest.

Redefining Relationships

Gays and lesbians who were in coupled relationships had to really think about what marriage meant, and whether they wanted to marry. The psychology and culture of gays and lesbians has generally been (with exceptions) that relationships are conducted in serial monogamy and discarded when the inevitable difficulties in long-term relationships arise. Because same-sex couples did not have all the cultural expectations and family support of legal marriage, often when the going got tough, the relationship would come to an end.

Because of the instability in relationships, same-sex couples usually maintained personal financial independence to a much greater extent than married couples. Gay and lesbian couples usually had separate bank accounts and financial assets, while striving to equally share expenses. Both parties generally worked outside the home. It was a very rare relationship where one of the parties maintained the household and the other party was the breadwinner.

Legal Ramifications

Because the chances of having a lifetime relationship in a same-sex couple were so slim, everyone wanted to be protected when the relationship fell apart, but many did not plan properly. As a practicing attorney, I had firsthand experience with many horror cases. For instance, there was the terminated relationship of someone in a 20- or 25-year relationship with no money of his/her own, and nothing titled in his or her own name. When this takes place in the context of no firm law (such as divorce laws) to determine what will happen financially, the results are devastating. The litigation on these issues is always complex, indeterminate, and costly in all ways. Sometimes same-sex partners transferred or held property in joint names prior to the break-up. Litigation on the issue of who had what rights to this property and in what amounts was fierce. And I saw many instances of surviving partners in same-sex relationships of many years duration impoverished and with no legal rights when his or her partner died.

The Benefits of Risk

So gays and lesbians usually strove for financial independence in their relationships. An interesting result of this independence is that I believe it actually further weakened the relationships. As a lawyer dealing with married couples in many contexts, I have come to the conclusion that financial necessity and financial interdependence is one of the important “glues” which holds a marriage together. (See my article, “How to Save Your Marriage”).

But financial interdependence rather than self-protecting independence can only happen in the context of the helpful laws (statutory and judge-made) that comprise the laws of marriage and divorce. In addition, I believe in order for marriage to flourish, there has to be some risk taken in the marital enterprise. A contract, even if it contained the thousands of laws and court decisions of the common law (which would be impossible), would not do as much for the relationship as the simple words, “We are married.” “We are married” is really shorthand for the thousands of concepts, developed by human history, societies, literature, psychology, and culture, that comprise marriage. These clearly cannot be fully obtained by entering into a written civil contract.

New Choices

So, after Goodridge, gay and lesbian people in relationships started thinking about getting married. This was a complex process for all of us, with many experiencing a great deal of pressure. People in difficult and uncertain relationships were being asked, “So when are you getting married?” People in very short relationships were under pressure to get married. Everyone had to decide whether they now wanted to stay with their partners for the rest of their lives. People in long relationships like me and Elaine were put in the position of having to decide whether to ratify their relationship. The relationship of anyone who chose not to marry was deemed suspect or questionable.

Gays and lesbians in Massachusetts started thinking carefully about the implications of marriage. Elaine and I were in the 17th year of our relationship. We had been through much in those 17 years. We were not at the beginning of our relationship, and although we knew that we wanted to be in our relationship for a lifetime, what would “marriage” bring? It was like stepping into a new world. We didn’t know if, or how, anything would change if we got married. We both thought about it seriously (for a couple of days) and decided to marry. We wanted to be in our relationship, warts and all, for the long-term. I also thought (as it turned out wrongly) that marriage would not change anything.

A Very Special Day

So, after much intricate planning (where were our mothers when we needed them?) we had a wonderful, large wedding in September, 2004. We had a rabbi perform the ceremony, because we wanted to show people that we could get civilly married and religiously married — just like other folk. Everyone wept at the ceremony. We all felt that we had come to a very special day. Elaine and I felt very supported by our friends, relatives, and colleagues.

At the wedding dinner, a lesbian friend, who had recently married under Goodridge, gave a toast. She and her partner had been together 20 years prior to their marriage a few months earlier. Our friend said that after their marriage, they were surprised how much everything changed. “Our love has burst over and overflowed,” she said. She said their relationship had really changed and deepened after finally being allowed to marry. At the time I thought I wouldn’t feel that way — that marriage wouldn’t deepen the commitment Elaine and I already felt. But I was wrong.

Unexpected Changes

After the wedding, at first I felt unchanged. (I am not saying “we,” because Elaine tells me that she immediately felt different.) The wedding was wonderful, but we were still the same people in a long-term relationship.

But then, gradually, we both started tuning into all the references to marriage and married people and married life in the media — on TV, in newspapers, in the books we were reading. Day by day, I started feeling “married,” and Elaine was feeling “more married.” We began to connect to all the references and allusions we saw in the media and in daily life to us and our marriage. It felt like we were stepping into big shoes and starting to walk in them.

By tapping into the cultural understandings of what marriage is, we were building our own marriage. Our feelings toward each other were growing, as predicted by our friend at the wedding. Our way of treating each other on a daily basis improved. We were totally committed to each other. After all, we were now married. And yes, being married really changed things for the better. We were re-patterning our behavior and expectations. The well-trained impulse to see our relationship as somehow non-permanent or less than straight relationships started to disappear. As we experienced being married, we realized that previously we had felt a deep sense of inferiority about our relationship. Now we were actually married and our relationship had the same status as everyone else’s. We had more respect for ourselves, each other, our relationship, and our place in society. Elaine started putting out the American flag on July 4th. We really felt like Americans for the first time, and not outsiders.

As we continued to experience marriage, we started really understanding the harshness of not being able to be married. President Bush is right — marriage is the most important and enduring human institution. We finally were allowed to be fully human. It was wonderful.

Closing a Door

A straight neighbor (in a successful second marriage) articulated one of the wonderful things about marriage better than anyone I’ve ever heard. After he congratulated us on our marriage, he said that when you get married, “the back door closes.” He described how good that feeling was. No more wondering if this is the relationship you should or shouldn’t be in. No more wondering whether or not it’s permanent. No more looking for other people or another life. That decision has been made. You have made the ultimate commitment to another person. Now it’s time to relax and delve into whatever the marital relationship offers.

Now, after almost three years of marriage, Elaine and I have continued to process what it means to be “married.” We had no direct social history of gays and lesbians being legally married (although we know there have been many devoted, committed couples in the past, such as Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas). We felt like pioneers. Now we simply feel, well, married. And it feels very good.

Settling on Terminology

Our understanding of “marriage” increases month by month and we start to absorb it into our lives. It has strengthened our relationship and our relationship with others. We are no longer “partners” (such a cold word!) or cohabitants, or “significant others” — we are “married,” with all the comfort and complexity that word designates. Although we made the rabbi conducting our wedding ceremony say “spouse” or “spouses” when referring to us in our new status, very shortly after the marriage, we started referring to each other as “my wife.” And men who got married started calling each other “husband.” This change in terminology among gay and lesbian people came about naturally, and is almost now universal. It was actually a surprise to all of us. We feel we have reclaimed for ourselves the warmth and affection of the words “wife” and “husband.” They are, indeed, wonderful terms, full of so much meaning.

Revitalizing an Institution

In this and in other ways, we believe we are helping to redefine and revitalize marriage as a more positive institution. After all, we have chosen and fought for marriage. It was not imposed on us by cultural or family expectations. We cherish the opportunity for personal growth, community ties, and security that long-term marriage offers. Because it was denied to us for so long, we value it in a way that perhaps many straight people do not. We hope that more straight people (and even those who are now of the opinion that we shouldn’t be permitted to be married) come to the realization (as many already have) that our marriages have the potential to invigorate and strengthen the institution of marriage as no historic event has ever had.

As a lawyer practicing in the area of divorce, I have clearly seen how marriages break up for little or no good reason. In my practice I have personally dealt with the results of marriages entered into lightly, and discarded easily. You can imagine how hurtful this scenario is to lesbian and gay people who cannot get married. I have seen marriages of many years’ duration where the parties clearly (and often for no good reason) cannot abide each other. I have seen and heard about all the ugly things married people can say and do to each other. I know about all the bad events and disappointments that married life brings that sometimes kill a marriage. I can see how marriages can become fragile when the daily work of commitment, communication, and cherishing is not done. I can generally tell within several minutes of meeting with a couple (in a non-divorce matter) whether their marriage is likely to survive or fail.

I also see that marriage has great value. It creates personal and financial security, interest in life, someone to talk with on a daily basis and with whom to experience the flow of human events. Marriage is a process that I believe can be worked out by almost every married couple if they really want to. I view lifelong marriages, even if not perfect, as a good thing, and an old age together as a reward for work well-done in the marriage. I see the value in all our imperfect marriages. In short, even before Goodridge, but more strongly afterward (now that I have a personal stake in it), I have become a marriage “booster.”

A New Professional Perspective

My practice of law has also blossomed since Goodridge. Because I am now really married, I no longer feel like a “sham” when I counsel married couples and help divorcing clients. Now I can wholeheartedly work as a legal professional working in the context of marriages as it comes up in divorce law, estate planning, or other issues my married clients are experiencing. And, since Goodridge, I have more strongly focused my practice in the areas of marriage, divorce, post-nuptial mediation and pre- and post-nuptial legal counseling. It is where I feel most driven to practice. These are the areas I love to work in and where I feel totally comfortable and effective. And I feel my skills in counseling others have grown as a result of my own real, legal, bona fide marriage.

Learning from Each Other

So what can straight people teach gays and lesbians about marriage? That it is a strong, complex, culturally-based institution that promotes personal growth, family connections, psychological health, and financial security. Know that every marriage strengthens society and that marriage has a myriad of implications and a great history. That even if your marriage is not perfect and you may sometimes have great conflict with your spouse, it is ultimately worthwhile and the day will come when you will adore him or her again. We learn that lifetime relationships with no end until death are extremely valuable, even if achieved at some hard costs.

And what can gays and lesbians teach straight people about marriage? That marriage is precious, and is a great opportunity for personal growth. That marriage should be cherished, savored, and protected — not thrown away. That marriage should be nourished and treated with great care. Don’t marry lightly, but once you do, make the ultimate commitment. And always appreciate the fact that you have the opportunity to be married — it is the most precious thing life has to offer.

Together we can all step into those big shoes and forge a stronger and more enduring institution.

Copyright ©2006 Laurie Israel.

Laurie Israel

Laurie Israel

Laurie Israel is a founder of Israel, Van Kooy & Days, LLC, a law firm located in Brookline, Massachusetts. She combines a family law practice with estate planning, tax, mediation and collaborative law. Laurie is a former board member of the Massachusetts Council on Family Mediation and the Massachusetts Collaborative Law Council. Her writings include articles on divorce, mediation, marital mediation, and prenuptial agreements. You can find her articles on www.ivkdlaw.com, Huffington Post, and Mediate.com. She is the author of the forthcoming book The Generous Prenup: How to Support Your Marriage and Avoid the Pitfalls.
Laurie Israel

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