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Love at the Margins

Nontraditional couples may be seen as weird, discomfiting or even sinful by others, but if they survive the crucible of social censure and self-doubt they can forge powerful bonds—and teach others about enduring love.

It's not easy being a lesbian couple in a suburban New Jersey community. "We're surrounded by married couples and families, and we stand out," says Allison. Madeleine adds, "By now I'm sure the neighbors can guess our situation. I feel comfortable with a few, but I'd rather keep things secret from the rest."

When they first dated, Allison, an artist, was in her element in Manhattan. Madeleine spent weekends at Allison's place. "In the city, no one noticed us," Allison says. "I never felt we were marginalized until I moved to New Jersey." Ultimately she'd felt she had to make the commitment to move in with Madeleine, because her girlfriend was the major breadwinner then, with a stable job as a computer software engineer 20 minutes from home.

"I love my work," notes Madeleine. "But there's a lot of prejudice in this field, so I don't mention Allison. I'd never bring her to an office party."

Sustaining a relationship is a challenge for anyone, but couples deemed inappropriate or abnormal by traditional social norms must forge their unions in the face of both internal and external pressures. Walking down the street or dining out, a gay or interracial couple or, say, a 50-year-old man embracing a 27-year-old woman (or vice versa) may be stared at, or viewed as suspect or even unnatural. More important, they may often face the wrath and rejection of their families, colleagues and friends. Couples considered marginal can encounter impediments from the law or organized religion—any institution built on traditional belief. No wonder they often hesitate to invest emotionally in one another, balking at moving in together or taking their partners to Christmas gatherings with their friends or families.

Nonetheless, many nontraditional couples end up thriving for decades. How do they move past the stigmas, ridicule and rejection to build some of the most enduring unions?

The answer lies in a kind of emotional trifecta. First, somewhere amid the prejudice, resentment and doubt they face, they find a support system that sustains them and confirms their relationship; second, like Romeo and Juliet, they discover an us-against-them inner strength that defies all naysayers; third, they simply stand the test of time, until both they and those who doubted them come to be believers.

The Glue That Binds

The question is: Why do it—especially with all the extra stress from such disapproval? Why begin a romance with so many strikes against you?

Certainly, physical attraction can override social concerns. Floridians Ken and Sara Benjamin were immediately drawn to one another at a computer conference 18 years ago, even though she had just turned 40 (a blond, young-looking 40) and he was only 24. "I thought she was an attractive female with great legs," he remembers. "But I also felt something deeper almost immediately. I wanted something much more than a one-night stand."

For some nontraditional couples, friendship comes first. Steven and Joyce Boro, a Jewish-American married to a black emigrant from Dominica, were roommates and buddies at Brooklyn College in New York well before they became involved. "We knew one another a full year first," says Steven. "We hung out, hitchhiked around together and became good friends before anything romantic happened. I always felt good being with her."

While relatives usually react badly at first to these unions, in some cases family acceptance launches the relationship. Stephanie, a young Chinese-American from California, who planned a career in medicine, met Juan, a poor construction worker, in a little town in Honduras when she was serving as a Peace Corps health worker. His family was the initial glue; Stephanie actually met them first, when Juan was working out of town. His mother, a coworker, kept inviting her home. "He has a big family, with 10 brothers and sisters, and lots of cousins, and they interact every day. They were all so nice, and kind of adopted me."

By the time Juan arrived on the scene, she was already a fixture. "We never really dated, we just spent a lot of time together," she recalls.

Vive La Difference

Marginalized couples come together for many of the same reasons as other couples. But the very extremity of their differences may give their relationship an extra dimension. "The primary thing people look for in relationships is to expand themselves," asserts Arthur Aron, psychologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. "Those we grow close to become part of who we are, widening our social resources and our perspective. We want someone different from ourselves to increase our efficacy and range of influence. If you're black and they're white, if you're older and they're younger, if you're one nationality and they're another, you've expanded your knowledge and opportunities."

As a same-sex couple fairly close in age, Allison and Madeleine clearly don't have these kinds of disparities. But their personalities couldn't be more different. Allison is a free-spirited artist, Madeleine a meticulous software expert. Allison is comfortable living hand to mouth, while Madeleine thrives on the security of a lucrative career; Allison is assertive and public about being gay, displaying her pictures online with other lesbian artists; Madeleine likes to keep her sexual orientation off the radar. "When I met Allison, she would blatantly flirt with me so that everyone knew she had a crush on me, and I was horrified," Madeleine says.

The more radical your choices in a partner, the better—until the stress exceeds the thrill. "The key to a successful relationship is the tension between similar and opposite," says Aron. "Difference increases excitement and resources, but similarity ups the chance of maintaining the relationship long-term."

Allison's free-spiritedness and openness (as well as a slinky black dress) helped win Madeleine over, while Madeleine's intelligence, seriousness and solidity did the trick for Allison. Ultimately they learned that despite major personality differences, they had lots in common.

Coming to the Crossroads

The tension between commonality and difference eventually brings most nontraditional couples to a crossroads. Families' and communities' initial reactions reflect age-old cultural fears of letting the invaders in, of polluting and depleting the race. That's why, for example, Hasidic Jewish families traditionally hold funerals when a family member marries outside the faith.

Faced with such strong disapproval, even the happiest partners experience serious reservations early on, which can lead to moments of reckoning. Purdue University social psychologists Justin Lehmiller and Christopher Agnew have shown that at the start, nontraditional couples invest less of themselves in their relationships and are less committed than traditional couples, probably for this very reason.

Steven Boro, whose father (a Holocaust survivor) and mother were appalled that he was dating a black woman, simply set off without Joyce, hitching around the U.S. and Canada the moment he graduated from college, though Joyce and he had been involved for months. He had no plans of coming back. "I was committed not to her but to what I saw as my 'spiritual journey,'" Steven recalls. "Really I was floating like a leaf on a stream. On my 22nd birthday, I vowed that I wouldn't marry until I was 30 and that I'd never have kids."

It took Joyce to save the relationship. When she received a letter from Steven that he had settled on a commune in the Washington wilderness—and was involved with another woman there—she sought out his brother Fred to help her go after her boyfriend. "I hadn't been in this country that long, and I was still very naive. I didn't even know what a commune was, and I almost headed for Washington, D.C.," says Joyce. "Fred put me on the right bus. I was still in school, and I thought I was going for the weekend, but it took me four days just to cross the country."

"Halfway there, in Nebraska, she called to tell me she was coming," says Steven. "I was really happy. I told her the other relationship was over."

Neither of them ever came back. They settled, along with 30 other people, on 120 acres of rolling hills and forests. Within a few weeks, their commune friends began suggesting they get married. "'You look so good together. You're such a great couple,' they kept telling us," says Steven. "I thought about it, and I realized they were right. Joyce was wonderful. So I said sure." Two months later, they were married. Three decades later, their two grown children are now out on their own, and the couple no longer live on the commune.

"Despite investing less in their relationship at first, marginalized partners ultimately tend to be significantly more committed than nonmarginalized couples," Lehmiller notes.

Family Feuds

Often it takes every bit of that commitment for these couples to survive the extreme pressures their families impose on them; no other stressor is typically as great.

Like Steven and Joyce, Stephanie and Juan came to a crossroads relatively early in their relationship, in their case because of issues with both families. It started when Stephanie's Peace Corps stint was ending. She had to return home, and though she and Juan had been together a year and a half, he wasn't ready to go with her.

"Stephanie meant a lot to me, but I didn't want to leave my family," he says. They weren't dying to lose him either, even though they loved Stephanie. His parents were divorced. As the oldest brother, Juan was seen as "Papi" at home. So Stephanie headed back to the States thinking the relationship was over.

They kept communicating, though, and soon realized they missed each other too badly to stay apart. Juan applied for a fiance visa, and that's when the trouble with Stephanie's father began.

When he learned she was planning to marry Juan, he felt disrespected. He pointed to all the egregious differences between her and Juan: She was Chinese-American, he was Hispanic; she had been raised Buddhist, he was Catholic; she was a well-off medical school candidate, and he hadn't completed high school. What's more, Juan didn't speak English. "He's just using you to get a green card," her father said. When Stephanie married Juan and moved with him to the Bronx, New York, her father didn't talk to her for years.

Stephanie lived with a pang in her heart for her lost family. "I was with Juan for three and a half years before my family met him, and I'd never spoken to my father in all that time. I've always been close to my family, so it was awful," she says. "Juan is such a good, honest man, such a gentle soul, that I knew they would love him if they ever met him."

Finally, the couple was invited home one Christmas, and the response to Juan was everything Stephanie had hoped for: Her father was nice to him from the moment he met him. And after five years of marriage, Juan, now preparing to become an environmental engineer, has shown that he deserved the trust Stephanie always placed in him.

The advent of children typically brings a whole new level of familial turmoil to marginalized couples, as the in-laws are now involved. For the Boros, for instance, Steven's mother was a continual irritant whenever she visited, "as much because Joyce wasn't Jewish as because she was black," Steven explains. "She was concerned about what faith the children would be raised in." Joyce recalls, "She'd tell my friends how disappointed she was that Steven was married to me, and though she grew to love the kids very much she felt embarrassed to be seen with them because they were dark."

When the World Rushes In

While families cause the most havoc, the censure of the world contributes its own share of trouble. The mixed-race Boro children, for instance, received some of the same rejection in school that they got from their grandmother. Trying to give the kids an ethnic identity and please Steven's parents, Joyce had converted to Judaism and enrolled the children in Jewish schools, but the schools never fully accepted them. Feeling rejected by Jewish people, they've committed themselves to black culture and are exclusively dating African-Americans. "But the black community tends to see them as white and hasn't embraced them either," Joyce says.

Partners with wide age differences experience a subtler form of marginalization, but social pressures can still be great. While they're not discriminated against in housing or social services, and not barred from marrying as gays are, they may make their families, friends and neighbors uneasy, and are often the butt of insulting misunderstandings or jokes.

"It's so nice that you brought your mother with you" is a typical comment that Ken, now 42, hears about his 58-year-old wife Sara. In the early days of their relationship it bothered them, but they had larger hurdles to worry about: Sara was reluctant to marry for a third time, and Ken had to accept that they might never have a biological child. (Sara was already the mother of teenagers.) Three years ago, Sara had a stroke that left her weak on her left side, in need of a cane and prone to epilepsy-related blackout seizures. "I can't imagine any physical infirmity that would test my commitment. The stroke is a life challenge, not a relationship challenge," says Ken.

Ever since, they have remained so secure in their relationship that rude comments roll off their backs. "We always understood we were abnormal in society's eyes, " Sara says, "but what anybody else thinks about our relationship is far less important to us than the relationship itself."

"She's the love of my life," Ken says.

Staying the Course

In their research, Lehmiller and Agnew found that the key reason most marginal couples stayed together was not deep satisfaction in their relationships, but a sense of limited alternatives. In other words, they didn't think they could do better, so they settled for what they had.

But when told about these findings, the couples we interviewed couldn't have disagreed more.

"Joyce and I have been blessed to be as close as we are, and I can't imagine any couple being closer," asserts Steven Boro. "That sounds conceited," chides Joyce. "But we are extremely close."

"I liked and learned from my first two husbands, but neither was my soulmate," says Sara.

Having settled for less is the furthest thing from these couples' minds.

"Lehmiller and Agnew argue that people who stay in marginalized relationships feel they have worse options, but I'm not fully convinced," says Douglas T. Kenrick, Ph.D., professor of evolutionary psychology at Arizona State University. "We all make trade-offs. Maybe these couples just happened to land on partners who were well worth the trade-offs." You might not automatically put a poor construction worker from Honduras on your checklist of potential partners, but then you run into him and he has a wealth of other characteristics that are wonderful to you. If you have confidence in your feelings, you see that instinct through.

In fact, the chance to be true to yourself may be one of the greatest surprises—and rewards—of these relationships.

"You find a lot of freedom at the margins," says Joshua Gamson, a Jew married to a biracial man. "When you're at the center of society, you feel forced to obey the norms. Marginalized couples have a lot of disadvantages, but since they're already outcasts in a sense, they're far freer to do what they really want, to put on their own show and be purely themselves."

Advice for the Rest of Us

Nontraditional couples who make it have a lot to teach us. Here's what we can learn from their success.

  • The more you trust your gut instinct and the more comfortable you feel in your own skin, the less outsiders will be able to interfere.
  • When partners bring different skills to a relationship, they enhance each other's positions in the world.
  • You may be attracted to your opposite, but if you want the relationship to last, you need lots in common as well.
  • Don't let outside disapproval of your partner determine the way you feel about him or her.
  • Extended family or a close circle of friends can nurture your relationship.
  • Friends and family who initially disapprove may change their minds as your relationship stands the test of time. But accept the possibility that they may not. Be prepared to reduce contact and forge new ties with others.
  • If in-laws interfere in your relationship or take a strong stance on how you must raise your children, it may be time to limit their role.
  • If you can deal with it together as a team, adversity will strengthen the relationship.
  • Traditional couples can enhance their bonds by introducing exciting challenges. Climbing a mountain or building a company together can spice up the love.