Marriage

Gay Marriage: Where Politics Meets Matters of the Heart

Is there a potential downside to marriage equality?

Posted Jul 08, 2015

Photo purchased from iStockphoto, used with permission.
Source: Photo purchased from iStockphoto, used with permission.

“[Gay people] ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” -  Anthony Kennedy, Supreme Court Justice, writing for a 5-4 majority in Obergefell v. Hodges

Photo purchased from iStockphoto, used with permission.
Source: Photo purchased from iStockphoto, used with permission.

“Sometimes there are days like this, when that slow, steady effort is rewarded with justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.” - President Barack Obama, speaking about the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision

Back in the day, gay politicos fought for gay marriage not because we wanted to have fabulous designer weddings, but because we saw it as the lynchpin of equality. In fact, many of us argued that strangling ourselves with the socio-religious noose of legalized matrimony was just another way to join and/or emulate an oppressively heterosexual majority that cared not at all for our well-being. And why the heck would we ever want that? As proof, we pointed to decades of abuse at the hands of police and private citizens, vilification by religious and political leaders, the APA’s longstanding choice to pathologize homosexuality, the US government’s non-response to the AIDS crisis, and the judicial system’s consistent refusal to intervene in ways that might protect us from this maltreatment. So even as we fought for gay marriage, we sometimes resented the idea of needing an “official sanction” granted by people who reviled us.

Essentially, the gay marriage battle was fought not because we wanted actual marriage (and possibly our own version of TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress), but because we wanted the legal benefits of marriage—tax breaks, parental rights, medical decision making, shared social security, etc. Sure, two guys prancing down the aisle to Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” sounded great, but we weren’t so enthralled with arguments over whose night it is to do the dishes. Still, as gay marriage started to become a reality, beginning with Massachusetts in 2004 and culminating with the Obergefell decision last month, a lot of younger gays and a few enraptured older ones found themselves fantasizing about floral arrangements, matching tuxedoes, and a choice of overcooked chicken breast or vegetarian pasta at the reception. Nevertheless, the people who were fighting this fight from the beginning typically did not do so with this as their ultimate goal. Instead, they wanted equality under the law. No more, no less.

Well, now we’ve got that equality. And with it, we’ve also got marriage—with all of its ups and downs and psychological challenges.

Are we ready for this? Do we actually understand what we’re getting into? I mean, once upon a time when same-sex couples wanted to get serious we could jump into things without a lot of decision-making. No lengthy conversations about having kids, what neighborhood to live in, whether to commingle finances, and if we really wanted to commit to each other in this way. Instead, we simply hired a U-Haul and moved into the nicer of our two apartments. If things worked out, we stayed together long-term and started to wear matching outfits (just like our heterosexual parents back in Topeka). And if things didn’t work out, we packed up the possessions we’d arrived with, hired another U-Haul, and departed for calmer waters. Sure, we sometimes argued about ownership of the antique armoire we bought in Paris, but otherwise we could end our entanglements pretty easily. No muss, no fuss, thank you very much.

Now, with marriage on the table, that’s all very different. Today, same-sex couples must consider, discuss, debate, and eventually agree upon all of the same things that heterosexual couples often struggle with. We must ask ourselves: Do we want to live together without the legal benefits of marriage but also without the legal hassles, or do we want to get married? Do we want kids? If so, where do we want to raise them? Are they better off growing up in a gay ghetto, where their two dads (or moms) comprise a normal family? Or are they better off in suburbia? Should we keep our finances totally separate, partially separate, or not separate at all? If we decide to marry, should we have a prenuptial agreement defining the terms of a potential breakup? If we don’t decide to marry, should we create binding legal contracts (wills, trusts, medical directives, and the like) that create certain rights for each of us? Etc.

The simple truth is that as happy as the LGBT community is about the Supreme Court’s recent decision, we’ve just been tossed into the ocean and nobody bothered to give us swimming lessons. In other words, gay men don’t have workable role models for legalized marriage, and neither do lesbian women. After all, we are not our heterosexual parents; some of their modeling may work for us, but much of it will not. This is because two men or two women in an intimate partnership presents a very different psychological and emotional dynamic than one man and one woman. As such, we need to recognize that this new and exciting “lawful romantic contract” thing is unfamiliar territory, we don’t yet know the waters, and we’re going to have to figure things out as we go. Yes, some of us may jump in and swim like dolphins, but others will frantically tread water, and a few of us will probably drown in the undertow.

Moving forward, the real issue for same-sex couples is learning to evaluate, discuss, and decide upon the importance (to each couple) of our new legal rights, keeping in mind the potential downside. (Wondering about the downside? Consult a divorced heterosexual.) For gay men, this realization is layered on top of the often inherent problems with male-male relationships, in particular the fact that two men in a relationship, neither of whom may be comfortable talking about his feelings, may struggle to become emotionally intimate and deeply bonded instead of just being sexual and/or pragmatic all the time. (Yes, hot sex and logical decisions are important, but there’s more to a marriage than that.) Meanwhile, lesbians must often deal with the feminine tendency to lead with feelings and emotions, which sometimes causes them to become overly enmeshed as a result. (Yes, deeply intimate relating is a good thing, but it’s possible to have too much of that good thing.)

So am I saying that now that we’ve got the right to marry, we should either give it back or choose to not take advantage of it? Absolutely not! This is a VERY BIG THING that just happened, and we should sink our claws in and never let go. Heck, even gay men and lesbian woman who are not in relationships are celebrating, happy to know that in the eyes of the law they are finally, once and for all, the same as every other single person. What I’m really saying here is that having the right to marry does not mean that every same-sex couple should automatically exercise that right. After all, the divorce rate in heterosexual marriages is right around 50%, and I can’t imagine the LGBT community is likely to do any better. Still, we’ve finally got the right to marry, and we should not be afraid to do so. Let’s just make sure we do it with our eyes wide open.

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, he is the author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships and Always Turned On: Sex Addiction in the Digital Age. For more information you can visit his website, www.robertweissmsw.com.