We have turned a corner on the question of same-sex marriage. This past election day, three more states extended basic civil rights to LGBT Americans, and the trend is not likely to stop. That is very good news.
It is time, therefore, for us to have a serious talk. Just because we as a community have made strides in regard to marriage, does not mean that you necessarily need to take similar actions in your personal life. You do not need to run off to Maine with your wonderful boyfriend or girlfriend in order to make a political statement.
For the same reason that the anti-gay and hate-mongering communities are wrong to hold marriage back as some symbolic gesture to marriage structures of the past, pro-gay people cannot rush into it as a new symbol of political gains of the present. Getting married is not political; it is a very big deal on a personal level.
As my Republican mother ungraciously asked me, “Why do you write in favor of gay marriage so much when you blew your own?” She is wrong. Gay marriage is right. But she is right that even though I worked hard on mine, it did go wrong.
So here is my talk to all of you who are considering taking this step in your lives. I share this as one who has been through it and from what I did not know at the time. My ex-spouse and I grew with the marriage equality movement. We registered as domestic partners when it meant practically nothing. We married in San Francisco on Valentine’s Day when Gavin Newsome briefly allowed same-sex marriages in a move of civil government disobedience. We divorced when we were under the full weight of state marriage laws without the dignity of ever calling ourselves truly “married”.
To be fair, I thought we had discussed much of the important list that I am going to give you. We had not. Not by a long shot. We should have. If we had, we might actually be together today, or we may have been able to separate in a more amicable way. In any case, I offer this to you from the vantage point of 20/20 hindsight. Dream the dream of a “happily ever after” life with your soul mate … but also make sure that you both are clear and agreed on the following questions.
1. Are you prepared for mutual financial responsibility? Public debate on marriage equality has complicated the issue with a lot of things that are irrelevant in real people’s lives. The financial factor is supremely relevant. When you marry, you take responsibility for each other’s finances. Are either of you prone to debt? Is one a higher earner with more assets? Make a plan on how all this will work and how you will each commit to it, and make it fair.
2. How will you resolve conflict? This is the big foundational one. The issue is not whether or not you will disagree on something … it is when. What are your rules for resolution? Who will you both go to as a third party when you can’t find agreement? It will make matters worse if that person is someone that one of you can’t stand or does not trust. What are your rules for arguments? “We will never go to bed mad” is a good example. How can you each confess mistakes safely?
3. What is your growing vision of your family? You as a couple are the seed of a family. The anti-gay and hate-mongering communities refuse to believe this, but it is the truth. You may not have children, or you may, but you will almost certainly have pets, and there will be special people that you emotionally adopt. With all these, you need a mutual vision. Will you adopt? Will you choose surrogacy? Will you become foster-care/adoptive parents? The latter, which is how I became a parent, is a path with its own character-challenging issues (actually there is no path without them), and you should be well versed, together, before venturing blindly into it.
4. How will you parent? Should you and your spouse decide to become parents, this is the most important aspect for you to explore. When my spouse and I considered becoming foster parents, I solicited advice from a friend who had adopted a foster child with his wife. He shared with me that the hardest thing was seeing the parent his spouse became and realizing that he could not parent that way. They ultimately divorced, and so, ultimately, did we. Figure this out up front with ways to adhere to it to be successful —your children will thank you for it.
5. What are your priorities regarding extended family? Marriage is the seed, the end of which is an entire family. How far will yours go, and what are the terms? If one part of your extended family is anti-gay, how will they be prioritized against your spouse and immediate family? I have seen this elephant in the living room of several gay couples. And the elephant eventually charges. Cage it.
6. What is the state of your intimacy, and how will you protect it? This question can be subtle and have different superficial representations that get focus, but end up not resolving the real issue. This requires you as a couple deciding your on-going standard of physical, emotional and communication intimacy. Preserve it. Cherish it. It will be under siege not just by the hot third party person who lusts after one of you, but also by those cherished children who zap you of time, energy and attention. The former is pretty obvious on how to handle, once temptation is dealt with, but the latter can be tough. It is vital that your relationship be your “favorite child,” nurtured and grown, otherwise, your other children will ultimately pay the price.
7. What is your spiritual plan for your family? Yeah, the God stuff. It is not important that you both agree on this, but if you have kids, a common foundation from which they can grow is important. This also gives an important touch-point if you run into problems elsewhere. It is good to have a set of mutually agreed upon spiritual principles on which to reflect when you are feeling in trouble.
8. How will you mutually nurture your careers and avocations? Dreams can be complex things. How will you nurture each other’s dreams as life throws “chance of a lifetime opportunities”? Have a plan, a fair one.
9. What is your mutual loyalty agreement? This feeds many other areas on this list, but it is broken out here to recommend a conscious, discussed and understood agreement. At what point is a flirt gone too far? What porn or erotica involvement has crossed the line? What friend confidences are too much, and how will keeping other people’s secrets be handled? Decide these upfront, but also acknowledge that no one is perfect and mistakes will be made. An agreement to pre-forgive would also be helpful.
10. What are the terms for the end of your relationship? I realize this has the romantic appeal of a fart during an intimate good night kiss, but it needs to be understood up front. The fact is, barring a meteor hitting your car as you are both driving out of the Senior Center many decades from now, your marriage will end with one of you leaving—either through death or divorce. Each scenario needs a plan, and it is far, far better that those awful details be decided when heads are clear and caring rather than grieving, angry or potentially bitter. One of the sad realities of the divorce system is that it only works remotely well when the divorcing parties can cooperate, communicate and come to agreement with as little friction as possible. But since couples are usually in a mindset that is the exact antithesis of everything that would create that scenario, having a plan up front is the best way to get there.
M. Scott Peck said that “Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” That is the basis for this list. It is not the most warm and fuzzy article you’ll ever read on the subject of same-sex marriage, but I feel like it may be one of the most important as you work towards your ultimate happiness—which is what I dearly and fondly wish for you.
Fight for your rights, demand the choice to marry the love of your life, and when that happens … make it work and make it right. Opposite-sex married couples are only at the 50% success mark. Let’s do it better.
ROB WATSON is Director of Partners and Alliances Communication for Hitachi Data Systems, and blogs at evoL= . He has served as the president of the board of directors for Santa Cruz AIDS project, and is a dedicated activist for the LGBT community. He was a foster parent and became the adoptive parent of his two sons. They reside in Northern California.