Andrea Reese and Alice Ro have been engaged for just over a year. The Brooklyn residents, both in their forties, had hoped to get married in a civil ceremony in Manhattan City Hall this September and to celebrate with a ceremony in Park Slope. But that possibility remains doubtful as of press time.
Undaunted, the couple will now simply perform the civil ceremony elsewhere; Provincetown and Montreal are high on their list. But they will still celebrate with a secular ceremony in Park Slope. One of the ceremony’s guests will be Andrea’s ex-husband, John. He is, by Andrea’s own admission, a "great guy," to whom she was married for four years (they had lived together for five years prior). They ultimately parted because they had lost the feeling of being a romantic couple and had become much more like buddies. "We have maintained a close friendship," says Andrea. "He’s a big fan of Alice, and Alice and I are glad to have him at our ceremony."
Maintaining close ties to one’s exes is a relationship dynamic fairly common in the LGBTQ community (as a matter of fact, my own boyfriend’s two closest friends are long-term exes of his—and I like them fine). But maintaining close ties with former lovers after beginning new, committed romantic relationships, especially marriage, is only one of many unconventional relationship constructs— unconventional for opposite-sex marriages, at any rate—that same-sex couples are likely to import into the institution of marriage. And that’s not necessarily such a bad thing.
At least not according to Stephanie Coontz, co-chair and director of Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families. Coontz, along with other experts, believes that the ways in which young, opposite-sex couples view marriage have changed substantially over the past several decades. And if the experts are right, then, as ironic as it may seem, it could turn out that these "conventional" couples may just happen to find their best role models for the sorts of marriages they want to construct for themselves by looking at those of pioneering same-sex marriages.
Maybe you haven’t noticed amidst the din of same-sex couples clamoring to get married, but opposite-sex couples aren’t exactly rushing down the aisle these days. The latest census data indicates that the percentage of U.S. adults who are married is decreasing, while those who do decide to marry are waiting longer to do so. Contrary to how much of the mainstream media interprets this data, Coontz and her colleagues believe that the data reflects a change in how heterosexual people view marriage, not a lack of interest on their part in getting married. That change, she believes, is in line in many ways with how the LGBTQ community already constructs relationships.
"Young people no longer see marriage as an obligation as they did in the 1950s when it was common to move straight out of one’s parents’ house into one’s own nuclear family," Coontz says. "Marriage is much more of an optional institution now. They organize much less of their lives around marriage than they used to but, paradoxically, they expect much more out of it. Young people are expecting more equality and fairness in the relationship than their parents did. They are striving for a more romantic, egalitarian ideal and, in that, they have much to learn from samesex couples."
Justin Lehmiller, a Harvard psychology lecturer who specializes in the study of close relationships and sexuality, concurs. "Marriage is still a central part of life for most people," he says. "In fact, demographers predict that about four in five young adults will likely marry during the course of their lives. So marriage is still common but it is evolving. What is really changing is when people are marrying and how they want to structure their marriages. They no longer see marriage as an arrangement where there is a strict hierarchy and sharply defined gender roles… [Same-sex] couples tend to be much better at sharing power among the partners and much less likely to adopt strictly defined roles."
And although it’s true that gender roles within marriages have been evolving over the last few decades (that is, after all, one of the goals of the women’s liberation movement) same-sex relationships come even closer to the egalitarian ideal that Coontz asserts young people strive for because they are entirely free of any conventions to begin with.
In other words, even though opposite-sex marriages may be structured unconventionally—for example, with a stay-at-home husband and a working wife—they are still bound and defined by the conventions they are bucking. Same-sex marriages, by their very nature, are entirely free from those perceived conventions, allowing the partners to define the relationship as they please or to even take turns in different roles depending on what best suits the relationship.
Andrea says that her marriage to John was not very traditional in that they kept separate finances, she didn’t take his last name and that they didn’t plan on having children. She suspects, however, that her upcoming marriage to Alice will have an even bigger layer of freedom for them to do whatever they want. "We will be completely free to define our relationship for ourselves," she explains.
Matt Castle, who is 39 and lives in Astoria, has been gauging reactions to his 29-year-old fiancé Frank Galgano. "Although nearly everyone we’ve told about our engagement has reacted with happiness," Matt says, "there’s always a slight degree of surprise in their reactions because it’s unusual for two men to get married."
Frank says: "It’s liberating and wonderful and scary since we have no guidelines to follow."
Married Los Angeles residents Sarah McNeil, 42, and Sonia Camacho, 44, (they have been together for 11 years and were married in a Los Angeles courthouse in 2008 during the brief window, from June to November of that year, when samesex marriage was legal in California) say that they dole out the chores of their marriage and the parenting of their three daughters, ages 7, 5 and 2, based on their strengths and talents rather than their gender. Sonia, for example, loves cooking and the kitchen is almost entirely her domain. Sarah is detail-oriented and loves tracking the finances. They think their approach to chores is a big advantage over their opposite-sex counterparts. "I often see wives and husbands in our friends’ marriages having to do certain things based on their gender roles," says Sarah, "rather than being based on what they are good at, interested in or want to do."
Sarah and Sonia see great benefits to their gender-free home for the entire family from the obvious—their daughters feeling empowered to believe they can do anything that a man can—to something more idyllic, such as a potentially harmonious home atmosphere because neither parent feels frustrated by the chores for which they are responsible.
The issues of gender roles can become compounded in relationships with children. Here, however, same-sex couples can also offer a beneficial model for married, opposite-sex parents.
Although Sarah and Sonia considered their relationship to be fairly free of conventional gender roles, they were surprised at how that changed after the birth of their first daughter. It turns
out that both Sarah and Sonia wanted very badly to be "Mom," not one of two mothers, rather, "The Mom." They didn’t know how to share that role, and it wasn’t something they had even thought about discussing prior to their daughter’s birth.
"In all the marriages around us," Sarah says, "never were the gender roles so clearly defined as when children entered the picture." They found themselves fighting over who would bathe their daughter, or racing each other to get to her crib in the morning. It was definitely not what their peers were experiencing with their husbands.
They had no examples to turn to, so they had to figure it out for themselves. "Once the sleep deprivation subsided and the enormous adjustments that all parents go through had worked their way out," Sarah explains, "we realized that it was possible to both be The Mom."
The fact that Sarah nursed their daughter fulfilled the part of her that wanted to be special. Sonia loved taking their daughter out for walks, which she considered her special bond, fulfilling that need in her. By the time their second daughter was born two years later, they were more secure in themselves and each other as parents.
Married New Yorkers Chris Sullivan, 38, and Parvviez Hosseini, 39, (they married in Provincetown, Mass., just under two years ago) became adoptive fathers of a baby girl last May. "Neither of us feels compelled to operate in either role," Chris says, "and, thus far, we have been content to share roles as the situation demands."
Parvviez, for example, loves to read child-rearing books and research baby products, a typical "mom" thing, but also travels a great deal for work, a "dad" thing, leaving Chris to stay home with the baby, like "mom." Chris and Parvviez echo Sarah and Sonia’s belief that their genderrole-free household will empower their daughter’s sense of self but, in addition, Chris thinks it may make her more comfortable to express her own sexuality, whatever it is, as she gets older.
"Well, of course we structure our relationships and marriages without strict hierarchies and defined gender roles," says Barbara Carrellas, sex educator and author of Urban Tantra Sacred Sex for the 21st Century. "We have to, by default." Carrellas, who identifies as queer herself, believes that what is most interesting about that dynamic is not the actual division of labor but the joint, conscious process through which the relationship is negotiated and co-created. She feels that this is the aspect of LGBTQ relationships most valuable to opposite-sex marriages as a model for loving partnerships.
"People, unmarried people looking to be married, have this idea that they know what marriage is, but they don’t. How could they?" she explains. "Most people go into marriage with a view that they have constructed by themselves based on certain goals that society holds out in front of them and then wonder why they have such a difficult time obtaining those goals or discussing them with their partners."
"Gays and lesbians in the ’70s weren’t really concerned about marriage," Carrellas says. "They just wanted to be free to have sex without being arrested. The liberation of the early queer rights movement allowed those gays and lesbians to form new relationships, the relationships they wanted and those relationships weren’t necessarily modeled on heterosexuality. So they had to consciously co-create, negotiate, if you will, the boundaries and parameters of their relationships. And that dynamic is very much alive in LGBTQ relationships today."
To paraphrase Carrellas’ point, negotiating outside of society’s dictates and standards, something same-sex couples have been forced to do, allows each person to more clearly express and receive what they want and need in a relationship—so the resulting relationship allows each person to be more truly themselves and satisfied about the things that matter most.
Take, for instance, Andrea inviting her ex-husband to her and Alice’s ceremony (or, more to the point, Alice’s acceptance of it). Because there’s no particular rulebook or even pop culture touchstone to apply to the situation, no way in which society tells Andrea or Alice how they are supposed to feel or what they are supposed to do in that situation, they are free to express how they really feel and to decide for themselves where their boundaries are.
I understand this in my own personal life as well. One of my boyfriend’s close friends when our relationship became serious was a buddy he was still having sex with. I was less comfortable, at the time, with that relationship than I was with his relationships with his past two relationship partners. We had to discuss the situation carefully. Not because I had any precepts about it, simply because I needed to negotiate the relationship I was most comfortable with and felt comfortable enough with him to do so.
Varied approaches to sexuality is probably the most taboo of the constructs that same-sex couples may import into marriage, and one that Coontz, of the Council on Contemporary Families, approaches very delicately. "I want to be very careful about how this is phrased, but there is a prevalence among some same-sex relationships, particularly gay male relationships, to establish long-term commitments while allowing for nonmonogamy," she says. "While this is not for every opposite-sex couple, just as it is not right for every same-sex couple, it is one of the ways that some people may handle the pressures of a world where people want partnerships but live long lives and have frequent opportunities."
It was just such frequent opportunities that led married New Yorkers Kurt Walters and George Karabotsos, both 48, to open up their relationship sexually. They were monogamous for the first three years of their relationship (they married in San
Francisco almost three years ago, after having been together for eight years), but finally began to question whether or not it was the right choice for them, given the metropolitan environment they lived in.
"Guys would follow us out of the gym," Kurt says, "and ask us if we ever fooled around or whether we were into threeways." So they negotiated a nonmonogamous relationship and that is how they came into, and maintain, their marriage. As Kurt explains: "A relationship based on honesty and integrity is more important to us than one based on monogamy."
Twenty-nine-year-old New Yorker Mikey Rox, who is 10 months into a nonmonogamous marriage with 29-year-old Earl Morrow (they had been together for four years prior to getting married in a Greenwich, Conn., courthouse this past September), absolutely believes that couples can be monogamous, but wonders at what cost. "Personally, I don’t want to spend the next 50 years having sex with the same person," Mikey says. "That would be boring to me, and it would lead me into temptation. I prefer removing the temptation by allowing my partner and me to explore, provided we are both on the same page about it and have established rules." For Mikey, it lessens the chances that his marriage will dissolve. "Remember," he says, "that sex isn’t love."
But is this a model that same-sex couples should be frightened of? "Quite the contrary," says Manhattan-based psychotherapist Bob Bergeron, author of The Right Side of Forty: The Guide to Happiness for Gay Men at Midlife and Beyond. "Same-sex couples might not necessarily want non-monogamous relationships, but they can learn a great deal from non-monogamous, same-sex couples about how to talk to their partners about sexual desires inside and outside of the relationship." As Bergeron explains, "talking about your desires doesn’t mean you act on them, but not talking about them can create more trouble."
Bergeron uses the example of recently resigned Congressman Anthony Weiner. "Had he spoken to his wife, who was often away from home travelling with Secretary of State Clinton, about his needs for objectification of his ripped body—assuming, of course, that he didn’t speak to her about it—he might still be a Congressman," Bergeron says.
"Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it," Carrellas says of non-monogamous marriages. But even she admits that the concept might be troubling to some opposite-sex couples. "Again, try not to focus on what the relationships around you are doing but, rather, on how they are doing it," she says. "An open marriage might not be for you, but perhaps there is some other area in your marriage where you could use, to your benefit, the same tools that some other couple is using to negotiate their sexuality."
I spoke with New York State Senator Reuben Diaz, the only democratic Senator who pledged to vote no on the marriage equality bill (and, in fact, the most vocal anti-same-sex marriage Senator in Albany) just prior to the vote. I asked him why he so staunchly opposed legalizing same-sex marriage in New York. He replied that he merely wanted to "preserve marriage as it has always been."
But that’s exactly the problem.
Marriage isn’t necessarily working for same-sex couples either. According to Harvard psychologist Lehmiller, "Marriage is a dynamic social, cultural and legal construct that has taken many forms throughout history. Attempting to define it in a static way is what many would argue threatens to make it irrelevant. Like all other things, in order for marriage to keep its meaning in society, it must be able to adapt to the modern social context."
I pressed the Senator to see what reasons he had other than the preservation of traditional marriage, to vote no. "Because I don’t believe in same-sex marriage," he said, "and that’s good enough for me." He assured me that he was confident that his opinion represented not only the majority of his constituents but, also, the majority of the nation.
Actually, the most reliable data we have to support or refute his claim comes from the Pew Research Center and the Gallup
Poll. Pew’s most recent polling says that 47 percent of Americans oppose or strongly oppose same-sex marriage (41 percent support and 10 percent are undecided), hardly a vast majority, in fact not a majority at all. The Gallup Poll finds 53 percent of Americans in favor of same-sex marriage, a slim majority.
So rest assured, Senator (and others), lesbian and gay couples aren’t going to desecrate marriage, we’re merely helping to keep it relevant: for same-sex and opposite-sex couples alike.
Seth Michael Donsky is a screenwriter whose latest, Irregardless, deals with a commitmentphobic gay man who officiates his younger sister’s wedding. www.sethmichaeldonsky.com.