I will begin by saying that I am thrilled five of the members of the Supreme Court were enlightened enough to understand that gay marriage is not so odious to state’s interest that it can continue to be banned in the less-enlightened parts of the United States. I think the fight for same-sex marriage has been a critical fight for basic rights. I am also proud to know a number of the poster children for this fight. I am also proud that my undergraduate mentor and employer provided key social psychological testimony for this case (Go Dr. Greg Herek!!).
(My bff’s are on the cover of USA Today and I have made out with one of the guys on Time at a college party years ago. LOL)
The fight for same sex marriage illuminates some of the critical issues of relationships. Now that I am not holding my breath and praying that five people will be enlightened enough to acknowledge my right to exist and love, I want to comment on some issues of marriage.
In the United States, we tend to focus on three parts of a relationship: the engagement, the wedding, and the few relationships that make it 50+ years. The first two parts get plenty of coverage on Youtube, Pintrest, televised reality shows, and big business. The last part gets some coverage when people make it to a major milestone (e.g., 60 years together) or if they happen to die within hours of one another. Most other parts of relationships are lost to the larger popular discussion.
It took wedding companies less than six hours after the Supreme Court decision about same-sex marriage to launch targeted advertising on Facebook. By close of business on Friday I was receiving ads for things like beer mugs engraved with the bride and bride’s initials, photographers specializing in lesbian weddings, and lesbian bridal shower party ephemera (pussy-shaped straws instead of penis-shaped ones). Of course this happened. Selling crap for the engagement, wedding and various celebrations surrounding marriage is a huge business in this country. And if you can sell TWO dresses for a wedding instead of just one, you are going to make bank.
What has been lost is two things. First, the importance of state-sanctioned marriage on gay relationships. Second is the discussion we have never had as a country about what helps support and strengthen relationships.
To my first point, state-sanctioned marriage is important to supporting relationships. Gays and lesbians have been wedding for a long time. My bff’s (the cuties on the cover of USA Today) got married right after college, 22 years ago. They had a ceremony in their parents’ backyard. A minister from campus married them in an amazingly touching ceremony. Even 22 years later I remember parts of their vows and hell, I was just a spectator!
When they first married, it was not legally binding. Like many gay couples, they wanted their union recognized by people they cared about and wanted to make a public commitment to one another. They used the options available to them to do this. As the march for gay marriage continued, they got married again (in San Francisco when the city started issuing licences) and again (when it was temporarily legal in CA before Prop 8 was filed). They file the absurd federal tax returns that have special filing requirements because they were considered legally married in CA but not in the USA.
What a lot of straight people miss about the importance of state-sanctioned marriage is that it is an external recognition and support of a relationship. When you legally marry, an external body gives you more rights and protections. The state becomes somewhat vested in your relationship. You are also recognized legally as being bound to another person. This all helps support a relationship long-term.
The second issue that the same-sex marriage ruling highlights is our national lack of discussion about relationships. Sure, we talk about dating issues (e.g., joke about online dating, advice about how to get your online profile looked at by desirable people) and we will say “marriage is a job” and “you have to work at relationships” but we never really go beyond that. For most people in America, taking a relationship class or workshop is something you do when your relationship is failing. It is not a sign of health and growth but a sign that something is in trouble.
This is why I like the poly and kink communities. We actually talk about relationships and build skills when things are good. We have conventions across the United States where people meet to socialize and learn. We have classes in our communities where we go to learn. We have spaces dedicated to learning about relationships.
For example, I live in Sacramento, CA. Its a small city. In the last couple of months, various groups have offered classes on everything from growing your D/s dynamic, to how to create intimacy during a rope bondage scene, to how to institute high protocol into your relationship. We have groups that meet monthly to discuss things like issues that arise in open relationships, issues specific to submissives and a separate group for dominants, we have groups for couples where the Domme is a woman and the man is a sub, and so on. Talking about relationships and relationship issues is normal in the kink community. This needs to be adopted more widely.
Very few studies have been conducted on people in D/s or kink relationships. However, the few that have been done have illustrated that kinky people tend to have more stable relationships and stay together longer than their vanilla counterparts. As an academic, the evidence and number of people in these studies is not enough for me to endorse these findings as definitive, but my experience says they ring true.
First, there was a study published earlier this year. The investigators looked at couples in four European countries where one partner was dominant (all gender combinations were included). Most of these couples were not acknowledged to be D/s couples, but the key dynamic was that one of the partners had final say and could trump a decision. The researchers found that couples where one person held this power stayed together longer, experienced less relationship turmoil, and the children tended to be more self assured.
The second study was published about eight years ago and found that people with an explicit kink identity tended to stay together longer. They offered several possible reasons for this outcome. One included the ability to discuss relationship issues and the common practice of talking and learning about relationships.
Relationships are like anything else. They take practice. We are not born knowing how to make a relationship work. We are not born knowing what we need from a partner in order to make our relationships joyful and stable. Trying to learn in a vacuum is like learning everything else in a vacuum. You can get so far by reading and thinking about something. At some point it becomes helpful to interact with others and talk through some things.
So, while it is now great that same-sex couples can get married, I think lgbt folks need to embrace this opportunity to create a norm where we support one another and create environments for continual relationship learning. The pre-marital counseling required by some churches is a start. We need on-going support for every relationship. Its time to abandon the bridal magazines that do 20 page layouts on the perfect centerpieces for a wedding under $20,000 and start featuring 20 page articles on how to make the marriage work.