Ever wonder why domestic violence survivors don’t leave their abuser? Here’s one reason.
I married my partner
I married my partner of 20+ years December 9th, at Seattle’s joy-filled city hall. Families, friends, and friendly strangers gathered to cheer on the newly married couples as they descended a grand staircase. It was quite a party.
Getting married is an ambivalent thing for me, as I have been shut out of that institution for a long time. And I’ve seen the very painful, dark side of marriage in my professional life. Let’s face it, the history of marriage is one of women giving their bodies, emotional support, and physical labor to men. And still to this day, this idea and the support it gets in society narrows women’s choices and harms children—in some marriages. So why would I want to participate?
It’s complicated, because marriage is complicated. Our society uses marriage in multiple ways: as a symbol of love and commitment; as a way to access certain legal rights; and to define an economic relationship and expectations. And, historically, as a way to enforce gender roles that give men/husbands the upper hand in decisions about money and priorities in the family. At the same time, marriage is evolving, and extending marriage to same sex partners is part of a long history of changes we’ve made to marriage so that it reflects our current reality.
Since I’ve been in my relationship for over 20 years, getting married didn’t carry quite the same weight as it did for my parents. They were excited to live together for the first time, be independent of their parents, and finally “go all the way.” Um, that all happened a long time ago for me. What motivated me was something my parents and straight friends didn’t give much thought to: having protections and rights that only come with marriage. I wanted to be ensured I could be at my partner’s side if she should end up in the hospital; have the ability to make medical decisions if she were incapacitated; and know that if one of us dies, our assets will transfer smoothly to one another. Marriage makes the legal world out there safer for us and our daughter. So our marriage was a pragmatic decision.
But I was surprisingly moved as well. I think I had willfully ignored all the ways in which marriage symbolizes positive things in our culture: love, hope, the caring and kindness between people. My jaded cynicism was tempered by the joy that broke out when the voters legalized marriage equality. Watching LGBTQ couples celebrating their marriages gave me more hope for all of us, because it happened in spite of the challenges a homophobic culture places in the way of LBGTQ people creating healthy relationships.
For that reason, I think my marriage and other gay marriages may have something to teach everyone. They are part of the ongoing evolution of marriage from a system of ownership and entitlement to an institution that nurtures healthy love, human potential, and beloved community. As a very wise friend of mine (who married her beloved of 40 years) says, “everyone benefits and is honored by extending civil rights for all, and from recognizing and embracing the power of love and justice.” We are all uplifted when we extend dignity to those who have been denied rights.
Of course, and very importantly, the other thing that gay marriage gets us is gay divorce. This is a good thing because no community is immune to violence, control, and just plain old dysfunction. Ending a complex and long term relationship requires assistance, protection, and justice.
I’m happy to be married. I am moved to have my state and city celebrate and recognize my relationship and those of all my LGBTQ friends. I am relieved to have the rights and protections that come with marriage. And I’m glad to know that if I should need it, I can get a divorce as well. Because no one’s marriage should take away a person’s ability to make their own choices, follow their dreams, or protect themselves and their children.
How’s your relationship?
I met a friend out for dinner the other night. We hadn’t even opened our menus, when she turned to me and asked, “How’s your marriage?” Now this is a very good friend of mine—we hang out all the time and talk about everything. And yet, I was totally caught off guard by the question.
It turns out that she had just learned a friend was getting a divorce. She was shocked because they seemed to be happy. In fact, they’d been drifting apart and unhappy with their relationship for years, but just never said anything. And why not? Well, no one ever asked and it seemed too personal to bring up. So my friend decided she’d start the conversation with all her friends.
As a domestic violence advocate, I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve been asked: “How can you tell if someone is in an abusive relationship? What are the red flags I should look for before saying something?” I can’t help but wonder, why do we spend so much time and energy trying to figure out if there’s a problem before we feel like we can ask about it? I mean, why wait?
Seems like it’d be a lot easier for our friends to turn to us when things aren’t going well, if chatting about our relationships was something we already did. So I say, don’t wait until you’re worried—just ask now.
Something old, something new
This week falls between the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This time of year in the Jewish calendar is focused on renewal, repair, and justice. Drop into any synagogue this week and you’re likely to hear a call to work for “tikkun olam” – a value often translated as “repair of the world” and used to invoke a broad array of social justice work.
I learned something new recently about the origins of the idea of tikkun olam. One of the earliest uses of the phrase in rabbinic literature is from the 2nd century C.E. These rabbis were addressing a loophole in traditional divorce law that was a threat to women. Occasionally a man would serve his wife with divorce papers, and then rescind the divorce without her knowledge. If she went on to marry someone else, the second marriage would be illegitimate, jeopardizing her legal status and the status of any children of that marriage. The ancient rabbis ruled that a man could not cancel a divorce once the decree had been delivered to his wife, and cited tikkun olam as the reason for the change. They recognized that this misuse of civil law – though technically legal – threatened the integrity of the system as a whole.
I was astounded at how much this nearly two thousand-year-old legal issue sounds like stories we hear from advocates today. Abusive men are still finding ways to manipulate the legal system to punish their ex-wives. Children suffer when they are used as tools to control their mother. Women are not getting “renewal, repair, and justice” in court.
These are problems that seem as intractable today as ever. Yet our challenge is to continue to bring new energy, creativity, and passion to fixing them. Where do you get the inspiration to find new ways to right ancient wrongs?
The gay agenda
Last month, I celebrated along with 53% of Americans when New York became the 6th state to legalize gay marriage. But while I cheered the happy gay couples, another part of my brain is ambivalent about the victory. After all, the institution of marriage has a sordid history—from sexist wedding rituals to cultural and legal ties that keep women trapped with abusers. And getting married means more housework for women and less for men.
At the same time, marriage brings benefits that LGBT folks have been denied. And full access to marriage (and divorce) removes one strand from the web of homophobia, sexism, and racism that batterers can use to control their partners. For example:
- When a couple’s relationship is publically acknowledged and celebrated, homophobia loses its power to isolate LGBT people from the support of their family and friends. This means they have more help—both to have great relationships and when violence happens.
- We know that child custody issues are a major barrier to leaving an abuser. And for LGBT parents, marriage means that the non-biological parent is more likely to have their parental rights recognized by family courts, schools, and health care providers.
- Marriage provides a path to legal residency for immigrants, a critical right that has begun to be extended to same sex spouses.
Right wing rhetoric claims that the mere act of gay couples saying “I do” is enough to upend the institution of marriage. If only radical social change was that simple! I’m rooting for a day when we achieve marriage equality and much more—economic justice for women; healthy, equitable relationships for everyone; and public policies that support all families, married or not.
Same sex couples can legally marry in five states and the District of Columbia. But state law allowing marriage is not enough. Without federal recognition, the benefits and protections that marriage affords same sex spouses are not portable from state to state. As several recent cases show, couples may not be able to get a divorce anywhere their marriage isn’t recognized. For LGBT survivors of domestic violence, this can mean being legally tied to an abuser with no way to divide property or establish child custody.
The right to divorce doesn’t make for feel-good campaigns about equality and love. (And when was the last time you heard anti-gay activists insist on preserving the sanctity of divorce between one man and one woman?) Yet the ability to get out of a legal marriage contract is every bit as important as the right to get in.
All of us who care about ending domestic violence need to fight for full marriage equality. We need to demand that the federal government recognize all marriages. Anything less leaves LGBT partners vulnerable.