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Dispatches

How to Unmarry Your Wife

After moving from a state that recognizes same-sex marriage to one that doesn’t, a couple’s marriage becomes a partnership, and they are suddenly forced into new roles.

Campo Verde Bajo las Estrellas, José Basso, 2013. Courtesy the artist and CK Contemporary, San Francisco.

It was sweltering the day I unmarried Marta, and we weren’t even together. I was with my little brother in a Penske truck, the flat haze of West Texas rising before us like the credits at the end of a movie. Marta was with our three-month-old daughter back in Iowa, where the weather was temperate. Highs were in the 70s, lows in the 50s, and Marta was still married to me. Don McLean was coming in concert that weekend and there were drink specials at our favorite vegan restaurant. Our three-month-old baby cried for milk and slept and cried some more. A couple of days later, the two of them flew out to West Texas to join me in our new home next to a university where Marta and I both had jobs, and where we were no longer married to each other.

It’s hard to define when the act of unmarrying takes place. Were we unmarried as soon as I drove out of Iowa in that Penske van and into Missouri, where same-sex marriage is not recognized? Or was it only official once Marta joined me in Texas, where marriages like ours are outright banned? Or perhaps the real unmarrying occurred when we changed our mailing address with the post office, which would mean we were unmarried for a week without even realizing it.

Getting unmarried to someone is also quite different from divorcing them. There are no legal documents to sign. There are no lawyers or judges explaining the terms to you. There is just you and your once-wife and your still-legal baby in a one-story orange brick house under the beaming sun of a West Texas neighborhood where you feel the same as you did before. Almost the same—you are both aware a difference exists, and you can also feel that something small but significant has changed.

 

Before, things looked something like this: We were two graduate students in our thirties living in an Iowa college town. We shared the top floor apartment of a small blue house with a Juliet balcony overlooking the backyard garden. On Saturdays, we walked to the farmer’s market to buy tomatoes, squash, fresh eggs, and ground lamb. Sometimes I made fried green tomatoes. Other days Marta made gazpacho.

Marta was a Spaniard in the United States on a student visa. I was a former newspaper journalist who went back to school after watching one too many rounds of layoffs in the newsroom. She was writing her dissertation and I was translating an Argentinean novel. We had very little money but very open schedules. Sometimes we fought. I claimed Marta interrupted too much and she said I lost everything she let me borrow. Then we made up, poured ourselves a drink, watched a documentary on Netflix. At some point, we decided we wanted to have a baby.

We wanted to be a family legally so that being a family in the day-to-day was more manageable, less bureaucratic. Marriage is supposed to give you that assurance.

Marta found out she was pregnant in September and we got married that January. We were in love, of course, but we married less for romantic reasons than for the practical sort of considerations that used to drive marriage. Marta was going to have a baby and we wanted to make that baby legally mine, in the quickest and easiest way possible. We wanted to be a family legally so that being a family in the day-to-day was more manageable, less bureaucratic. Marriage is supposed to give you that assurance.

We held a small ceremony at her brother’s house one Saturday before an altar made out of Christmas lights, tulle, and two-by-fours painted white. I wore a dress covered with lions that my dad had picked out. Marta was in red and her pregnant belly bulged between us when we turned to kiss. That night we played the Shotgun Lesbian Wedding mix I had made on Spotify—“January Wedding” by the Avett Brothers, “Settle Down” by Kimbra, “Compartir” by Carla Morrison, the Eels’ version of “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” and, of course, “Chapel of Love” by the Dixie Cups, which as kid I imaged was the quintessential wedding song. Afterward we went out for Italian and met up with our friends to celebrate at a local pub.

A few weeks later, the county mailed us a copy of our marriage certificate. We were official. At least in Iowa. Three months after that, our daughter was born. And a month later, the Supreme Court threw out the Defense of Marriage Act. We were official again, but this time in the eyes of the federal government as well. We could now pay taxes together. And I could sponsor Marta to stay in the country after she graduated that summer.

Except she’d already accepted a job in West Texas, in part for that very reason. Under DOMA, our priority had been finding her a job so she could stay in the country with me and with our baby daughter after she graduated. After DOMA, we were still committed to the plans we’d made under the constraints of a different system. And so in August, we moved to Lubbock, Texas, and got unmarried so we could stay together as a family.

 

At first, we had other worries. Our daughter began teething and I discovered there was no New York Times home delivery anywhere in Lubbock. We couldn’t seem to find a daycare that didn’t have “Jesus” or “Christ” in its name. There were entire blocks dominated by smoke shops and strip mall churches. Forests were unheard of, and a lush lawn was a sin paid for by hours of gluttonous watering. For a little while, we despaired. Lubbock had been declared the country’s second most conservative city a few years before we moved there, and recently it was named the country’s most boring municipality.

But Marta and I are both resilient, and I can be a bit of a Pollyanna. We began to find charms in Lubbock: There is Prairie Dog Town. Buddy Holly is from here. There are corn mazes, summer musicals at a grass-lined amphitheater, and several breathtaking rock canons nearby. There is Prairie Dog Town.

One day we were pushing our daughter in her stroller in our neighborhood and I leaned over to kiss Marta. It was breezy but sunny outside, and I suddenly felt giddy. A young college kid in a pickup pulled up to the stoplight and stared at us through his open window before making an L-shape with his thumb and forefinger.

“Is that an L for lesbians?” I asked Marta as I felt my earlier buoyancy deflate. “Or is he calling us losers?” Marta laughed in disbelief, thrilled to finally have more cultural knowledge than me. “He’s making the ‘guns up’ sign,” she said and I realized she was right. The slogan for the football team at our new university is “guns up” and the gesture used to show this is a finger pointed in the air, like cowboy’s pistol.

I was instantly relieved. I began to think that life here might not be unbearable after all. This is, if the worst we will face are imaginary school pride pistols, we can surely make it work as an unmarried married couple with a child in West Texas. At least for a few years.

 

But then one night I woke up from a nightmare that someone had thrown acid on my face because I was a lesbian. I realized that Marta and I rarely held hands in public anymore. And sometimes when a man beside me in line at the Starbucks saw me alone with our daughter and made an offhanded comment about my husband, I wouldn’t correct him. Very little of this has anything to do with being unmarried. At least on the surface. But it also has everything to do with it.

What you see in most arguments in favor of same-sex unions is a push to quantify marriage. Federal marriage includes 1,138 tangible benefits, we are told. So excluding same-sex couples from marriage means denying us all of those benefits. The same holds true at the state level, though no one has yet quantified the harm being done to same-sex couples in Texas. (One of them, surprisingly, is the ability to legally divorce here. In several instances, the Texas attorney general has intervened in divorce hearings for same-sex couples, arguing that a divorce would be legally impossible given that our marriages are fictional.)

They shake their heads to show their empathy. “That’s wrong,” they say. “That's fucked up,” they add a little louder. But I always feel like they’ve missed the point.

Most often, when I try to explain what being unmarried is like, I mention health insurance. Marta’s university job provides her with a decent insurance package, but I cannot be on her insurance policy because her employer is a public university and the state of Texas prohibits state entities from recognizing our marriage. This is an economic inequality that most friends and coworkers can understand. When I tell them about it, they usually shake their heads to show their empathy. “That’s wrong,” they say. “That's fucked up,” they add just a little bit louder. But I always feel like they’ve missed the point. Or that I’ve misrepresented the situation.

Not being on Marta’s insurance plan is fucked up and it is wrong, but it’s far from the hardest part of being unmarried. Instead, what I obsess about are the smaller moments of uncertainty that seem to perforate our sense of who we are as a couple.

Like one day in January, around the time of our first anniversary, when Marta and I went to apply for a membership at the university gym. Two undergraduates working at the counter showed us a list of options. I pointed to the married couple membership, even though I knew that if they granted us that option, they would be breaking state law. “She’s my spouse,” I declared perhaps a little too firmly. One of the undergrads hesitated a moment, but the other nodded and began processing our membership.

We saved $40 on the deal. Later, though, I felt guilty for being dishonest. I knew we should be paying for separate gym memberships, just like two separate people with no legal ties, according to state law. Then I got mad at myself for feeling guilty. Then I just felt tired.

 

I was not one of those who campaigned for marriage equality state by state. Instead, I was one of a small contingent of contrarians—some call us “radical”—arguing that marriage should no longer be within the purview of the government. “It should be a civil institution,” I told my more conservative liberal friends, “not something overseen by the government.”

“But it’s not,” those friends argued back, and they had a point. We can have our ideals, but those ideals always push up against life’s realities. And the reality is that marriage is a legal institution, and like all institutions it influences our lives, no matter how much we intellectually resist it.

No matter how much I believe marriage shouldn’t be under the purview of the state, I can’t deny that having one state declare my marriage legal, and then another deem it illegal, has affected how I self-identify.

And so, after Marta and I got married, something in my thinking about marriage—and about us—shifted. The “we” that made up Marta and me felt stronger and less breakable. Suddenly, we were official. We were two people who would be recognized as legally bound, as kin, even, by city administrators, insurance collectors, and hospital employees.

It was a bit like turning 16 and getting your license. You could always drive before that, but now you had permission to do so. Driving was suddenly a legal act. No matter how much I believe marriage shouldn’t be under the purview of the state, I can’t deny that having one state (and then the federal government) declare my marriage legal, and then another deem it illegal, has affected how I self-identify.

Perhaps more importantly, these competing laws influence how others treat married couples like us. Marta tells me that in Spain, after marriage equality was passed there, little old ladies and ardent Catholics slowly warmed to the idea of a man marrying a man or a woman marrying a woman because the state had done so first.

“One difference,” she says, “is that now we have the language to talk about it.”

Here in Texas, people still lack fluency when it comes to marriage like ours. We have met lots of supportive and educated people. But we are also regularly called upon to be ambassadors for our kind in ways we never were in Iowa.

When she started at her job at the university, Marta’s new coworkers often asked about her husband as soon as she mentioned having a child. When she said she had a wife, some laughed and apologized, but others grew quiet or looked confused. Once, I tried multiple times to explain to a woman at our daughter’s swimming lessons that Marta was my partner, and each time she misheard me. Your parker? Your barber? I can’t remember exactly what she thought I was saying, but I know that after repeating “partner” three times, I got flustered and stopped trying to explain who Marta is to me.

This is not just about Texas, of course, or about being unmarried. But when you live in a place that would unmarry you, the people around you seem to be less aware of the possibility that you exist.

At one of Marta’s departmental parties, I was sitting by the fireplace talking to the wife of a professor while my daughter bounced on my knee. Marta disappeared into the kitchen just as an older woman was making a beeline in my direction, led by the department’s chair. “This is Marta’s daughter,” the department chair explained. The older woman’s eyes lit up, and then she looked at me with a kind smile, “How lucky you are to get to hold her,” she said. I was so surprised it took me a second to respond. “She’s mine, too,” I finally said with a smile of my own. But the woman either didn’t hear me or pretended she didn’t, because after that she spoke only gibberish to my daughter. And then she wandered away to talk to someone else.

 

I thought about that exchange recently when we went back to Iowa to visit some friends. It was cool and rainy, weather out of character for Iowa in May, but we welcomed the change from Lubbock’s dry heat. While we were there, Marta’s old department held a party for her and a few other PhD graduates from the past two years. It was a potluck. I balanced a plate of quinoa salad and empanadas on my knees while our daughter ate pieces of cut fruit. When Marta’s dissertation director stood to give a short speech about all that Marta had accomplished, she also mentioned our daughter and me, just like she later mentioned the spouses and children of other graduates from that year. “In addition to a dissertation, Marta also acquired a wife and a child,” her director told the small crowd and a professor sitting next to me ribbed her. “I don’t think ‘acquired’ is the right word,” she joked. Everyone laughed. Not an uncomfortable laugh, but a shared laugh. Our marriage in that context, in that state, is not controversial. It’s just a fact.

Texas is changing in this regard, as is the rest of the country. A district court judge ruled in February that the state’s same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional. Unfortunately, he then put a stay on his decision while it’s under appeal (and the case goes next to the country’s most conservative appeals court, so there’s not a lot of hope that his ruling will go into effect anytime soon). In his written judgment, Judge Orlando Garcia wrote that “Texas’ current marriage laws deny homosexual couples the right to marry, and in doing so, demean their dignity for no legitimate reason.” That word, “demean,” sticks with me. It seems about right. It is demeaning to be forcibly unmarried.

 

But it is also very easy to do. First, you look for a new house in one of two dozen or so states that still insist that marriage can only take place between a man and a woman. Then you sign a lease. You find daycare for your child and choose a new vet for your aging Lab. You change your address and go about trying to make friends. You settle in, begin to say that your home is there. You try to forget that you are living in a place where your family is seen as a threat. You join the gym. You celebrate Thanksgiving there, and then Christmas, and then Memorial Day. And somewhere along the line, you realize that you have become unmarried. No matter how married you may feel some days, your unmarriage is a fact you cannot escape. It doesn’t make sense that so many of us are routinely unmarried when we cross state lines. But it is a fact that last year Marta and I got unmarried just by getting in a Penske truck and starting to drive.

Sarah Viren is a writer and translator living in West Texas with her dog, daughter, and (sort-of) wife. More by Sarah Viren