Last year, during a family barbecue concluding our annual visit to my beloved Jeff's Michigan hometown, his sister-in-law pulled him aside to ask why we weren't moving our relationship down a church aisle. "I thought there would be an announcement," she said. Jeff reminded her that we had shared good news about buying a house together, a significant step in our three-year relationship.
"You two are doing it backward," she said.
I am a 42-year-old woman who has lived life mostly on my own terms. I have never sought a husband and have still experienced intense, affirming love. I have explored the world and myself and sought understanding, knowledge and a sense of how I can best contribute. Ten years ago I left a New York career to return to California and pursue a writer's life. Shortly thereafter I met an intelligent teenager, also determined to live life on her own terms, who is now my fabulous foster daughter.
Meeting Jeff—an intelligent, creative, thoughtful man—became the icing on the rich cake of a life not wasted cruising singles bars and pining over lost loves.
Last year Jeff asked me to marry him, and I willingly gave my heart to the intent of his question. We are committed to spending our future together, pursuing our dreams and facing life's challenges in partnership.
Yet I do not need a piece of paper from the state to strengthen my commitment to Jeff. I do not believe in a religion that says romantic, committed love is moral only if couples pledge joint allegiance to God.
I don't need a white dress to feel pretty, and I have no desire to pretend I'm virginal. I don't need to have Jeff propose to me as if he's chosen me. I don't need a ring as a daily reminder to myself or others that I am loved. And I don't need Jeff to say publicly that he loves me, because he says it privately, not just in words but in daily actions.
Our married friends say you can make a wedding—and a marriage—what you want, but that is not true. It's a specific institution with defining principles and values. If it weren't, there wouldn't be so-called marriage-protection laws in the majority of this country's states.
And for me, that's the bottom line when I consider cashing in on all the benefits our heterosexual relationship is entitled to. My gay friends can't do that. I don't want to send a message to anyone, including my daughter—who may someday choose a same-sex life partner—that the value of her relationships can be determined by law and the affirmation of others.
Nonetheless, however unengaged I am to the institution of marriage, Jeff and I began to talk through the possibility of holding some sort of celebration of our relationship. But we wonder about Jeff's family. "It'll be hard to get them to cross a state line for a commitment ceremony," he warned.
If it's not a wedding, if there's no priest or piece of paper from the state, some people just don't give any weight to your commitment—despite high divorce rates that remind us that such formalities offer no guarantee the relationship will endure.
Undeterred, we've begun planning for a daylong event near the ocean that would allow time for us to enjoy the company of friends and family without wasting time on obligatory cake cutting and flower tosses.
I look forward to sharing that day with my parents and their respective spouses, my brother and my extended family, who have all become accustomed to my independent life choices.
But I want Jeff's parents to be there, too, so I can honor their role in raising such a loving son. I want his brothers and sister, their loved ones and children to join us and share in our joy. They are loving people who have been accepting of me, and I would cherish the chance to introduce them to my daughter, my family and our friends.
Nonetheless, while I know the word "married" would mean something to them, something tangible they could use when describing our life together, I can't do it. I am Jeff's partner, his friend and his lover, and he is mine. The terms "husband" and "wife" wouldn't even begin to describe our relationship.
We've set a date for July to hold our big event. No, we won't get married. But I hope our friends and family still come.