The day after voters in North Carolina overwhelmingly approved a constitutional ammendment prohibiting partners of the same sex from legally wedding, President Barak Obama made a public announcement that he believes it is acceptable for same-sex couples to marry. Recognizing the role of the president as public opinion leader, there was a part of me that thought, “So? Why do you care who gets married?” I wonder that of Obama, as well as the sixty percent of registered voters who turned out in North Carolina who, behind the protective shield of a secret ballot, voted to pass the amendment. If people cared as much about healthy relationships as much as they cared about the biological sex characteristics of a pair of partners perhaps the incidence of abuse and violence would be diminished to trivial levels.
Looking back on our marriage, the biggest challenge in meeting the legal requirements was making sure we had enough green paper cash. I don’t remember whether we withdrew our sixty dollars at a cash machine or a bank branch. When we took our application for a marriage license to the county offices we wondered, in jest, whether we needed to pass a test to be issued our marriage license. To be granted a drivers license one must pass both a knowledge test and a skill test; any bloke can walk up to the counter with cash and get a marriage license. Though we were never more certain of anything, that moment made us acknowledge the cold truth that poor judgement and poor decision-making in the course of a marriage could have substantially more dire consequences than poor decision-making while behind the wheel.
The only real “test” we had to pass to get married had nothing to do with our ability to treat each other with respect even when we disagree, our ability to solve problems cooperatively and resolve conflict productively, our ability to make the best of any situation, our ability to grow and change independently and together as a couple, our ability to support one another both when we are experiencing good times and difficult times, our ability to express ourselves and our emotions honestly, our ability to identify and nurture the most important aspects of a relationship, or even our ability to demonstrate love for one another.
There was no “marriage manual” that instructed us on general guidelines or expectations of a healthy relationship. Neither of us were born with that knowledge just because we are heterosexual. In fact, if personal background has anything to do with it, I was not a good candidate for marriage at all. My parents were finalizing their vitriolic divorce at the same time we were making wedding plans. It was Dad’s second failed marriage. We witnessed some fantastic examples of an unhealthy relationship in the months and even years prior to our marriage. Mom and Dad’s relationship presents a valid argument for requiring partners to pass a knowledge and skill test before receiving a license to marry.
There is no reason to assume that gay and lesbian couples are inherently less able to communicate well, or support one another, or resolve conflict, or grow and change together, or demonstrate love for one another. In fact, since same-sex couples, arguably, inherently have more in common it might prompt the question whether our gay and lesbian friends might be more artful and agile in learning how to navigate and nurture a healthy intimate relationship. Regardless of what a couple has in their favor, a relationship is never easy.
I do care if couples, even those I don’t know, are in healthy relationships. I care about the individuals involved. And I also care because unhealthy relationships have a negative effect on the surrounding community. Unhealthy relationships can lead to problems on the job and in the workplace, resulting in productivity and economic losses to the individual and the employer. Unhealthy relationships can be the source of increased health care costs as the effects are often physiological, if not physically or emotionally abusive. Moreover, children in homes of unhealthy relationships may have few role models from which to learn skills in and expectations of productive, healthy family and intimate relationships.
The same day I found myself wondering, “why do you care who gets married,” we received a birth announcement from friends who had been trying for some time to have a baby. They got married several years ago, in a demonstration of their absolute love and devotion to one another. It was clear from the day of their wedding they would be parents one day. We were overjoyed that the magical moment had finally arrived. I do care, a great deal, that our friends, a gay couple, were able to get married, just like we did. I care a great deal that their child was born healthy, and will have the opportunity to grow up in a loving and supportive home. I wish voters, candidates and policy makers cared about the same aspects of their growing family as I do.
What would legislation look like that required demonstrated knowledge and skill of committed, loving, respectful, supportive relationships with healthy communication patterns and habits, while still respecting personal choices and cultural values? How could it be demonstrated in an unbiased and consistent way? It would be a tall order to get it right. It would, most definitely, not involve questions about the nature of one’s genitles.
Even if a way to document knowledge and skills could be developed, I’m not sure whether I would have been able to pass the test 16 years ago, not without some lessons or guidance. All these years later I am still learning how to nurture a healthy relationship. Through all the challenges, it is still the best, most clear decision we’ve ever made. My hope is that one day voters quit caring who the partners in a marriage are and start caring, passionately and vocally, how the partners in a marriage treat one another, communicate together, and that they truly love one another.