Reflections on 20 years of marriage

Reflections on 20 years of marriage

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My spouse, Helen, and I recently celebrated our 20th anniversary. Only about six of those years have been as legal spouses — but that just gives us a chance to celebrate both our real anniversary and our Massachusetts “Massaversary” several months from now. (Twice the cake is always a good thing, I say.) Hitting the 20-year milestone has made me reflect on some of the things I’ve learned about marriage in that time, and some of the things I never expected when we started out.

Three things I’ve learned:

It’s important to balance the romantic and the practical. The early days of marriage are all about romance. The later years are about whose turn it is to clean up the dinner dishes or put our tax returns in the mail — or at least it can sometimes feel that way. Especially after having a child, though, it is important for us to remember and celebrate us as a couple. Part of our job as parents, I believe, is to set an example for what a good adult relationship can be — both the responsibilities and the romance (and I mean of course only romantic affection, not sex, in front of the kids). Without the former, a household won’t run; without the latter, no one would ever want to start one.

There’s a point to “for better, for worse.” We didn’t use that exact phrase in our vows, but I’ve come to realize just why it’s a classic of so many wedding ceremonies. Helen and I have made six interstate moves and significant career changes. We’ve been struggling grad students together, been reasonably well off and had years where it was hard to make ends meet. We’ve disagreed and argued. We’ve dealt with death in each of our families. We’ve each had PMS. Somehow, we’ve stuck it out, because that first ineffable something has made it worth trying. I don’t think there’s any “secret” to a lasting relationship. It just takes a willingness to face the downs as well as the ups and to try and communicate, empathize and be there for each other. It’s also sometimes a matter of knowing when to be apart — to give the other space after an argument or simply to pursue our interests where they don’t always overlap.

Marriage expanded my family by more than one. Dating is about having a relationship with another person. Marriage is also about gaining in-laws (or, as we called them before we were legally wed, out-laws). We’ve been lucky in both having families that have accepted us with no hesitation and little surprise. There are things some of my relatives do that annoy her and things hers do that annoy me — but mostly, I’ve had fun gaining new insight into the people and environments that shaped Helen in her early years. (I’ve stayed away from prying too far into embarrassing childhood stories of her, though — that one could easily backfire when she visits my family.)

Two things I didn’t expect I would do:

Have kids. My inability to envision having children was less about being a lesbian and more about my career. When Helen and I met, we were both in graduate school. I then started a career in a completely different field and was focused for many years on establishing myself there. It was only after Sept. 11, 2001, when I’d been working in a building next to the World Trade Center until two days before the tragedy, that I began to reflect on unseized opportunities — and a relative’s new child gave me the added push I needed to visualize myself as a parent.

Marry legally. Marriage for same-sex couples just wasn’t in the cards 20 years ago. Certainly, there was some talk of it, but the Defense of Marriage Act went into effect three years after we started dating. It looked like the fledgling movement for equality wasn’t going to take off. When Massachusetts became the first state to enact it, in 2004, we were living in New York, and the Bay State still did not allow same-sex couples from out of state to marry there (a silly restriction they’ve since removed). It wasn’t until we moved to Massachusetts and needed to marry in order for me to be on her company’s health-insurance plan that we wed. We planned the ceremony (a modest affair) in about two weeks, although after 13 years, it hardly felt like we were rushing into it.

One thing I know:

Our marriage, like those of all same-sex couples, still comes with the caveat, “some restrictions may apply. Void where prohibited.” But after 20 years, I daresay we live as well-adjusted, yet imperfect, a married life as most other couples, gay or straight. For same-sex couples, marriage cannot, at this point in time, be entirely divorced from political overtones — but saying that I love my spouse is at heart a personal, not political, statement. After 20 years, I still love waking up next to her in the mornings, even if our son comes bounding in at the next moment. I look forward to our next decades, and all of the new learnings and unexpected treasures they will bring.

Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (, an award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBT parents.

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