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Jarrett Barrios

Equal right to marry, and divorce

By Jarrett Barrios
September 2, 2010

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IT WAS the embarrassingly rich carbohydrates shown in the preview — the scene of Julia Roberts dining on delectable pasta in Italy — that seduced me into seeing “Eat, Pray, Love.’’ Surely, I thought, this will be the escape I need after a long week, the latest in what has been an emotional year. And in a completely unexpected way, the movie was uplifting. It’s an adventure through geographic states and emotional states, not in search of the perfect spaghetti, but one person’s reengineering of her world.

But I wasn’t ready for the emotional challenge I encountered in the first minutes of the film. Roberts’s character, Liz, wakes up to an unfulfilled life in which she disagrees constantly with her husband. She leaves him to begin a journey — literally. She spends a year traveling first to Italy, then to an ashram in India and, finally, to Bali. The lush, colorful settings provide the opportunity for Liz to reflect on her foundering marriage and the guilt she carries with her.

At one point, a friend tells her, “You’re completely consumed with being the perfect wife.” For Liz, failure at perfection hits hard. I suppose it’s why I found myself crying in those divorce scenes. Divorce is hard — impossibly hard for those who, like Liz, want desperately for everything to be just right.

Back in 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to grant lesbian and gay couples the full legal protections of marriage. As the only openly gay member of the state Senate, I involved myself deeply in the struggle to protect this decision. I did it to secure the future of Massachusetts’ gay and lesbian families. I also did it so I could marry my partner of 11 years.

“By the powers granted to me by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I now pronounce you married.” Those words ring in my memory in harmony with the joyous bells of the church. It was a perfect wedding.

It had to be. I was one of the first elected officials in the country to marry his same-sex partner. In part because there were so many naysayers, we worked to be a model couple — with each of us trying be the perfect husband. Like other lesbian and gay couples, we hoped to show our relationships for what they are: loving partnerships that deserve the possibility of “happily ever after” that marriage promises.

But as our families continue the march towards equality, the gay and lesbian community often doesn’t talk about divorce, even though some of the most important protections associated with marriage are exercised at the end of a relationship — protections that help the more economically vulnerable partner, give a formula for sharing the care of the children, and establish how two people can disentangle a life’s worth of acquisitions, compromises, and dreams.

Just as gay and lesbian couples share the joys of marriage, we will share the pain of divorce, something for which we have no template. Divorce plumbs impossible depths of sadness. It involves separating the dishes and the books and all the other things you acquired back when you both still felt the lightness of love, asserting to a judge at a public trial that, yes, your marriage has broken down irretrievably, and telling your parents whose marriage of 47 years hangs heavy over your anemic explanations to them.

Nearly a year ago, I separated from my partner. At the time, we had been together for 16 years and married for over five. I felt I couldn’t discuss it beyond my close circle of friends. Especially if you’re gay and arguing that marriage should be open to you, divorce seems to be the ultimate failure.

Today, in five states, gay and lesbian couples can marry. That means we have the ability to grow together — and, for some of us, to grow apart.

That’s where Julia Roberts’ bright smile shines light on the discussion.

Beyond the food and prayers and love she finds in her travels, Liz finds a way to speak to all of us about the world beyond divorce — including those who so recently gained the ability to marry. For gay and lesbian people, stories of perfect couples may pave the way to marriage, but don’t help much when you’re ending one. “Eat, Pray, Love’’ shows us a glimpse of life beyond a failed marriage. We’ve tried to be ideal husbands and wives. But as we learn to live with our equality, we also need the latitude to fall short of perfection.

Jarrett Barrios, a former Massachusetts state senator, is president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

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