Equality Crept Into The Wedding

family-76781_640My brother in-law’s family of origin is two gay men — my husband and I — or, at least that’s how he symbolized us at his wedding.

Over the course of our thirteen years together, my husband and I have found ourselves to be the novelty “wild card” at weddings, including our own; the image of our togetherness often evoking some mix of discomfort, fear, awe, and/or the hope of change yet to come. But as we both read verse during my brother in-law’s ceremony — the only ones asked to stand and represent him in this manner before the hundred or so guests — it struck me that change has arrived. We had the privilege to be recognized not only for what we were but for who we were: a married same-sex couple and, quite simply, his immediate family.

The past decade has taught all three of us a lot about family units, my husband and his brother having lost their mother, along with the loss of several other relatives between us, in that time. Family units can develop deliberately or accidentally, forming out of need as easily as they form out of want. They shift, morph, lose and gain parts, and can revitalize entire relationship systems through processes of adaptation.

 My husband embodied this adaptation while toasting his brother and new bride with the gravity of a parent, the teasing of a sibling, and the sharp reflection of one who has shared in great loss and in the rebuilding of life with great hope. The flame of our family unit burned strong before relatives and friends that my husband, his brother, and I have made efforts to cultivate relationships with since their mother’s death–including faces they hadn’t seen in two decades or hadn’t even met before that day. Our identity as a family was clear and was only made clearer by my brother in-law’s choice to keep us front-and-center.

Perhaps more importantly, the guests recognized us as the groom’s primary family exactly as we were. Gone were the days of disguises or omissions, gone the circa 1996 hijinks of The Birdcage, in which a gay couple attempts to deceive their son’s fiance’s family into believing one of them is a woman. My new sister in-law’s entire extended family approached and embraced us, eager to meet and connect with those closest to the groom. (“We hear you’re great cooks!”) My husband’s cousin introduced her four year-old daughter to us using the word “husband” as effortlessly as if she had said “Disney.” My grandfather-in-law, a lifelong Republican who now suffers from dementia, couldn’t remember where he was, but he did hug me when he saw me, laughed with recognition, and remembered my name.

Regardless of how the Supreme Court responds this summer in the DOMA and Proposition 8 cases, marriage equality has already been woven into the fabric of our culture so intricately that no laws — and no amount of fear or hate — can unthread its effects. Families are forming, transforming, shrinking, growing, and sometimes staying the same, with a great deal more choice, recognition, and acceptance than ever before. Same-sex spouses can be spotted as the first in line for the groom at art deco altars, and as the last to say bon voyage to the newlyweds on a radiant Sunday morning-after. I know this because it happened to us at an unforgettable wedding last weekend. My husband and I are no longer his brother’s immediate family, of course; as I said, families change. That mantle now passes to his lovely wife, and our generation–with all of its beautiful varieties and evolutions–gains another happily married couple.


For many, Valentine’s Day is the time to indulge in romantic delights, typically of the instantly gratifying but not so long lasting variety. This is all very well when your love’s fire is newly kindled, but several years in, the chocolates, bubbles and baubles may be inadequate fuel.This February 14th I recommend sharing something perhaps less arousing but far more sustaining than small bites, sweet bites, and all other bites you’re likely to share with your partner, sincere sound bites.


Yes, I know what you’re thinking, “that doesn’t sound very hot”, but I assure you, even hotter – not to mention more durable – than expensive expressions of passion is the ability to authentically listen, talk to and be heard by your partner.


Where to begin? First, we must acknowledge what happens to relationships once the Hollywoodized, hue of the first year or so has begun to fade.You each become exposed, and the magnetic love fields at your inner cores – the very specific, subjective, and deeply-rooted reasons you have gravitated to each other – begin to reveal themselves, making you vulnerable. Many of your conflicts as a couple derive from a fear of this vulnerability, which leads you to rely on opportunities like Valentine’s Day to glaze over the rough spots with chocolate denial.But it is in precisely this vulnerable place that you need to be to keep the love flame alive.


Vulnerability is necessary in order to have a “strong sense of love and belonging” says research professor Brene Brown, who has studied vulnerability, authenticity, and shame for over a decade.Brown says that a crucial component of this is being able to say “I love you first” and having “the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees”. This aspect of love often bites.


Now, the tricky thing about being vulnerable in love is that it can easily lead to unfocused emotional chaos, which is why we so often avoid it.We need to harness our vulnerability by defining where each of us is coming from, and thus clarifying our specific emotional needs.To accomplish this, it is helpful to establish the boundaries around each of our “characters”.As actress Mary McDonnell says, “Great characters develop out of restricted situations.When people feel the limitations of life, something else takes over that’s specific and colorful.”Much like acting, defining our roles can be incredibly helpful in freeing our expressions of emotion.


I must say, I often try to resist oversimplifying, generalizing or categorizing relationship roles (i.e. books of the “Men are from Jupiter, Women are from Neptune” variety only apply to a limited number of romantic pairs), but I’ve learned that defining emotional roles that are somewhat flexible, and which reasonably account for nuances, can create focus and lead to clear and productive communication.


Having worked with a variety of couples for years, and reading about couples’ work from myriad schools of thought, the two roles that I’ve identified in every single romantic relationship are what I call The Engulfed and The Abandoned.


What does that mean?Well, couples, I’m telling you that without exception, that one of you is The Engulfed – meaning you learned from a very early age that emotionally intimate relationships require you to be engulfed, enveloped, or somehow encompassed, to varying degrees, by the other person. And the other one of you is The Abandoned – meaning you learned from a young age that emotionally intimate relationships cannot be taken for granted and constantly require you to do something to maintain them, or you risk abandonment.


A few clarifications need to be made. We’ve all been abandoned in one form or another, and we’ve all experienced some version of engulfment.It should also be noted that I am not making any assumptions about gender, personality, temperament, passivity, or dominance in utilizing these terms. What these labels refer to are the highly specific ways in which each of us has learned to attach emotionally, and from what I’ve seen in my practice, there is always one person in a couple who does this by becoming engulfed, and another driven by a fear of abandonment.


These two roles are complimentary, which is how you ended up together, but they are also threatening to each other. Like a wandering oyster and free floating sea particle, the two of you found each other, aggravate each other, and are in the process of forming a thing of beauty. Knowing and accepting which of you is which, will take you both to the place you need to be.You’ll be vulnerable, but with clarity and on equal footing, as neither of these roles is more powerful than the other.They both imply a need for the other, and if these needs are acknowledged and authentically expressed, neither one of you can rise above the exposure of your emotional nakedness.


There are various methods I use to help couples get to this place and to communicate with each other once they’ve arrived but for now, in order to apply this concept on V-day, think of it as an acting exercise. Like an actor preparing for a big scene, much of the “work” will take place within you, as you take some time to reflect upon all of the reasons you are drawn to your partner. You will want to make special note of the contradictions in your attraction, and to consider the psychological literature that contends we are attracted to aspects of our partner that seem familiar – whether that be comforting or frustrating, good or bad. Think about your own reasons for choosing someone “so controlling” or someone “so elusive”. Meditate on all of the caretakers you had as a child, what you got from them and what you didn’t, what overwhelmed you and what you didn’t get enough of.


Keep all of these reflections in mind as you approach the hot seat, and choose to share one current feeling, desire, concern or request with your partner, delivering the line from a place of vulnerability, clarity, and truth. This is a frightening task, so one of you will likely need to set up the scene, to “say “I love you” first, and once you take this leap of faith, you’ll need your partner there to catch you. You will need to prepare your partner to listen…carefully, lovingly, and without judgment. The listening is just as important – if not more. The unconditional listening of a romantic partner is incredibly healing, and can help one to integrate seemingly contradictory feelings.


Psychologist Harvel Hendricks suggests a listening tool that you can both use, not unlike mirroring exercises developed by the acting teacher Sanford Meisner.The idea is to listen to your partner describe a feeling, desire or concern and to say it back to them neutrally, without attitude or interpretation.The next step is to validate their statement and then to empathize with it.That’s it.As any good actor would do, simply play each of those actions in your own way.

So, in review, your effective Love Bites can be achieved through the following steps:


1) One of you will have to initiate a dialogue.


2) You’ll both have to agree to be vulnerable with each other.


3) Cast yourselves as yourselves: Acknowledge who is The Abandoned and who is The Engulfed, and then reflect upon your attractions to one another.


4)One at a time, state one feeling, desire, concern or request – possibly sharing a specific memory for context.


5)Wholeheartedly listen and mirror what your partner has said to you.


And you’re done!


If you both can allow yourselves to be fully present and follow these steps, expecting “no guarantees” – much, much easier said than done – you’ll feel closer to each other than any oysters, petit fours, or champagne would ever allow.You’ll also likely find yourselves open to exploring more potential possibilities in your relationship…perhaps even bites you haven’t yet imagined trying.