The moment came in mid-March, during a State House rally in favor of same-sex marriage. Boyfriends David Griffiths and Geoff Lin were there, lending support to the cause, when an enthusiastic speaker from one of the activist groups asked for a show of hands: How many fiances were in the crowd? Amid cheers, hands shot up, but Griffiths's and Lin's weren't among them. "We looked at each other thinking the same thing: Why aren't our hands raised?" said Lin. "If we are going to be life partners, shouldn't we be talking about this right now?"
The moment sparked an ongoing conversation between the men about their two-year-old relationship, and for now they have decided they're not ready to start calling caterers. "We're at a real turning point, and we're not moving toward marriage at this time, which is fine," said Griffiths. "Both of us aren't sure, so we're moving forward to respect that and allow room for figuring that out."
Griffiths, a psychologist who specializes in gay and lesbian couples, said the moment also crystallized a more general concern: As Massachusetts prepares to make history Monday by allowing same-sex marriages, he and others worry that in the midst of the excitement about a hard-won right, a concern that the window of opportunity may close in 2006, and a sense of obligation to the community, some couples may be rushing to the altar.
"It was just a spontaneous question on her part that was a way to get the crowd going, but it kind of put you on the spot," said Griffiths, who lives and practices in the South End. "Am I going to be part of the party, or not? And what's wrong with us if we're not attending the party? But marriage isn't that. The wedding reception may be a party, but the marriage isn't."
The very possibility of marriage stands to change the nature of same-sex relationships. For people who have never had to consider whether a potential spouse was husband or wife "material," the criteria for a successful marriage may not be that clear. And counselors and others who work with gay and lesbian couples want to make sure that such couples know what they're getting into. Before the talk about the effect on federal disability benefits or state taxes or two-parent adoptions or residency requirements, they say, should come matters of the heart, including questions about shared values, trust, and communication.
"Earning the right to affirm gay relationships is certainly worth celebrating," psychotherapist Steve Cadwell, who practices in Boston, wrote in an e-mail to the Globe. "But getting to the solid ground to establish a gay marriage requires maturity. The license to marry affirms the civil right, but the only requirement for the license is a blood test, no assessment of capacity to live well in the marriage."
Indeed, for Griffiths and Lin, the compulsion to consider marriage was about more than the activist's call for a show of hands. "Not only do we want equality and want to prove to the world that we as a community are just as legitimate as straight couples, but it was a possibility to secure our relationship," said Lin. "At the same time, we realized that our relationship is quite young. We're going through some of the growing issues that any relationships face."
Liz Coolidge, family and parenting coordinator at Fenway Community Health, is trying to start a support group for those with similar issues, and she has gotten interest from several gay and lesbian couples, including two in newer relationships trying to decide if they are ready -- and how they would know if they were.
"I have heard people saying, `Let's do this because we can,' not considering what a big step it is," she said. "People may be considering it earlier in their relationship than they would if it weren't such a new right."
Plenty of couples seem to be resisting the pressure. Dorchester residents Jacquie Bishop, 39, and Kelley Ready, 47, have been together for nine years and are holding off partly because of financial issues but also out of a sense that there's no reason to rush. "I understand the euphoria that people are feeling, and I've been involved in gay politics long enough to fully appreciate what's happening right now, but I just don't need to be running out and getting married," said Bishop, a founding member of the Mass Black LGBT Alliance.
Raquel Evita Seidel, 20, of Brookline, said she and her girlfriend, Anh Dao Kolbe, have been together nine months. While they are confident they want to marry, they also want to take the time to plan something that respects Seidel's Arab and Latin traditions and 33-year-old Kolbe's Vietnamese traditions. "We want it to be something special, not about hype and not about media," Seidel said.
Counselors, perhaps not surprisingly, think the answer for many couples may lie in counseling, which could help them work through relationship issues before they decide to take the plunge. But it need not be limited to psychotherapy: Many churches require some type of counseling before marriage, although clergy from the gay-friendly Unitarian Universalist Church have said they may waive or minimize such a requirement for longtime couples.
John McDargh of Newton, who teaches theology at Boston College, says he and his partner, Tim Dunn, went through a long "discernment" process when they were parishioners at the Church of St. John the Evangelist on Beacon Hill before they had a commitment ceremony there almost nine years ago. They met regularly with two married straight couples and one "covenanted" gay couple who asked questions about their relationship and eventually recommended to the Episcopal church that the ceremony proceed.
"Nothing was automatic," said McDargh, 55, who has led psychotherapy groups and now conducts spiritual direction counseling. "It was a religious community's discernment as to whether this relationship embodied the religious values of commitment. By the time we got through the process, we wanted the blessing of this community."
He and Dunn, 54, plan to marry June 26 at St. Paul's Church in Newton Highlands. In accordance with the Episcopal Church's announcement that it supports same-sex marriage but that its rectors cannot "solemnize" such unions, their ceremony will be officiated by a justice of the peace, followed by a blessing from the rector, Dunn said.
Griffiths and Lin, meanwhile, will keep working on their own relationship as they watch history unfold on Monday.
In fact, Lin recently moved to California to explore career possibilities and reconnect with family, although he and Griffiths are maintaining their connection through daily phone calls and frequent visits. "Should we and are we capable of and do we want to have a full commitment together?" Lin said. "That's the basic question, and there's no time limit on that. It's an evolutionary process."
Joe Yonan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.