Only a girlfriend

Does the lack of a marriage certificate really make my relationship inferior?

By Jessica Cerretani
June 13, 2010

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Last month, my boyfriend, Devin, and I celebrated 5½years together – the same amount of time that my ex-husband and I were married before we split. If I were the sort of person who believed in soul mates, Devin would be mine. We’re best friends. We live together. We talk of having children someday. But, to paraphrase Beyonce, he hasn’t put a ring on it. And I’m fine with that, really. It’s everyone else who seems to think it’s a big deal.

The ado about our ringless relationship seems to rear its head most often at weddings and funerals: Relatives and acquaintances mistakenly assume that Devin and I are married, or they call me his fiancee, or they ask when we will be “next.” These reactions don’t offend me – I take such gentle prodding as a compliment that we make a good couple. Devin and I usually just smile and laugh, brush them off, or give a polite, noncommittal reply.

But if these events are opportunities for blithe, well-meaning comments, they’re also the occasions when our “unmarried cohabitant” status becomes most obvious. I’m talking about the little, almost petty things you take for granted when you’re married, like being included in family wedding photos or even in death notices. I was horrified by a friend’s tale of being omitted from the obituary for her longtime male partner’s mother, despite knowing the woman for 20 years and having helped take care of her during her final days. That won’t happen to me, I thought – until it did, when Devin’s father died. Such exclusions are hurtful, but they aren’t malicious acts. In my eyes, they’re just indicative of a general, almost subconscious bias against the happily unmarried.

Experiences like these aren’t new to me. Before I married my ex, for example, I was not welcome as a visitor in his aunt’s home. (I later discovered that only fiances and spouses of her relatives were invited inside – no exceptions.) At his parents’ house, we slept in separate beds – and rooms – even though we were adults, had lived together for years, and owned property together. Once we were married, of course, all that changed.

I really don’t want to whine. As the daughter of a gay man, I’m well aware of the challenges faced by same-sex couples, and I know that my situation isn’t nearly as thorny. Yet while lesbian and gay couples have only been able to wed in Massachusetts for six years – and are still denied this right in most other states – the fact that I could tie the knot if I wanted to makes the general public even less sympathetic to my grumbling. The overwhelming reaction to the complaints of those of us who live in sin, it appears, is “Why don’t you just get married, then?”

Well, why don’t we? When Devin’s brother got married last summer, his mother hoped that we would follow suit. “I know you’re probably afraid to get married again, since you’re divorced,” she said. “But maybe you’ll reconsider. I just want you two to be happy.”

Quite the contrary, I told her. I liked being married and I might do it again – someday. I’m not anti-marriage at all. Nor are Devin and I making a political statement, refusing to get married until everyone can do so, a la Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. It’s simple, really: We just enjoy things the way they are right now. And we’re very happy, thank you.

My ex-husband used to say that marriage was just a piece of paper, and clearly he was right. Back then, I was anxious to get a ring from him, believing that a platinum band and the label “husband and wife” would somehow confirm our relationship’s validity. Now I know that “wedded” doesn’t always equal “bliss.” It’s how you treat your relationship, with or without that ring, that matters.

At 36, I believe I’ve finally gotten it right. Devin’s mom seemed touched recently when I told her that I view her and her late husband as my in-laws – and it’s true. I am as devoted to her son as I would be with a diamond on my finger. I don’t know if we’ll ever make it “legal,” but I know that I want to wake up next to him for the rest of my life. I don’t need a piece of paper to prove that.

Jessica Cerretani is a freelance writer and editor in Boston. Send comments to Story ideas Send yours to Please note: We do not respond to ideas we will not pursue.

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