By Luke Dani Blue
Editor’s Note: We’ve been studying relationships for the last four decades, but we still have so much to learn. Through the individual stories and experiences shared in Real Relationships, we aim to paint a more realistic picture of love in the world today. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author and are not necessarily based on research conducted by The Gottman Institute.
Last February, my sister-in-law asked my partner, Migueltzinta, “Do you and Luke ever think of getting married?” At the time, Tzinta and I had been married for four years.
It’s not so surprising that she would have forgotten. Tzinta and I got married as we do all things: on our own, impulsive terms and with a (dignified) F-you to social expectations. In this case, at a courthouse under a papier-mache Valentine’s Day heart, with a diner breakfast as a celebratory chaser. Migueltzinta wore a tie. I’m pretty sure I was wearing jeans.
We’d been together for three and a half years and already agreed we wanted to be together for life when we ordered our fateful seafood molcajete on the balcony of a touristy restaurant in southern Guadalajara. Octopus tentacles sizzled in the lava rock, the green salsa bubbled, and the tortillas were soft as worn-in denim. Food that good merited a dramatic gesture.
“Should we get married?” I asked. “Okay,” he said. We exchanged a look—I dare you. No, I dare you—and grinned at each other. Hetero couples and families strolled in the courtyard below the balcony. We were invisible up there in the dark, savoring the dish too large and messy for most people to bother ordering, suddenly engaged. Although we were the only people to whom any of this was a shock, we loved the feeling of our own outrageousness. How dare we betray expectations by doing the one thing most expected of any couple, and yet with so little apparent regard for what it was supposed to mean?
The thing was, we both said “married” and “wedding” with fingers crooked into quotes. It’s not exactly that we were too cool for marriage. We were too skeptical. We were trans people who had spent our childhoods deconstructing girlhood and our adulthoods questioning and violating the rules of manhood. Tzinta regularly posted nude pictures on the internet, hashtagging them #ManPussy. I cringed involuntarily when anyone referred to me with either male or female pronouns, but was going through a long hair and skirts phase. Because of the vagaries of identification laws, my revised birth certificate had an ‘M’ on it and butch Tzinta’s had an ‘F’, meaning that legally, we were straight. This, especially, titillated us. Marriage was a fancy house we hadn’t been invited into and we wanted to dance on the sofa in muddy shoes.
We had no plans to be monogamous, wear rings, change our names, or label either of ourselves husband or wife or some cutesy genderqueered alternative (wifeband? Hufe?). We also weren’t going to pretend that stamping our relationship with a “MARRIED” sticker changed its fundamental makeup, gave it a fresh beginning, or made it safer. Break-ups still happened to married people, as did jealousy, betrayal, and loneliness. All marriage meant, really, was that we could visit each other in the hospital and that no cop or court or interfering parent could split us up. That felt like one big gay freedom.
This past November, Tzinta fell in love with a trans guy who lives far away. Swiftly, the rest of our relationship seemed to collapse too: trust, plans for the future, our ability to laugh audaciously at the same jokes.
I binged on therapy podcasts, stayed up all night doing online quizzes about attachment trauma, and checked out piles of relationship books from the library. Even the best of them (the ones by Harriet Lerner, the Gottmans, and Esther Perel) tended to describe predictable behavior dynamics between a male and female partner. The men, it seemed, were supposed to evade intimacy and seek independence. The women in the case studies tended to get clingy, dread abandonment, and over-accommodate.
Hungry for any help at all, I tried my best to apply the examples to our relationship. Which of us is the man? I found myself wondering. Also, which of us is the woman? Tzinta is, without question, very manly. He loves western wear, has a well-oiled beard and when lost in thought, which is often, frowns with crossed arms, gazing into the middle distance. Like the men in the books, Tzinta kept telling me he wanted more space and more silence. He wanted to do a solo three-month road trip and camp the whole way. He wanted lots of sex, with other guys. He wanted to run. It seemed like lately all he wanted to do was run. Man, man, man.
All I wanted lately was his approval and attention. I wanted him to walk in the door excited to see me. I wanted to be enough for him. This qualified me for the woman role. Maybe. Except that earlier in our relationship, I’d fallen for someone else too and all I’d wanted then was to push Tzinta away. I’d fantasized about moving into a studio apartment and single-mindedly pursuing my career with a few lovers on the side for entertainment. Man?
The fact was, Tzinta fit the “woman” role better than I did. Besides the stereotypical stuff—he loves clothes, especially glittery or tight ones; he cries a lot; he’s extremely empathetic—the reasons he was mad at me were “woman” reasons: I didn’t make him feel pretty, I didn’t support him, I wasn’t a good listener, I shut down in the face of his feelings, he was tired of sacrificing his personal desires for mine.
Defeated, I pushed aside the pile of books and closed the computer. It was late. Exhaustion beat hotly against the insides of my eyelids. Tzinta was asleep downstairs but he felt a million miles away. Any other time in our relationship, I could have savored this joke, knowing I’d share it with him in the morning. “I realized,” I would say, “that you just have more gender than I do.” It would have been hilarious to think that Tzinta was both more of a man and more of a woman than I was, if I hadn’t been terrified that I was about to lose him.
Tzinta was going away for a long weekend. Our goodbye was chilly. He pushed me away, then cried and wanted me to come close again. It was the same hot-cold stuff that had been going on for months. I felt like a spaceship leaving earth’s orbit, Tzinta’s pain and frustration winking far below before being swept into blackness. I thought, how much more of this can I take? Tzinta kissed me and the dog, got in the car, and drove away.
As soon as he was gone, the blackness of outer space turned out to be a hurt larger than comprehension. It kept sneaking up and pouncing. I’d thrash on the floor until the mauling stopped, then get up and continue whatever I’d been doing. It took five hours to do laundry.
We didn’t talk or text that weekend. Instead, we contemplated life without one another. It turned out, as it always seems to, that my life would go on without him. I didn’t like it, but it was imaginable.
Do fights ever end or do they just go to sleep? Does love? Maybe, I thought, getting older is knowing that there is no exit. I could lose Tzinta or not but I would still be wedded to myself. Still circling my own fears and wounds with whoever else was on hand.
On Monday, Tzinta came back. I let him in. We talked. For the first time in a long, long while, we also listened.
The darkest period in our eight-year relationship has, I hope, passed. For reasons of their own, Tzinta and his lover broke up. It didn’t make our problems go away. It didn’t make the things I’ve done over the years that hurt Tzinta magically erase themselves and it didn’t make the ways he’s hurt me this year not matter.
Recently, I’ve found myself thinking about our courthouse wedding. Particularly, about this thing that happened while we were responding to the courthouse-provided vows. “I do,” said Tzinta, tears rolling down his cheeks. My hands stiffened in his. I felt pure fear. Not over the commitment—I had committed to him in my heart months before—but because of his tears. I had thought getting married didn’t mean anything other than a beautiful dare, a crazy joyride through heteronormative convention. But when Tzinta cried, it dawned on me that I missed something. Some complexity, some reason it could make him weep.
At the time, I thought I was just embarrassed about my jeans and lack of tears—the general discomfort of not matching Tzinta’s intensity. Now, though, I wonder if I was, simply, sad. After all, I had missed the opportunity to make the symbol of marriage my own.
I still don’t believe that marriage is inherently meaningful or that the four years Tzinta and I have been married can really be distinguished from the four years we weren’t. In my mind, the clock of us begins on my birthday in 2011, when we were two near-strangers shyly grinding in a sweaty queer bar in Mexico City. Each year since then has added a layer of complexity.
Now, in this pit of difficulty, love, and effort, is the most married we have ever been. By which I mean, I think, we’ve done the most growing into and through our emotional bond. That would be just as true without a piece of paper from Alameda County.
But I wish we had some vows to fall back on, rather than a list of negatives, like “not monogamous,” “not embracing false security,” and “not becoming our parents.” In the dark, it’s good to have a light to circle back to. Something to remind you who the two of you are together. Even a rule or two would be nice, so long as they were good ones, like “remember to give compliments” or “go on dates.”
Recently, I said to Tzinta, “Maybe we should have a real wedding.” He considered that but said it would feel like we were trying to start over. He didn’t want to start over, he said. It had been enough work to get to where we were. Hearing that, I again felt the sadness of a missed opportunity. A weight began to resettle on my chest.
“Let’s do a huge party for our tenth anniversary instead,” he suggested. And because he is still him, and I am still me, I said, impulsively, willingly, full of a sense of brightness, “Okay.” And then, “What food are we going to serve?”
Subscribe below to receive our blog posts directly to your inbox.
Sign up for the Love Notes NewsletterGet the latest on relationships, parenting, therapy and more from the experts at The Gottman Institute, plus get a FREE download every month!
Subscribe below to receive our blog posts directly to your inbox.