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From ‘‘I Do’’ to ‘‘I’m Done’’

With newfound rights, newfound fears. The peculiar mechanics—and heartbreak—of gay divorce.

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Kevin Muir, left; Sam Ritchie, right.  

Until recently, Kevin Muir and Sam Ritchie could have been poster boys for marriage equality: a gay couple so solid and beamish it would seem just plain ­ornery to keep them from the altar. Their entire lives together had been pointing toward legal union, in exactly the kinds of ways most people would find normal and completely unthreatening. They’d met in 1997, when Kevin,­ then 26, and Sam, then 20, both worked for a company that produced the Boston–to–New York aids bike ride. An office flirtation quickly turned to love, former boyfriends on each side were ditched, and within three months, “as New York real estate forces you to do,” Sam recalls, “we had to move out of our old apartments and move in together, and that was it.”

Over the next seven years, their lives merged in all the usual ways: credit cards, work relocations, shared real estate, shared Facebook friends. At each moment it became possible to reflect their entwined reality in public terms, they leaped at the opportunity, starting with a big blowout commitment ceremony in Los Angeles in 2000, with moms making speeches. In 2003, having moved to Tucson, where Sam was appointed to the “Gay and Lesbian Commission on Blah Blah Blah,” as he puts it, they became domestic partners on the day the ordinance permitting it passed. “Basically,” Sam says, “every time we could get a piece of paper, we did.” That quest culminated on May 28, 2004, eleven days after Massachusetts became the first state to open civil marriage to same-sex couples, when Kevin and Sam stood before a justice of the peace in a restaurant across the street from Newton City Hall and solemnly uttered an updated version (through prosperity or adversity, on this day, and for the rest of your lives) of the traditional vows.

For a while, they were proud to be known, especially among their straight friends, as gay-marriage pioneers. Sam enjoyed writing feisty footnotes on his tax returns saying “I’m checking ‘single’ because you don’t recognize my marriage.” But they were different from many in that first matrimonial wave. They were still quite young (Sam 27, Kevin 33) and unencumbered. Most of those marrying had been together longer and had a more settled existence. Julie and Hillary ­Goodridge, the lead plaintiffs in the case that paved the way for marriage equality in Massachusetts, were in their late forties, for instance; among the hundreds of couples to wed in those first days, they were not so unusual in having an 8-year-old daughter to serve as their flower girl.

Sam and Kevin had always assumed they’d have kids; at 12, Kevin even made a tape offering advice to some future version of himself about how to be a better father. (His parents divorced when he was 9.) A few years after Sam and Kevin married, they began to explore the possibility more seriously. They agreed that adoption would be the right path for them, but the long process took them in unexpectedly divergent directions. On the one hand, they had to sell themselves as paragons of marital steadiness. The fourteen-page promotional book they put together for birth parents is beautifully calibrated to impress without overwhelming, featuring anodyne self-testimonials (“The thing that’s kept our relationship strong is that we are best friends”) as well as festive pictures of holiday get-togethers, family travel, and more-or-less local amenities. A section called “Kevin & Sam At-a-Glance” includes clip art referencing the ACLU and Crunch fitness; “Stuff We Like” aims both high and low with Desperate Housewives, sushi, a gay rainbow, and Never Let Me Go.

But in couples therapy, which they also started as part of their adoption process, they were discovering that the pictures they had of their potential child’s future didn’t really align. “Kevin’s picture was very much like the white picket fence and the house on Long Island,” Sam says. “And I was very much going to have the urban kid.” This difference echoed contrasting lifestyle preferences—Sam wanting to go out on weekends, Kevin wanting to stay home—that they had previously finessed. But after years of compromising, they found themselves no longer as flexible with each other, and those preferences kept turning into arguments.

By the time they were approved to adopt in the summer of 2011, shortly after their seventh anniversary, Sam realized, “Wow, we’re not so ready.” A few months later, Kevin said to Sam, “Okay, I’m done.” The adoption book would remain nothing more than a collection of files in their computers, never to be printed and bound.

From “I do” to “I’m done” is a well-­traveled road—for straight couples. When their legal marriages are over, they pretty much know they will need a legal divorce. But for gay couples, the promise of marriage is still so new and incomplete that the idea of matrimonial courts, equitable settlements, and all the rest barely registers. How do you process the undoing of a bond that until a moment ago in history you were not allowed to form?


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