The Domestic Partnership of Convenience

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Photo: Image Source/Corbis

In June, my boyfriend Dan and I went to Baltimore for his family friend’s wedding. I only knew a handful of people there, but after four years of dating and two years of cohabitation, Dan and I are accustomed to the plus-one routine. We can easily field questions about our relationship, nudges about children, and awkward ribbing about living together before marriage. But this time, when the bride’s grandmother asked if we were married, an embarrassing thing happened: I immediately shook my head no, and at the exact same time, Dan said, “Well, sort of.” All parties giggled clumsily. “We’re domestic partners,” he explained, which only confused the poor old woman further.

When we became domestic partners, most people had no idea what we were talking about. “I don’t know what that means,” said one friend, “but I’m pretty sure you should have a party.” It actually meant that we went to the County Clerk’s Office in downtown Manhattan and got a certificate saying that the city legally recognizes our status as a couple. To qualify, we had to state our shared address in New York City, be over eighteen, and not be married or in a domestic partnership with anyone else. In the eyes of the law, we are now technically in “a legal relationship permitted under the laws of the State and City of New York for couples that have a close and committed personal relationship.” 

But through all that gobbledygook comes one very important perk of domestic partnership: Dan and I are eligible to share health insurance. That’s why we, along with many unmarried couples in New York and seventeen other states, decided to do it. (In some states, domestic partnerships are only recognized in certain municipalities — like Ann Arbor, Michigan.)

I was first introduced to the concept of domestic partnership-for-insurance by my coworker, Diana Tsui, who had registered with her longtime boyfriend when he needed shoulder surgery after a snowboarding accident in 2010. When she found out domestic partners are eligible to be “dependents” on New York Media’s health insurance plan, which was far superior to Chris’s, they filled out the paperwork immediately. “It wasn't romantic, purely practical,” she says. “We knew he had to see a doctor, fast.” Like many companies, New York Media requires additional documents on top of a domestic partnership certificate, including proof of a cosigned lease and a joint bank account with at least $1,200 in it. This is presumably to enforce the stipulation that “individuals are not in the relationship solely for the purpose of obtaining coverage,” as stated on the company’s “policy on domestic partnership benefits” form.

My boyfriend proposed domestic partnership in the living room of our one-bedroom apartment on a cold evening last December.  He was between full-time jobs and about to run out of his previous insurance plan, and for him to go on New York Media’s insurance as my dependent provided the best coverage for far less money than any alternatives.

“If you’re not comfortable with this, I can figure out something else,” Dan told me, sitting next to me on our sofa, a mug of tea in his hands. He offered to do all the research, fill out the forms, and pay the $35 fee. (Incidentally, that’s the same price as a marriage certificate in New York City.) He also anticipated my skepticism — I can be squirrelly when it comes to commitment, and the idea of signing up for something that legally bound us made me nervous — and he assured me that getting out of a domestic partnership was spectacularly easy. If things didn’t work out, the “termination” process only requires $27 and one of us to show up at the County Clerks Office to deal with the paperwork. “So if you want to un-partner me, it’s a piece of cake,” he said, grinning.

He was joking, of course, but it was the easy exit strategy that sold me. When I asked around, I found a friend who’d terminated her domestic partnership with her ex a few years ago. “It was the easiest part of the breakup,” she said dryly. After all, if there’s anything my generation has learned from watching 50 percent of our parents, colleagues, and friends go through bitter, hurtful divorces, it’s that ending a marriage is an ordeal worth avoiding. I was terrified of entering a commitment that might be difficult, legally and financially, to undo.

If that seems pessimistic, consider this more romantic point of view: Amelia, a 27-year-old writer who lives in Manhattan with her domestic partner, Mark, 29, finds the more flexible status of domestic partnership to be just as meaningful as marriage, if not more so. “It makes me sad when people attach so much to weddings and marriage,” she says. “Sure, those things are great, but I think it's very romantic to choose to stay with a person because you love each other and want to be together — not because you’re trapped and want to avoid lawyers and divorce and whatnot,” she says.

With my fears of a divorcelike situation eased, I was all for the arrangement. If anything, I was thrilled and proud that I could provide my loved one with healthcare. The narcissist in me feel like a responsible, capable adult, as well as a good girlfriend. Diana was more humble about it: “For us, it was just a relief,” she says. “And Chris would do the same thing for me if our positions were reversed.”

I wound up being so blasé about what seemed like a no-brainer of a decision that I completely forgot to tell my parents. Crap, I thought, worried they’d think I purposely avoided the subject or that it was a rushed decision. When I did finally tell them, a few days beforehand, the conversation mostly involved convincing my very enthusiastic mother that she and my father should not drive to New York and come to the County Clerk’s Office with us, and that this did not mean I was ruling out a “real” wedding someday. “It’s just so that he can have insurance,” I kept repeating. “Sweetie,” my mom protested, “health insurance isn’t very sexy.”

Amelia and Mark’s families were similarly confused. “When we told Mark’s mom, she awkwardly got off the phone so she could Google what it meant,” she says. “Then she called us back and was like, ‘Congratulations!’” Amelia’s grandmother, who knew domestic partnership was somehow related to the gay rights movement, was even more perplexed. “Her response was, ‘Does that mean Mark used to have lady parts?’’’ said Amelia. “She couldn’t believe that two people who could legally get married wouldn’t do so.”

To me, the deliberate non-romance of the whole arrangement felt rebellious and even a little bit exotic — until we got to the County Clerk's Office on the afternoon of January 30. I left work in the middle of the afternoon and met Dan in front of the building, which turned out to be the same place where all marriage-related business was also conducted. Vendors hawked roses outside the entrance, and the doorway was strewn with rice. Dozens of women wore white dresses. More than a few were visibly pregnant. Pair by pair, like animals boarding the ark, both wedded and domestically-partnered couples obtained their certificates, which were spat out by clunky old printers. Dan and I sat on a wooden bench next to a solitary man clutching divorce papers and waited for our number to be called. The scene felt like a weird combination of the DMV and the wedding registration desk at Bed Bath & Beyond.

Some couples paid the extra $25 to go into an adjacent chapel-like room and get a Domestic Partnership Ceremony, defined as “an optional service intended to afford Domestic Partners a level of celebration and dignity commensurate with the commitment between the partners.” Couples obtaining their marriage licenses could have their civil marriage ceremony in the same place, for the same price. One pair had their whole bridal party with them, the groomsmen in suits and the bridesmaids in matching dresses.

It was uplifting to see a handful of same-sex couples who got their certificates from the same desk as us. From an ideological standpoint, I felt much better about participating in a union that’s always been inclusive towards gay couples. Most people, whether they understood domestic partnership or not, are aware that it originated in the gay rights movement. The concept was first introduced in Berkeley, California in 1979 by activist Tom Brougham, who was aiming to create a legal contract for same-sex couples (his proposal was later denied, and Berkeley did not allow for same sex couples to register as such until 1991). The first city to legally recognize domestic partnership was West Hollywood, in 1985 under the leadership of city council member John Heilman, now openly gay, who later became the city’s mayor (and still is).

Like gay couples, the logistical advantages of domestic partnership do extend beyond insurance. If Dan or I were disabled, the other could also get a handicapped parking permit; if we lived in public housing, we could share occupancy rights. Mayor Bloomberg is domestic partners with his longtime girlfriend, Diana Taylor, and there’s a host of benefits we’d be up for if either of us worked for the City of New York — for example, if Bloomberg were to get injured in the line of duty, Taylor would be eligible for monetary compensation.

Here’s what domestic partnership does not get you: state or federal tax benefits, or recognition from the federal government or states where domestic partnership is not observed. Dan, who now works full-time at a nonprofit organization, occasionally goes on business trips, and his company has a policy where he can decline to visit states that discriminate against his domestic partnership. (In other words, his job won’t force him to go to states that don’t recognize us as a legal couple.)

Some people in New York still see domestic partnership as an antiquated holdover from before gay marriage was legalized, or even a convenient loophole for gaining health insurance. (Plenty of others cite tax breaks and/or U.S. citizenship as a reason for marriage, so the “loophole” argument hardly seems fair.) Meanwhile, others see it as the future of legally-recognized unions. In France, government-ordained civil unions (known as PACS) allow couples to file joint taxes and have become almost as popular as traditional matrimony; in 2010, there were two “PACSer” couples for every three marriages. “I think it would better for the government to just offer civil unions and leave marriage for religious establishments to worry about,” says Mark. Even so, domestic partners are somehow less than married — that’s one reason why the gay marriage movement wasn’t satisfied with it. And that’s a big reason why Dan and I felt comfortable doing it ourselves.

Anyone with a realistic understanding of marriage knows that it won’t make or break a solid couple. Instead, relationships are better measured by a series of steps: sharing a home for the first time, meeting each other’s families, or weathering the death of a loved one. Weddings and marriage are significant, of course. And for us, domestic partnership has been a milestone, an extra component of mutual dependence. It may have been more of a logistic than a meaningful leap, but it was still an advancement. Even if Dan hadn’t needed my health insurance, there’s a good chance we’d have eventually registered anyway. Although we never warmed to the idea of referring to each other as “partners” (to some people, it’s confusing; to others, it’s just pretentious), it feels empowering to be more than boyfriend and girlfriend — terms that can sometimes feel inadequate.

It’s been almost a year since we got our certificate, which now sits framed on our bookshelf. Recently, Dan bashfully admitted that he keeps the receipt from the $35 fee folded up in his wallet. When Dan got a new job, he decided to stay on my health insurance because it’s better than his company’s. He keeps track of how much he owes me for it on a spreadsheet and writes me a check when it starts adding up (in one case, he bought my plane tickets for a trip we were taking and we called it even). It may not be terribly romantic, but it works well. Which, in essence, is what makes for a good marriage, too.