It’s not a subject that marriage-equality groups tend to trumpet on their websites, but gay couples are at the start of a divorce boom. One reason is obvious: More couples are eligible. According to a report by UCLA’s Williams Institute, nearly 50,000 of the approximately 640,000 gay couples in the U.S. in 2011 were married. (Another 100,000 were in other kinds of legal relationships, such as domestic partnerships.) The marriage rate, in states that allowed it, was quickly rising toward that of heterosexual couples: In Massachusetts as of that year, 68 percent of gay couples were married, compared with 91 percent of heterosexual couples. Another reason for the coming boom is that while first-wave gay marriages have proved more durable than straight ones (according to the Williams Institute, about one percent of gay marriages were dissolving each year, compared with 2 percent for different-sex couples), that’s not expected to last. Most lawyers I spoke to assume that the gap will soon vanish, once the backlog of long-term and presumably more stable gay couples have married, leaving the field to the young and impulsive.
Already, the data suggest that there are hundreds of gay divorces each year. Some are vividly acrimonious; some, like Kevin and Sam’s, just sad and confusing. Kevin doesn’t even accept Sam’s version of the events that led to their breakup. For him, it had little to do with the adoption. He says that as far back as 2008, when he “became a recovering alcoholic and started to work toward sobriety,” the marriage “probably would have, or should have,” ended. His need to avoid temptation may explain the preference for staying home, but it also opened up its own kind of rift between them. “My not drinking, and my not wanting to be exposed to the things surrounding drinking, is what ultimately caused me to say, ‘I need you to leave this house,’ ” Kevin explains. “Sam is a beautiful, loving, generous, amazing guy. If I had continued to drink, we would still be together.”
In a separate conversation, because they no longer talk—a situation they both describe as bizarre and painful after fifteen years together—Sam responds that he thought they’d agreed not to go into “such personal territory” publicly. “I don’t think the picture he’s painted is complete, accurate, or fair.”
Toggling from one to the other, I get the feeling they lived in different marriages. Even the details of its ending, mundane though they be, are a matter of interpretation. When Kevin’s fifteen-year-old dog, which had lived with the couple from the beginning of their relationship, died in December 2010, they disagreed about getting a new one. Sam thought that having a little more space in the apartment, and a breather from always needing to come home to take care of a pet, would be good for the relationship. But for Kevin, the relationship was already over; by the following winter, he had joined OkCupid and was “moving on.” At Heavenly Angels Animal Rescue in Queens, he selected two Chihuahuas and told Sam, “These are my dogs, not ours.”
And so the Chihuahuas slept in the bedroom with Kevin while Sam slept in the living room. Sam at first protested a little: “You know, we should think about this,” he said. Then came “Okay, if you’re done, then I’m not going to stop you.” Another day or two later, he realized it was “the right decision.” But they were both somewhat dazed. “And then we moved into the ‘Now what do we do?’ phase,” says Sam. It was clear he would move out of their Prospect Heights condo; it had been bought mostly with an inheritance from Kevin’s mother. “And we quickly decided Kevin would buy me out. But at that point I hadn’t lived on my own in, well, ever, so I had to look for an apartment and get the money together for that. There was a lot to handle.”
Still, they moved fast. Within a few weeks, they found a lawyer, Carol Buell, who takes on divorce cases only when the parties agree to alternative dispute models such as mediation or collaborative law. Kevin and Sam planned to “stay friends and in contact,” and at first that seemed possible. When Sam moved to a small apartment in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens last March, Kevin rented the U-Haul and helped him lug his belongings. That night, after a nap, he went on a date planned long before; it was a coincidence, but also a conclusion.
Divorce, one lawyer tells me, “provides a forum with rules and guidelines to keep people from giving in to their very worst impulses.” For gay couples, though, the Byzantine chaos of current law can yield grotesque results. The problems arise from two main sources: differences among the states in their laws concerning gay relationships, and differences between the states and the federal government, thanks to the Defense of Marriage Act, in their treatment of taxes, pensions, inheritance, and other transfers that may figure in settlements. You needn’t be a “marriage tourist”—one of the many couples who trekked from jurisdiction to jurisdiction to wed repeatedly as marriage became legal in each—to get caught in the flypaper.