02/09/2012 07:06 pm ET Updated Apr 10, 2012

The Right To Choose One's Marital Status

In order to get divorced, I traveled back to the Midwestern college town where I'd lived for a year with my soon-to-be ex. I hadn't put down substantial roots there in a year's time, but I'd made some friends, including a nice couple from my church who let me stay with them for a few nights. Let's call them The Happy Christians. They weren't the annoying kind of happy people whose sugary bologna makes you wonder what kind of uppers they're taking, nor were they the type of Christians who come across as more judgmental than an adolescent alpha female. This couple gave me hope that I -- a soon-to-be divorced 29-year-old -- might someday find the kind of peaceful domesticity that they'd managed to put together.

The Happy Christians put me up in a quiet guest room, nourished me with homemade curry, and listened empathetically as I talked about my short-lived and highly dysfunctional marriage. They poured me a cold beer and made me feel right at home. When they got out their musical instruments to jam after dinner, they let me hold their baby, and I found it immensely reassuring that this loving couple had found each other -- and had their darling baby boy -- a little later in life. A little later relative to the plan I'd had for myself before marrying the entirely wrong man a year before.

On the morning of my divorce -- the actual date on which I'd go before a judge -- the Happy Christians bought my favorite donuts and ushered me out with hugs and words of solidarity. In contrast, when I arrived at the courthouse, the dissolution of my marriage was an utterly cold and impersonal experience -- a veritable cattle drive. Dozens of people were divorced within an hour of me, and I sat in the courtroom alone save for the attorney I'd never met who showed up at the last minute to represent me. It was all so civil. I'm not talking about civility in the polite sense -- please, thank you, let's have a spot of tea -- but rather in the lawful sense.
This marriage thing? When it comes down to it, it's a legal contract. It's about two people joining -- sometimes separating -- their lives in the eyes of the government. Maybe in the eyes of God, too, but that part is entirely optional. There were no prayers nor blessings during the court proceedings. I was released from my marriage without condition, and I felt immensely grateful that I had the freedom to change my marital status with relatively little fuss. Sure, it was expensive and it was painful -- at the time, I saw it as the greatest personal failure of my life -- but it was possible. People do it every day.

This knowledge that marriage and divorce were a virtual snap for people like me saddened me. Not just because I felt like I'd possibly just contributed to the gradual demise of an institution I still believed in, but also because so many loving couples in America are denied the right to choose their marital status. The Happy Christians? They're both women.

While I supported marriage equality before my divorce, the experience really underscored the injustice of U.S. marriage laws. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, "Truths that startled the generation in which they were first announced become in the next age the commonplaces of conversation." I hope this will be the case with same-sex marriage, and as someone who has the right to choose my marital status (and I'm happily remarried today), I feel it's my responsibility to help bring that next age in.

Minneapolis-based writer Emma Wilhelm edits the blog "Divorced Before 30" and also writes about life, love, and parenthood (with a little edge) at Emmasota. This piece was inspired by her yet-to-be published relationship memoir, "From Splitsville, With Love."