One of the most annoying things that I heard repeatedly after I left my husband was the following:
"I just broke up with my boyfriend, I know exactly how you feel"
I know that my friends who told me that were trying to make me feel better. They were trying to show empathy and a shared experience with mine. But a relationship -- even a long-term one with cohabitation -- is not the same as a marriage. If it was then same-sex couples wouldn't be fighting for the right to marry all over this country.
For starters, there is the ceremony. When you start dating someone you don't throw a "Hey look we just started dating party." You might have a housewarming if you move in together but with a marriage there are usually one or more bridal showers, an engagement party, a bachelorette party and finally the big, obnoxious wedding. I remember mine as if it were yesterday and when I stood there in the dress facing both sides of our collective families turning to watch me walk down that aisle, I thought to myself:
So this is why we have weddings, to guilt us into staying together.
All of these parties, rituals and ceremonies add a sense of permanence to the union. Your families become legally linked to one another; everything becomes part of the public record. And although getting married is easy enough, getting out of it can be a quagmire.
I always want to say to the person who just broke up with their non-spouse partner:
Did you have to go to a lawyer to break up?
Do you have any stocks or mutual funds in both of your names?
Do you have property with this person?
Do you have children?
Did you just have to go do your taxes with your ex?
Do you live in fear that your ex will financially ruin you before the divorce is final?
Do you have to pay alimony to your ex-partner?
Is your partner hiding marital assets or income earned during the marriage?
Is your ex contesting the split or slowing the process down?
As difficult as a breakup is, even a long-term live-in partner is not the same as a husband or wife. With some long-term relationships shared assets or children might be an issue but in most cases they are not. With a boyfriend or girlfriend you can usually just walk away. You don't have to go to court, you don't have to file for legal separation, you don't have to protect your assets. The only real legal benefit to being non-married is that if you have your own health insurance you don't have to worry about losing it when you get divorced. Because of all of the legal ramifications, especially with those involving children, divorces in some states can drag on for years before they are resolved.
I had a non-contested divorce with few assets and my ex and I spent over $2,000 on the divorce; I had to go to court about five times before it was over. Since I was the one who filed, I was the one who had to appear to drive the paperwork through the system. I remember waiting in line trying to hold back tears to get my certified copy of my divorce. I had to get this document to split in half some of our assets and to legally declare to the universe that we were no longer husband and wife. Our divorce was easy, it only took eight months in NY state, but some of my friends with children are still battling with their exes years later. Eight months, thousands of dollars, and multiple court appearances isn't exactly the same as moving my stuff out of a boyfriend's apartment.
But putting all of the legal and financial ramifications aside, there is still a sense of permanence of forever that exists in marriage that doesn't exist in a non-legally binding relationship. There is something about that big day and the hopes and dreams of both of your extended families that makes it feel like it won't end. It is why we have big rituals surrounding marriage -- marriage is supposed to be something higher, something larger than just two people living together. And it is exactly why the fall is much harder. Of my divorced friends, I honestly don't know anyone who didn't go through some level of hell. For some the day of reckoning took a while to show up, and for others it was immediate, but they all went through some major trauma even if they wanted desperately out of the marriage. Divorce is not just a breakup, so the next time someone tries to tell you that just nod and smile, they know not what they say.