02/12/2014 12:21 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016


I've been married three times by the age of 33.

The first time was to my gay best friend, Em, to keep him in the country and with me. I called it a real marriage -- with the disclaimer "of sorts" tagged on at the end.

The second was to my high school boyfriend, who I couldn't forget even years after we'd been apart. He was my first fiancé. We got engaged when I was 21. I was so devastated when we broke it off that I decided I would never be able to marry anyone else. When my best friend needed help, I realized I could use my ability and right to marry to do a good deed. Some years later, the first fiancé resurfaced and ended up becoming Second Husband. I called ours the real marriage that turned fake. Second Husband was also not a U.S. citizen, and after we split up, he asked me if we could stay married until his green card came through.

The problem with second husband was that I didn't only love him. I loved parts of him: stunning intelligence, off-color humor, and our similar backgrounds as dual-citizens who grew up moving between different countries with single mothers.

He had an angry, controlling side. I didn't love the part of him that would lash out and demean me, even in front of others. He wanted me to cut off my long hair, to dress more like "the other wives," wives of his Wall Street colleagues who were at least a decade older than I was at the time. I found myself in a 1950s version of marriage.

With Em, I was flamboyant. We dressed up and went out dancing. I was unselfconscious and free. With the husband I'd called the man of my dreams, I shrunk, folded up inside myself, becoming skittish and fearful.

And so my 20s consisted of a happy divorce and a sad divorce, a gay husband and a straight one. As a child of divorce, a permanent marriage was my greatest goal, finding and maintaining that elusive love that would last all of a lifetime, that would bring children and a close-knit family and happiness. Those things I didn't have growing up the only child of a single mother were the things I most wanted. And possibly most idealized. I thought divorce proved my destiny to fail where I most wanted to succeed: at happy domesticity, something I'd come closer to experiencing in my first, less "traditional," marriage.

I was left with so many questions. I had always wanted to be married, to create the nuclear family I didn't have growing up. I feared divorce, and there I was, 27 with two of them on my plate. Of course, I always said the first one didn't "count" -- that Emir and I knew our marriage would dissolve eventually because its circumstances rendered it unsustainable. But why, then, did my first marriage, which has been called "fake," feel real, while it was my second, more "traditional" marriage that felt like a sham?

What is marriage, and what should it be? Who is to say?

Utah's marriage fiasco -- yes you can, no you can't, well, you still can't but the U.S. Government will recognize it if you did -- has pushed the absurdity of a debate over gender-neutral marriage to ridiculous new heights. Who should have access to marriage, and why? What makes a person or couple worthy of that access? After my second divorce, I worried I had disrespected the institution with my first marriage, that I had risked my future by knowingly marrying the "wrong" guy. Had I been disrespectful to the shrine of marriage? Though it had felt right, was it a transgression? Or, can there be different kinds of marriage and marriages that suit different purposes? Looking back, my first two experiences with marriage felt like a primer during a decade when I actually wasn't ready for marriage, but was so young I couldn't see it.

Everyone should be free to engage in a little trial-and-error. I was in an unhappy marriage but haven't blamed marriage for when or why it went wrong. I hadn't found someone who understood and accepted me fully yet. My first husband understood and accepted me, but he was a brother even though the law called him husband. My second was aligned with the current conventional definition of the role, but he wanted to me to change to accommodate his wish list for a wife.

At 32, after much dating, and a couple relationships that didn't work out, I unexpectedly met the exact right person. I love all of him, wholly. On my 33rd birthday, he proposed, and so at 33, with -- legally -- my third husband, I entered my first real marriage. (Three marriages fun fact: my first husband gave me away at my second and third weddings. We are still family.)

Is marriage a legal convenience, a romantic notion, or a way to express something intangible? It is some combination of all of those things. What I do know for sure is that everyone should be able to take their own journeys to find out what marriage is, and to find the marriage that is right for them, whatever that takes and whatever it means. Who should have access to the institution is not for some law-person to decide, but for each of us. Marriage is a field, not a shrine.