They say you can never understand someone else’s marriage. But this week, New York Magazine and the Cut decided to try. We interrogated dozens of couples (and a throuple) to see what makes their marriages work — or not.
James and David, Married 4 Years; David and Raj, Married 4 Months
James: By the time I was 30, which is when David and I met, I was just over dating anybody. We hooked up. A week later, I emailed him and we went to a bar. And he and I just started talking and we have not stopped talking since.
David: I had tried the monogamy thing and I ended up cheating. They ended up cheating. If you’re open, it’s kind of like giving the other person permission to not have to be everything on the checklist.
James: I don’t like a lot of full-on expectation. I just had so much pressure growing up, put on me by my single mom. She was religious, in a speaking-in-tongues kind of way.
David: We got married in 2014.
James: I didn’t want my mom having claims on my body.
David: You didn’t want to be buried in a megachurch.
James: I just want to be incinerated or whatever you call it. Cremated.
David: Those legal things were driving the bus.
Raj: Me, my sister, and my brother-in-law moved into the same building as these two in 2014. I’m Guyanese. I moved here for college in 2009. I’m 27 now. One day, I turned on Grindr and I got this message from James. So I go and we sat here on the couch for a couple of hours and talked and drank wine and then eventually fooled around. We just started hanging out; they couldn’t get rid of me. I don’t even remember when I got the key. I just had a key at some point.
James: I can’t remember if it was a conscious choice on our part. Do you remember if it was conscious?
David: That’s the only reason we have a puppy now, because we’re a throuple. James and I always wanted a dog, and it just wasn’t feasible because I knew he wouldn’t help me take care of it.
Raj: A lot of things happened because I came around, apparently.
James: There was a comfort with Raj that we didn’t have with other people. We had always fooled around with other guys, and there was nothing …
Raj: I think it was agreed upon that it was an open relationship just because I already knew they were in one. We moved in together after my brother-in-law, who is Muslim, found my Truvada bottle. He gave me a lecture, essentially, about how “you shouldn’t need to take this if you were doing anything appropriate.” At the time, we were also talking a little bit about what I’m going to do next in terms of education but also in terms of staying here. I was here on a student visa.
David: We thought his sister would be able to sponsor him, but that didn’t pan out. It quickly became evident that marriage was kind of the only thing left.
Raj: I didn’t want it to be that sort of narrative, a Guyanese person who has to use the marriage in that way. I just didn’t want to face up to it. I think the driving force was James.
James: I’m a misfit. I didn’t have a notion of family growing up, but here I had this family. I found a lawyer who did work in queer families. She framed it as, “You’re using a law to preserve your family.” That was a big mental hurdle for me.
David: It was either we get divorced and marry to keep Raj here or we say good-bye. That didn’t really seem like much of a choice. So even though ending the marriage ended up being more emotionally fraught than I thought it was going to be, it was never a question of whether to do it or not.
Raj: And of course I did not want to leave my partners. I love them.
David: James works in a charged environment where there’s a lot of scrutiny. I don’t. No one gives a shit what a graphic designer is doing or who he’s doing it with, so it was easier for me to marry Raj.
James: The undoing of the marriage is incredibly arduous. It’s much harder than getting married.
David: I think it cost $35 to get married and like over six grand to get divorced.
James: When it’s uncontested.
David: I didn’t realize that marriage mattered to me emotionally until we got divorced. Then I realized it was about much more than just “Now I know where my life-insurance policy goes.” When you’re made to sign that paperwork, it’s boilerplate language about irreconcilable differences. It doesn’t need to apply to you, but when you have to put your name on it and fork over six grand, it made me realize that I really did hold on to something about that marriage.
Raj: For me, in getting married, I actually don’t feel much of a difference.
David: I agree with Raj. I didn’t feel a big shift emotionally, anything like allegiance. But I felt a lot more ambivalent about splitting up my marriage to James than I thought I would. That came out in weird ways, like putting off things with our lawyers.
James: I actually forget we’re not legally married. We bought the same ring. David and I gave up our old rings and bought three new rings.
Raj: From the beginning while we were in the relationship, we all felt equal.
James: Even though I make a little more, David keeps the house going; Raj makes the turkey burgers we eat.
Raj: And I walk the dog.
James: The way we do bills right now, everything kind of comes into one place, with the exception that Raj gets to keep all his own money.
Raj: [Laughs] Not that there isn’t resentment there.
David: James loves to call what he calls “family meetings.” We discuss, “Are you upset about my going out with that guy? Are we having enough sex?” Rather than, “You didn’t clean the vacuum bag.”
James: We each have people we might see regularly, so it’s good for us to check in and see.
David: I think because there are so many family meetings, we don’t have a chance to sublimate — when we fight about who isn’t doing the dishes, it’s really about doing the dishes.
Raj: It’s interesting to lay all the cards on the table. We have rules, and if any of those rules have been broken, it’s a safe space to discuss that.
James: We don’t ever go to bed mad.
David: We might go to bed mad.
James: I mean unresolved.
*This article appears in the April 1, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!