It’s a common scenario: A man and a woman start living together and find that they can handle the challenges of cohabitation. They share household chores, pay bills together, support each other through difficult periods and celebrate the good times.
Sooner or later, the subject of marriage is bound to come up. When one partner wants to get married and the other wants to keep things the way they are, the couple’s cozy domesticity can get seriously disrupted. How can they compromise? Is there such a thing as a viable marriage alternative?
I know that a marriage alternative can be successful because I’ve worked out such an arrangement with my partner. Our relationship is still going strong after 7 years, which is longer than many legal marriages. We’re a heterosexual couple who’ve taken some cues from gay couples; since same-sex marriage is prohibited, gay couples have had to blaze the marriage alternative trail. We’ve also come up with a few ideas of our own.
The path to finding the right marriage alternative hasn’t been easy. He didn’t want to get married; I did. At times, we wondered whether we could reach a compromise which would satisfy both of us. How could we disagree on such a critical issue and expect our relationship to survive?
Essentially, we had to figure out a marriage alternative. It was either that or keep arguing, which we knew would undermine the close, loving bond we’d forged-and neither of us was willing to let that happen. If you and your partner want to stay together but disagree when it comes to tying the knot, a marriage alternative might work for you. Here are some of the questions you’ll need to consider:
What does a marriage alternative look like?
That’s up to the two of you. A marriage alternative can resemble a legal union in virtually every respect, or it might simply be a verbal agreement. It can be as public or as private as you want to make it.
How do you decide on the details of a marriage alternative? Think about what you would want from a traditional marriage-and be honest. Have you always dreamed of your wedding day, complete with a gorgeous gown, a five-tiered cake, bushels of roses, and your family and friends getting all choked up as they watch you walk down the aisle? Do you want to announce to the world that you’ve found your soulmate, but without the fuss of a large ceremony? Do you want the legal protections which a traditional marriage automatically bestows, such as the right to make critical decisions about health care in an emergency? Are you looking for a promise from your partner-something more than a verbal agreement-that he or she intends to stay with you for life?
A marriage alternative can include any of the above-except for those “automatic” legal rights. However, you can secure many of the same rights if you put the work into assembling some key documents. And if you choose to have a ceremony, you can create the day of your dreams with or without a marriage license. (See “What resources are available to help couples explore a marriage alternative?” below).
Working out the particulars of a marriage alternative with your partner may take many conversations, some of them painful. Don’t be too discouraged if these conversations get heated, or if you need to put the subject aside for a time. You should approach a marriage alternative as seriously as you’d approach a legal marriage. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Are you truly willing to consider a marriage alternative?
Again, you have to be honest with yourself and with your partner. Many people believe that no arrangement can serve as an equivalent to marriage. For them, marriage is the only true form of commitment. A marriage alternative is, by definition, a lesser commitment. If you strongly believe that true love can only be recognized by legal marriage, and your partner disagrees, or vice versa, a compromise may not be possible. And if one of you generally holds more traditional values than the other, deciding on marriage won’t be your only difficulty as a long-term couple.
Of course, there is always the possibility that people can change their minds about marriage versus a marriage alternative. Although I’m not a traditional-minded person in most respects, I once believed that getting married was the only way my partner and I could prove our commitment. He tried to understand my point of view, but he admitted he was hurt by the fact that our day-to-day devotion to each other-the love amply demonstrated in ways large and small-was apparently not enough for me.
Eventually, I began to learn about the possibilities of the marriage alternative and drew inspiration from couples who had successfully worked out compromises. I also realized that much of my desire for legal marriage was really a desire to please friends and family. Many still can’t understand why we aren’t married and just don’t get the concept of a marriage alternative. Once I saw that other couples were brave enough to work out their own solutions instead of trying to please the rest of the world, I realized that we could do it, too.
What resources are available to help couples explore a marriage alternative?
The Alternatives to Marriage Project (AtMP) is a national nonprofit organization which advocates on behalf of unmarried people, including heterosexual couples who choose not to marry and gay couples who are legally prevented from marrying. They’re not anti-marriage-in fact, a portion of their membership is made up of legally married couples who support the right of others to choose a marriage alternative.
The Alternatives to Marriage Project’s upbeat, friendly website provides facts and figures, practical information, and a sense of community. It discusses the importance of legal documents, such as durable power of attorney for health care and for finances, wills, and a “living together” or domestic partnership agreement. I can personally recommend Living Together: A Legal Guide for Unmarried Couples, published by Nolo Press; the Alternatives to Marriage Project recommends it, too. Written by attorneys, Living Together provides most of the documents you’ll need for a marriage alternative and explains their implications in plain English.
Another website, WeddingDialogues.com, is intended for straight as well as gay couples. It offers great ideas for commitment ceremonies and links to other resources.
After seemingly endless discussions, our marriage alternative turned out to be quite simple. We’re private people and didn’t feel the need for a ceremony. We exchanged custom engraved silver rings and went out for a romantic dinner to celebrate. We assembled the necessary legal documents, one by one. Maybe we’ll decide to have a ceremony one day. For now, the loving gestures of daily life are enough…more than enough.