A wedding does not a marriage make. We might be entrenched in Royal Wedding fever, but one thing history has shown is that even a wedding to end all weddings is no guarantee of lasting matrimonial bliss.
Am I a cynic? I actually consider myself a romantic. That’s why I’m no one’s wife.
As a child, the mental image I associated with “wife” was a cartoon donkey, a beast of burden. This association was no doubt forged by my parents’ troubled marriage— their inequitable division of work, my dad’s bullying, my mother’s prolonged unhappiness and her hesitance to get a divorce because she didn’t want the stigma—or legal rigmarole—of a failed marriage.
My mother never told me not to get married. In fact, she presumed I would. Her advice was, “Live with a man for two years before you get married. That way you’ll know what he’s really like without getting trapped.”
At 16, I met The One (for lack of a better expression), and we recently celebrated 20 years together—18 of them cohabiting. I was 17 when I co-signed our first apartment lease— practically the common law version of a child bride.
My partner is my rock, and our relationship has sustained me through all the crappy stuff implicit in “for better or worse”: poverty, health scares, career crises, the death of my parents. Having been through all that together makes the good stuff even sweeter: the birth of our child, mutual career success, travel.
Our relationship is nothing like my parents’ dysfunctional one. So why haven’t we made it official?
Truthfully? Because—for us—a ring wouldn’t change a thing.
For many people, however, it does. Marriage remains the ultimate aim of most relationships, with cohabitation a mere way station on that journey. According to The Vanier Institute of the Family, 90 percent of today’s teens expect to get married—and to stay married to this person for life. (For the record, current stats indicate 38 percent of Canadian marriages will end before their 30th wedding anniversary. In the U.S. this statistic rises to 44 percent.)
Growing in popularity, though, is the act of shacking up together first. In fact, it’s become commonplace. According to one recent bridal magazine survey, a full 74 percent of engaged couples already live together, a number that would have shocked our grandparents.
Sonia Giampietro, 35, a Toronto marketing manager, married her husband of two years after living together for a year and a half, and dating for five years prior to that. Although they shared a home and many household expenses, Giampietro says cohabitation was a completely different relationship than marriage.
“Before we got married, we kept everything separate, no merging of accounts or sharing of finances,” she says. Because the house they lived in belonged to her, she always paid the mortgage and taxes herself, reiterating her sole ownership of the property.
For Giampietro, marriage is it: the real thing. “I feel more connected as a married couple. We’re committed to the same future. Marriage was also very important for us [when it came to having] kids,” says the new mom.
Indeed countless studies have shown that the married environment and the stability it implies is ideal for child-rearing. Married couples with kids are less likely to split up than marrieds without kids, as well as cohabitants with or without kids.
“The majority of marriages now begin as cohabitation and people usually have had a long-term sexual relationship before marriage, so many relationships that might have dissolved after marriage now dis- solve before it,” explains Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, a History and a family studies professor at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. “In these cases it’s not the cohabitation or the lack of marriage that causes failure of these relationships; it’s something problematic about the relationship.”
But what about couples like me and my guy, who choose cohabitation as a lifestyle? According to the 2006 national census, common law couples are today’s fastest growing family type, making up 15.5 percent of Canadian families (married couples account for 68.6 percent). No doubt many of these cohabiting couples plan to eventually marry, but what about those who see it as their preferred partnership?
These arrangements work when both partners are on the same page, choosing not to marry “because of shared values, rather than because one partner is less committed or because one or both don’t feel ‘ready’ for marriage,” says Coontz.
Call this the bohemian “We don’t need others to validate our relationship” camp. I fall into it 98 percent of the time, except when I’m dealing with plumbers, electricians and school administrators. That’s when my partner magically transforms into “my husband” in a semantic trick that implies: “Yes, there’s a permanent man of the house who’s got my back.”
Nonetheless, my partner is not my husband. And a common law partnership is not a marriage, particularly in a legal sense.
Common law couples enjoy many of the same rights as married couples— adoption rights, beneficiaries of one another’s health benefits and pensions, certain tax advantages—but not all.
For instance, if a married couple divorces, provincial legislation ensures that their matrimonial property will be divided fairly. Not necessarily so for a cohabiting couple.
In most provinces, what you brought into your life together is yours and what he brought is his. You may, however, end up battling for a stake in that house he owns, but which you helped make mortgage payments on, or his business, which you used to provide free accounting services for.
To avoid a messy split—and protect your assets—sign a cohabitation agreement, especially if kids are involved. This agreement specifies what happens if you split up—for example, that all property will be split evenly, or that as a couple you’re opting into a property division regime that applies as if you were married. You and your partner will need to hire your own lawyers.
While you’re at it, have wills drawn up. While legally wed spouses are automatically considered next of kin in all provinces, common law spouses are generally not automatically given this role in many provinces. (In our case, we have wills, but not a cohabitation agreement, because all our property is jointly held.) Do this before you move in together or ASAP if you’re already shacked up. It’s never too late, until, well, it’s too late. (Case in point: When The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo author Stieg Larsson died in 2004, his estate went to his estranged father and brother. Eva Gabrielsson, his live-in girlfriend of 30 years, was shut out since Sweden doesn’t recognize common law partners as spouses, and Larsson hadn’t drafted a legal will.)
It’s hard to think about death or separation when you’re happily committed to a relationship. But these are things you need to acknowledge and plan for when you don’t receive the automatic protection conventional marriage provides. This also gives you the opportunity to think about your level of commitment to one another (roomies with benefits or partners in life?).
My relationship is what it is in the most organic sense: It’s a union we created when we were young and madly in love. It evolved to include a child—our nine-year-old daughter, who enjoys pointing out that it’s never too late for a wedding, and that she could be flower girl!—and it has survived 18 years of bickering about how to load the dishwasher. Neither our families, nor the church, nor the state had anything to do with it— that’s probably the key aspect for us. It’s just us, alone in the world, a goofy duo that turned into a trio. For me it works. It’s a conscious choice we made, being a couple of old-school bohos. Yet it doesn’t diminish my support of marriage.
In fact, I’m very pro-marriage. I dream of the day all couples can marry for love (still not the case in so many parts of the world). I think premarital classes and counselling should be a prerequisite to getting a marriage licence, so more people get it right the first time.
Getting married now—at least in Canada—is a legitimate choice, not a social norm foisted on you and everyone else. Whereas at one time the only way to achieve adult respectability was to be married, acceptance of diversity is much greater today: Gays and lesbians can marry; single-person households are one of the fastest growing demographics; and common law spouses enjoy similar rights to married spouses. Sure, your parents may be hinting at grandkids, but for the most part, most people who marry in Canada today are marrying because they choose to, not because they have to in order to have sex, or buy a house, or raise a family, or be seen as a normal, functioning adult.
“In some ways, marriage is even more of a romantic and cultural ideal than it used to be, even though—or perhaps because—the institution of marriage plays a smaller role in organizing our lives,” says Coontz. “People don’t have to marry, but when they do marry, they expect the marriage to be fairer, more intimate and more satisfying than people of the past often dared to dream.”
Just remember to not confuse the wedding with the marriage. As the future King William’s parents prove, a fairy tale wedding doesn’t necessarily make for happily ever after. A marriage isn’t what happens when the cameras are flashing and everyone’s oohing and aahing over the dessert. It’s what happens when the guests go home and there’s no one left but you two.