The Supreme Court decision on June 26, 2015, which made same-sex marriage legal everywhere in the United States, was a huge, monumental win for fairness and equality. The decision made it clear that same-sex couples would be legally married anywhere they live or travel in the U.S., and it put an end to court cases and appeals that were still in process.
By the beginning of 2015, marriage equality had already come to 36 states, the District of Columbia, and numerous Indian reservations, covering roughly three-fourths of the population. That means that in all these jurisdictions, couples have already had anywhere from six months to ten years in which to get legally married. Many have, but many have not.
Marriage equality arrived in my home state of Arizona over eight months ago, on October 17, 2014. Shortly after that, I became an ordained minister and went into business as a wedding officiant. As of this date (June 28), I have officiated 54 weddings; 49 of which were for same-sex couples.
Yet, I’m surprised by how many long-term couples in my network of friends and acquaintances have not yet legalized their union, and apparently have no plans to do so.
You would think that after waiting so long and suffering the indignities of being second-class citizens for so long, we would be beating down the doors of our local clerk of courts offices.
Why aren’t more same-sex couples jumping at the chance to avail themselves of that which has been denied them for so long? I have identified eleven possible reasons, but in order for these to make sense, let’s first consider what marriage is.
Marriage is a multi-faceted institution, and it means different things to different people based upon their values.
Marriage is love! It is a commitment and an emotional bond. It’s a promise to stay together and care for each other for the rest of your lives, no matter what. It means you don’t just break up when the going gets rough; you stay together and do everything you can to make the marriage survive.
Marriage is a legal contract. A legally issued and recognized marriage license entitles the couple to approximately 1,138 federal rights and responsibilities, and several hundred more at the state level. Among these are the ability to file taxes jointly, Social Security survivor benefits, health insurance coverage for your spouse, inheritance rights, hospital visitation rights, and for bi-national couples, immigration rights. This just scratches the surface; there are hundreds more.
Marriage is a religious sacrament. For people of faith, this can be of paramount importance. For non-religious folks, it’s irrelevant. It’s important to note that being married in the eyes of your church is completely separate from being married in the eyes of the federal and state government. Churches have been marrying same-sex couples for several decades, although those marriages could have no legal standing until recently. Conversely, many couples get legally married by a justice of the peace or other non-religious wedding officiant and never set foot in a church.
Marriage is a social structure. Across the globe, everyone understands what “marriage” means, and they understand the meaning of words like “husband,” “wife,” and “spouse.” When people attend a wedding and see two people say “I do” and exchange rings, they understand exactly what they are witnessing. When you introduce someone as your husband or wife, people understand exactly what your relationship is.
For the purpose of this discussion, I’ll focus on marriage as a legal contract. That’s what the Supreme Court made possible for everyone in the country with their decision.
So, back to the question: Why are some long-term same-sex couples opting to remain unmarried?
- Some people still perceive that marriage is something that only straight people do. Many gay and lesbian people enjoy being different from straight people. To some, assimilating into the straight world would deprive them of their sense of community, identity, and uniqueness. To them, marriage is one of the most visible signs of assimilation. After being conditioned over the course of a lifetime that marriage is for straight people and it’s something that gay and lesbian people will never have, it’s hard to wrap their heads around the idea that marriage is possible or desirable for same-sex couples.
While people may intellectually understand that marriage doesn’t mean you have to move to the suburbs, buy a mini-van and have kids, the idea of marriage may still evoke those images.
- Some people have deeply-held religious or political beliefs against same-sex marriage. After all, there are gay Republicans and gay priests. This is not to say that all Republicans oppose same-sex marriage; clearly, that’s not the case. But many do. Just as there are many women who still believe they are inferior to men and many members of various races and nationalities who have deeply internalized feelings of inferiority, there are gay people who struggle with being gay and steadfastly believe that same-sex marriage is forbidden and incompatible with their beliefs.
Even though a government-issued marriage license and a church-sanctioned wedding are two completely different things, these people’s beliefs probably preclude them from even getting a marriage license.
- Some people regard marriage primarily as a religious institution. And if those people are non-religious or have strong beliefs against organized religion, they may eschew marriage because they want nothing to do with religion. People in this camp may have trouble separating civil marriage from religious marriage in their heads, or simply perceive them to be too closely intertwined.
- Some people view marriage as a failed institution that they want no part of. Of course, there are straight people who want no part of marriage, too. People whose childhoods were painfully impacted by their parents’ turbulent divorce may vow never to marry as adults, so as not to inflict the same pain and torture on themselves and their children. Some people point to the 50% divorce rate and conclude that they are better off not marrying in the first place.
Women who hold strong feminist beliefs view marriage as a male-dominated institution in which the man is entitled to dominate his wife or even consider his wife his “property.” While those beliefs may have been prevalent in years past, it doesn’t have to be viewed that way today. Even when women who hold this view of marriage are lesbians, they still view marriage as an arrangement of ownership or domination that they want no part of – even when there is no man in the relationship.
- Some people don’t want to give up their freedom by making a long-term commitment. Before gay and lesbian couples could legally marry, some people figured that this gave them the freedom to have a series of relationships that would last only as long as both parties remained interested. Some people are happy not having to deal with marriage, permanence, and possibly divorce. Some people would rather stay active on the party scene and keep their options open, even while they might be dating or living with someone. To them, marriage means settling down, which they apparently don’t want to do.
- Some people assume that marriage requires monogamy. Without going into a discussion of whether or not married couples should be monogamous, the fact is that the government is completely uninterested in whether or not you are monogamous for the purposes of its laws surrounding marriage. It’s unenforceable anyway.
- Some people may worry that marriage will force them out of the closet. Some people who aren’t out at work or to their families may fear that getting married will force them to come out or make it harder to remain in the closet. With social media being as pervasive in our daily lives as it is, ceremony pictures and well-meaning messages of “congratulations” may be seen by co-workers and family members who don’t otherwise know that the person or people are gay.
- There may be legal and financial reasons why remaining unmarried makes more sense. If one partner is carrying a lot of debt or has a bad credit rating or a recent bankruptcy, the other partner will become saddled with that burden when they marry. Similarly, if one partner suffers from a chronic, expensive disease, that could be financially ruinous for the healthy partner if they got married. Married couples can be held responsible for each other’s financial obligations.
I know people who have been permanently separated for years but got never divorced. This, of course, precludes them for entering into a subsequent marriage.
Elderly people who are widows and widowers sometimes form permanent relationships but remain unmarried because it will result in a decrease in Social Security or pension benefits. Divorcees who receive alimony may see that income stream stop when they re-marry.
Surprisingly, one of the five opposite-sex couples who contracted me to marry them decided a few weeks before their ceremony to have a “commitment ceremony” rather than a legal wedding. I didn’t ask them why (it is none of my business), but I assume that there were legal or financial reasons why they opted to make a public commitment in front of their families and friends but remain legally unmarried.
- Some people may feel that their relationship isn’t on solid enough ground to justify marriage. Of course, this is an excellent reason not to get married. People change, relationships change, and circumstances change. For some, the quality of relationship that supports an on-going partnership of some sort is a lower bar than the quality of relationship that would justify a marriage. There’s no question that parting company as an unmarried couple is less expensive and complicated than having to legally divorce, although a person who was wronged in such a break-up would have no legal recourse.
- Some people may feel that they don’t have enough money to get married, or they aren’t willing to spend the money. The fact is, you can get married for about $150 – the price of a marriage license and an officiant or Justice of the Peace. People may be under the impression that they have to have a huge, elaborate wedding for 100 people, complete with wedding gowns/tuxes, flowers, photographers, videographers, a banquet dinner and dancing to a live band in a nice wedding venue. But in my experience, most same-sex couples are foregoing most or all of this extravagance and having much simpler and less expensive weddings. (More on this in an upcoming article.)
- Inertia. Some long-term couples have been in their relationships for so long and are so accustomed to the status-quo that they may simply not see the need or the urgency to change their situation.
Same-sex couples are non-traditional to start with, so we are free to create our own traditions and our own parameters for marriage. We don’t have to hold on to old-fashioned beliefs of dominance or ownership, religious trappings or political beliefs. We are free to define our marriages on our own terms. For that matter, so are opposite-sex couples. For the government’s purposes, what matters is a properly signed, witnessed, and officiated marriage license that has been acquired and submitted according to the law.
Clearly, marriage isn’t for everyone. Plenty of people enter into marriages for the wrong reasons or without sufficient deliberation. There’s nothing inferior or wrong with being single.
But it saddens me to think that some people may be denying themselves and their partners all the protections and benefits of marriage for the wrong reasons, too.
What are your thoughts?
© 2015 Dave Hughes. All rights reserved.
Photo credit: Elvert Barnes on Flickr. Some rights reserved. No assumptions should be made regarding whether the men portrayed in this picture are gay, are a couple, or support same-sex marriage.