Why some couples remain ‘committed unmarrieds’

Why some couples remain 'committed unmarrieds' thumbnail

It’s the opposite of ‘conscious uncoupling’. Welcome to the world of ‘committed unmarrieds’: couples who are committed to one another, but not to the institution of marriage.

While many people cohabit to ‘try before they buy’, there’s a subset of people who actively resist marriage in the first place.

And a study in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Family Issues on committed heterosexual couples who have no intention of marrying attempts to answer why people are actively saying ‘I don’t’.

The study, which included interviews with 45 couples ranging in age from 23 to 70 who had been together for more than a year, found many rejected marriage on political grounds.

Their objections ranged from the origins of marriage as a form of property exchange to the notion of a wife being a domestic slave.

This traditional notion of marriage, for one woman, reflected her recent experience rather than a relic from some dim distant past. In her previous marriage she was expected to play the role of a 1950s housewife and, as such, she wasn’t prepared to risk repeating that in her new relationship.

“It sort of seemed like, when I got married, I suddenly became a possession with my ex and… I should have been like his mother, working full-time, plus coming home and taking care of the house and everything else, while he got to come home and sit and watch TV and other fun things like that,” she told the researchers.

Unpicking the rituals of engagements and weddings is enough to give any woman the wrong kind of heart palpations.

The symbolism of a father walking his daughter down the aisle and then handing her over to another man is quite outrageous. Yes, yes, I can hear people saying that the cultural meaning of the bridal walk has changed. But, when you pare it back to basics, it’s still one man giving a woman to another man. 

When Prince William asked Kate Middleton’s father for permission to marry her people thought it was sweet.

Not only do these antiquated rituals go unquestioned, we still think it’s romantic to treat grown women like children- or property. If we cling to traditional gender power imbalances in the pre-marriage stage, you can’t blame women for fearing it will rear its ugly head after the ring is on the finger.

Full disclosure, I am happily married and I was pleasantly surprised by the additional sense of security and companionship that came with our public declaration of commitment. But you don’t have to look very hard to see examples of how marriage, if left unexamined, can be a slippery slope of female disempowerment.

For example, a male acquaintance recently told my husband- without any apparent irony- that he should buy me a Thermomix because it would mean I’d get his dinner cooked on time.

Other participants in the study likened the decision not to wed to an act of ‘civil disobedience’- a stance against the fact marriage is, in most parts of the world, a heterosexual club.

“I wouldn’t sit at a segregated lunch counter. I’m not gonna get married if it’s not legal for everybody”, one respondent said.  

For other couples, their politics of marriage was less about the plans of state and more to do with the seating plan. One couple told the researchers their resistance came down to logistics- keeping warring relatives apart- and the fact his mother “refused to attend a nonreligious ceremony”.

For others, modern weddings have become a gauche commercial spectacular that they can do without.  And given the average spent on an Australian wedding in 2011 was $36,200 (the average in the United States in 2013 was $29,858), you can’t blame them.

Other couples just couldn’t see the point of marriage, considering it meaningless, and didn’t think it would add anything to their relationship.

My friend Carolyn, for example, never got around to marrying her long-term partner and now that they have two school-aged children they see no reason to have a wedding.

“If we got married after all these years everyone would suspect that one of us has had an affair,” Carolyn says. “Something really terrible would have to have happened to justify asking all our friends to arrange all that babysitting.”

Just over 10 per cent of Australians are living in de facto relationships. And the research suggests de facto couples are six times more likely to split up than married couples. 

But an increased likelihood of staying together is not necessarily a glowing endorsement for the institution of marriage- particularly if it can transform modern women into 1950s housewives with Thermomixes.

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