What Is a Commitment Ceremony?

An expert explains the real definition and tips on how to plan one.

Two women stand under an arch of white roses at their wedding.

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A commitment ceremony is very similar to a wedding ceremony except for one nuance: It is not legally binding. During this type of ceremony, two people declare their love for one another and vow to spend the rest of their lives together. Sometimes the ceremony includes traditions from weddings; other times couples get completely creative with their ceremony and just speak directly to one another with no frills.

What Is a Commitment Ceremony?

A commitment ceremony is when two people commit their lives to one another. It is similar to a wedding and can include wedding traditions, but it does not result in a legally binding marriage.

Historically, couples who couldn't legally get married by the church or the state because of their sexual orientation or race opted for a commitment ceremony. Many couples still use commitment ceremonies to bind themselves to one another without going through the legal steps that marriage requires.

To find out more, we reached out to wedding expert and photographer Kim Hefner. She talked us through the meaning behind commitment ceremonies and how to plan your own.

Meet the Expert

Kim Hefner, the owner of Wild and Found Photography, is a Colorado-based couples photographer who specializes in elopements, micro weddings, and commitment ceremonies.

The History and Meaning of a Commitment Ceremony

Commitment ceremonies have long been used as an alternative to marriage. "We know that these types of ceremonies and informal unions have been happening for hundreds, if not thousands, of years due to same-sex couples being forbidden to marry by many religions or just being frowned upon by certain cultures in history," Hefner says. "There are recorded examples throughout history of same-sex unions, which were recognized by their communities but not through formal religious or legal means."

There are compelling reasons modern couples opt for commitment ceremonies instead of legally recognized marriages. First, in many countries around the world same-sex marriage is still not a legal option. As of today, only 33 countries have legalized same-sex marriage, explains Hefner.

"Another big reason that couples have commitment ceremonies is that the legal part of getting married interferes with what they want to do on the day they commit their lives to each other," she shares. For example, some states require you to have an officiant or witness at your wedding. If you just want it to be the two of you, a commitment ceremony is a better option. Other couples can't get their marriage license in time or they don't want to be legally bound together for tax purposes.

Commitment Ceremony FAQs

Can anyone have a commitment ceremony?

 Absolutely! Any couple who wants to have a commitment ceremony can have one regardless of their sexual orientation, religion, nationality, race, etc. Even those who are legally able to get married can decide to have a commitment ceremony instead. Because they aren't formally recognized by the church or state, there are no restrictions.

Are there any downsides to having a commitment ceremony?

"The major downside of a commitment ceremony is that if you do not or cannot eventually make your marriage legally binding, you may miss out on some of the legal benefits of being married," explains Hefner. "This might include tax benefits or being able to get on a partner’s health insurance."

"Another downside is that in some cultures, family or friends may not approve of going a non-traditional route," she adds. Still, it's important to do what is best for you and your partner.

Where can you have a commitment ceremony?

While in some states and countries marriages can only take place in sanctioned venues (in the United Kingdom, for example, weddings must take place somewhere public) commitment ceremonies aren't governed by any rules. That means you can have the ceremony wherever you want!

Hefner recommends dreaming big. "My advice to couples that are just starting to plan their commitment ceremony is to have a brainstorming date night, or a few!" she offers. "Take turns asking each other questions like, 'If we could have our ceremony [anywhere] in the world, where would that be? What would the scenery look like?'"

Do you have to follow a set program during a commitment ceremony?

Again, the benefit of having a commitment ceremony is there are no legal requirements. That means the program can include whatever components you want. Hefner says many couples include wedding traditions like exchanging vows and rings or walking down the aisles. There can be a big reception afterward with a wedding cake, a first dance, speeches, and music.

Other couples choose to go on adventures during their commitment ceremonies. Hefner encourages her clients to think about what would make them happiest during this special moment. "Perhaps a big adventure in a new breathtaking location sounds like the perfect day," she says. "Or maybe a quiet celebration with close friends in a cabin in the woods just feels right to them."

She suggests couples ask themselves questions like: "If we described our perfect day together, what would that look like? Where would we go, and what would we do?" Another good one is: "Are there any activities that are special in our relationship that we want to include as a part of our commitment day? Or new activities we want to try?" Let those answers determine what your commitment ceremony looks like.

Is there anyone you have to invite to a commitment ceremony?

Definitely not. A commitment ceremony is your special day with you and your partner. You don't even need to have a witness or an officiant if you don't want one. Hefner encourages her clients to really think about who they want to be there with them on this special day—this can also include pets! "If you don’t want certain people to be there or if you don’t want to do a certain wedding tradition, then you shouldn’t feel pressured to do it," says Hefner. "Make this day about you two."

Just remember that your guest list might restrict the activities you do during your commitment ceremony. If you want grandma to be there, for example, a strenuous hike to the top of a mountain to say vows might not be the best choice.

What do you wear to a commitment ceremony?

That is totally up to you and your partner. Many couples have commitment ceremonies that resemble weddings with tuxedos and elaborate wedding dresses. Other people decide to commit to one another under a waterfall, wearing their bathing suits. "When you throw the (legal) rulebook out the window, the possibilities are endless!" says Hefner.

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