When it comes to modern partnerships, people are looking for options. With divorce rates hovering at an uncomfortably high number, it’s no wonder that millennials are putting off getting married—or avoiding it altogether. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t want to form a lasting partnership with someone. Many couples, including heterosexual ones, want an option that doesn’t have the religious connotations of marriage, but still gives them the benefits, both legal and symbolic, of being a unit. But in the US, that’s not always easy to come by. Depending on where you live, domestic partnerships or civil unions might not exist or, if they do, they might not be available to you.
And the US isn’t the only country where limited access for heterosexual couples to non-marital unions is controversial. In the UK, there is currently a legal battle being fought by a heterosexual couple who wants the right to have a civil partnership—and they are not alone. Many people all over the world have similar reservations. So if traditional marriage isn't for you, what other options do you have?
Well, in the United States, it’s surprisingly difficult to work out what—if any—other routes you can take. But, depending on where you live, there are some options out there.
Common-law marriage comes about when two people have demonstrated, normally by living together for a certain amount of time, that they are a unit, a de facto married couple. So for some who don’t like the formality of a wedding but don’t mind the rhetoric of marriage, it might be a good fit. But even this is only recognized in 10 US states, all with differing requirements to prove that you qualify for common-law marriage status. You don’t need to get a marriage license or jump through many of the traditional hoops, but there are still hoops nonetheless.
Domestic Partnerships or Civil Unions
Domestic partnerships or civil unions are the more obvious alternatives to marriage. Most people who would have an issue with marriage may also be averse to common-law marriage, so a distinctly civil alternative is an important one. And though it might seem like this would be a logical choice for many couples, they’re not actually all that easy to come by. In fact, the rules for domestic partnerships and civil unions vary hugely from state to state—in the states they exist in at all.
Because civil unions are traditionally associated with same-sex couples, they existed predominantly in states trying to give gay couples an option before gay marriage was made legal. Since gay marriage was endorsed nation-wide, some states have dropped marriage alternatives altogether. And, in the states that do offer them still, not all of them extend to opposite-sex couples. But the rules can get even weirder—some states, like New Jersey, allow them for opposite-sex couples over the age of 62. Some cities, like New York City and Toledo, offer domestic partnership registrations even though the state they’re in doesn’t offer them.
So if you’re looking for a partnership that doesn’t involve a white dress and a marriage certificate, your options are basically down to where you live. It’s a zip code lottery—and there’s no guarantee that a partnership recognized in one place will be recognized if you move. It seems completely unfair, not to mention ridiculous, that some couples would have options where others, just over a state or city line, would not.
An Uncomfortable Dilemma
When talking about domestic partnerships and civil unions for heterosexual couples, it’s important to keep some perspective. Some people take issue with a heterosexual couple’s claim that they have a right to a civil or domestic partnership. And it can feel more than a little strange, with gay marriage being fought for so long, to hear about straight couples feeling discriminated against for not being able to access options traditionally reserved for gay couples. It doesn’t feel right. You have to acknowledge that the two struggles are just not equal. But I have to say, I get it. Even as a woman in a long-term lesbian relationship, I can see why straight couples would want to be able to have access to a partnership option other than marriage. It doesn’t matter what your gender or orientation is, you should have an option for a recognizable partnership without the religious connotations. Domestic partnership, civil union—the name doesn’t matter. Everyone deserves that choice.
There are a lot of benefits that come with being able to formally present yourselves as a couple. Some of those are legal and financial, others come from society recognizing your choice to be together. But, regardless of sex or orientation, you should be able to access these benefits, to cement your relationship, without the connotations of marriage if that's not for you. We need a clearer, more uniform system for people who want a marriage alternative.