Academic journal article Journal of Family Studies

Tying the Knot: The Impact of Formalization after Long-Term Cohabitation

Academic journal article Journal of Family Studies

Tying the Knot: The Impact of Formalization after Long-Term Cohabitation

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: Most couples in English-speaking countries now cohabit before marriage, and some marry after living together for years, buying a house and having children. Although marriage offers few additional legal rights, especially for different-sex couples, it seems to have retained its symbolic value. Based on interviews with participants in different-sex and same-sex relationships in New Zealand, we explore whether or not getting married was perceived to make a difference. The paper is organized by participants' responses: Marriage made a notable difference to their relationship, it altered their identity, it changed how others responded to them, or it made no difference. For many participants, 'marriage' represented a stronger commitment, the legitimation of their relationship, and the promise of a more secure environment for children. This research provides insights into the nature of intimate relationships in insecure times marked by a rise in individualism and secularization, the commercialization of weddings, and separation/divorce.

KEYWORDS: marriage, cohabitation, weddings, relationship formalization


Since the 1970s, marriage rates have declined in Western industrialized countries while cohabitation has increased for both different-sex and same-sex couples (OECD, 2009, p. 69; May, 2011). Many governments have reformed their laws to provide new rights for long-term cohabitants and children born outside marriage, and to enable same-sex couples to formalize their relationships. At the same time, researchers have found that marriage has retained its symbolic value and that most young people expect to marry in the future (Bibby, 2004; Lauer & Yodanis, 2010; Qu & Weston, 2008). Popular culture, such as reality television and womens magazines, increasingly draws on the planning of weddings and especially celebrity weddings to represent the potential excitement, glamor and personal creativity of this desired future (Boden, 2003).

Historical meanings of marriage have been challenged by the growth of cohabitation, the legalization of same-sex relationships, the creation of civil unions and partnerships, and by a 'wedding industry' fueled by popular culture that encourages couples to see their wedding as an expensive 'event' requiring extensive planning rather than an occasion that brings two families together. Our research project on negotiating the transition from cohabitation to marriage asked why so many different-sex and same-sex couples who live together eventually decide to formalize their relationships when the socio-legal differences between cohabitation and marriage, especially for different-sex couples, have declined markedly. In addition, we explored how long-term cohabitants arrive at their decision to marry, the nature of their wedding 'event,' and the expectations, particularly amongst different-sex couples, that family and friends would join them in celebrating their union despite having lived together, in some cases, for a considerable length of time. After all, some of these newly engaged couples have already bought houses together and started raising children.

In this paper, we investigate whether or not long-term cohabitants who decide to formalize their relationship believe that 'marriage' actually makes a difference, using our qualitative interviews from New Zealand. We also want to know if perceptions of the impact vary by age, stage in the life cycle, or sexual orientation. The paper is divided into four parts based on participants' perceptions and drawing on their verbatim comments. The first section focuses on those who claimed that marriage or civil union made a notable difference to their intimate relationship. The second section focuses on identity changes following formalization. The third section discusses minor differences but concentrates on changes in how others respond to 'married' rather than cohabiting couples. The fourth part focuses on participants who said that formalization made no difference. …

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