Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Negotiating 'Marriage': Comparing Same-Sex and Different-Sex Cohabiting Couples

Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Negotiating 'Marriage': Comparing Same-Sex and Different-Sex Cohabiting Couples

Article excerpt


In an era of rising cohabitation rates, how and why do cohabitants decide to formalise their relationships when marriage appears to offer minimal legal or social advantages? This article provides insights through the analysis of fifty qualitative interviews with marriage celebrants, and long-term cohabitants who have married or entered a civil union or plan to do so in the near future. Participant comments from same-sex and different-sex cohabitants are compared, showing both similarities and differences in their decision-making. These New Zealand-based interviews reveal four decision-making pathways: traditional marriage proposals, mutual agreements to formalise, complex negotiations between partners, and giving in to social pressure. Our research and previous studies suggest that most couples formalise their relationships to make a public commitment and celebrate their relationship but the decision to 'marry' is not always equally valued by both partners. In addition, same-sex couples tend to receive mixed reactions when they announce their decision to family and friends, and many fear a 'second coming out'. This article contributes to sociological debates about the current relevance of formalisation for different-sex and same-sex couples, and the symbolic nature of 'marriage'.


Fifty years ago, unmarried men and women normally lived with their parents, becoming 'engaged' and married before sharing a home. Men typically proposed to women and formal engagement, which sometimes lasted for years, enabled the couple to strengthen their relationship, save money for the future, and spend more private time together (Baker, 2010; Cherlin, 2010). Gay and lesbian couples often disguised their intimate relationships from family and friends, who pressured them to enter different-sex marriage and to reproduce. Today, some of the practices that followed marriage in the past actually precede it: many same and different-sex couples in English-speaking jurisdictions cohabit, buy homes and raise children together before they contemplate formalising their relationships. Research on different-sex couples indicates that more couples also delay or avoid legal marriage, especially those who are younger, have lower incomes, intend to remain childless and are not particularly religious (Cherlin, 2004; Duncan et al., 2005; Lewis, 2001).

Falling marriage rates and widespread cohabitation, both pre-marital and non-marital, have led to considerable debate about the rise in individualism, the secularisation of society, and the changing meaning of marriage (Beck-Gernsheim, 2002; Coontz, 2005; Heuveline and Timberlake, 2004; Lewis, 2001). The same phenomena and debates have also encouraged governments to reform family laws. In many countries, cohabiting couples now gain most of the legal rights and responsibilities accorded to married couples simply by sharing a home for a certain number of years, which might make 'marriage'1 seem redundant, particularly for different-sex couples who can take the right to marry for granted. Furthermore, in recent decades, many jurisdictions have extended relationship rights to same-sex couples although they have not necessarily permitted them to marry. For example, New Zealand and the United Kingdom created new forms of legalisation in 2004 called civil unions and civil partnerships, while Canada opened marriage to same-sex couples in 2005 (Baker and Elizabeth, 2012).

This article focuses on decision-making to formalise couple relationships after long-term cohabitation. It draws on New Zealand-based interviews with marriage and civil union celebrants, as well as cohabitants who have lived together for at least three years, in a context where the government considers them to already be in a 'marriage-like relationship'. After surveying the literature and outlining the methodology, we discuss four pathways to marriage: proposals, mutual decisions, complex negotiations between partners, and social pressure. …

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