OPINION: It’s been a long time since anyone’s heard the expression “living in sin” bandied about. And with good reason: changing social attitudes towards the end of last century saw an increase of de facto couples – long-term couples who live together as “husband” and “wife” without the paperwork.
“Our view of what marriage is and what role we’d like it to play in our lives is constantly evolving,” says Jennifer Douglas, couples and family therapist with Relationships Australia NSW. “
It wasn’t all that long ago that people were driven to get married young because it afforded financial security and gave you the freedom to live with your partner. But of course, we’re no longer fenced in by societal expectation – collectively, we’ve broadened our idea of family structures and commitment.”
Today, de facto couples have substantially the same rights and claims as married couples when it comes to family-law matters, including financial settlements, property, maintenance and arrangements for their children. This goes to show that for many long-term couples, what holds them together are love and commitment, not a piece of paper.
“Some couples want to formalise their union and others are not bothered, but ultimately it makes little difference,” says Douglas.
“MARRIAGE HAS JUST NEVER BEEN A PRIORITY FOR US”
Julie Hosking, 52, and Norman Burns, 57, have been happily unmarried for 28 years. They have two children, aged 17 and 11.
“I burst out laughing when Norm proposed eight years ago. I know it was far from the romantic moment he’d probably envisioned when he called me around to the backyard where he was waiting, but after 20 years together I never actually expected him to do it.
Also, it was all so formal – so very unlike us – that it sent me into a sort of shock. Although we got engaged that day, we’ve never bothered taking it any further.
Norm and I met while we were working on the same newspaper as journalists. We share a similar sense of humour, which has been the basis of our relationship, and there was great banter from day one. But I think our co-workers and friends sensed the chemistry between us before we did. We were friends for a few months before it blossomed.
It wasn’t that the subject of marriage never came up – we did talk about it in those early days after we moved in together – but we always found more important things to spend our money on. We love to travel, so every time we saved up we’d go on another trip. And, just like that, year after year passed until we got to where we are now.
I know that Mum was a bit uncomfortable with the situation at first, but once our son came along, she got over it. Actually, I find the people who ask you the most questions about why you’ve never married your partner are the ones who don’t know you at all.
I love celebrating other people’s marriages, but I’ve never longed for the whole white wedding thing – it’s just not something I’ve ever felt a burning desire to do. I remember having a bet with my uncle when I was 20 that I wouldn’t be married before I was 30, and I’ve often reminded him of how much interest he now owes me from that unpaid prize money. If marriage and the long white dress thing was something I’d wanted, I know Norm and I would have married years ago.
Twenty-eight years is a pretty long time – Norm jokes that it sometimes feels more like 250 years – and yes, we’ve had our ups and downs, like any another couple, but we’re no less committed because we don’t have a piece of paper in the top drawer. We’ve got common values, we get outraged by the same things, we’ve got a mortgage, a will and two children, and we’ve almost never gone to bed angry with each other.
Will we ever get married? I don’t know. Marriage used to be about being able to live together as a family and now it’s about celebrating your love – its purpose has changed.
Maybe we could have a barbecue and do it that way, but I doubt it. Years ago, Norm suggested – jokingly, I think – that we have a Star Trek-themed wedding and that my family come as Klingons. Needless to say, I declined.”
“THINGS ARE ALREADY PERFECT THE WAY THEY ARE”
Previously married to other people, Della and Nick (surnames withheld), both 50, have been together for almost 20 years and have had four children, ranging in age from 17 to seven.
“Like many young girls, I always dreamed of having that big white wedding. I had it in my 20s and it was wonderful, but I guess what I didn’t anticipate was that the marriage itself wouldn’t work out.
We’d already split when I met Nick who was recovering from the end of his own marriage. Because of his two young children [now 26 and 24], we took things quite slowly. We lived in our own homes for a long time; it was an old-school romance.
It was when I was three or four months pregnant with our first child that we realised we should probably move in together. I wasn’t sure if Nick would want any more children, so when I bought it up, I knew there was a chance he’d say no, but he loves kids and said yes immediately.
One baby became two, two became three, and three became four. There’s an almost 20-year gap between Nick’s eldest child and our youngest, but it’s a beautiful set-up. The kids all really love each other
I’ve already done the whole ‘standing in front of everyone and declaring I want to be with the person by my side forever’ thing already, and although I meant it when I said it, I’m reticent about ever doing that again.
Also, I know it’s old-fashioned, but for me getting married is something you do in a church – I wouldn’t want to do it in a garden or a park.
Unless my first marriage was annulled, which I think is pretty difficult, getting married in a Catholic church is not an option.
Nick just says he’s too old to get married now, which I don’t believe, but either way it’s not something we really want to do when things are already perfect as they are.
Our first-born daughter used to beg us to get married, but that’s only because she wanted to be a flower girl. It wasn’t because of some deep need for her parents to have an official document declaring them married.
Times are changing; most people assume we’re married and are usually surprised when I correct them, but they are not bothered either way. We call each other husband and wife because not only does that work socially – it feels odd calling him ‘my partner’ after all this time – but because we feel like husband and wife.
In this day and age, it’s not like we can just bail and walk away freely with what we brought into our relationship; the law still views us as any old married couple, and so do we. Yes, we have different surnames, but so too do many married couples. There’s really no difference.”
“THIS IS OUR SHARED VISION OF THE FUTURE”
Lemean and Michael (surnames withheld), both 50, have been together for 12 years. Lemean has a 23-year-old son from a former marriage, and Michael has never married.
“When you’ve been married before, I don’t know that you enter a new relationship feeling any kind of warmth around the idea of marriage or the idea of one day marrying again.
I was married for six years in my 20s and while it produced my son, whom I adore, I quickly realised that having your own life officially enmeshed with someone else’s life wasn’t for me. Sometimes it can be lovely; other times it feels like you can’t breathe. Some people are better than others at adapting to that.
Michael and I discussed marriage very briefly after we first started dating and it became clear that although we both felt committed to sharing a future, neither of us particularly wanted to go down the path of formalising anything.
We’re both artists, so we each demand a lot of freedom. But what was interesting was that even though neither of us wanted to get married, we did think about having a child.
We’d just started going down the baby-making journey when things unravelled for a while. My father passed away, and soon after that Michael and I went through some tough times and split up for a period.
When we got back together, the subject of children never came up again and we moved on.
We share a house, our finances and a life so I guess we’re like most other long-term unmarried couples in that sense, but we only live together between Thursday night and Sunday night. The rest of the time, I live in my own home and we do our own thing.
This gives us time to do what we want to do as individuals, to go out with our respective friends and enjoy our freedom. But once I leave work and head back to our home, we’re very much in a couple ‘bubble’.
It’s an arrangement that may not work for everyone but is perfect for us. Actually, we’re in the process of looking for a third property to buy as an investment for our future, so it’s not as though we’re not committed. Isn’t the whole idea of togetherness having a shared vision for the future? Well, this is ours.
We’re both from Mediterranean backgrounds, so we feel a lot of pressure from our respective cultural communities to just marry and have a family. Living as husband and wife without having the union officially sanctioned is not the done thing in our home countries so they don’t understand why we wouldn’t want to do things the traditional way.
I just tell them what I’ll tell you now – I’m not living my life to please others. This is about me and Michael and what makes us happy.”
This article appears in Australia’s Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age.