Civil partnerships, domestic partnerships, civil unions — there are lots of terms around the world for legally binding unions that are legally equivalent to marriage, but don't have the "m" word or any religious connotations attached. For years, they were viewed as alternatives to marriage for queer couples where gay marriage was illegal. But in some countries, the desire to be able to make that choice isn't restricted to LGBTQ people; straight couples are increasingly opting for civil unions or partnerships over marriage where it's legal (in the UK, for example, civil partnerships are actually only for gay couples, even though gay marriage has been legal since 2013). In the Netherlands, the total number of "registered partnerships" in 2016 rose significantly to 15,700, while the number of total marriages dropped.
One big issue that's driving this change? Marriage's patriarchal history. Rachel, who is married to a man, tells Bustle that "The term 'civil partnership' is awesome because it conveys that it's both secular and an equal joining between participants. 'Marriage' is just too loaded with religious connotations and the patriarchy and all that history of crap." Jennifer, who is in a relationship and lives in the UK, agrees, saying that marriage's religious connotations, and the idea that weddings cost a lot of money, is one of her impediments. "Being non-religious (and poor), I would love to have something along the lines of civil partnership," she tells Bustle, "and am very envious of my Spanish friends who can get "pareja de hecho" status." (Pareja de hecho is the rough equivalent of a civil union under Spanish law for cohabiting couples.)
Charli, a British woman who is in a long-term relationship with a man, is also in this school of thought — though civil partnerships for heterosexual couples aren't recognized in her country. "[My partner and I] intend not to get married as neither of us feels comfortable with it," she tells Bustle; "its origins are far from romantic and, to us, symbolize patriarchy rather than equality. Plus we're not prepared to spend such insane sums of money on a wedding, and feel that sometimes marriage can lead to complacency. We want to be reminded that we have to work at our relationship and be together because it's what we want rather than because divorce is messy and expensive. So quite a few reasons why marriage isn't for us, I guess. Instead, we're thinking about a unity celebration when the time comes — it's not legally recognized, but still enables us to celebrate being together with family & friends."
Domestic partnership rights in the U.S. vary state-to-state, and the Human Rights Campaign is keen to emphasize to all couples, gay and straight, that civil unions doesn't offer the same federal legal protections as marriage. The availability of options, according to the Human Rights Campaign, is particularly important for LGBTQ rights. Sarah Warbelow, Legal Director at the Human Rights Campaign, tells Bustle, "Our view is that marriage equality is absolutely a must. Same-sex couples must have the ability to marry; that is a civil right. On the other hand, we don't see anything wrong with continuing to have civil partnerships as an alternative as long as it's an alternative for all couples, same and opposite-sex. They should be treated equally under the law."
And there are benefits to civil partnerships, too. "The real benefit to continuing to have civil partnerships is that it meets families where they're at. There are people who do not want to marry for a host of complex reasons, and providing alternatives to marriage allows us to provide the greatest number of protections for families. This is often important for the children of couples who don't want to marry, particularly when both the parents are not the legal parent of the child," Warbelow says.
For some, the "lesser" legal status, compared to marriage, of civil unions in various places can be a boon. Holly, an American woman who got a domestic partnership with her long-term male partner back in 2012 and is now planning to be married, tells Bustle, "The reason we got the domestic partnership was because we weren't really at a point where we were comfortable with the full legal and financial implications/complexities of marriage, but we wanted to put one of us on the other's insurance and to have some standing on that 'immediate family only' thing if one of us were hospitalized." She adds, "In our case, it was specifically [because it was] not legally equivalent to marriage."
Warbelow tells Bustle, "In the United States it's not as clear-cut as it is in some countries, where civil partnerships are essentially legally identical to marriage, just without the name. The U.S. has a state-based system of relationship recognition. Different people are eligible for marriage in different states, and the federal government looks to the states to make a determination of who is and who is not married. As for couples that enter into civil partnerships, they have the legal rights bestowed by the state, but do not have the rights bestowed by the legal government. You as a couple have the ability to automatically qualify for inheritance under state law, but wouldn't have access to social security benefits, for instance. And that is true for opposite-sex couples for civil unions in states that permitted that, like Illinois."
This means that civil unions remain, in the U.S. at least, a second-tier option from a legal perspective. "We're now going ahead with a legal marriage," Holly says, "mostly because we've hit a point where we'd actively like to have the full legal protection and benefit of marriage. Also, after ten years, we're much more confident that we won't find ourselves needing to go through messy, complicated divorce proceedings at some later point."
Civil partnerships raise questions and possibilities for people who have been married before and chosen to divorce, both positive and negative. "It's more complicated if you are religious, and if (like me) you have been married before," Jess, who is British and married, tells Bustle. "I don't really care about the patriarchal/ownership related history of marriage, because I think every marriage is what the people in it decide it's going to be, but we would certainly have considered a civil partnership if it had been available to us because getting married in church was made problematic by my divorce." The process of obtaining a second marriage as a divorcée in her church, she says, was very difficult: "It was very clear that our beliefs and church-going and good intentions were as nothing when stacked up against my previous marriage." In the end, she and her husband had a civil ceremony and a church blessing. "I'm really glad the civil ceremony option was there for us, and would certainly have considered a civil partnership if it had been on the table," she says.
Susanna, who is also divorced, is also curious about whether civil partnerships make substantial differences to the problems that beset long-term relationships in general. "I am agnostic about marriage, having briefly experienced it and not liked it much," she tells Bustle, "but I would be super interested to see a longitudinal study sometime down the road of different-gender couples and whether civil partnership vs. marriage had any effect on equitable division of household labor over time. Because nothing else seems to be doing the trick."
Civil partnerships do have some way to go, in the opinions of some women — largely in terms of how seriously society sees them. For Rachel, it's terminology. "We'd have to come up with a new relational term for that point in a long-term relationship where you're well beyond "girlfriend/boyfriend" but not legally anything yet," she tells Bustle, "so that the word "partner" could be saved for civil partnerships — like you wouldn't call someone your "husband/wife" whom you're not actually married to. If we could accomplish that I'd be on board."
For Holly, having a civil union is about perception and the separation of marriage from religion. These days, marriage doesn't have to be religious; humanist and civil ceremonies are common around the world (and are popular with people who want the wedding without any religious connotations.) But civil partnership represents a step further from religious connotations. "If civil partnerships with the same full legal rights as marriage were an option, I still think I would choose marriage specifically because marriage is easier to explain," she tells Bustle. "Because it's not a common option, I suspect a lot of people would assume that it was a lesser status in some way. However, if civil partnerships that were equal to marriage in every way were common enough that everyone understood them to be of equal status, we actually might choose a civil partnership specifically to distance ourselves from the religious implications many people apply to marriage."
Overall, the wedding industry doesn't look as if it should be losing any sleep over civil partnerships any time soon — particularly as people who are celebrating a lifetime commitment are still likely to want a bit of a party. If you are considering it in the U.S., it's important to know exactly what your state provides in terms of legal protections. "If couples avail themselves of a domestic partnership, they are not eligible for the rights, benefits and obligations of marriage at the federal level. And that's fine, as long as they understand what they're giving up," Warbelow says. But the growth in civil partnerships is also a signal that for some women, the appeal of something separate from the connotations of marriage, with all its centuries of baggage, is very strong indeed.