As more counties are moving towards the acceptance and legalisation of same-sex marriage. In this context, the motivation of why cohabitating couples may consider marriage is important to understand. Marriage rates have been dropping over the years while divorce has been slowly increasing. More couples are cohabitating rather than making the traditional commitment of marriage. This is especially true in the world’s major western cities where cohabitating is seen as a convenient way of reducing the costs of living. Cohabitating is more common and now often precedes or replaces marriage.
Why are couples still marrying when there may be little to offer legally or socially from this? Both same-sex and opposite-sex couples show similarities and differences in their decision to marry after long term cohabitation. Opposite-sex couples have been choosing cohabitation as trial marriage, or as an alternative or resistance to marriage. Research has shown that many opposite-sex couples slip into cohabitation with little discussion or decision, they simply spend more nights with each other until it becomes uneconomical to maintain separate homes.
Most of the following research is from a paper by Maureen Baker which investigates the difference between same-sex and opposite-sex couples in New Zealand who chose to move from cohabitating to marriage. Research has concluded that marriage is typically viewed as a highly symbolic act for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. The decision to move from cohabitating to marriage is often difficult to make and requires negotiation between the couple and their families. Many opposite-sex couples felt that getting married was a normal thing to do and was part of their early gender socialisation. Same-sex couples were often raised with similar beliefs that they will marry and reproduce. But once they “came out” and lived openly with a same sex partner the pressure to marry stopped. Same-sex couples who decided to marry experienced opposition from homophobic family members and felt that the process of announcing their decision to marry was another coming out which was often traumatic. Also some same-sex couples experienced disapproval to marry from gay/lesbian friends who were antagonistic to the idea of marriage which they saw as patriarchal or simply unnecessary.
For opposite-sex couples they felt there was social pressure to adhere to the normal course of life; dating, marriage, house and children. Other opposite-sex couples resisted the social pressure to marry because they objected to the religious connotations of marriage, the traditional stereotyping of gender roles, or they felt it was unnecessary. Both same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples in cohabitating relationships believed that marriage was important public commitment and celebrated a successful relationship. The public announcement to marry was considered important as it showed a commitment to the relationship. In opposite-sex couples the tradition of the man proposing marriage was more the accepted norm, while few women proposed marriage. Opposite-sex couples believed it was the man who controlled the steps to cohabitating and on to marriage. With same-sex couples it was more likely that the older partner would propose marriage. The one variation between opposite-sex and same-sex cohabiting relationships, was the emphasis and importance of gaining legal rights through formalisation for gay couples.
When opposite-sex couples marry, research has shown they are more likely combine their incomes and assets. The main reason cited for combining their income was the decision to raise children where the wife would become a stay at home mum. Research has shown that opposite-sex married couples are less likely to separate if their assets and income are combined in comparison with cohabitating couples. Will this be the same for same-sex couples? Are same-sex couples less likely to separate if their incomes are combined in comparison with same-sex cohabitating couples? The majority of research does not support the idea that same-sex couples marry to have children.
Christopher Swane - Relationship Counselling and Psychotherapy - Wellington New Zealand