Do you ”I do”?

Common-law vs. marriage—and whether it matters

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This weekend, I’m going to prepare a candlelit dinner, put on soft music and ask my wife why we got married.

Before you pity my dear spouse for being with such a clod, I’m not considering a change in our marital status. On the contrary, I’m a true romantic who never misses an opportunity to celebrate our couplehood. For our 10th anniversary this year, she suggested diamonds. I insisted we go with the traditional tin—I even picked the big tin of Beefaroni. My point is simply this: if you ask me how our relationship would be different had we decided to live common-law rather than getting officially hitched, I’m not sure I’d have a clear answer.

There are legal and religious differences between the two types of unions. The legal ones, though, are really only important to Anna Nicole Smith and people who just want to change their immigration status, not to couples who genuinely love each other. As for the religious reasons for choosing traditional marriage, I won’t presume to argue with those, though I don’t think they’re the prime motivation for most couples walking down the aisle. Besides, if we really value marriage, shouldn’t we be able to defend it on purely secular grounds? When common-law couples dismiss marriage as “just a piece of paper,” shouldn’t we be able to mount a spirited defence without quoting scripture?

You’d think so, but when people try to stick up for marriage, they tend to spout platitudes—usually variations of how it’s “the bedrock of society.” If that were the case, we’d be on shaky ground. With a divorce rate of almost 40 per cent, marriage doesn’t so much resemble bedrock as it does Alka-Seltzer—both tend to dissolve when they find themselves in hot water. It’s monogamy, not marriage, that’s a pillar of our culture. So, is marriage anything more than a symbol? Does it mean a genuinely deeper commitment, or just an officially recognized one?

In search of answers, I paid a visit to David Rubinstein and Louise Dorfman of Couple Enrichment Inc. in Thornhill, Ont. They run non-denominational marriage-prep workshops, so I figured they’d be in a good position to comment on why exactly people get married in the first place. About half of their clients are already living together in a committed relationship, so why do they go the next step? Turns out that pleasing others is at the top of the list: many couples are nudged down the aisle by Mom and Dad, while those who plan to have children often want to avoid the stigma some still associate with unmarried parents.

Then there’s the big fat wedding factor. “The idea of a fairy-tale wedding is still a big draw,” says Dorfman. “It fits in with the notion of romantic love.” She’s right, but this skirts the question, too, by blurring the distinction between the ritual and what it represents. A wedding isn’t a marriage, though we all know couples who’ve spent more time planning the ceremony than contemplating its aftermath.

But even with those factors in the background, the reason for getting married often boils down to something much more straightforward. According to Rubinstein, couples say they want to get married because, “When you’re in love, that’s just what you do.” There’s something elegantly simple about that, although it does seem to imply that the love will disappear unless you trap it in a jar. Besides, while Just Do It might sell running shoes, I’m not sure it’s the slogan I’d put on a wedding chapel.

But maybe marriage doesn’t need a slogan. Maybe defending it isn’t as important as traditionalists—and wedding planners—would have us think. “The quality of the relationship is far more important than its status,” says Rubinstein. Works for me. Because, ultimately, why we got married (or didn’t) is less important than why we stay married (or don’t). It’s not about whether we took a vow. It’s about how we treat each other today, tomorrow and next year.

There is going to be a lot to discuss with my wife during our romantic dinner, but no worries. There’s enough Beefaroni for at least an hour or two.