Unwedded bliss

One of the founders of the Alternatives to Marriage Project talks about the deep-seated American fear that shacking up will lead to the fall of Western civilization.

Published January 10, 2003 8:30PM (EST)

When the American Law Institute (ALI) released a 1,200-page report last month that effectively called for revolution in the legal consideration of marriage and family, Marshall Miller and Dorian Solot had a good laugh and a lusty cheer at their kitchen table in Boston.

As founders of the Alternatives to Marriage Project, which provides resources and information to unmarried couples, and themselves a happily unmarried couple, Miller and Solot had a very big win on their hands. The ALI, an influential group of lawyers and judges, had devoted 10 years to its report, and the document was widely expected to be a new guide for family lawyers and courts across the country. Not only did the report acknowledge that families and the people who head them have changed, it made specific recommendations for how to accommodate those changes in the practice of family law. If followed, the report's recommendations would radically alter the legal status of cohabiting couples, extending to them many of the same rights as married couples.

All of which made Miller and Solot, who co-wrote the book "Unmarried to Each Other," very happy. Presumably, the report also delighted the rest of America's 11 million cohabitating couples. Not so thrilled were conservatives and proponents of traditional "family values," who denounced the report as an assault on marriage, an institution currently being promoted by the government at great expense.

Marshall Miller, who, with Solot, has championed "unmarriage" for five years, spoke with Salon from his home office about the potential impact of the ALI report, the history of marriage in the United States, and the joys of planning your own commitment ceremony.

What was your initial response to the ALI report?

I sat down at our kitchen table to read the summary files of the report from Lexis-Nexis, and my partner Dorian was laughing, because I was cheering at each page. It's an impressive document, a decade in the making, written by people who have spent a lot of time studying family law and seeing firsthand what goes on in family court. These are people who really understand what's going on there. Like it or not, unmarried partners are in family court -- the divorce court judges who advised the report said that 20 percent of their caseloads are unmarried couples.

There's nothing new about informal unions -- relationships that aren't on file at City Hall. They've existed alongside formal marriage throughout history. What's new in only this last century (and I didn't realize this until I started reading the history) is the idea that what matters is the license -- whether or not people are legally married. Basically, before the Victorians in the 19th century, if you acted married, people treated you like other married couples. The focus often tended to be on the reality of day-to-day life. Who's putting the kids to bed, paying the bills, caring for the elderly?

The American Law Institute report is recommending a return to the kind of system that has existed in most of the world for most of history, a system where the focus is on treating people fairly based on the relationship and partnership they have, not based on formal marital status.

What do you think of the response to the report so far? Will it bring changes?

I'm excited by it -- front-page coverage in the New York Times, a big article in USA Today. I hope it sparks a serious national discussion about these issues not just in the news, but in the halls of justice and on the floor of Congress. There is every indication that unmarriage will only continue to increase, so it's about time we started talking about how the legal system can catch up.

After all, people who care about the well-being of families have had to consider the evidence: Nowadays most couples who are walking down the aisle are already sharing a home. There are 11 million people living together unmarried in the United States. And 40 percent of births to so-called single mothers are actually babies born to two-parent cohabiting families -- the mothers are single only in the legal sense.

One response to the evidence of tremendous growth in cohabitation would be to recognize unmarried partners as a constituency, listen to their needs thoughtfully, and give them the tools to help make their relationships successful, married or unmarried. That's at the heart of our work, and that approach is evident in the proposals of the American Law Institute.

The other possible response is to shut your eyes tight and wish that cohabitation would just go away, or direct all your energy into telling people how important marriage is. It's one thing to hear that from Jerry Falwell -- Dorian has had the pleasure of debating him on TV -- but it's quite another when that thinking is popular among those who have the president's ear as Ron Haskins does. He's a senior advisor for welfare policy in the Bush administration who recently told the Washington Times, "Cohabiting is a plague and we should do what we can do discourage it."

How did you end up as a spokesman for alternatives to marriage?

Dorian and I never set out to become poster children for unmarriage. We were like a lot of couples today -- we met in college but weren't in any rush to tie the knot. Marriage wasn't a big deal to us, but as the years ticked by it became clear that it was a big deal to everyone else. Friends and family were asking, nudging, hinting: "When are you going to get married?"

At one point we went looking for an apartment -- in the great liberal state of Massachusetts -- and the conversation went like this: Dorian says, "We're calling about the apartment," and the landlord's first question is, "How many people?" To which Dorian says, "Two. We're a couple." The landlord then pops the question, "Are you married?" to which Dorian answers, "No." He then says, "When are you getting married?"

We were stunned that at the top of the landlord's list was not whether we'd pay the rent on time, or take good care of the place, but whether or not we were married. Soon after that we had an insurance agency tell us we had to pay twice as much for two separate tenants insurance policies, even though we had been insured jointly for years in our previous house.

We also started noticing how unmarried relationships were talked about in the news. There was plenty of commentary from pundits who opposed cohabitation, and academics who studied it, but almost never any commentary from real, live unmarried people. We started researching, looking for the group that was speaking out for people like us, or a book about life as an unmarried couple. We walked down the street to the library and searched the Web and came up empty-handed. Eventually we got so frustrated that we said, "Well, I guess we'll have to do it ourselves," and in 1998 we founded the Alternatives to Marriage Project and started researching and writing "Unmarried to Each Other."

What kind of responses have you received to your work?

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. We receive a steady stream of e-mails and phone calls from people who are thrilled to have found the organization. My favorite e-mail came earlier this year after we were on "Morning Edition" on NPR. A woman in South Dakota wrote to us, "Every time my car breaks down or I get snowed in, people look at me with pity and say, 'You need a husband,' when what I really need is a wage that pays enough to afford a reliable car and a snow blower!" She said she loved the company of men, but she loved living alone even more. There's even a song about that idea, "Live Close By, Visit Often."

Of course, from time to time we also hear from those who think we're contributing to the downfall of Western civilization, not to mention sealing our fate in the afterlife. If any of them are Salon.com readers, you can reassure them that the family isn't going anywhere, it's just changing.

What is to prevent a slippery slope developing -- for example, roommates claiming marriage in order to receive marriage benefits?

You raise a couple of important issues here. The first and most basic: Why are some benefits available only to married people, in the first place? The other day a friend who works at Ohio State sent me an article from their newspaper about students marrying in order to get football tickets. If you won the ticket lottery and you were married, you'd get a second ticket for your spouse, but if you weren't married you'd only get one. In the case of football tickets, why not just let people bring one other person, anyone they choose? Maybe your dad's always dreamed of seeing the big game, and your spouse could care less. Change a policy like that one, and you'd have fewer people marrying for the wrong reasons.

Obviously, there's a lot more at stake here than tickets to a sporting event. When the stakes are high there are plenty of mechanisms in place to prevent a slippery slope. Domestic partner benefits, for example, require the signing of an affidavit that affirms, among other things, that this is a partner and not a roommate. But those questions are at Level 100, and right now we're at Level 10 in this discussion. The American Law Institute is talking about relationships that look like marriages in every way -- except that they don't have marriage licenses.

So in place of marriage, your organization offers suggestions for "commitment ceremonies," ways of recognizing the relationship without having an actual wedding. How does one plan a commitment ceremony?

It depends. When you receive that calligraphied envelope in the mail with a wedding invitation inside, you pretty much know what to expect. If the wedding ends up being a disaster, where the caterer is lousy and the officiant sounds like he's said these words a thousand times before, no one will complain. But with commitment ceremonies, because they often depart from tradition, the pressure is on for a couple to prove they can pull it off.

You can just imagine the conversations that some guests have in the car as they drive to the ceremony. Some are shaking their heads, already sure they're going to hate it. Others are ready for something really cool and original, and they'll be disappointed if it turns out to be kind of flat. Nonmarriage ceremonies have all the challenges of planning any event, saddled with the additional weight of conflicting expectations and trying to strike a meaningful, but not ponderous, tone for what is a significant rite of passage.

Could you give us some examples of commitment ceremonies you have attended or heard about?

Some commitment ceremonies are essentially weddings sans marriage license, complete with the white dress, the exchange of rings, the first dance, the Electric Slide. Others are totally private, personal exchanges, where a couple trade vows alone on top of a mountain. One couple who each had children from their previous marriages told us about their blended family's ceremony. The couple exchanged promise rings, the kids gave their blessing on the commitment, and the adults made a commitment to being the best parents they could be to all the children, biological or step. They felt like it made a real difference in the cohesion of the family, in the kids seeing themselves as brothers and sisters.

There are some wonderfully inventive rituals and ceremonies, where couples start with the basic idea of having their relationship witnessed and celebrated with friends and family, but then make it truly their own. One couple we interviewed, Priscilla and Joe, had what they called a Commitzvah, their combination of commitment ceremony and mitzvah, or blessing. They wanted their relationship to be validated by their community, not by the government, so instead of having a clergy person who would officially proclaim, by the power vested in them by the state, that they were married, they gave little bells to all the guests. At the end of the ceremony they asked their loved ones to send them off with a ringing endorsement, and as they walked off together, everyone rang their bells -- including Joe and Priscilla, who had bells, too.

What are some of the most heartening developments in the acceptance of unmarriage over the past decades?

It's incredibly heartening to read about what's happening in other countries in terms of family recognition -- some of these places are practically nearing the family-recognition finish line, while we Americans stand around debating which direction we want to run. Canada, France, Sweden and other countries have already overhauled their legal codes to treat domestic partners fairly, and the sky hasn't fallen in those places.

In fact, for all the concern about "what will happen to the children?" there are fewer low-birth-weight babies, lower rates of child mortality, and longer life expectancies in those three countries than in the U.S. Now, that's not just because they recognize domestic partners, but because they've adopted all kinds of policies that actually help real families, rather than trying to shape people's lives into some idealized notion of what family is supposed to look like.

I'm also really excited about the amazing growth in domestic-partner health benefits over just the last few years. It's really a very basic principle of equal pay for equal work. Benefits are one of the ways we compensate employees in this country, and domestic-partner benefits mean that unmarried employees get the same benefits for their family members as married employees get for theirs.

It's pretty remarkable: Ten years ago, most of us had never heard of domestic-partner benefits, and today, a third of Americans work for employers who provide them. People think of them as a benefit for gay couples, but 90 percent of the time, both same-sex and different-sex couples are eligible. This is another area where the U.S. is far behind the rest of the industrialized world -- we're the only country that doesn't guarantee healthcare for its citizens. We have this ludicrous system that gives you healthcare if you have a full-time job, or if you're married to someone who does. Domestic-partner benefits don't even begin to address the bigger problem, but it opens the healthcare door to larger group of adults and children. And, I might add, reduces the burden on society of having uninsured people.

Even Al and Tipper Gore's new book is good news. Here's a pretty mainstream, powerful guy, who won the popular vote in the last presidential election, and he's writing about how we need to do more to recognize that families come in all shapes and sizes and figure out how to support them. Coming to political grips with family diversity is not some zany, fringe idea -- most people understand it and polls suggest that people agree with it.

What has been disheartening in the fight for recognition of unmarriage?

I get totally depressed by the Bush proposal to use $300 million in welfare dollars to promote marriage. Nudging people down the aisle doesn't feed the kids, heat the apartment, pay the electric bill. It's such clear evidence of stealing from the poor, taking money intended to fight poverty, and ensuring that it won't be directed into the kind of programs that have already been shown to help families get out of poverty.

In West Virginia right now, poor people on public assistance get $100 more each month if they're married. It's considered a "marriage incentive," but in effect, it's a penalty for unmarried people. The children in unmarried families are being punished for no fault of their own -- $100 a month is a lot of money for a family in poverty.

There's a lot of solid research that says the reason why the poor don't marry is not because of a lack of appreciation for matrimony. The Bush administration says their marriage promotion proposals are about teaching skills so that people who choose marriage can have better marriages. But I haven't heard anyone in his administration condemn what West Virginia's doing, and as far as I know, there's nothing in the draft legislation that would prevent any other state from using its marriage promotion money the same way.

Which couples can claim "unmarital" status? Roommates? Friends? People who live down the hall from each other?

The census has an "unmarried partner" check box, which it added to its forms for the first time in 1990. People who check off that box are living with an unmarried partner in an intimate relationship. Our book is geared toward that demographic -- couples who are living together before marriage or instead of it. Our work with the Alternatives to Marriage Project has a broader focus, so it includes solo single people and people in all kinds of relationships who may or may not be living together.

But organizing around these issues is a linguistic challenge. The word "unmarried" is a real problem, because it defines who we are based on what we're not -- married. I think the word "single" is even worse, though -- it comes with this stereotype of someone sitting home alone, watching reruns and eating cold pizza. When you hear "single" you certainly don't think of committed couples, or unmarried people who live alone but have rich, fulfilling lives full of friendships and relationships.

And there are similar linguistic problems on the individual level. There's the challenge of how to introduce each other. At some point, most people outgrow "boyfriend" and "girlfriend." "Significant other" has so many syllables. "Partner" leads to all sorts of confusion: Are you business partners? In "Unmarried to Each Other," we have our collection of 40 different terms unmarried partners tell us they use, from "sweetie" to "spousal equivalent" to "copilot." One woman we interviewed told us that years earlier, she was on "The Today Show," and they asked her what she calls her partner. And she blurted out, "I just call him Frootloops." Afterward, all her friends asked her, "How could you call him that on national TV?"

Lynn Wardle, a law professor at Brigham Young University, is a vocal critic of the ALI recommendations, because, in his words, "many heterosexuals wish to avoid marriage and the obligations of marriage." Since you include among the unmarried people who aren't sure yet that they want to commit, aren't you unintentionally agreeing with conservatives like Wardle?

It's pretty ironic to see people who have built their careers opposing family diversity suddenly try to protect all those "heterosexuals who wish to avoid marriage." For most people, cohabitation is a life stage between dating and marriage, a step along the path. Other unmarried partners are choosing not to marry or can't marry. To me, this is about providing choices. People might choose legal marriage, or they might choose domestic partnership. Many will undoubtedly start out as domestic partners and then later get married. Regardless of whether they're wearing wedding rings, we have an ethical obligation to make sure people can be treated fairly in a court of law.

From what I understand about the American Law Institute's recommendations, anyone can "opt out" of the laws that ALI is proposing, by writing their own cohabitation agreement. That way, people who don't want certain legal assumptions made about their relationship can avoid the suggested legal obligations. But the ALI's recommendations would protect vulnerable people who currently find themselves out of luck in a legal system that turns its back on unmarried relationships. We get calls from people with really sad stories, horrible situations where they assumed the law would take care of them, and it doesn't.

By Sheerly Avni

Sheerly Avni is a freelance writer living in Oakland.

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