What are my options for non-legal commitment ceremonies?

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Djinnaya & Jason's wedding of WINNING
What if you don't want to get legally married, but you DO want to celebrate your commitment with your friends? Photo by Megan Finley.

I have been together with my partner for almost six years. We always spoke about marriage in the abstract, talking about “someday.” Recently my partner confessed that he had been thinking about asking me to be engaged, but he doesn't really want to get legally married. I was confused because engagement, to me, means preparing to get legally married.

But legal marriage has never been a priority or dream for me, so I don't really care about not getting married.

I have, however, been thinking about alternative, non-legal ceremonies where we could invite friends to symbolize our commitment without the legal aspect.

What kinds of non-wedding commitment ceremonies are there? 

There are many reasons that committed people don't get legally married — from not being allowed to by law, to just not being comfortable with the concept.

Ultimately, it's no-ones business why you don't want to make it legal! Here at Offbeat Bride, we just love the fact that you want to celebrate your commitment to one another. So here are some forms of non-legal wedding ceremonies you can do instead of getting legally married…

Unity ceremony

Scroll through our archives of awesome unity ceremonies — we've seen unity ceremonies that go way beyond the common shapes of “unity candle” or even “unity sand.” The idea is just to each contribute to uniting something. Unity sandwich? LOVE IT! Unity cocktail? YES!

Pick your favorite idea, or come up with something all your own and throw a unity ceremony party.

Unity celebration

This idea comes from Lith & Ealesy's Formal Feminist *Not Legal* Wedding:

We actually refer to [our non-legal wedding] as a unity celebration rather than a wedding because it was not a legally official or recognised occasion.

There are some guests who will get crabby if they thing you're getting legally married but aren't. Using language like “a unity celebration” helps avoid any confusion with guests who may have a lot of assumptions abut what the word “wedding” means.

Exchange vows without a contract

Take inspiration from Ben and Joriel's non-legal wedding and just exchange vows:

It did take some effort to get all our friends and family on board with the whole not-technically-a-wedding thing, but we felt good about making people think… Saying our vows to each other was the high point of the evening and, in many ways, the high point of our lives thus far. We printed the words in the program, so we didn't have to worry about speaking up for everyone to hear, and there was no officiant, so we were speaking directly to each other. It was powerful and weepy and unforgettable.At the end when we kissed, the crowd went wild, encouraged by the note in the program that said, “Please feel free to whoop and holler if you are so moved.

Handfasting as a non-legal commitment ceremony

Photos by John Newsome Photography

Doing a handfasting is an awesome way of having a wedding-type ceremony without the legalities. You may want to check out our handfasting archives for inspiration as well as these posts:

Just say nice things

tumblr_mnsnuyjZ4m1qhsqnpo1_1280Sarah and Tim, of Kermit and Miss Piggy fame, had a great idea when they got weddinged. Since they had already exchanged vows when they eloped, they used their party a year later as an excuse to say nice things to each other…

My husband and I decided that since it wasn't actually a wedding, we would just say nice things to each other instead of actual vows. We kept everything secret until we recited them at the reception and it was too sweet. -Sarah

Throw a commitment party instead of an engagement party

Just like engagement parties celebrate the fact that you've reached a new place in your relationship, you can throw a party for your non-legal commitment. You can either surprise people with the news of your new commitment and throw a surprise ceremony, or go ahead and whip up fancy non-wedding invitations and throw a big ‘ol party for your new level of commitment. Sans paperwork.

We know you have non-legal ceremony ideas. Leave 'em in the comments!

Comments on What are my options for non-legal commitment ceremonies?

  1. What do y’all think of the idea of just having a wedding, complete with vows, and just not signing the paperwork? Acting married but filing separate taxes and getting separate insurance? Is there something I’m missing with this plan? (I’m in the US, if it matters.)

    ETA: It’s something I occasionally consider for myself; that’s why I phrased my comment like this.

    • One, thing, be fully clear that people know you are not getting legally married. Don’t call it a wedding–regardless of YOUR beliefs, people will be very upset if THEY believe you being disingenuous.

      • I get where you’re coming from, but I completely disagree. If they want to call it a wedding and a marriage, that’s their right. They don’t have to disclose the true legality if they don’t want to.

        • We’ll have to respectfully disagree. The vast majority of people believe that marriage and wedding are legally binding terms. *I* don’t believe it’s necessary for a commitment, I’m just pointing out that some people may be a little miffed if they believe they’ve been misled. You’re correct, they don’t HAVE to do anything, but you must be prepared for the reactions you may receive. The couple in question seems at least somewhat concerned about that, otherwise, why would they ask about alternative ceremonies? If they don’t care, neither do I.

        • I agree with you. My boyfriend and I don’t believe in the legality of marriage but I want to wear a white dress and profess my love for him infront of family of friends. Marriage is a piece of paper in which the governement views two people in unity. I believe a commitment ceremony is the greatest answer. If people get upset that they aren’t attending a “real” wedding then you should reevaluate your circle of friends. Those who attend will be happy just to see the unity and love between two people.

      • A wedding is just a ceremony. It doesn’t have to be legal. You are confusing “wedding” with “marriage”.

        • No, I am not. I am aware of what each of those terms mean . I said the vast majority of people believe they are legally binding (and interchangeable) terms. If you invite people to your wedding, 9/10 will assume/believe you are also getting ‘legally’ married.

          *I* don’t care. Most people on this site probably don’t care. But no one exists in a bubble, and you should be aware of others reactions and know how you will deal with them. Aunt Sally or Grandma Jane might be a little upset that you aren’t, in their assumed words, ‘really married’ even though there was a wedding. You don’t have to care, but understand everyone doesn’t see things as you do.

          • Of course, those people who get upset about not being told might also get upset about the underlying concept. I’ve got relatives who would be quite upset that my partner and I are living together without getting married, so we don’t tell them. Yes, they would also be upset if they found out we didn’t tell them, but that’s the choice you make to keep peace. Sometimes it’s better to just keep things private.

            Anyhow, the vast majority of people believe lots of silly things. I would guess, however, that more than 1 out of 10 people knows that you need a license – not just a ceremony – to make a marriage legal.

          • In my opinion, its none of anyones business whether is legally binding or not. They’re there for the union of two people are they not? Or are they there for the signing of the contract?

          • My fiance and I are 60 years old, we both lost our spouses after 40 years of marriage. If we legally marry I will lose my benefits from 20 years of military life with my spouse. I can’t afford to lose them, I need the insurance and free medication. We want to be husband and wife and commit the remainder of our lives to each other. My Grandparents and their parents and grandparents from past generations did not have to buy a license to be married. Our commitment to each other will be a marriage commitment, it matters not what others think. We want our children and grandchildren to know us as husband and wife. Our certificate of marriage will be our own, not one the state requires of us.

      • But why do you have to tell people that you’re not legally married? I wouldn’t talk to my family about a pre-nup or about how much I’m contributing to my retirement, so why should this other business/legal issue matter to them. As far as I’m concerned, I’d be married, and as far as they’re concerned, I’d be married. It’s really only the state, the federal government, and our insurers who would consider us unmarried.

        (This is a hypothetical issue, obviously, but I would LOVE people to give their counterpoints to this.)

        • yea, i mean, how would they ever even know? how does that come out in conversation?

          “so how is the legality of marriage going for you two?”

        • We got “weddinged” without getting legally married at that time, due to some snafus with the birth certificate and the marriage licence. The only people who “know” about that are my and his parents, and the wedding party, mostly because we needed to explain to our witnesses why they wouldn’t be signing any paperwork. Some ceremonies incorporate the signing of the documents into the wedding; my sister-in-law did that. We were not going to do that, planning on signing the papers afterwards, so it never came up. However, if you live in place where people are expecting to see some paper-signin’ during the ceremony, there may be questions.

          • This is what I am concerned about. We are planning on just having a blessing in front of guests but we are acting as though it is a legal marriage, however I think guests will be expecting to see the paperwork!

          • I have never expected to see paperwork at a wedding. Our minister has a certificate that we will be signing and asking him to keep till we next come to service. Or those that are close to you just tell them its a blessing if they really need to know. The last option is not ideal but tell them you had a registry office. I cant imagine who would ask to see your paperwork. By the time you get to the reception no one will care if you signed a certificate or not.

    • What do you call a ceremony of marriage without a proposal, without rings being exchanged, without saying any vows and without consummating even after two weeks, but just agreeing that there was no lawful impediments.

    • That sounds like a “commitment ceremony” to me, which I think should be perfectly acceptable. Plenty of couples opt for that instead.

    • I have a question, if you have a non legal marriage and have you want your last name changed to you “husbands” last name how wud you do that?

      • You don’t “need” a reason to ever change your name. If you decide you want to, do. Legality of marriage has nothing to do with it.

    • My boyfriend and I plan on having a commitment ceremony next year around January on our 10 year anniversary.?

    • So it’s ok not to turn in the paperwork. Because I want to keep the certificate just not have it filed.

  2. There’s also the obvious “have a wedding without the legal part” option. That kind of fits into the categories already suggested though. But you can totally have the ceremony and the party without having a legit notary/pastor saying the “magic words” that makes it legal.

    I would recommend talking to your partner about what aspects of a ceremony would make each of you feel bound to the other for life (if that’s your thing). Is it the rings? Is it having your community watch you commit yourselves? Is it simply the speaking of vows to each other? Take whatever it is that makes you feel bound, and go with that.

    I’m thinking of The Hunger Games trilogy here. Peeta tells the Capitol crowd that in District 12, they have a toasting ceremony and no one feels married without it. So he and Katniss did that, and to them, even without the legal paperwork, they feel married. So follow their lead and do what makes YOU feel married.

  3. This is basically what I am planning on doing. Because we’re both on the same page in terms of the legality meaning nothing to us and because we both want our friend to officiate (in NC, the laws on who can legally officiate a marriage are much more strict), we are having a wedding without the legal part. To us, it’s about speaking those words of commitment to each other while we’re surrounded by the people we love. A marriage certificate is just a piece of paper. I mean, why do I need the government to tell me that my marriage is real? FH and I are the only ones who get to decide that.

  4. or you could just have a ” show off our love” party. a simple cermeony party. dinner, games, etc… kind of like planning a wedding but just a party on its own without the propers and traditions. Do it by your rules! 🙂

  5. You could take what you like from weddings (cake, dress, dancing, poetry, whatever) and have an anniversary party for your x-number of years together. Tell friends and family to dress up! Host it in an awesome venue! Have fun!

    • That’s what we’re planning! My partner and I are having a ten year anniversary “love fest” ( we haven’t chosen the official name for the party yet). We chose to celebrate the fact that we’ve spent this long together and have every intention of spending the rest of our lives together. June 21, 2014, summer solstice love celebration backyard acreage BBQ bonfire fireworks love fest.

  6. I’m in a similar boat. We’ve been together for over 10 years and want to get married someday but because of legal issues were trying to resolve, we have been postponing making anything legal. I like the option of having a ceremony in the church, having an officiant but just not signing the papers until everything is resolved. Not sure if the church or officiant would go for a non-legal religious ceremony.

    • As long as you are clear with the officiant, it’s a possibility, depending on the officiant and your denomination. Many officiants would consider doing a commitment ceremony. In their case, it is about a commitment in the eyes of God and is not actually required to be legal at all. It just so happens that historically, Church and State were merged so much that a legal marriage had to happen through the Church or some other religious entity. As long as you’re upfront, you can work to find an officiant who will honour your desire to commit before God without having to legally sign a contract.

  7. Agreeing with Dee. There have been families that felt BETRAYED to be “lied to” about attending a wedding without the legal paperwork. I personally wouldn’t care, but you have to prepare for guests that will. I’ve seen this complaint sadly quite a lot. Guests who felt angry that they “flew all this way” to attend a wedding and find out the couple were not legally married. I don’t know why people feel these strong reactions to a ceremony about love, but I’m just warning you that it happens. 🙁

  8. Oh my glob, you guys. My partner and I had a party exactly one year ago and I’ve been trying for that whole year to get up the guts to share it with OBB. You see, we had nothing. We didn’t have a ceremony, we didn’t exchange anything, we didn’t really even say anything other than a tearful thank you to the guests after I had already had three beers. We just had an amazing weekend full of love and friends and family and food and fellowship and it was one of the best moments of my life. We had a tough time in the few months right before the party trying to explain tte purpose of the event to the folks we really wanted to be there, and it was quite a learning experience in figuring out how to frame our emotions without resorting to defenseiveness (which I did a lot at first. Just COME to our PARTY! You’d come to a WEDDING! Just come to THIS!).

    ANYHOO: Gwen, this is all to say that you can have whatever you want and call it whatever you want and it will be beautiful and yours and amazing. And even though you may have some tough conversations, your friends and family that love you will see the light that shines in your face when you talk about your day and they will understand its importance. I am so excited for you.

    • this is our basic agenda too! I’m relieved to hear another’s story of something similar to our own vision. how did you call it? what did you say on the invites? We thought of not-quite-a-wedding but really, our party isn’t about a wedding. It’s about bringing everyone we love together to show our appreciation for our community and let them support us as we do our thing. Any thoughts (looking back) on what you could call it to help people understand its importance but also its difference?

  9. My daughter wants to do a handfasting commitment ceremony and not legally get married because of her future mother in law is getting ill very often ( she already had three strokes) and her fiance is the only child she had. He wants to make a commitment in front of her instead of legally getting married since they both do not feel ready for the real thing just yet. Which I am okay with since I believe in not rushing into making an important vow commitment that is suppose to mean a lifetime marriage. Future mother in law had said she thanks them for thinking of her but she rather have them wait and plan for the real wedding when they are ready. So I say call it what you want to call it and the family should not be upset or mad if you are not legally married but in reality commitment &Handfasting ceremonies had been a non legal activity and a custom for many years before the actual legal marriage took place.

    • Me and my boyfriend are having a handfasting in October. It’s not going to be legally binding because of the fact that in my home state you have to be 21 to get married. It will also be a pagan event cause of the fact that my family is not pagan. So we will have a “normal” wedding when I turn 21.

  10. My partner and I are planning a non-legal wedding, and we’ve still just been referring to it as a wedding. In our case, everyone knows we can’t get legally married, so there’s no “deception.” But I still have these moments of thinking “should we call it something else?!” even though I deeply disagree with the idea that the state has any say in who can or can’t get married.

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