A growing number of couples in committed long-term relationships are very consciously choosing not to get married.
Emily Cooper and her partner of eight years Ben Morrell announced to their families they would not get married, to manage expectations.
When Emily Cooper and her boyfriend of eight years Ben Morrell flew home one Christmas to Sydney’s northern beaches they had an announcement to make. “We’ve decided not to get married,” Emily told her family and close friends.
“Although it seemed a little strange, we purposefully told them in order to manage their expectations,” the 29-year-old virtual assistant recalls. “I’ve always said getting married was not for me.”
Ben had already broken the news to his English family during a weekend in Amsterdam. “I told them that if we say ‘we have some news’ in the future it is more likely to be a baby than a wedding!”
Jo Bassett and Andrew Gillette with their two children, Isabella and Nathaniel, say marriage would not change their commitment. Photo: Supplied
Three months ago Emily and Ben welcomed a son, Sullivan – and no one has said anything to them about having a baby and not being married. “It hasn’t appeared to be an issue for anyone we know,” Emily says.
Like Emily and Ben, a growing number of couples in committed long-term relationships who have children (or intend to) and share a home and finances, are very consciously choosing not to say I do.
Women driving change
Sixteen per cent of Australian couples now live in a de facto relationship, according to the latest census, up from 10 per cent fifteen years ago. The proportion of cohabiting couples who are unmarried and have children has risen from 4 per cent to 11 per cent.
Yet while Beyonce extols men to “put a ring on it” it’s actually women who are driving this massive social change.
They’re not hardline feminazis raging against a patriarchal institution but bright, practical, independent women who can’t see what difference a wedding would make to the security and stability of their partnership.
Educated, making their own money and enjoying sexual freedom, these women are proud their social status is no longer tied to their marital status.
“The liberation of women includes the idea that women are free to make choices about everything – including fertility and cohabitation – that their own mothers did not feel free to make,” social researcher Hugh Mackay notes.
“That stereotype [of women desperate to marry] is completely wrong. Overwhelmingly women are taking the power of making that decision themselves.”
It might be because they’d prefer to spend their money on a house than “the big day”, they’ve been burnt in the past by divorce, or because they don’t have any religious beliefs which necessitate a blessing of their union. Many women say they just don’t need a marriage certificate to validate their relationship.
“I’ve always been a bit nonplussed about marriage,” Emily Cooper says. “I know we’re going to be together forever, we love each other, we’re one 100 per cent committed. We own property together, all our finances are shared. Even if we were married it would be a very similar situation in our day-to-day lives.”
Lesson learnt is ‘keep your options open’
Mackay says couples increasingly don’t want their relationship entangled in the church or state, and he believes there is an element of commitment-phobia in the rise of de facto relationships.
“People who have grown up in the last 30 years have experienced a very revolutionary period,” he says. “They’re the offspring of the most divorced generation, they’ve lived through a lot of economic uncertainty, the gender revolution is continuing. The lesson they’ve learnt is ‘keep your options open’.”
But Lyn Fletcher from Relationships Australia argues few de facto couples are together “for the fun of it” or to see if it works out. “There is a level of engagement, commitment and permanency in their relationships that they expect to continue. It’s not about marriage being wrong, it’s about what else does marriage give you that de facto doesn’t?”
Ben Morrell admits it was tough for him to decide not to get married. “Before I met Emily I definitely assumed I would get married. I come from a Christian family and I guess I presumed it would be the status quo.”
The couple went back and forth on the marriage question for a year. It helped that they had just moved to the “neutral territory” of Singapore for work.
“We didn’t have the influence of family and friends and society,” Emily says. “It gave us time to reflect on it, what do we really want – rather than what is everyone else doing. We had to be really open and honest with each other.”
Eventually Ben realised that if marriage was supposed to be “the ultimate commitment and compromise” he couldn’t pressure Emily into it.
“Forcing Emily to do something one way without consideration for her views seems illogical,” he explains. “To me it’s so much more important that I am with the right person [than being married].”
Now Ben can see the benefits of their choice. “It’s cheaper! Seriously, it seems some people are on pause, saving hard for two years for one day and waiting to ‘start’ their life together. It’s also [good] to think that we haven’t just gone with arguably the easier route and got married for the sake of it. I’m proud of that.”
‘Born out of wedlock’ now an anachronism
Although 53 per cent of Australian adults are in a registered marriage, according to the Bureau of Statistics, the crude marriage rate has fallen from 9.3 marriages per 1000 people in 1970 to 5.2 marriages per 1000 people in 2014.
Half a century ago children born outside of marriage were classified as “illegitimate”, and shotgun weddings or forced adoptions were common to avoid the shame of being an unmarried mother. A woman relied upon a man for financial security and couples who shacked up without marrying were “living in sin”.
In 1960 only 5 per cent of babies were born outside marriage, rising to 12 per cent in 1980. The term “born out of wedlock” has become an anachronism in the 21st century, with a third of children born outside marriage in 2011.
While this figure includes babies born to single mothers, Australian Institute of Family Studies researcher Lixia Qu says most of the growth is due to the increasing number of couples opting to have children within de facto relationships.
Living in Asia has made Emily Cooper and Ben Morrell realise how accepted de facto relationships are in Australia. Here government forms include a de facto box you can tick, couples who have been living together for more than two years have rights to each other’s property, and the Family Court treats de facto parents exactly the same as married parents.
“As a woman there is a whole new feminist movement which makes it fine [not to be married],” Emily observes. “It used to be that you’d have no social standing if you weren’t married. I’m happy people don’t judge you like that these days. We’re lucky we live in a Western society where we can do what we want to do and not be dictated to by whoever.”
With one in three marriages breaking now down , the experience of divorce has sullied some couples’ views of marriage. Whether their parents split up when they were little, or their own marriage didn’t last, they’re well aware a marriage certificate doesn’t future-proof a relationship.
A testament to trust and commitment
When her marriage ended after four years, Vicki Stirling decided she wouldn’t walk down the aisle again. “I felt marriage didn’t mean anything anymore,” she says. “Relationships break down whether you’re married or not.”
The 41-year-old fashion and lifestyle business consultant made this “perfectly clear” to Sebastien Verrier when their relationship blossomed after meeting at a work conference in Malta. While Vicki believes the Catholic-raised Frenchman had grown up expecting he would marry, Sebastien says marriage was not that important to him because his parents divorced when he was ten.
The couple have been together for nine years and now live in Melbourne’s Brunswick with their five-year-old son Isaac and 13-year-old Millie from Vicki’s previous marriage.
Sebastien jokes the couple would be “no good” at being married. “There is a pressure that sometimes comes with being married,” Vicki says, who remembers how her mother told her it was her “duty” to stay with her ex-husband even though she was no longer happy. “We don’t need that. We’ve got a good partnership.”
Many de facto couples believe they work harder at their relationship precisely because they’re not married, and argue their de facto status is a testament to their level of trust and commitment.
“We have to make more of an effort to keep loving each other [because] there is not a piece of paper linking us together,” Sebastien says. Vicki agrees: “When we do go through hard times – and we do – there is nothing else apart from our relationship keeping us together. It’s not because we’re married.”
A de facto relationship is up to five times more likely than a marriage to end within five years, according to the AIFS. “Mentally and emotionally de facto feels different to marriage, which is why it can feel somewhat easier to walk away,” Hugh Mackay says.
Kids ‘like a line in the sand’
Forty per cent of de facto couples expect to get married in the future, and the arrival of children often pushes them to take that step. Yet some couples say having children solidified their commitment to their de facto status.
“When we had kids it was like a line in the sand was drawn,” 44-year-old life coach Jo Bassett recalls.
“It was like ‘I’m really committed to this man and this family’. I realised it’s very important mum and dad stay together. I’m not mucking around now, it’s really serious now what we’re doing.”
Jo Bassett and Andrew Gillette met on the NSW central coast in their late teens, and have been a couple for 20 years. Jo believes not being married engenders a sense of freedom of choice.
“There is an element that we are choosing to stay together, maybe there is a freshness,” she says. “At first I’m choosing to be with you because I love and adore you. When that starts to fade and look a bit tarnished, I’m choosing to be with you because of this family we are creating together.”
Andrew will often say “We share our house, we share the kids, we share our debt. What else is there?”
Their ten year-old daughter Isabella and nine year-old son Nathaniel sometimes ask their parents when they’re going to get married. “I say ‘mum and dad love you, really nothing would change’,” Jo explains. “This is their reality, they’ve got a pretty good one. Mum and dad are together, we don’t fight very often, there is a lot of love.”
Relationships Australia’s Lyn Fletcher says most children wouldn’t be aware of whether their parents were married or de facto. “The most important thing to them is that mum and dad are a constant in their life, they have a sound relationship and they can depend on them. It’s not their legal status.”
Despite the growing prevalence of de facto relationships, couples say they’re still treated as a curiosity by some people. “People say ‘you guys should get married, you’d made a cute couple’. It’s like ‘are we not a cute couple now?’,” Vicki Stirling says.
“Sometimes I want to call them on it – ‘why did you feel you had to get married? Don’t you trust your relationship?’ We don’t need a piece of paper to say we’ll be together forever.”