AUSTIN, Texas — Challenging the idea that marriage is necessary for solidifying relationships, a new study from The University of Texas at Austin reveals same-sex couples in long-term relationships believe marriage is more important in terms of legal rights, but less so as a symbol of commitment.
The findings are detailed in a study titled "Commitment Without Marriage: Union Formation Among Long-Term Same-Sex Couples" in the June issue of the Journal of Family Issues.
Corinne Reczek and Debra Umberson, sociology researchers at the university, and Sinikka Elliott, a researcher at North Carolina State University, found gay and lesbian couples who began their relationships in the mid-1980s and early-1990s, prior to the rising acceptability of gay marriage, do not see marriage or other ceremonies as a symbolic moment of commitment, but as a way of celebrating an already unified relationship.
Based on personal interviews with 20 couples, ages 29 to 72, whose long-term relationships ranged from eight to 27 years, the researchers examined how the participants' experiences shaped their views of marriage and commitment, how they differentiate dating and long-term commitment, and whether the eight couples who had weddings or commitment ceremonies viewed these events as relationship-altering milestones or as celebrations of their preexisting bond.
According to the study, more than half of the respondents deemed commitment ceremonies as unimportant and pointless. However, all except for one of the participants said they would legally marry if they could, indicating the importance of legality for same-sex couples.
"Although trends regarding acceptability of ceremonies have shifted, most of the couples in our sample find at this point in their lives, formal public ceremonies are not practical or substantial enough in legal and social meaning to warrant their participation," Reczek said. "However, if legal marriage were accessible, nearly all couples would participate for the legal, financial and social benefits."
Due to the absence of a traditional wedding, many of the participants could not identify an exact date or event that marked when their relationship began. Frequently, both partners in a couple gave different anniversary dates.
"Because gay and lesbian couples cannot legally marry, they follow diverse and sometimes unclear paths toward forming long-term committed relationships," Reczek said. "This research both underscores the need for legal protections and rights for all couples. It also shows the multiple ways couples can form lasting, committed relationships outside of marriage."