by Fr. Pavel Gumerov
Another widespread mistake of modern times is the so-called “common-law marriage.” I will use this quite false and incorrect expression for the sake of convenience, and further on I will conditionally call such a marriage unlawful, not having been legally performed. The falseness of this label is obvious.
The term “common-law marriage” can only be applied to the thing that people who want to live together without legal registration are trying to avoid: a legally established marriage, registered in the applicable office.
This office exists in order to record the status of a country’s citizens: when they were born, when they started a family, or when they died. When two members of opposite sex live together without legal registration, their relationship is called, in legal terms, cohabitation. (I wrote about this in my book, The Lesser Church, which has also appeared [in Russian] on Pravoslavie.ru.)
Why is civil registration of marriage needed? We live in a state, and we are its citizens. Whether we like it or not, we must observe the laws of our country. Everyone has a birth certificate, (in the U.S., a social security number), and many other identification documents. When a new person is born, his birth is registered by the respective legal branch, and a birth certificate is issued. This is an affidavit showing that a new citizen has been born, and he is to live according to the laws of his country. He has his rights, and will have his obligations. Marriage is also the birth of something new—a new “legal entity,” a unified organism, a family. A family is not just our own affair—it is also a governed establishment. A family has its rights and duties; its interests must be defended, and its life is partially regulated by the laws of the land.
I often hear defenders of “common-law marriage” talk about the civil marriage document with strong antipathy and even hatred, as an “empty formality.” But for some odd reason, they do not hesitate to obtain other empty formalities, such as deeds of property title, stock certificates, or signed checks. That means that they do not dread documentation itself, but rather the responsibility that marriage registration brings. If a person really loves, then the document is not a problem, and if it is a problem, that means there is no love.
One Russian actor, Mikhail Boyarsky, related that his wife once gave him an ultimatum: either they separate, or they get married. He said that he did not want to separate from her.
“Then marry me,” she said. “Why do I need that stamp in my passport? It doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “If it doesn’t mean anything, then what is the problem?” she asked him.
It’s true: if you love someone, then there is no problem—you just go and register. But if you are not sure of your feelings, you will run from marriage as from fire. It must be mentioned that Mikhail Boyarsky agreed with his wife, Larissa, and they have been married for thirty years now.
Supporters of “free relationships” often like to cite that in ancient times, there were supposedly no registrations at all, and people lived as they liked. This is not true. Marriage has always existed, only legislative norms have differed. By the way, the presence of marriage is one factor that makes man different from an animal.
In Tsarist Russia [as in many other countries —Ed.], for example, marriage was registered in the church, mosque, or synagogue; in the Roman Empire, a marriage agreement was signed in the presence of a witness; the ancient Jews also signed marriage documents; in some places, marriage was concluded simply before witnesses (in antiquity, a promise given in the presence of witnesses could be more binding than a written document), but no matter how it was done, the newlyweds witnesses before God, before each other, and before their country or community, that they are henceforth husband and wife, and live according to the laws established in the given society. The couple had the state as witness that they are no longer simply two individuals, but a family, and are obligated to bear responsibility for each other and for their offspring. After concluding a marriage agreement, lawful wives and legitimate children also received their due class and property privileges. This is how a marriage differed from a sexual cohabitation. By the way, “primitive promiscuity” or hetaerism, (sometimes written hetaerism, meaning informal sexual relations that supposedly existed among archaic tribes) is just as much a historical fabrication as matriarchy. Hetaerism is defined in Wikipedia as:
“A term employed by 19th century anthropologists (such as Johann Jakob Bachofen) to indicate a theoretical [author’s emphasis] early state of human society characterized by the absence of the institution of marriage in any form… Sometimes known as ‘primitive promiscuity’.”
Of course, there has been much activity throughout history other than marriage, in some countries, outrageous depravity prevailed. In the Roman Empire, for example, concubinage—legalized extra-marital cohabitation—existed, but no one considered it marriage. Of course, there have also been varying forms of marriage, some of them absolutely unacceptable for Christians (like polygamy). But even in the case of legal polygamy, there were legal wives, whose status was quite different from that of a concubine or lover.
Besides the fact that “common-law marriage” is a false and deceptive thing, only illusorily implicating the existence of a family, it also does not allow the partners to put their relationship in order. Sometimes a “common law marriage” is called barren; firstly, because the cohabitants, as a rule, are afraid to have children. They can’t make sense of their own relationship, so why add more problems, fuss, and responsibility?
Secondly, “common law marriage” cannot generate anything new; it is fruitless in the spiritual and even emotional sense. When people create a lawful family, they take a responsibility upon themselves. Entering into marriage, people make the decision to live with their spouse for the rest of their lives, to go through all their experiences together, to equally share both joy and sorrow. They no longer feel separate from their other half, and whether they like it or not, the spouses have to come to unity, learn to bear each other’s burdens, build a relationship, work together, and—most importantly—to learn to love each other. Just as a person has parents, brothers, and sisters, and he has to learn to live with them and find mutual understanding with them or his family life will become intolerable, so it is in a marriage between a husband and wife.
One modern psychologist in Russia called “common-law marriage” an open-ended ticket: “The partners always know that they have a ticket out, and therefore, if something isn’t just right, they can give up and wave good-bye at any moment. With such an approach, there is no motivation to fully invest in a relationship; for it would be like remodeling a rented apartment.”
That is why so few “common-law marriages” end in legal marriage.
People from the outset do not perceive their union as something significant, serious, and permanent; their relationship is not deep. Freedom and independence are dearer to them. Even the years they spend together do not give them any assurance, or give their union any stability.