Image by Tina Tiller
Image by Tina Tiller

SocietyJune 21, 2024

Marriage, civil union or de facto: In 2024, which one should you choose?

Image by Tina Tiller
Image by Tina Tiller

The legal status of each type of relationship is similar, so why opt for one over the others? We spoke to three couples on why they made the choice they did.

After my Sunday Essay was published, exploring what a forever relationship looks like when you don’t believe in marriage, I found myself in lots of conversations about the choice not to get married. Most people were very respectful, but some clearly felt that entering a marriage or civil union is an essential step to securing the future of any relationship. 

They pointed out all of the things I might lack in my life if I didn’t enter some sort of legal agreement with my partner. Much as I disagreed with them and didn’t care for their lack of respect for my choices, I did find myself wanting to be sure, to just double-check: is there a chance I am missing out on something huge here? 

I approached some friends and acquaintances to learn about their journeys to marriage, civil union, or the choice to stay de facto, to understand what the differences between those types of relationships are, and if they’re legally similar, what would make someone choose one over the other.

The first couple were Kim and James, my beautiful (married) neighbours who live in a shipping container house with their two daughters. They made me tea and showed me their book of vows, each page a different illustration of birds which represented promises they were making to each other. It was hard to imagine any argument against marriage, seeing their words and drawings, listening to them laugh and talk about their wedding day, the kai and decorations they made themselves, all the people who travelled from overseas to celebrate them. 

They told me they didn’t get married for religious reasons, but because it just felt like the right next step, and for the ease in explaining themselves to the world. As James put it, “Society tends to know what we mean when we say ‘wedding’, ‘husband’, ‘wife’ – we don’t need to explain to anyone the nature of our relationship.”

Marriage offers that simplicity, the social knowns. To choose something else is to commit to a life less simple, one where you might find yourself explaining your love to friends, colleagues, strangers. 

There are many different ways to honour a relationship. (Photo: Getty)

I spoke to my friends Jess and Ellie who had a ritual to celebrate their relationship, but didn’t enter a marriage (legally speaking, they are in a de facto relationship). They called their ceremony whaiāipo ai: a celebration of everyday love, overlooking the ocean at Whāingaroa. On the day, they promised each other nothing, named what they were letting go of, and then had everyone put little bits of loose leaf tea into a pot, and made each other a cuppa while their family and friends watched on.

To be considered de facto in the eyes of the law, broadly speaking, you need to be living together for three years, or else have a child together (it can sometimes be tricky to determine whether a couple is de facto, though, and of course a lawyer is best placed to advise on any particular situation). It is a commitment based on cohabitation and the intention to build a life together. In that sense, it requires the most commitment of all three: for marriages and civil unions, you could technically marry someone you’ve just met (if you so desire). But de facto relationships don’t have the same social and historical clout as marriage. 

“It felt like a spiritual and political choice,” Jess told me about their decision to remain de facto. “I’m non-binary and so is Ellie, so it felt too that we were rejecting the blueprint that was laid out by cis heteronormative marriage – with its junky power imbalances, crappy labour divisions, and shitty history of property ownership.”

How has this arrangement worked out for them? “So far, our not-marriage has been fucking excellent,” Jess said. “It’s exceeded my expectations, my partner is gold. Life is glorious together.”

What about civil unions? Why get one, especially now that same-sex marriage is legal?

For a lot of people, the answer seems to be, “There’s no good reason”. The number of civil unions celebrated by couples living in New Zealand decreased significantly after same-sex marriages became legal in 2013, according to Stats NZ: between 2005 (when civil unions were introduced) and 2013, there were on average just under 300 civil unions a year. This dropped to just under 50 a year between 2014 and 2023. 

In 2018, for example, there were 20,949 marriages and civil unions, so civil unions represent a very small fraction of that total. Just under one-third of the civil unions from 2014-2023 were same-sex couples.

But between 2005 and 2013, civil unions were the only legal avenue for same-sex couples to formalise their relationships. Karen and Delphine had their civil union in Autumn, 2009. “As a same-sex couple before same-sex marriage was legalised in NZ, this was our only option,” Karen told me. Four events made up their special day, starting with French champagne and macaroons and ending in a private party at the iconic Las Vegas Strip Club in Karangahape Road. 

“We do plan to renew our vows as a marriage so we can further secure our future together,” Karen added, “which will eventually see us move to France.”

What else did I learn? In order of most to least admin, it seems civil unions come with the most paperwork, with de facto relationships needing nothing on paper to be official. Marriage has a lot more connection to the state: you need to apply for a licence to get married, and you need to get a divorce issued to you through family court if you wish to end the relationship. 

For marriage and civil unions, you must be over 18, not related and not already married or in a civil union. You can be in more than one de facto relationship at one time. 

In the case of breaking up, the legal rights between all three are almost the same. Some say marriage makes it harder to break up, as though the looming threat of admin at the weekend will be enough to keep you together, but once you are in a de facto relationship, your property and childcare rights become much the same as if you were in a marriage or civil union.

It was a joy to hear people’s stories – how, even when the law was against them, they still found ways to honour their love. The more I heard, the more I loved their relationships; and the more I knew that not getting married or entering a civil union is still the right choice for me.

From each couple, I understood that whichever they chose – de facto, marriage or civil union – giving their relationship a name and a celebration was what felt most important. For most, it was a way to bring their families and communities into their partnership, as expressed in a beautiful line from David and Bronwyn’s ceremony: Your hurt is our hurt, your doubt our doubt, your hope our hope, your joy our joy.

Keep going!