My boyfriend doesn’t want a legal marriage. What can I do to make him reconsider?

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My boyfriend doesn't want a legal marriage. What can I do to make him reconsider?
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My boyfriend has major trust issues from infidelity in his previous marriage. He made it abundantly clear during the early stages of our relationship that he never wanted to remarry. However, he knew that marriage was a must for me. Despite our differences, we stayed together and slowly started talking about what marriage would mean for us. Five years later, he's purchased a ring and we've set a date. I want a wedding that makes both of us happy. I don't care about the details. Except for one. The marriage. The literal and legal aspect of getting married.

He doesn't want to legally be tied to someone. And I simply don't understand how to compromise on this one. I've compromised on separate bank accounts, separate insurances, separate whatever I can think of to help him with his trust issues. He says he's okay with everything we've discussed including publicly reciting vows and having a small reception. But he doesn't want to sign the papers. He doesn't want to be legally married again. And I don't know how to feel about it. It really hurts. I keep trying to remind myself that it's not about me. It's about his history and his experiences. I want to be understanding and supportive.

He says that because I'm already picking and choosing which parts of marriage I want to include (For example: keeping my last name) that I'm being hypocritical in not compromising on the piece of paper. He says that it's not fair of me to decide which traditions I want to ignore, without letting him choose as well.

But what happens when we have kids? What happens when one of us is in the hospital? What happens when our family isn't viewed as a family in the eyes of the law? I'm so lost and confused and don't know how to meet in the middle. I need your help!

– Half-Engaged & Confused

In the U.S., there are lots of benefits of marriage, and that's on purpose. The government sees a benefit in legal marriage so it affords you tax breaks, visitation rights, property rights, health care choices, etc. and it's totally okay to be in the mindset that you want to take advantage of those rights and protections. (You can read about all the rights and benefits here). They're the reason why giving those rights to same-sex couples was such a big deal. It is so beneficial in the eyes of the law.

It's also beneficial in the eyes of you and your family and it's so hard when your partner doesn't want to choose that option when you do. I sympathize. Unfortunately, it's not something you can easily force someone into when they've been burned before. And as a side note, keeping your last name is a pretty big leap from choosing not to make the marriage legal at all. That's a technicality that doesn't have any bearing on your rights as a person and a couple.

Here are my suggestions for dealing with this problem:

Consider an alternative to traditional marriage

There are civil unions and domestic partnerships, but both require some legal partnership, which may scare your partner off.

However, a living will and power of attorney can be alternatives that are much more easily dissolved than a marriage, which would give you and him more rights to visitation and other benefits without the actual legal marriage. I'd hit up an attorney to learn more about them and how to set them up. If you choose to share your life with someone else, these are issues that will come up and will need to dealt with, regardless of marital status.

Plus, bringing up these alternatives can help him understand that you're not just looking for a pretty ceremony, but are actually concerned with both of your rights as life partners.

Consider couples counseling

If the legality is that important to you (and it sounds like it is), consider some couples counseling and/or mediation prior to your wedding. I'm a proponent of therapy/counseling for anyone regardless of their mental health and for any couple who needs even a little bit of mediation in their lives. It can help figure out how your partner can heal from his past relationship wounds and help you deal with whatever decision is made between you.

Either way, you'll need to decide if a legal marriage is a deal-breaker for you. With some counseling, it may not be a deal-breaker for him forever.

Revisit the arrangement at a set date

If you're definitely going to move forward with the progression of the relationship to a permanent commitment, you could have your ceremony/reception as planned and revisit the issue of the legality of your marriage at a specified later date, say one or two years after the fact. Mark the date and see how he feels about marriage at that point. Make sure he understands that you definitely want to reconsider the legality of your marriage at that point so that you both know what you're choosing and/or giving up. Putting a timeline on it will make sure he knows you're serious about it.

Has anyone else dealt with a partner who disagreed on the legal course of your relationship? Share your solutions!

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Comments on My boyfriend doesn’t want a legal marriage. What can I do to make him reconsider?

  1. I… Not to be judgmental, but I would have very serious reservations about getting attached to someone who was this kind of unwilling to work through his trust issues. This comes off as that he’s taking what his ex did to him and applying that to all women, including you. I sort of understand the reservation about legal marriage – after all, divorce is an expensive, nasty thing in the US – but he seems totally unwilling to tie himself to you in any material way, and that sends up all manner of red flags in my head.

    Your desire to accommodate him is admirable and wonderful, but it should be in the interest of giving him room to heal and to learn to trust again, not so that he can continue on in total distrust of every other human being, including the one he claims to love. If he won’t make those steps to trust you, then eventually it’s just going to wear you down. Lack of trust in a relationship is harmful, especially in intimate ones. And sad to say, that’s exactly what he’s exhibiting here.

    I have to second the recommendation of counseling, if for no other reason than to get all of the concerns out there. But I know that I couldn’t, in good conscience, bind myself to someone who was unwilling to do the same with me. If you can’t trust me, then what are we even doing here?

    Follow your heart, but also your judgement. This may not be the time or the person, and as hard as that is to hear, it’s not as hard as watching someone pull further and further away and scrambling to figure out how to fix it when it’s not you that’s doing anything wrong.

    • Couldn’t have said it better. She should wait a while and talk with mother, grandma, and other women .11-20-17

    • And the whole name-changing thing is a super red flag for me. That’s 1. deflective and defensive and 2. SEXIST.

  2. I think the upshot in situations like this, where the answer to “do you want to get married eventually?” is some kind of complicated arrangement or leads to a big argument or someone is trying to have their cake and eat it too, is that the person just doesn’t want to marry you. Which really sucks! But the truth of that sucks way less than stringing yourself along for years with someone who just isn’t the right person for you.

    • Sorry to disagree with this. While I think it can be the case some times, some times it isn’t. From the outside it is really difficult to distinguish.

      Case in point- I have wanted to get married to my fiance for quite some time. He has definitely been more hesitant, which has led to some hurt feelings and disagreements. Like the author’s spouse, he had been engaged before, and it had fallen apart, nd he didn’t want to go through that again. I had several friends along the way tell me exactly what you said, and if I listened to them, I wouldn’t be marrying him in 2 months. Eventually, he came around, proposed, and now wonders why he didn’t do it earlier.

      In the end, the OP has to decide if the relationship is worth it, even if he never wants to be legally married.

  3. “He says that because I’m already picking and choosing which parts of marriage I want to include (For example: keeping my last name) that I’m being hypocritical in not compromising on the piece of paper. He says that it’s not fair of me to decide which traditions I want to ignore, without letting him choose as well.”

    This is super problematic – he’s comparing apples to oranges in order to make you feel guilty about asking for what you want. The legal aspect of marriage isn’t a tradition, it’s a contract. He doesn’t want to enter that contract with you, and he’s framing his choice in terms of ‘fairness’ to deflect from that fact. I strongly suspect he sees your wedding as a way of keeping you happy, rather than a compromise with his values. That’s why you’re not being fair, in his mind – the scales are already tipped in your favour because he’s agreed to a party, and now you want him to also make a change to his life?

    I am a strong supporter of long term relationships that don’t involve marriage. I don’t like that the government uses it as a carrot to provide certain benefits and make some legal things easier – why should I get special treatment compared with my single friends, who also need someone around to hold their hand in hospital? But at the end of the day, gaining those same rights without being married is expensive, time consuming, and not guaranteed.

    I think you need to think about the fact this man does not want to be legally tied to you. He’s demonstrated that through his refusal to share financials (which being married would override), and there’s nothing in what you’ve said that suggests he’ll change his mind. If a joint bank account is out of the question, I am extremely skeptical that he would be willing to set up living wills and POA, either. For him, the downsides of not being able to visit you dying in hospital, complications in having access to his own children if you have them, and various other things do not outweigh the upside of not being married.

    This is something you need to confront head on, and soon: he is putting his past trust issues ahead of your future as a couple. I’d question if he’s even thinking in terms of your future. It sounds a lot like he’s just enjoying the present enough that he thinks a non-legal wedding will keep you happy enough to stick around.

  4. The question you need to ask yourself, do you want to be with someone you need to convince to marry you? Definitely talk to him about the legal concerns you have, and how signing that paper brings a ton of benefits and protection to both of you.

    I had an on again, off again relationship for years where he was afraid of committing fully because of his parents divorce, at a certain point I realized that I deserved to be with someone who wanted to marry me as much as I wanted to marry them. Several years later I am very happily married to a man who wanted the whole wedding-house-kids dream that I have. Not saying this is the same situation at all, but I’m glad of the choices I made.

  5. Take it from someone who worked in counseling years ago, just no. If he is unwilling to compromise and at least get counseling for these issues he is leaving the door open to walk out of the relationship with no repercussions for him. It is selfish and immature on his part knowing how much it means to his partner.

    From personal experience and observing others in this kind of situation which happened a lot back in the seventies when I was in my 20s. I know at least 20 couples who went this route back then and all of the women are married now… to someone else.

    These guys will use any excuse in the book not to commit to anyone, I would tell him to get counseling and work on his issues if we were going to stay in a relationship otherwise you might find yourself alone one morning and wondering what happened. Do you know why his first marriage did not work out from others or only what he has told you?

    You might want to do a little investigating there if possible, he sounds as if he might be someone who can always find an excuse to not permanently commit to anyone, I know this might sound harsh but the truth usually is, I spent some years working in couple’s counseling in NYC as part of my abnormal psychology class and many times it was the same story with different faces, Some men and to a lesser degree some women do not want a permanent relationship and your choice is if you can live with that or not,

  6. You can have a legally binding contact that stipulates what exactly you are agreeing to, which can be different from what the governmental contract of marriage defines (in addition to power of attorney, etc.). On the flip side, you could have a really good pre-nup and get legally married. If you can’t agree to the terms, then y’all don’t want to be in the same relationship.

  7. “I’d hit up an attorney to learn more about them and how to set them up.”

    You need to see an attorney. I say this as one (but this comment is not legal advice!). First, see one alone (bring financial info) and get explained to you what would happen to your financials, health, home ownership, long term disability, child-rearing, etc. if you never get married. What non-marriage legal choices do you have, and what would likely result. Then you can see a lawyer together (maybe he can bring his finances), and have the same explained to him. You both may take facts better from someone not emotionally invested in the argument.

    One of three things then happens:
    1) Together you discover a non-marriage legal solution that makes you comfortable and safe. Yay!
    2) He changes his mind, if he sees that legal marriage is the only situation for you to be comfortable and safe. Yay!
    3) He only wants a situation in which you do not get to be comfortable and safe. Eww. If he pressures for a situation that puts you at risks unacceptable to you, then its time to leave. This does not mean he is a bad person, but its a pretty fundamental incompatibility.

    Best of luck.

  8. It doesn’t actually sound like he has trust issues from infidelity because he’s more than willing to enter an exclusive partnership with you. Legal marriage has no way of actually forcing either of you to stay faithful. It’s a gamble — just like everything else in life.
    So I have to assume that his concerns are financial. Have you talked about a pre-nup? Maybe agreeing ahead of time what happens if you split will assuage his fears.
    Also, are you planning on having kids with him? Because that forms legal and financial obligations, no signature required. You should probably explore that topic as well.

  9. First off, thank you to everyone who has commented on this post with real advice and experiences. It’s been far more helpful than the comments on Facebook, which sent me into the bathroom sobbing. I don’t want to leave him, and it’s not a red flag to anybody who knows all the facts. I apologize for not painting the right picture. I feel that perhaps I made him sound more unreasonable and unfair than he really is. He DOES want this, I know that he does. Otherwise he would have walked away a long time ago. I’m not forcing him into anything, and I was honestly shocked at how cruel some of the Offbeat comments were. I always thought this community was more open and understanding.

    I wrote this post 2 weeks ago, and he has since officially popped the question – something he has been waiting to do until the exact right moment. He spent an entire day decking our house in flowers and candles while I was at work, and I came home to the most beautiful and romantic night I ever could have asked for. He put this effort in because he cares. He does want to marry me. He’s just hidden behind walls. He has trust issues, not only from his previous marriage, but also his childhood. He has been let down and abused repeatedly. His ex-wife was, not only cheating on him, but cheating on him with his best friend. And when he caught her, other men started crawling out of the woodwork and admitting what had happened in the past. 12 years of lies, and she walked away with his savings.

    He can certainly be extremely pessimistic, but anyone who knows him knows 100% that it’s self protection. If he keeps everyone at arms length, nobody can hurt him. He has let me in the best that he can, and he is always honest with me about what he’s thinking. He and I have talked about counseling many times, and will probably do so in the future. It’s a money and convenience issue at the moment, not a lack of commitment or caring.

    Anyway, I simply wanted to say thank you to those of you who offered advice. He and I still have a lot to figure out, and I’m thrilled to be able to bring him other options so that we can discuss all pieces of the puzzle.

    • I have to be honest, I’m still concerned for you. Phrases like “it’s not a red flag to anybody who knows all the facts” ARE red flags in themselves. What I see in this and your original letter is you finding ways to explain and justify his behaviour, his needs and his wants, but you’re not talking about yourself. You’re putting a lot of effort in to relieve him of the emotional burden his previous marriage and childhood has left him with, but not only is he not carrying his fair share, he’s not helping you with yours, either. Your feelings are just as valid and important as his, no matter what his history.

      There’s always an element of risk management in life, and sometimes that means seeing a red flag, acknowledging it, and working out how to move forwards with it. Love means taking risks, and that’s okay. But explaining away a red flag, claiming it doesn’t count because of x y and z, doesn’t allow you to manage it. It’s not your partner’s commitment issues that are the flag, it’s the way he’s handling them.

      You say you’ve talked about counselling, but nothing’s happening yet. This really, really needs to be a priority, before you marry – find the money and time, even if it means putting wedding planning on hold to save up for it. That he knows he has these issues, but hasn’t committed to counselling or followed through on it is a red flag. He’s not investing in his own future, which means he’s not investing in your future together.

      I also think you really ought to get some counselling for yourself, too. You need somewhere you can let go of the responsibility of shouldering his emotional burdens, and counselling is a good place to do so. If you’re walking into this marriage with open eyes, red flags acknowledged, you’ve decided that your love is strong enough that you’re willing to carry that burden with him (but not for him!) for the rest of your life, and a professional can give you tools to deal with that.

      I want to link you to this, which is a woman asking for advice when her partner said he’d marry her but only if she didn’t invite her parents. She spent a lot of time justifying his choices to the commenters, and a lot of time discussing with him why he was being unreasonable, but even though they moved passed the initial issue she started to see that his behaviour had other red flags. She came back in later posts to acknowledge that actually, commenters were right about the fact he kept promising to go to counselling, but didn’t. She realised she was spending a lot of time and energy on making sure he was never upset without receiving the same from him. She loved him, but at the end of the day she had to look at those flags and decided that risk that she would rather take was walking away.

    • Don’t let the comments get you down. I had a hesitant partner, and now we are both excited to get married in 2 months. Several friends told me to leave. Only you both know your relationship. Only you know if being legally married soon is a deal breaker or if the relationship without that is worth the risk. Strangers on the internet don’t know all the details and can’t give an informed opinion.

    • Half-Engaged, I’m so glad to hear that things aren’t as bad as they seemed! I sympathize with his pain in the relationship ending – I had a somewhat similar thing happen to me and I was extremely hesitant to even get into another relationship. My Beau is very patient with me and I want to spend some time together and living together before we make the leap even to officially engaged, and he’s willing to wait for me. But we both agree on where we want the relationship to go, both legally and otherwise. I was seriously concerned hearing your description because it sounded very much like the way my ex acted when we started seriously approaching the concept of getting married – we’d agreed to wait until I got my degree, and we started talking about a year before I finished. He started backing away seriously at that point, and I remember panicking and trying to figure out what was wrong.

      If it’s purely a financial concern at this point, investigating a pre-nup and establishing what would go with whom in the event that you split while you’re both calm and reasonable is a good safetynet. I definitely understand his caution, and showing him that you’re not in it for the money with a binding agreement that you forego any entitlement to his assets in the event of a split (and establishing terms for the negotiation of any jointly-owned property) ahead of time is a pretty solid way to do that. (I think it’s shitty that men are automatically financially beholden to their ex-wives anyway, especially in the event of infidelity on the wife’s part. If anything, the cheating partner ought to be the responsible one.)

    • Congrats! I was going to say I’m the one who didn’t want to get married. My partner would’ve proposed a dozen times over in the 13 years that we’ve been together if I didn’t nip any conversation in the bud.
      Last year we were at a holiday party in early December. The hostess was an woman who was a lawyer and she kind of set me straight about our state not acknowledging common law marriages. Long story short, if I become incapacitated, my druggie/alcoholic/abusive father that I haven’t talked to since I turned 18 or my equally druggie/alcoholic brother would have more say over what happened to me than my partner.
      I had a lot of baggage I worked through in a few weeks…my baggage around marriage thanks to my parents’ unhealthy relationship, my fear of commitment, being a fat bride… and once I worked through most of that, I popped the question to my partner. He was speechless for the first time in his life. 😀 I’m still afraid…terrified actually because I gave up on the whole wedding fantasy in my 20s so now I’m trying to deal with that while wedding planning and I still have times where I am really, really freaked out that we will be legally married.

  10. It is simple as far as far as the legal aspect is concerned.

    The bride said:

    “But what happens when we have kids? What happens when one of us is in the hospital? What happens when our family isn’t viewed as a family in the eyes of the law?”

    Both of you simply write up a Power of Attorney for one another, making each other, the other one’s Power of Attorney. This legal instrument is used in every state, and in fact gives the person named as the attorney, more legal powers than what a marriage alone would.

    As for the legal issue of property – you can use something called a quit claim deed, which legally transfers any property to another person once it is owned by you. This can be set to transfer upon death. Also, you can use a will to posthumously transfer any property. Many states allow you to even sign up for transfer of tag, and title of your car automatically to whomever you name, upon death.

    Therefore, the legality concerns are non-issues.

    Every legality, which a marriage can legitimate, and much more – can be done with various legal documents.

    Lastly, the bride mentions that her significant other clearly stated he did not want to get married again. By continuing in the relationship, and applying the legal angle which seemed to be of such great concern to her – she entered into an “implicit contract” with him, by complying with the terms laid out in the beginning of the relationship. And, in many cases – implicit consent is legally recognized.

  11. As an attorney and a volunteer at a battered women’s shelter, I see women almost daily that invested their time, money, energy, and bodies into relationships without protecting themselves legally and had it used against them.

    I really see this as a Feminist issue and we need to encourage women to protect their legal rights. Whether or not he wants a legal marriage if you plan to cohabitate there is an implicit understanding of a cohabitating relationship between you and should something go wrong you are in a far murkier situation with no legal agreements between you then with one.

    Why we can argue about the history and intent of marriage, in a legal sense it does provide a whole host of recognitions and protections. Do you need an official marriage to protect yourself, no, there are other instruments you can use, but they require sitting down and having an honest conversation about your future together.

    I would be wary of anyone that wants my time, money, energy, support, domestic labour, sex, and love but isn’t willing to forfeit a little of their comfort for me to be legally protected from the worst of what-ifs.

    I have never seen a man in my legal practice come in and say, “She didn’t want to get legally married, we broke up and now the house we shared is just in her name.” Or, “She thought the law had no place in marriage and now she won’t let me see my kids.”

    I can not tell you how many times women have come to me with similar stories. There are lots of things you need to compromise on in a relationship, protecting your future, your assets, and your future children should not be one of them.

    One way or another a serious relationship implies some level of legal commitment to one another. Regardless of his issues you should protect yourself first and secondly chart a path that should the relationship dissolve you will have a plan in place that will allow both of you to leave the relationship fairly and with dignity.

    • Whilst I agree that everyone should establish some legal arrangement to protect themselves in long term relationships where assets are accrued. Marriage contracts, or more accurately the real-world application of divorce, don’t seem to offer this in any meaningful way to the husband, at least not in the divorces I’ve witnessed.

      I’ve seen friends and acquaintances forced out of their homes into the worse kind of rented accommodation, only getting to see their children once every two weeks, whilst simultaneously paying for maintenance to their ex-wives, most of whom have jobs or are professionally qualified! It’s hardly fair that a guy has to take a gigantic hit to his standard of living and his emotional well being, potentially having done nothing wrong, at the sole discretion of another person just because they’re not enjoying their husbands company any more.

      Most women are not stay at home mums with no work experience or qualification any more, the laws and/or application of the laws need to change to address this and allow for more equitable splitting of assets and childcare arrangements. Until such changes are implemented I can see a lot more guys being wary about getting legally married.

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