Now that the high I’ve been riding from getting engaged is just starting to fade, I’m starting to get more serious about not just my wedding, but my marriage. I want to be married, but whether it’s legal or religious, or something else entirely, we are still trying to figure out.

My friend Laura’s wedding was last year and when I asked her about it, she told me that yeah, she had a wedding, but her and Kevin weren’t actually married. Yep, they decided to forego the legal part and just celebrate their relationship and their commitment to each other with their closest friends and family. I thought her experience and marriage philosophy was interesting, and modern, and I wanted her to share that with you.

Laura Nolte | Married but Not Married

During the months leading up to my wedding earlier last year I began an intense study on the subject of unions, ceremonies, and even divorce. I was trying to intellectualize what marriage is and figure out how to avoid the traps that many — most? — fall into. I observed our friends and family, noticed patterns, and tried to create a loose plan, or rather framework, to circumvent the inevitable obstacles that all marriages face. Sure, the older me will probably read this and laugh, but I need to try. We all know that life can be unpredictable; circumstances change, tastes evolve, recklessness creeps in, and suddenly you find yourself in a place that you never could have imagined. Regardless, when it comes to my relationship to my husband, I am determined to create a system to avoid a failed union.

First step: don’t actually get married.

Most of the 80 friends and family who watched us get married in the British Virgin Islands almost one year ago don’t know that Kevin and I never signed any paperwork. We asked our dear friend Lucas to officiate the ceremony and when he asked if he needs to be ordained, we pulled our shoulders up to the effect of, “what’s the point?” And it’s exactly that question that I’ve been wrestling with since I was really young. Marriage is the legal institution that we have come to accept as absolutely normal. Yet it’s a broken system in which millions of Americans spend around $50 billion on weddings and half of them spend another $50 billion in divorce.

I support the billions being spent on a good party, but the divorce bit seems unnecessary – so we both thought, can we just not sign on the bottom line?

The love I feel for my husband is indescribable. We’ve been together for over six years and he never ceases to impress me, support me, and love me. There is no doubt that this is the man who I want to be my lifetime partner. It was important to me to announce our love to each other during a ceremony in front of all of our friends and family. I wanted to show everyone how much I loved this man. Look! I hit the jackpot! And by sharing our affection and commitment in front of the people we love, they blessed our relationship. It meant the world to me.

Did I need the government involved in order to make that moment any more legitimate? Absolutely not.

In fact, our idea of marriage may be even more traditional than other forms. Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, A History (a must read!) wrote, “Among the Mbuti Pygmies of the Congo, a couple is considered married if they have lived together for two seasons.” However, among the Gururumba of New Guinea, “eating cooked food together is consider the equivalent of having sexual intercourse.” I think they are onto something…

Kevin definitely won me over by his cooking. I still remember the first meal he made for me: duck and pheasant. My friends were so impressed that in the early stages of our relationship, Kevin’s code name was endearingly “Duck.” The act of regularly indulging in delicious meals is a strong force behind our coming together. Coontz’s anecdote goes to show that commitment and intimacy can be interpreted in various ways. That’s the guiding principle in our personal life and our relationship: there are many ways to do things and it’s a matter of respecting those differences, even as they evolve.

Historically and culturally, there are hundreds of ways to interpret a marriage. As a Western society, why do we only interpret a “legitimate marriage” if it’s been accounted for by the government? Caroline de Maigret underlined this exact thought on Garance’s podcast. Keep in mind she has been together with her boyfriend for 18 years and they have a son together. In explaining why she isn’t married she said, “I love the idea that I can leave tomorrow. I love the idea that he thinks I can leave tomorrow,” and all the women in the room laugh. She continues, “Having a kid with this man, I am tied to him forever. I could get married, but somehow it just feels like it’s new everyday this way.”

That sums it up best for me. I do believe that many get lazy once married. It’s easy to lean back, get comfortable, and not try as hard. Because really, what’s the worse case scenario? Divorce! And who wants to deal with that? Please go watch the documentary Divorce Corp. which does a much better job at explaining the business behind divorce in America. It’s fascinating that you can so easily get hitched, but getting divorce is a long and expensive process. As the documentary explains, it’s a corrupt system that has been hijacked by lawyers who try to exploit it as much as possible. Regardless, I believe people are more delicate with their circumstances when they know something can change instantly.

I always joke that marriage should take just as long as getting divorced does. Have people fill out a quiz at City Hall to test how well they know their spouse. Or before couples take their vows ask them to discuss the questions listed in this New York Times Questionnaire.

The most common reasons why people do get married center around money. Dig into the details and it’s murky, because one size does not fit all. Before we get started, let’s carve out all the obvious reasons why you should get married:

– One of you earns significantly less money than the other and is tired of the Cup of Noodles diet.
– One of you is sick, or simply sick of the 9 to 5 lifestyle, and needs or wants to retire early.
– He or she is loaded and hasn’t mentioned anything about a prenup – cha-ching!
– And of course, citizenship. The glorious US of A lets your spouse remain in the country if you get hitched. I actually think this common American love story is quite quiet romantic.

There are thousands of benefits. Everyone should read the fine print because those benefits may not apply to them. If I had to guess, I’d say at least a third of those who want to get hitched, don’t fall under that category. Mix in the fact that the success rate of an American marriage is essentially like flipping a coin and that divorce is like breaking up but so much more expensive, and the case for a marriage is pretty grim.

My favorite learning: there is something called a “Marriage Penalty.” It’s the opposite of a “Marriage Bonus,” in which you pay the IRS more because you said “I do” in City Hall. The New York Times created a handy chart in which you can calculate whether you and your spouse would pay more or less here. For Kevin and I, we would have to pay the government around $5,000 more in taxes a year because our combined income pushes us into a higher tax bracket.

Despite this fun fact, our lovely accountant (Kevin and I share one), gently encouraged us to get married. Huh, why? Our marriage penalty could pay a 5-star holiday somewhere far away and tropical. It’s clear that he is a part of the contingency that believes it’s the “right thing to do.” Naturally he just got divorced too.

Don’t get me wrong, Kevin and I almost got married when I was selling my apartment. If my capital gains income, i.e. the profit I made on the sale, was any higher, I would have married Kevin in an instant just to avoid paying an obscene amount of money in taxes (Married couples have double the capital gains credit). That’s a rare instance where you can benefit from marriage right away. But chances are, most people don’t enjoy the financial benefits of marriage because they’ll be divorced by the time they’re inheriting anything our taking advantage of spousal Social Security. Keep in mind, I’m not an accountant or a lawyer, and everyone has a unique situation that should be thoroughly researched and investigated.

Last common question I get: What about hospital visitation rights? Just fill out the necessary forms and your baby daddy, BFF, roommate, dry cleaner or whoever you choose can visit you while you’re incapacitated at Mount Sinai. Clearly being “fake married,” as my charming friends like to call it, isn’t without paperwork. But the paperwork that you do choose to fill out is much easier to get out of than a marriage contract.

Nothing will get you a side-eye from your friends faster than telling them you’re thinking of not really getting married. They were totally and utterly confused. I had to explain myself so often that my explanation eventually turned into a finely tuned, confident, and witty elevator pitch. Oddly, there are still days when I’ll get a ping of panic: “We should make this more official. Like tomorrow.” Those feelings usually come out of nowhere. Meaning they aren’t triggered when Kev and I are apart, or after an argument. I can’t rationalize the feeling except that I think it’s social norms whispering in my ear that our relationship is not legitimate. “Is this a terrible idea? Am I an asshole?”

A while back I spotted Hannah Henderson, owner of the General Store post this lovely note on her instagram feed:

John and I have been together for 14 years today. It is not always perfect despite how our Instagram feeds appear. But we are going strong and are grateful for more than just our longevity. I personally recommend not getting married, as we have not. As a woman and mother I value my individuality and independence as much as my relationship and my role as a mother. Not being a wife helps me hold on to all sides of me. We are not bound by law or license, just a commitment to grow together and raise our kids and do the best we can not to mess it all up.

Reading that felt like a sigh of relief. Thank you. I’m not an asshole.

Will getting married make all the magic that’s in our relationship – cuddle filled mornings, cozy never-ending dinners, mid-day sweet texts – feel permanent? No. We all know that paperwork doesn’t guarantee that what you have is going to last. I worry that it might make it worse. Especially for Kevin and I since we are fueled by a sense of freedom. Partnership takes hard work, thoughtfulness, attention, and sacrifice. Even if we check all the boxes, permanence is not guaranteed. And frankly, turning all the delicate elements that make up our relationship into a contract really isn’t sexy.

However, if Kevin were to come home today and say, I changed my mind, I want to get married tomorrow. You bet I would march down to City Hall without hesitation. Not without a long conversation of course. But I love this man, and I will do anything to make him happy. I may change my mind one day too. I like Dan Savage’s relationship advice in which he suggests couples should reevaluate their marriage/partnership every five years and re-outline the terms of their agreement. Maybe one day I’ll want to get married for reasons I can’t think of or feel right now. In the meantime, I will relish in the fact that my husband and I choose to be with one another every single day and it has nothing to do with the government, and it has everything to do with us and our effort.

By allowing things to be fluid and respecting that we are both ever-changing individuals, I hope to create a successful partnership. It’s a very personal and private project. And one that at this moment will not be helped by a marriage contract. We will continue to feed our spirits and in turn, our relationship, without the paperwork. We will bask in the freedom and be disciplined by its uncertainty. Hopefully, we will keep this magic living happily ever after. And if shit really hits the fan, at least we will both save money from filing joint tax returns and avoiding paying lawyers and instead, have one decadent dinner, filled with duck, pheasant, expensive wine, and toast to all the amazing times. And then, I trust, that we will settle into just being the best of friends. I know in my heart of heart, that regardless of what we call our relationship, I can never live without Kevin in my life.