Forever Engagements: The New Trend That Couples Are Choosing Over Marriage

photographed by Megan Madden
I rarely unfollow people on Instagram. People don’t irritate me enough to do so, plus I mostly use Instagram for work, so 99% of the people on my feed are colleagues, former colleagues or fashion and beauty types whose sartorial choices I need to keep an eye on for trend stories. That’s why my scrolling thumb was recently stopped in its almost arthritic tracks when faced with a blast from the past.
Up popped a post from Kathi, a very cool illustrator, children’s book creator and the longtime girlfriend of my old friend Acky. Acky and I met when he was a skater and I was going through my Avril Lavigne stage aged 15, and subsequently struck up a friendship. Believe me when I say that I see a lot of engagement pictures shared on the ‘gram. A few every day. And as a diehard believer in both love and expensive jewellery, they never fail to thrill me. I always give them a like. I always comment with the toasting champagne glasses emoji. I always hope I’m not going to have to attend the hen do.
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On the surface, Kathi’s post ticked lots of the usual boxes. There was a lovely hand. There was a lovely ring. And there was a love-filled caption. I was poised to drop that champagne emoji. Then I read it again. Wait, this isn’t an engagement ring necessarily. They’re not getting married. This is a ring he designed for her to show her he means business. And to celebrate the fact that they’ve decided it’s forever…and there are zero plans for a wedding. Not ever. "It was a big surprise to me, 'cause to be honest I didn’t realise it was a thing before he gave me the ring," says Kathi. "It was a really special moment (I was speechless for a bit) in Vondelpark in Amsterdam, walking our dog. The ring itself is so perfectly 'me', even though I hadn’t ever thought about what kind of ring I’d like before. He designed the rings (they are two that intersect) and it was just a lovely moment between us."

It's not new or groundbreaking that fewer of us are choosing to get married, so what about a 'forever engagement' instead?

It’s not a new or groundbreaking concept that many of us are choosing not to get married; after all, weddings – though incredibly fun – can be horrifyingly expensive for a couple just starting their lives together. According to Bridebook’s 2019 UK Wedding Report, the average cost of a UK wedding is £17,674, and the grim news for Londoners is that the price tag increases to £24,039 for weddings in the capital. Which is just £5,000 short of the median full-time salary in the UK. Plus with one seriously high divorce rate of 42% in this country, it seems like the concept of forever love being intrinsically linked to the tradition of marriage is a moot point. Until now, the alternative just meant choosing to have the same life you were planning together, minus the party and the paper.
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What about a 'forever engagement' instead? Bridebook’s Wedding Report tells us that the average length of an engagement is 20 months in the UK, but what if you just carried on ad infinitum? The public declaration of love, minus a year spent planning the party? And minus the almost inevitable causing of offence to in-laws when you decide that the name you were born with still works quite well, thank you. The idea suddenly seems very attractive.
I have never been married. Nor do I have any desire to be – not for any meaningful reason but almost entirely due to the fact that both my partner and I loathe planning any sort of large-scale event. But I am intrigued and keen to understand why anyone not into the whole thing might still go through the motions, as it were, and get engaged?
Then I remembered Natalie, a former colleague and friend, telling me her story last year. "When my boyfriend moved in with me I was really honest with him and explained that even though neither of us could bear the idea of a wedding, I wanted some sort of gesture, a symbol that made our relationship of boyfriend and girlfriend feel distinct and separate to all our previous – obviously failed – ones!" Though I don’t pretend to know – or really care too much – about the ins and outs of her life, Goldie Hawn, who has been with her partner Kurt Russell since 1983 without the two of them ever getting married, dons a very delicious diamond on her engagement finger at all times. And if my memory serves me correctly, Oprah Winfrey and Stedman Graham got engaged but never actually went through with the marriage bit, and instead call their life together a "spiritual union".
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I quizzed Dr Jonathan Herring, professor and vice dean of the Faculty of Law at Oxford University, who has written extensively on marriage and the laws surrounding love, unions and family. "Many people want to define the nature of their relationship for themselves, rather than accept a 'standard' model, such as marriage. As with commodities, people like to personalise their relationship. In particular, marriage is seen by some as being old fashioned, with religious connotations and the trappings of patriarchy. Engagement offers the promise of a degree of commitment, without being tied to the legal and social conventions associated with marriage."
That’s exactly it – the definitions surrounding relationship status in general feel outdated, and young people finally feel empowered to do something totally bespoke, neither married nor unmarried, a wildcard other option. "We’ve always been on the same page about being marriage and child-free... We’re just happy together and want to spend life as a couple, but the only difference now is I have a ring. I feel bad talking down marriage, 'cause lots of my friends and family are married or engaged! I sometimes feel the pressure of society follows us from birth 'til death and I try my best to avoid all that. Like we are told we have to do a bunch of things: school, college, job, pension, marriage, kids, buy a house, retire. And if you don’t do this list then you’re not complete. I like to make my own rules as I go along – we’re both extremely happy in our relationship and that’s all that matters to me," Kathi explains.
Hands up if you can almost hear a sensible parent, uncle, neighbour or boss clearing their throat, ready to school you at length in the legal and financial implications of not marrying? Even Dr Herring isn’t totally without concern: "Family lawyers have long been worried that couples who do not marry but live together have many fewer legal rights and claims than married couples do. Women especially tend to do much better on the breakdown of a marriage than they do the breakdown of a cohabitation or engagement. My worry is that people think that by getting engaged they get the same legal protection of their financial position but they don't," he says. "In terms of law, engagement entails very few legal obligations. There is, for example, no power to order maintenance payments or redistribute property as there is on divorce for married couples."
This makes sense, but does it suggest that if you can love someone without being wed – which even the marrying types do before they actually tie the knot – then legally binding marriage is only useful if indeed the union is to fall apart? Planning for separation is surely the strangest reason to marry? As someone who has never dreamed of marriage, it is hard to express how unconvincing that argument is. Much more refreshing is Kathi and Acky’s approach, which can only be described as carpe diem in its most practical execution. When asked if she had looked into, or cared about, what it means practically or legally for the future, Kathi assured me in no uncertain terms that she had not. "I am the least practical person ever in that regard. I’m into the 'live life as it comes' type of philosophy and it hasn’t crossed my mind. I know that there are legal implications, but I would never consider getting married just for that. If people believe that marriage is a sacred union, especially religious people, then I think it would be a bit insulting to their tradition for someone like me to do it just for a tax cut. I’m just living life the way I want to, and am extremely lucky to be doing it with my best friend holding my hand the whole time."

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