Alternative Forms of Marriage Common-Law Marriage

About the alternative form of marriage known as common-law marriage, history of the practice and people who have them.

Alternate Forms of Marriage


The Practice: A common-law marriage is one recognized as legal even though the man and woman involved, who have agreed to live together as husband and wife, have not made a formal civil contract. In some states in the U.S., a couple is said to be married under common law after they have cohabited for at least seven years.

In the 1700s in England, "Fleet marriages," performed by clergymen in Fleet Street prison, where they were jailed for debt, were popular among those who wanted to avoid wedding expenses or whose parents did not approve of their marital choices. John Gainham, the "Bishop of Hell," joined 36,000 couples when he was in jail from 1700 to 1740. Then in 1753 Parliament passed the Hardwicke Act, which stipulated that for a couple to marry, they had to publish banns or get a license from the archbishop and be married during certain hours by an Anglican minister. Quakers, Jews, and members of the royal family were exempt; Catholics were not. This put an end to Fleet marriages, which had been legal by common law. However, there was another way around the problem. Couples ran off to Gretna Green, a Scottish border town 10 mi. from Carlisle, England, because Scotland had no such stringent rules, but instead only required the presence of witnesses and a declaration. At Gretna Green marriages, the village blacksmith often played priest.

In pioneer days in the U.S., when preachers came through a town only sporadically, common-law marriage was a necessity.

Practitioners: Jean Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher who deified the idea of the "natural man, "lived with Therese le Vasseur, a servant girl, for 25 years before he married her. Unlettered, she did not know how to count money and continually made verbal faux pas. Rousseau turned all of the five children she bore him over to a foundling home. He was really in love with Sophie, the Countess d'Houdetot, who had hair to her knees. The whole romance was based on one kiss. He was probably temporarily impotent as a result of a hernia and genital infection, and she was in love with someone else.

Where It Stands Today: In the U.S., commonlaw marriage is recognized in only the District of Columbia and 14 states: Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Texas. As an alternative form of marriage, it is losing its popularity. People who want to live together do so without considering themselves married, and people who want to marry make it legal immediately because getting married (and divorced) is relatively easy.

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