Two years ago my sister and her partner of 10 years met two of their friends on the steps of the registry office on a Friday in February. The four of them had come to take part in a secret ceremony. They walked into the office, where a registrar performed the rite. The two friends – in fact they were work colleagues – were the witnesses. And my sister and her partner were the subjects. After the brief ceremony they were now civil partners, and the four of them went out for lunch to celebrate. My sister and sister-in-law picked up the bill to say thanks to their friends for taking part in their special day.
I think if the law hadn’t required witnesses, my sisters – as I have called them both for years – would have done it alone. They chose work colleagues as their witnesses to give the choice a sense of neutrality. If they’d chosen more personal friends, other friends could have had more of a grievance at not having been asked.
After lunch, my sisters headed off to a posh hotel in the countryside and pampered themselves with a glass of champagne, a hearty meal and a night in a luxurious bed. The following morning they began to call their friends and family members to spread the news.
Of course, they also had to explain how they had performed their civil partnership ceremony, and why. My sisters had spent years going to several weddings a year, involving travel, new outfits, presents, hotel bookings, time off work – all to celebrate friends’ and family members’ deep personal love for one another. My sisters had enjoyed these weddings of course, but they’d also rolled their eyes as each new invitation landed on their doormat.
They must have known that if their time came to go through this rite, there would no shortage of people lining up to come and celebrate. They could have invited potentially hundreds of friends, family and colleagues. The two of them are much loved, as individuals and as a couple. They are or have been godmothers, babysitters, carers, confidantes, mentors, bandmates, sports teammates, fellow activists, cat-sitters and close friends when they have had to be (not to mention adored sisters and daughters). To each other they are deeply committed. They look at each other with joy, every day learning something new and something special about the other.
After being together for nine years they decided they wanted to say something to each other about forever. Of course they were influenced by the extra rights and privileges that a legally partnered person has in society, the pension and mortgage implications, the next-of-kin status, and the perception of stability that being married or in a civil partnership brings. Many people today say that it is acceptable to live in a long-term monogamous relationship without being married. They are right. It is acceptable. But it is not optimal, as far as most people are concerned. The experience of unmarried people of being asked whether they could get married or even if they ever think about it, suggests that there is something different, something special, something better about being married than not.
I do not know how influential each of these factors were in my sisters’ decision. But of course they were all there, among many other factors. The greatest pull, they say, was love. They love each other dearly and wanted to obtain an external validation of that. I would not deny them it. It is a beautiful thing that they feel like that to each other. Their need for an external validation is a curiosity to me, but also understandable.
The proof that love was at the core of their decision is the way they performed their ceremony. They did not want their loved ones to spend money and time that many of them could ill afford to celebrate a private matter. And they could not justify the huge costs of a wedding to themselves when other things are more important to them – holidays, home furnishings, a house, haloumi, and so on. So they said: our civil partnership is about us, so let’s keep it that way. They each asked a work colleague to come along as a witness and they kept it a secret from everybody else until after they had done it.
The response from friends and family was warm. There were no real sour grapes that we all didn’t get to have a fancy cake or to see them slow dance. Some of us said we would have loved to have been there, but there was no ill feeling. We were happy for them both.
Two years later they remain as committed to each other and as loving. They will convert their civil partnership into marriage soon, now the law has changed to allow them to gain the same legal status as straight couples. Two years later their friends are still arranging lavish ceremonies and requesting my sisters’ presence and their financial and time investment in a public day to celebrate a private matter.
They just celebrated the anniversary of their ceremony at the same restaurant they went to with their friends on the big – small – day. They went alone, of course, as most people celebrating a wedding anniversary would. Sometimes people have anniversary parties, but this is much later in their marriages when they’re bored of each other and need to surround themselves with friends to keep conversation flowing.
Although my sisters marked their anniversary alone they received dozens of wishes, usually in a card, to say congratulations. They didn’t receive one from me. I love them dearly. I am proud of their relationship, the strength it has brought to themselves and those around them. Together they have supported me emotionally more than they could have done apart. I am a direct beneficiary of their long-term monogamy and love. But really it has nothing to do with me. As they knew, as they demonstrated on that day two years ago, their relationship is theirs and theirs alone. Their friends and family may look on with admiration and love but that only lasts as long as my sisters’ relationship lasts. Their love for each other is the core of what we’re talking about here. It is one million times more profound to them than a mere reflection of it in the admiring eyes of a friend, or the version of it that is inked into a legal document.
I can send them a card to say happy anniversary. But really I’d be barging in on what they have, and barging in with a message so puny in comparison to the message they have for each other that I would feel strange in doing so. I am perhaps more comfortable sending an anniversary message to a loved one who needed me to be present at their wedding. There is something about this person that needs more external validation than a piece of paper, they need people outside their relationship to celebrate it with them and to validate it for them every year, preferably in a mass-produced greeting card with a matching envelope.
My sisters do not need this. They know I love them and they know I love and appreciate their relationship. I trust that the slip of paper they signed on that day in February two years ago is significant to them – but it is a puny symbol. A legal status cannot come close to the nights they have held each other, the tears they have shared, their joyous companionship, and the personal sacrifices they have made for each other. All of this was happening before and has happened since they strolled out of that registry office. That brief moment inside is not the lynchpin in their relationship.
The real lynchpin is likely to be something neither I nor anyone else knows about – a single late-night conversation when things clicked for them, or more likely, a gradual realisation that their emotions had become entwined in an essential feedback loop. This hasn’t really got much to do with me at all. A Hallmark card in the face of that? It is almost an insult.