Things were different in my Gran's day, says Rachel Rose.

Ten days ago I became a "wife" ... of the common-law variety.

As the date approached, my bemusement gave way to significant discomfort. My partner and I, we're both sober, thoughtful people and quite capable of deciding whether we want to get married.

We don't. And I'm really not so comfortable about it being decided for me, such that for all practical intents and purposes, I'm now as good as married, being in a de facto relationship by virtue of having lived with my partner for three years.


I'm not one to bleat about the "nanny state" and argue for the freedom of markets and the sacrosanct rights of individuals.

A government of a civilised state should set standards and boundaries and create protection for the vulnerable. Sometimes that requires laws about actions and responsibilities within families.

We have laws that require parents to provide financial support for their children, even if they don't live with them; laws that outlaw smacking and other abuse of children by their caregivers; laws about children going to school.
These are good laws.

So are laws that created no-fault divorce (1980) and established the domestic purposes benefit (1973).

It's shameful that until 1985, there was no means for a man to be prosecuted for raping his wife. Sex was something a husband was entitled to, a prerogative of the institution of marriage.

There is of course also a long history of dreadful inequality within marriage when it comes to money and assets.

At the time, the 1976 Property (Relationships) Act was a far-sighted attempt to acknowledge the non-financial contributions women made to relationships. Women became entitled to half the marital assets on dissolution of the marriage.

It was a feminist victory that acknowledged the "family wage" earned by men was made possible by the unpaid work women did at home: raising children, running a household and taking care of the minutiae of their husband's life.


It's a significant piece of legislation that has both reflected and shaped societal values about our relationships, suggests the Law Commission.

In 2002, the act was extended to de facto relationships (including between people of the same sex). But the legislation and policies are woefully out of touch with fast-changing realities of modern partnerships.

My parents married in the 1960s and like the vast majority, they married young, had children right away and got a mortgage as soon as they could. Mum stayed home and dad doled out the housekeeping money.

There isn't a single characteristic of this kind of traditional marriage that has not been reinvented.
A near-universal experience? The marriage rate is now about a quarter of what it was in 1971, when it peaked.
Exclusively heterosexual? Not any more.

A religious occasion? Independent celebrants and registrars lead nearly three-quarters of all wedding ceremonies.

Merged finances? A "three-pot" system is now common: my money, your money, our money. This is reportedly very common among Millenials who come to a relationship saddled with big student loans for which they are individually responsible.

Stay-at-home mums? In many families, there is no stay-at-home parent. As for dads, Clarke and Neve will find a well blazed trail.

"Til death do us part"? 38 percent of New Zealanders who married in 1991 had divorced before their 25th wedding anniversary.

Live together? I know couples who maintain separate homes, or who live together between two places (including one couple who commute between homes in Auckland and Vancouver because of work commitments).

A sexual relationship? Just Google "sexless marriage": the search results go on for 17 pages.

Average age at first marrying has shot up in my lifetime, as has the incidence of de facto relationships (in 2013, 22 per cent of all couples). Close to half of all New Zealand babies born last year were to parents who were not married.

It's actually really complicated to figure out if you're in a de facto relationship or not. Whether you've lived together for three years is just one rough reckoning; it may be judged to happen sooner.

Baz Macdonald's excellent story for Newsroom last year spelled out the complexity: seven different legislative criteria by which your relationship can be assessed, including "the degree of mutual commitment to a shared life".

It's a brave effort by the drafters of the legislation, but some things in life defy being reducible and definable by legal language — as anyone who's suffered through the drafting of a pre-nuptial agreement would know.

The lack of clarity has significant implications, warns Macdonald, especially if interacting with the Ministry of Social Development.

The ministry's officials cast a wide net when determining whether a person is in a relationship, with significant implications for benefit eligibility. Your own feelings about your relationship status may be irrelevant.

I don't like being co-opted into an institution I — so far — have chosen not to be part of. But if the Property (Relationships) Act were narrowed to include only people who actively made a choice to formalise their relationship, either by marriage or civil union, it would create a host of other issues. All of them, sadly, would trace back to people's capacity to behave badly in and after relationships.

I'm hardly the first one to notice that the legislation doesn't reflect our rapidly changing reality.

The Law Commission began a review of the act more than two years; it moves glacially onward, with its report expected later this year.

Curiously, only 300-odd submissions were received, surprising when one considers how deeply people are effected by the act's provisions.

*Rachel Rose is a Whanganui-based writer and new "wife". Sources are noted at