Unmarried and Unequal

Why The Alternatives to Marriage Project fights for unmarried equality.

Same-sex marriage took center stage in this year’s election. While we believe that anyone who wants to marry should have that right, the focus on marriage played into our culture’s deep-seated belief that marriage is the only goal for a successful relationship. A quick look at U.S. Census data proves otherwise. Over the past 50 years, the number of people who marry has declined. Divorces have increased. More people are happy to live without marriage. Forty-seven percent (47%) of adults in the United States are unmarried, and 51% of households are headed by unmarried adults. In fact, there are over 112 million unmarried adults, and yet these people are all but ignored in policy decisions.

To be unmarried means that you could be single (without a partner), partnered, widowed, divorced, or a member of a polyamorous relationship. You may be unmarried by choice, or you may be unable to marry for a number of reasons, including family disapproval, cultural or religious issues, finances, or immigration laws. Widespread perceptions that unmarried people avoid responsibility and commitment, have significant discretionary income to play, and are somehow socially deficient or undesirable are unfounded and undeserved. Bella DePaulo, in her book Singled Out (St. Martin’s Press, 2006),imagines if the way that unmarried folks was instead aimed at marrieds: “When you tell people you are married, they tilt their heads and say things like “Don’t worry, honey, your turn to divorce will come;” the bookstore has shelves of titles like, “If I’m So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Married?”; every time you get married, you feel obligated to give gifts to single people, and so on.” It sounds preposterous, yet this behavior toward an unmarried person is considered completely acceptable.

So, let’s talk about the inequality and unfairness that is inherent in being unmarried in America. Anecdotally, there are a reported 1,000 benefits bestowed upon individuals when they marry. Some of these are tangible benefits, such as healthcare coverage and the assignment of social security benefits to a spouse upon one’s death. But others are simply the result in the shift of thinking about those individuals. They are immediately awarded an upgrade in social status; have a lifetime social partner; and are considered to have a successful relationship. Language about marriage is universal. You have a spouse, husband or wife. Those who are unmarried have a number of ways to identify a life partner, but most of them are unwieldy or do not convey the significant depth of commitment. All of this contributes to a tendency to consider those who are not married less deserving of consideration.

The Alternatives to Marriage Project strongly urges all unmarried people, both couples and singles, to take control of decisions that may be made on their behalf. Medical directives, wills, power of attorney, partnership agreements and other legal documentation may be necessary to ensure that one’s decisions are honored. Without this, there are no guarantees of personal representation, property ownership or inheritance. This is particularly true when couples believe that they have a common law marriage. Most states no longer recognize common law marriage, and it is very difficult to try to claim a marriage equivalency after a partner has died. As in preparing all contracts, prepare for the worst. When you decide to live together, and life is good, anticipate that it will not always be so. Be sure that your wishes regarding your partner are made clear. Protect each other with clear directives. And reexamine your plans periodically and update as needed.

Here are some specific disparities between being married and unmarried that you will need to address.

Domestic Partnership (DP)

Most states currently offer legal domestic partnerships, but they may only be available to same-sex couples. If available, this designation awards a couple the same state rights as a married couple. An unfortunate consequence of the approval of same-sex marriage has been that states that did offer domestic partnerships often eliminate them when the marriage law passes. The reasoning behind this is that “now everyone can get married, so we no longer need the DP option.” DP status does not provide the federal benefits of marriage, and a domestic partnership must be legally dissolved in a process much like divorce.

Health Care

Provision of health insurance to spouses and partners is a decision made by individual employers. The same-sex marriage push gave rise to many employers offering coverage to same-sex partners, although many restricted the coverage to those who had legal domestic partnership status (which is only available in some states.) Some enlightened companies, when adding such coverage, also began offering the same to opposite-sex couples. Across all employers, health insurance coverage for any person other than a legal spouse is still rare.

We regularly hear about people who are forced to marriage in order to gain health insurance for a partner. In fact, one of our board members made that difficult choice just this year. One of AtMP’s supporters told us her story: “In one of the saddest days of my life … we got married a few years ago. While it was thankfully not an intensive care unit situation, my partner was scheduled to have some procedure that had a good chance of leading to a hospitalization. … Our family doctor warned us. He said everyone in his practice knew us and accepted me as the partner with whom information could be shared and decisions made, but he said that if we got into the health care system (an impersonal hospital) I could be spending all my time showing everyone my paperwork and begging them to tell me what was going on. … So we did it (married) in the lobby of our local hospital. We didn’t tell anyone for quite some time, never told most people the actual date and we still refuse to acknowledge that date. We use our traditional anniversary—the one we observed for about 20 years—the day we met face to face in 1985.”

When health insurance coverage is offered to unmarried partners, one frequent disparity relates to the taxes paid on these benefits. Most companies assume responsibility for the taxes due for a legally married spouse. However, those companies often do not provide the benefit to same-sex, and by extension, opposite-sex partners. This inequality has recently come to light and will be a point of contention in the agendas of rights organizations.

A big question remains as to how Obamacare will affect health insurance benefits offered through employers. Companies have the right to offer insurance as they choose; for those who do not get insurance through their employers, they will need to enroll in a government-provided pool. Unfortunately, some states have made noises about not providing such a pool; we are not sure what happens to peoples’ options in that case.

In January 2011, Hospital Visitation Regulations went into effect to provide access to partners in hospitals. Unfortunately, many hospitals are not honoring the regulations, and partners often are not given the same access as legal family members. One such story from July of this year received national coverage. A partner in a same-sex domestic partnership was denied access, despite the fact that her health insurance policy was accepted as coverage for her spouse. This is evidence that, despite national regulation, discrimination is still ongoing.


For those couples who have entered a domestic partnership, they receive all of the rights awarded to married people in that state. This includes property ownership. For those who live together, these rights to property are not automatic, even if each partner contributed to the ownership. Without a name on a title or deed, courts are unlikely to award an ownership share.

Another AtMP supporter called in desperation. She and her fiancé had been together for 9 years. They had 3 children together. Tragically, her fiancé was killed in a workplace accident. The company was denying any of his benefits to his children. Social Security also denied survivor benefits. She was frantic, and the only advice we could offer was to take her case to court—a long and costly process that would not give her the relief she needed to take care of her family. It’s heartbreaking to receive these calls, when advance legal preparation could have avoided the situation. There’s very little that can be done after the fact.


Despite spending a lifetime together, a surviving partner does not automatically assume an estate. This is a common scenario. Without a will, a name on a deed, and other legal documentation, the surviving partner has no rights to inheritance. The same is true of insurance policies. Unless the partner is named as beneficiary, he or she will not receive insurance payouts. A case can be made in court that expenses were shared, but these cases can be costly and won’t necessarily be decided to benefit the survivor.


If a child is the biological offspring of the unmarried partners, then decisions are made as in any marriage. The best interests of the child will determine custody. Having said that, paternity may be challenged. A name on a birth certificate may not be enough—for example, it is not accepted by the Social Security Administration for determination of benefits. If a child is the biological or adoptive child of one partner, but has also been raised by the unmarried partner, the non-biological/adoptive parent has no rights to custody. Court cases have sometimes awarded visitation rights, but again, this can be a costly undertaking with no guarantee of desired results.

Unmarried parents are still the targets of disapproval and judgment. Single mothers are often pointed to as a major cause of poverty, but this has not been borne out by research. A current trend encourages unmarried fathers to become more involved in their children’s’ lives, both emotionally and financially; a number of organizations offer such training and support.

Adoption is still difficult for unmarried folks. “Research” is often used as an excuse to prevent adoption rights. Unfortunately, research has not shown that the marital status of parents has any bearing on the well-being of a child, and re-education of adoption agencies using this argument has not eliminated it.

And adoption of a child without the knowledge or permission of a biological father is not uncommon. Putative father registries exist in 33 states. If an unmarried father does not register with such a registry, the Supreme Court has held that the father‘s due process right is not violated if he is not made aware of a pending adoption of his child.

Housing Discrimination

It’s hard to believe, but this still happens. Landlords use their personal beliefs, often citing religion, as a reason to deny housing to unmarried people. Since “unmarried people” do not constitute a protected class, this practice continues. Discrimination suits are being filed in courts, but housing rights are not always awarded to the unmarried complainants.

In February 2012, an unmarried couple in Minnesota applied to rent a house. When the landlord asked if the rental was for a family, the woman replied that she hoped to find a home large enough for her boyfriend’s son to visit. The couple was denied the rental; the landlord stated that he rented only to married couples or singles because of his religious beliefs. The federal Fair Housing Act prevents denial of property rental on the basis of race, color, national origin, familial status, sex or religion. Familial status refers only to those who have children. Unmarried people aren’t covered by this act.

Discrimination against unmarried people continues alive, well, and culturally accepted. They must. Unmarried people are no longer a minority in this country. Families no longer consist of heterosexual parents with 2 biological children. Yet, until unmarried people unite to speak with one voice, changing perceptions and unfair treatment will be a slow and painful process. The Alternatives to Marriage Project exists to fight for unmarried equality, and is working to bring more of the 112 million people in this country into the fold to demand equal treatment. We are the wave of the future. Unmarriage is here to stay.


Read more on The Good Life.

Image credit: mikebaird/Flickr

About Cindy Butler

Cindy Butler has over thirty years of nonprofit experience and has built a career focused on improving the lives of disadvantaged people. Most recently, as co-founder and Executive Director of The Village Net, Cindy built a nonprofit dedicated to supporting women in villages in Kenya and Ghana as they work toward uplifting their families from poverty. Prior to The Village Net, she served as Director of the Women's Business Center at Community Capital Development, where she mentored 800 entrepreneurs and trained another 5,300 through partnerships with community organizations. Before coming to Seattle from Washington, DC, Cindy worked as an employee of, consultant to, and volunteer for Board member of nonprofits including the National Organization on Disability, The National Women's Law Center, NARAL, and the National Leadership Coalition on AIDS. She was an early director of DC Central Kitchen, a national model for food recycling and homeless training, whose programs now serve 4,800 meals per day to disadvantaged children and adults.

Butler earned her B.A. at the University of Maryland and a Masters of International Business at Seattle University.


  1. I wasn’t aware about the Fair Housing Act saying that rental of a property could not be denied based on “familial status.” I don’t think I agree with that being a mandate for owners of private property, but since it is unmarried people should absolutely be protected as well.

  2. John Schtoll says:

    Cindy, though you did kinda touch on it with regards to children to unmarried fathers, they have virtually no rights to their own children. I also “LOVE” the old ‘best interests of the children’ trope you spout. Sorry but really do you think for one minute that a judge who has 30 mins or so with a child can determine what is best for that child. Shared parenting should be the baseline, iow, we started at equal parenting and if a change is warranted then a change is made.

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