- Matt Mignanelli
When Anthony "A.J." Browne was thinking about proposing to Kelly Clements during their romantic weekend getaway last month in Stowe, he was unsure about the perfect time and place: while out hiking in the woods that afternoon? Over dinner and drinks that evening? Later that night under the stars?
Ultimately, Browne popped the question while they were chilling out on a couch with a glass of wine in their hotel room. To Browne, the setting was emblematic of their four-year relationship: easy, relaxed, casual. "I think I was in my pajamas," he said.
But, as Clements recalled, Browne didn't ask her to be his wife. "He said, 'Will you be my woman?'"
Clements was surprised and thrilled by Browne's proposal — she said yes — but she also knew that they wouldn't actually get married. Instead, the Essex couple has chosen a path that may puzzle some people but has become a trend for couples of all ages: the so-called "forever engagement."
"A big part of our relationship is having the right expectations for each other and allowing each other to flex and bend with life's changes and not be rigid," Browne explained. "Life alters its course daily and, in some cases, pretty drastically, like a river. So being able to go with the flow is important to both of us."
Given the historical transactional nature of marriage — as a means of amassing wealth, forging political alliances and increasing the size of one's clan — it's understandable that this traditional institution isn't everyone's cup of tea, especially those who've previously tied the knot. Forty to 50 percent of all marriages in the U.S. end in divorce, according to the American Psychological Association. That said, legally recognized unions tend to fare better in Vermont, where the divorce rate is very low: It ranks 44th nationally, according to the U.S Census Bureau.
But for Browne, 42, and Clements, 39, both of whom were married previously and had two kids apiece with their former spouses, their decision not to wed wasn't a statement about marriage generally.
"When I was growing up, I was the girl who bought wedding magazines, so I'm not anti-weddings or anti-marriage at all," Clements said. "Getting divorced revealed how unnecessary a wedding is to me. I'm so committed to A.J., and I don't need a wedding to tell the world that."
"Me getting engaged to Kelly has everything to do with us and nothing to do with anyone else," Browne added. "I wanted Kelly to know that she has me as a partner that she can trust and look forward to being with." And, for him, an engagement ring is the perfect symbol of that lifelong commitment.
One reason some couples may eschew formal nuptials is the huge price tag: rehearsal dinners, caterers, bands, flowers, photo booths, videographers and party favors, not to mention the single-use formal wear. In 2018, the average cost of a wedding in the Green Mountain State was $30,257, according to the wedding planning site weddingwire.com. For perspective, Vermont's average income per person is $33,238.
But if the sticker shock of a typical wedding is the primary or sole justification for not getting married, Christine Moriarty thinks that math doesn't add up. The Bristol-based certified financial adviser and educator helps couples around the country better understand their emotional relationship to money and how it influences their behavior. Think of her as a "financial therapist," she said.
"If you're not getting married because you say it costs too much, that's not valid in my book," she said. Instead, she suggested that budget-conscious couples who aren't philosophically opposed to marriage go to their town hall, pay the $45 fee for a marriage license, exchange vows and be done with it. "The real financial angle is, what are you trading off by staying engaged versus getting married?"
A lot, as it turns out. According to Moriarty, in the U.S. there are 1,138 rights and privileges that are automatically granted to married couples that don't go to couples who are just engaged or shacking up. These range from getting a spouse's Social Security benefits when they die, to automatically having the right to visit them in prison.
Admittedly, most couples, especially those just starting their lives together, probably don't think much about whether they'll inherit their sweetheart's individual retirement account or get conjugal visits if they're serving three to five years on a felony conviction. "Those are the kinds of conditions people don't envision," she said, "until it happens to them."
Moriarty emphasized that she is neither moralizing nor "pro-marriage." She simply wants couples to consider all the legal, financial and inheritance ramifications of choosing an engagement path over a bridal path. As she put it, "You need to be in a relationship that matches the depth of your relationship." In short, the ties that bind should be strong enough to support that couple as its entanglements deepen.
Among the most consequential of those entanglements is when a couple buys a house together. For unmarried couples, she said, it can be more difficult to secure a mortgage if the lending institution perceives an increased risk that the couple might split up.
There's nothing inherently wrong with a couple buying a house together without being married, Moriarty clarified, provided they draw up a legal document that spells out exactly what happens to the property if they later part ways. Oftentimes one partner will put in more money for a down payment than the other. In a marriage, state statutes and well-established case law determine who gets what. With an engagement, those decisions may require mediation or litigation.
During a medical emergency, or if one partner becomes incapacitated due to mental illness or dementia, Moriarty continued, a spouse can automatically make decisions about their partner's care absent a medical power of attorney or health care proxy. A fiancée cannot.
Moriarty recounted the story of a friend whose partner was involved in a serious car accident. They'd been together for years but had never married. At the hospital, her friend would express her partner's known wishes to the medical staff, "but no one would listen to her." The next day, Moriarty recalled, the woman went out and bought a cheap wedding band and put it on her left ring finger before returning to the hospital. Reportedly, the medical staff listened to her because they assumed she was the patient's spouse.
While today's health care laws are more stringent than they were then, Moriarty acknowledged, the underlying point remains valid: "By not being married, you can create more issues for yourself in the long run."
Imagine that one partner dies prematurely. If someone is a public school teacher, works for the state or federal government, or served in the military and has a good defined-benefits retirement plan, Moriarty said, a spouse is automatically entitled to those benefits. A fiancé or live-in partner isn't. In fact, with a forever engagement, she noted, if the couple hasn't drafted wills, their parent, child or even a sibling may have a stronger legal claim to the couple's house, property and retirement funds than a fiancée.
Still, many couples manage to make forever engagements work just fine. Leigh Bullock and Mike Avella, of Saratoga, N.Y., got engaged nine and a half years ago with no plans to get hitched. Why not?
"We have a great relationship. We have a lot of fun together. He's my perfect partner, and I can't imagine myself with anyone else," explained Bullock, who's never been married herself. "But neither one of us feels the need for a legal document to seal the deal."
Avella, who was married previously to his high school sweetheart, agreed.
"I always knew I'd be with Leigh," he said, "and the official filing of the license and the taking of vows doesn't keep you married if you're not in love anymore."
Bullock admitted that the nontraditional nature of their relationship has its minor drawbacks. When she tells people she's engaged, the inevitable next question is, "So, when's the wedding?"
Then there's the issue of what to call Avella when talking about him with others. "Boyfriend" and "girlfriend" sounds juvenile, given their midlife ages and the longevity of their relationship, Bullock said. "Partner" sounds business-like and uptight.
Fiancé? "Ugh! I can't stand that word!" she said, because it's so oriented around marriage, as though she's merely in a holding pattern waiting for the big day. Avella — who, coincidentally, also proposed in his pajamas — calls Bullock "my lady friend" or simply "my wife."
And, as the couple made clear, because laws and societal norms haven't quite caught up to their relationship, they've gotten all their legal and financial affairs in order. Though the two have separate bank accounts, they make all their financial decisions together and have written wills and health care proxies. In Avella's case, he made his sister his proxy should he become physically or mentally incapacitated and can't make his own health care decisions. Why not Bullock?
"I told Mike I would do everything in my power to keep him alive," she explained, "so he cut me off."
One final irony about their forever engagement: Avella, who works as a lobbyist in Albany, N.Y., was instrumental in the passage of New York's marriage equality law, which allows same-sex couples to legally marry. He considers it one of his proudest accomplishments.
However, after the law took effect, Bullock's employer changed its benefits policy, no longer granting benefits to employees' domestic and live-in partners. In effect, Avella lobbied himself off of Bullock's more generous insurance plan.
For her part, Bullock said that the pair hasn't completely ruled out the possibility of a wedding.
"Maybe in our eighties we'll get married," she said. "We kid about it a lot. But I think we would be fine keeping it the way it is."
Editor's note: Leigh Bullock is the mother of Logan Pintka, a Seven Days account executive.