| May 11, 2020

What is a Commitment Ceremony?

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There are many different ways for couples to commit their lives together, and one of those celebrations is called a commitment ceremony. You might not have heard of it before, but I’m willing to bet you know someone who had one! In fact, almost 90 percent of the elopements we photograph are actually commitment ceremonies, and we want to answer any questions you might have about this type of wedding celebration. 

What is a commitment ceremony? Is it the same as getting married? What’s the difference between a commitment ceremony vs. a marriage ceremony? Are we really married if we only have a commitment ceremony? What will people think if we invite them to a commitment ceremony but they think it’s not a real wedding?

Commitment ceremonies are very real marriage ceremonies, without the stress and red tape of becoming legally married on the same day you share your vows. Our goal is to help couples plan elopements that perfectly suit their vision of what a perfect wedding day should look like, and a commitment ceremony is one of our favorite ways to help craft an authentic true-to-you celebration! 

Commitment Ceremony Definition

A commitment ceremony is a marriage ceremony in which two people commit their lives to each other, but it isn’t legally binding. Commitment ceremonies might look the same as legally-binding weddings, but at no point does the couple go off to sign paperwork and make the marriage legal by government standards. You might have attended a wedding ceremony in the past that was actually a commitment ceremony, and you didn’t even know it! 

Other names for commitment ceremonies are “spiritual ceremonies,” “symbolic ceremonies,” or “promise ceremonies.” For many different reasons, couples will choose to have a commitment ceremony to exchange their vows and become married without handing the legal side of things at the same time. It is just as legitimate as any other elopement or wedding ceremony, and the vows exchanged hold the same weight. If you have a commitment ceremony, you can choose that moment to begin calling your fiance “husband” or “wife” or “life partner,” you just don’t have government paperwork to back it up. Whether you get legally married before, after, or never, a commitment ceremony is a perfectly legitimate and personal way to become married in the eyes of yourselves and those who know you. Commitment ceremonies mark the tradition from “dating” to “married.” Basically, it’s getting married without a marriage license.

Why Would Someone Choose to Have a Commitment Ceremony?

There are many reasons why couples choose to get married with a commitment ceremony instead of a legally binding ceremony. For some, their partnership might not be legal in their country or region. Others might not want to get legally married, or the timing of a legal marriage didn’t line up well with planning a celebration. Sometimes it’s just inconvenient or impossible to get legally married at the same time as the ceremony if couples want to follow through with their dream wedding. Every couple’s situation is unique, but there are the three main reasons we often see couples choose to plan commitment ceremonies for their elopements.

1. Couples Who Cannot Get Married By Law

We’ve been photographing weddings long enough to have witnessed the shift when marriage equality passed in the United States. Before then, every same-sex marriage ceremony we photographed was actually a commitment ceremony because it was illegal for those couples to become married by law. Once marriage equality finally passed, those couples were finally able to sign the paperwork and make things official, but that doesn’t invalidate the day they committed their lives to each other before! Others who hadn’t gotten married yet chose to sign the legal paperwork before their commitment ceremonies because they feared the law would be repealed and they’d miss their chance to get married. Unfortunately, same-sex marriage is still illegal in parts of the world, but those couples deserve to get married if they want to. As a result, until marriage equality becomes law everywhere, LGBTQ+ couples in regions where their love is illegal only have the option to share vows via a commitment ceremony. 

Commitment ceremonies for straight couples are just as common, but happen under different circumstances. Another group of people who cannot get married by law are those who are already married. For obvious reasons, you can’t sign a marriage license twice! Some couples choose to sign the paperwork and become legally married without planning a celebratory ceremony because of timing or convenience. Maybe they needed to become married for tax purposes, to support children, or for immigration reasons. These couples needed to get legally married quickly, but still want to plan an official wedding, elopement, or destination wedding later.

2. Couples Who Don’t Want To Be Legally Married

The second group of people who choose to have commitment ceremonies are those who want to get married, but don’t want to be legally married. There are many reasons a couple might not want a legally binding marriage! They might be financially disadvantaged as a married couple in the eyes of the law, like in countries where married couples are taxed at a higher rate than single people. Or perhaps they’re not religious, and the institution of marriage as defined by the state doesn’t appeal to them. For many people, the traditional constructs of marriage don’t apply but they want to commit to each other anyway, in their own way. For these couples, a commitment ceremony serves their purpose of committing their lives to each other ceremonially, without ever having to answer to the government on the status of their relationship.

3. Couples Inconvenienced By The Process Of Getting Legally Married

Sometimes it’s simply impossible or inconvenient to get legally married on the same day as your ceremony. Destination weddings are often hard to plan as legal ceremonies, for instance. Many of the couples we work with choose to have their ceremony in a different country or state from where they live, and the laws in those destinations can be prohibitive or complicated if you don’t live there. For example: If you get married in a country where you aren’t a citizen, it can take months to get a notarized copy of your marriage certificate, if you can get one at all! Some countries also have very restrictive laws regarding a legal marriage. They might only recognize ceremonies that occur indoors at a religious institution, and you want to say your vows outdoors. Some places require blood tests, waiting periods, or even ask you to arrive weeks in advance and apply for your license in person. Depending on the state or country, you might need to find an officiant or witnesses willing to cooperate with your ceremony vision. All these loopholes, red tape, and coordination can be a hindrance to your unique vision for your day. Our motto is: If it’s getting in the way of you having the best day of your life, cut it out! The legal paperwork can be seen as just that, paperwork. Do whatever is advantageous and sensible for you.

Maddie has personal experience planning a commitment ceremony

When I got married, we exchanged vows and had a commitment ceremony in Peru despite being from the United States and Scotland. We had already signed all the paperwork nine months prior, but we consider the mountain top ceremony in Peru to be the day we got married. It just simply didn’t align with our vision for our wedding day to be inconvenienced by the logistics of attempting to become legally married in a country halfway around the world from where we live. Our day was about our wants, our needs, and our vision – no one else. The government didn’t play a part in our commitment to each other, and that’s exactly the way we wanted our wedding to be. 

Pros & Cons of Commitment Ceremonies

We’ll be the first to admit that we believe there are way more pros than cons to getting married with a commitment ceremony! However, depending on your personal beliefs and perspective, some of these cons might hold weight, so you should choose the avenue right for you and your relationship. Whatever you choose to do, we’ll support you 100%! At the end of the day, if you do a commitment ceremony and your paperwork on another day, you two can get married anywhere in the world you want. Less stress, less expense, no rules or restrictions.

Pros

1. You Can Get Married Wherever & Whenever You Want!

You don’t want to worry about laws, or finding an officiant and witnesses. If you can travel there, you can say your vows there. If you want to get married now, but your state has a waiting period, let’s go! Say your vows, commit your lives to each other, and sign the papers whenever it’s convenient for you.

2. You Don’t Have To Deal With Paperwork!

If signing paperwork on the day of your wedding sounds like a chore, you don’t have to do it. We love being based in Colorado because you can self-solemnize on your wedding day, but not many other locations are so flexible. Signing the legal documents on the day of your wedding means coordinating with more people than just you and your partner. Skip that step entirely and you only have to coordinate those you want present at your ceremony!

3. The Ceremony Can Be Performed Using Language That Means Something To You!

Getting legally married often involves specific step-by-step instructions or jargon that might not feel personally relevant to you or your partner. Ditch that! There’s no script for a commitment ceremony, and you can say exactly what you want to say to your partner in your vows. Another bonus benefit of commitment ceremonies is that you can have anyone officiate! If you want your friend, mom, dog, or whomever to be the person standing with you and your partner during the ceremony, they don’t have to be a legal celebrant.

A Note on Officiants: However, if you DO choose to get legally married on your wedding day – all three of us have been ordained! In most states, we can legally sign your marriage certificate, and there are creative ways to find witnesses if you need those signatures too!

Cons

1. You’ll Have Two Anniversaries, Sort Of.

This can be a pro or con, but signing your marriage certificate on a different day than your ceremony results in two anniversaries! You can choose to ditch the legal date and focus on your ceremony anniversary, or this can be an opportunity to embrace more opportunities to celebrate your relationship. However, when you’re filling out any official paperwork in the future, you’ll need to remember which date it is that the government thinks you got married.

2. Until You’re Legally Married, You Can’t Claim Benefits

Unless you go through getting legally married, you can’t claim any benefits. You’ll have to check “single” on official documents and it is a bit harder to change your name if you don’t have a marriage certificate as your supporting document.

3. Some Old-Fashioned Family Members Might Not Approve

We are firm believers that those who love you, should support your decisions. However, we also recognize that some family members might have a hard time understanding the purpose of a marriage ceremony that isn’t legally binding if it conflicts with their personal beliefs. Religion or personal experience could be a reason some feel uneasy viewing a commitment ceremony as a “real” marriage, but don’t let that dissuade you from having the kind of ceremony that works for you!

How to Plan a Commitment Ceremony

Planning a commitment ceremony is no different than planning an elopement or wedding ceremony. Start by thinking about what you want to do and what kind of ceremony you want to have. Exchanging vows and rings are a common part of a commitment ceremony, just like any other wedding, but what you say and do depends on your unique vision!

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Where do you want to get married?
  • What activities do you want to engage in on your wedding day? 
  • Do you want an officiant who is okay with performing a non-legal ceremony, or do you want to self solemnize?
  • Do you want to invite guests or do you want it to just be the two of you?

Check out this blog on elopement ceremony ideas for more inspiration!

Some of our favorite ways to make commitment ceremonies personalized wedding celebrations are to write personal vows, read letters from friends or family members, or find other unique ways to incorporate loved ones into your day even when they aren’t physically present. One of our couples had a friend who was a celebrant provide a voice recording, which they played to walk them through their ceremony. Even though the couple chose to not invite guests, the recording was their way of feeling that their close friend was helping guide them through the vow exchange. If you do invite friends, ask one of them to guide you! They don’t have to be an ordained celebrant to officiate a commitment ceremony. Get as weird and quirky and authentically you as you want! Remember, this is your chance to celebrate your relationship whatever way is meaningful to you. The sky’s the limit on what traditions you want to perform and incorporate in the ceremony. 

Frequently Asked Questions about Commitment Ceremonies

No, but that doesn’t make it any less important! For more FAQs about the legalities of eloping, check out our blog.

Anyone who is willing to. If you ask someone to officiate, be up front that it isn’t legally binding.

Just the paperwork.

Civil ceremonies are legally binding. It’s usually done by government entities without a religious component.

We love the freedom of commitment ceremonies for couples who want to get married their own way

We encourage our couples to not let government paperwork hold them back from a wedding experience that is truly them, meaningful, intimate, and everything they’ve ever wanted out of their elopement location. You want to look back on your wedding day, on the day that you say your vows to each other, and love every single minute of it! No one should love your wedding experience more than you do. If doing the legal paperwork on that same day is a hassle, time consuming, stressful, expensive, or restrictive in any way – it is so easy and so worth it to ditch the legal side of things. You’ll still be getting married! 

Are you ready to start planning your own commitment ceremony?

If this type of wedding celebration sounds like the answer to what you’ve been looking for, we’re here to support you and help you in any way we can! We’ll help craft your personalized wedding day experience – starting with location scouting lists, planning tools, and recommendations to ensure you get to celebrate your wedding your way. We want your unique vision of your perfect wedding day to come true!

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Maddie Mae

Elopement Photographer

& Planning Consultant

Three photographers

About us

Adventure Instead

Your Elopement Photographers & Planning Consultants. We are Maddie Mae, Amber, and Tori. We're your photographers, your elopement consultants, your cheerleaders, and your go-to adventure buddy on the day you say your vows.

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