I don't know how Common Law marriages ever became acceptable, but, legally speaking, they shouldn't be. If we truly respect the value of marriage, we ought not recognize these unions as anything other than what they are; co-habitants who shun marriage but benefit from it nonetheless.
I am not talking about co-habitating couples who live together for completely legitimate reasons, such as their ineligibility for legal marriage or prohibitive economic concerns. I agree that while these kinds of co-habitants should not be legally classified as "married", they ought to benefit from sort of legal recognition that acknowledges their union. When I speak of Common Law, I am referring to a specific group of people who actively and intentionally undermine the value of marriage yet live as husband and wife.
You know the kind I mean. Celebrity examples include Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, or Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, couples who maintain long term relationships, own houses, raise children... and seethe with fury at the suggestion that they get married. They claim to see marriage, not their children or property or lifelong connection to each other, as the tie that binds too much. They claim that marriage is outdated, unequal, an antiquated custom that offends them for some reason, all the while playing house with each other in exactly the same fashion their parents did, only without the gold rings.
I have never heard a compelling reason for this blatant contradiction in their lifestyle; they are not people who have to worry about being covered under each other's health insurance. They simply rebel against marriage on principle, and have no explanation for what that principle is.
Common Law doesn't mean anything, other than the fact that two people who have been living together want the same benefits and rewards of marriage without actually marrying. People who refuse to marry should accept that they can't be single and married at the same time. It is not "passing judgment" to say that a couple who is not married, for whatever reason, is not married.
Yet there are legions of people, in every country, who are not merely content to choose to live together, as is their right in most jurisdictions. These people, chiefly those who face no legal or economic impediment to legal marriage whatsoever, are the ones who scream and holler the most and demand that they be considered "as good as" married. They don't want to call the man they're living with "husband" - but they want the government to.
I maintain that words mean things. I believe that "married" is married, and "not married" isn't. By the same token, "Boyfriend" is an absurd title to bestow on the forty year old man with whom you've had three children. "Boyfriend" and "Girlfriend" are reminiscent of adolescence, the only time in your life when those terms are actually appropriate for the relationships you have. Once you sign a mortgage and start having children together, once you reach adulthood and carry on a sexually exclusive, long term relationship with someone, you move past the casual, sweetheart-like realm of boyfriends and girlfriends and move, more appropriately, into marriage. Or rather, you ought to. Why people don't is anyone's guess.
Again, I have never heard any valid reason for it. There are web sites devoted to so-called "marriage alternatives", but from what I can gather, the main objection these people have to marriage is not economics, family concerns, religious differences or legalities, it's simply that marriage is too monogamous for them, and too costly to get out of once you're finished with it.
Snubbing marriage has become a chic way to rail against The Establishment, without ever having to question whether The Establishment might actually be right this time. How these people ever managed to convince government officials that they can enjoy the benefits of marriage without being married, that they can manipulate the meaning of words to include whatever arrangements suit them, that they can advocate the destruction of the value that they themselves mimic in their own lives, is an enduring mystery to me, and one I dearly wish I had the answer to.
I have no desire to punish people who aren't married, or make those who live together suffer financially for their decision. I am simply concerned with the principle of marriage, and in preserving its meaning. To that end, I firmly believe that Common Law marriage should be not be recognized by the state. I take issue with those people who would redefine the legal definition of marriage to suit their particular needs or preferences. Marriage is something that should remain sacred, something that has meaning in our society. I believe two consenting adults, including homosexuals, should be allowed to marry if they wish. I also maintain that divorce should less complicated than it is now. Given the fact that in the last century we have progressed by leaps and bounds in making it easier for interfaith, interracial, and intercultural couples to marry, have made marriage licenses easy to get, have made civil ceremonies just as accepted as religious ones and have dropped previous generations' disapproving attitudes towards divorce, what possible reason is there to dilute the meaning of marriage and redefine it for those who wish to benefit from it and snub it at the same time?
Maybe we should start redefining everything. Maybe we should give maternity leave to women who don't have kids but want to be considered "mothers" anyway, or confer the title "doctor" on those who would have gone to med school but didn't have the money. Maybe then we'd see the inanity of common law marriage.