Rough description of marriage in contemporary Unitarian Universalism

With all the current debate about the meaning of marriage, particularly in the context of the so-called “culture wars,” I decided to summarize what I know about marriage as it is practiced in, and understood by, Unitarian Universalist congregations today. This is a descriptive rather than a prescriptive summary; I am not trying to prescribe what “real” marriage is; I am not trying to tell how you should do marriage; I am trying to describe marriage as I have observed it in my affiliation with nine different congregations with varying theological emphases.

Covenantal basis | Forms | Same-sex marriage | Divorce | Changes and challenges | Life in the married state

Three dimensions of a covenantal basis for marriage

The most obvious thing to say about Unitarian Universalist marriage is that it is a covenant; that is, it is a complex of promises exchanged by individuals, promises that are designed to bind them together in relationship. Unitarian Universalist marriage has three basic dimensions: (1) a personal relationship between the individuals who are married; (2) a public or social relationship between the individuals being married and a wider social web of relationships (that wider web of relationships may include family, friends, congregation, wider local community); these first two dimensions may be characterized as horizontal relationships, i.e., relationships between persons. The third dimension may be characterized as the vertical dimension: (3) a relationship with something larger than individual humans or human organizations. This third dimension tends to be flattened or barely acknowledged in many Unitarian Universalist marriages, and may be acknowledged only as some implicit or off-hand appeal to larger ideals; other Unitarian Universalist marriages refer explicitly to a deity (God, Goddess, etc.) or deities, or to something like Bernard Loomer’s theological concept of the Web of Life. However each dimension happens to be understood, Unitarian Universalist marriage is a covenant, a set of promises, encompassing all three of these dimensions.

Unitarian Universalist marriage as practiced in the U.S. is grounded in old English understandings of marriage — English common law, and English folk traditions. Two of these understandings persist in the legal institution of marriage: a marriage must be freely entered into by both parties (mutual consent); and there can be nothing that would prohibit the marriage. The idea of mutual consent ties in with the general idea of covenant, because covenants must be freely entered into. The idea that marriage must have a social and vertical dimension ties in with the requirement that there be nothing that can prohibit the marriage: the Unitarian Universalist minister or lay officiant can refuse to officiate at a marriage if s/he believes there are conditions which should prohibit the marriage from taking place.

These days, the idea of mutual consent is typically conflated with romantic love, i.e., those who are attached by romantic love are assumed to be able to mutually consent to marriage. Most Unitarian Universalists would state that romantic love must be present in order for a marriage to take place. However, the concept of romantic love is poorly defined except in reference to (a) vague notions of mutual consent, and (b) the notions of romantic love that exist in the surrounding culture. There does appear to be a tendency among Unitarian Universalists to broaden love beyond the narrow definitions of romantic love; if Unitarian Universalists were to articulate a broader concept of love as presently understood, that broader definition of love would probably include notions of mutual respect, mutual support, responsibility to each other and to the wider community, and mutual consent more carefully defined — this in addition to the (not necessarily logical or religious) sexual and emotional attraction included in popular definitions of romantic love. Paragraph added per comment below.

All these factors help to shape the actual Unitarian Universalist marriage ceremony. A ceremony must include three elements: a statement of intention; the exchange of vows; a declaration or pronouncement. In the statement of intention, the officiant asks if those getting married are entering into marriage freely and by mutual consent; most ordained officiants and experienced lay officiants explicitly ask the couple to say aloud that they want to get married. The statement of intention is usually followed immediately by the exchange of vows. The vows are the explicit statement of the marriage covenant, in which those getting married promise various things to each other. After the vows have been exchanged, the officiant will then declare or pronounce the individuals as being married both to the individuals being married, to those who have gathered to witness the marriage, and to whatever constitutes the vertical dimension (in those cases where there are no witnesses except the officiant and those being married, the officiant will still typically declare or pronounce the individuals as being married).

Forms marriage can take

Unitarian Universalist marriage make take several forms. Monogamy which is ended only by the death of one partner is probably slightly more prevalent amongst Unitarian Universalists than amongst the wider population (assuming that Unitarian Universalists can be included with mainline Protestants in the national surveys that have looked at marriage). Serial monogamy is perhaps a little less common among Unitarian Universalists than in the wider population.

Since there is no religious requirement to marry, a significant proportion of Unitarian Universalists couples choose not to get married at all. Some couples may reject marriage under moral or ethical grounds, usually based on feminist critiques of marriage, or based on other political or religious critiques of marriage. Other couples may choose to remain unmarried for legal or financial reasons. Many unmarried couples may be putting off marriage, or waiting to get married. Some couples may prefer a hand-fasting or equivalent ceremony (see below). Same-sex couples who live in states that do not recognize same-sex marriage may decide they don’t want a religious marriage ceremony until they can have a legal marriage, too. While the relationships just described are technically not marriages, many look pretty much like marriages and may include an implicit or explicit covenant; Unitarian Universalist marriage is not a binary either/or state, but rather a continuum from clearly married to clearly unmarried.

Same-sex marriage

When it comes to same-sex marriage, some Unitarian Universalists have argued that the tradition of English common law limited marriage to opposite sex couples. This argument is heard less and less frequently as time goes on. The traditional view of marriage amongst Unitarian Universalists has already undergone major revision during the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, when the tradition of women being subordinate to men in marriage was essentially done away with. Once traditional gender roles in marriage have been eradicated, most Unitarian Universalists have felt that there is little prevent two persons of the same gender from marrying. In addition, most Unitarian Universalists would point to examples of stable (bound by implicit covenant) same-sex couples in the Anglo-American world going back hundreds of years. Finally, Unitarian Universalists have become increasingly aware in recent years that gender is not a binary, either-or matter; biologically, we know about intersexual individuals, we are aware of persons with ambiguous gender identities, etc.; and thus it becomes difficult to say that marriage has to be between two persons whom we can identify in terms of binary gender.

Probably nearly all Unitarian Universalists support same-sex marriage. Such support ranges from those who accept the theoretical right of same-sex couples to marry, while preferring that their own congregation not sanction same-sex marriages — all the way to those who find absolutely no difference between same-sex marriage and opposite-sex marriage. Probably nearly all Unitarian Universalists support the legal right to same-sex marriage, even if they do so only theoretically.


Unitarian Universalists have no prohibition on divorce; a covenant that has been freely entered into may be broken by the mutual consent of the married individuals. There should therefore be no stigma at all associated with divorce.

However, divorce as actually practiced reveals a major inconsistency in Unitarian Universalist theology of covenantal marriage: while the initial covenant includes relationships along three dimensions, the breaking of that covenant only occurs along one dimension, the individual dimension. Divorce is generally seen as a legal matter, not a matter which should concern the religious community, or the vertical dimension. Yet at the same time, when a Unitarian Universalist couple gets divorced, most often one or both members of the couple will leave their local congregation; thus the dimension of religious community is in fact acknowledged during divorce. The vertical dimension, weak in any case, is nearly always ignored; except in the personal spiritual lives of the individuals, where it can loom large, with no real way to deal with it in the context of religious community. Some few local congregations do have divorce ceremonies; it has been reported that those who go through divorce ceremonies find them helpful.

Emerging changes and challenges

Marriage with more than two partners continues to be rejected by the majority of Unitarian Universalists. This rejection may happen for a variety of reasons. Feminists may reject multiple-partner marriages with one man and more than one woman as probably exploitative of the women involved. 19th C. Multiple-partner marriage is most often associated with Mormonism in the U.S., and most Unitarian Universalists prefer to distance themselves from Mormonism (or even the perception of being like the Mormons). In the Anglo-American tradition, multiple-partner marriages have existed for centuries, but usually among people of low socio-economic status who are (metaphorically) far from positions of power; since Unitarian Universalism tends to be a religion of high socio-economic status, multiple-partner marriage is proabably experienced by many as a threat to the socio-economic status of Unitarian Universalism. Many Unitarian Universalists still remember the “wife-swapping” and sexual high-jinks that took place in Unitarian Universalist congregations in the “sexual liberation” movements of the 1970s, which were often perceived to be sexist, irresponsible, and destructive; these Unitarian Universalists do not perceive much of a difference between those failed social experiments of the past, and multiple-partner marriage of the present. Finally, advocates of same-sex marriage may believe that accepting multiple-partner marriage may lower our effectiveness in advocating for same-sex marriage (with the current state of U.S. society, this fear is probably warranted). Given the resistance to multiple-partner marriage due to several unrelated causes, it seems unlikely that multiple-partner marriage will achieve widespread acceptance amongst Unitarian Universalists in the foreseeable future.

Unitarian Universalist weddings have been severely affected by the consumerization of wedding ceremonies. Because Unitarian Universalists tend to be more wealthy, and because Unitarian Universalists are not particularly counter-cultural, their weddings seem to follow the wider societal trend of increasing expense and elaborateness. The consumerization of weddings has also tended to remove the religious dimension of Unitarian Universalist weddings. Unitarian Universalist officiants are unlikely to insist on much of a religious dimension, and consumerist pressures gradually force more and more elements into the wedding ceremony that have nothing to do with Unitarian Universalist theological understandings of marriage, e.g., expensive accoutrements; liturgical elements such as unity candles; weddings that require attendance at a weekend-long retreat; etc.

Unitarian Universalist weddings have also been severely affected by the lack of a serious theological grounding. Wedding ceremonies appear to be drifting away from a covenantal understanding. The vertical dimension of the covenant has already been flattened; now two of the three essential elements of a wedding — intention and declaration — may be attentuated or even ignored.

Unitarian Universalist weddings have seen the growth of non-traditional liturgical forms. Perhaps of greatest interest is the handfasting ceremony. The handfasting ceremony make take on neo-pagan trappings, but it shares some important roots with Unitarian Universalist weddings: the Anglo-American tradition of mutual consent; similar notions of covenant (i.e., it is a covenantal not a sacramental ceremony); and the three dimensions of the covenant. Because hand-fasting has been shaped by the neo-pagan movement, it has been shaped by the feminist grounding of neo-paganism. Handfasting fits in very well indeed with contemporary Unitarian Universalism. Furthermore, handfasting ceremonies may feel more honest and genuine in certain ways: if serial monogamy is the current norm, a handfasting ceremony that lasts for “a year and a day” may feel more honest than a wedding that claims to be in perpetuity but which soon ends in divorce; and handfasting ceremonies may feel more genuinely aligned with Unitarian Universalist theology than a wedding ceremony which has been coopted by consumerism on the one hand, and religious conservatives on the other hand.

Life in the married state

Compared to religious conservatives, Unitarian Universalists have not given much public emphasis on marriage maintenance. We have no “Promisekeepers,” no prominent public groups supporting the institution of marriage, etc. It seems likely that Unitarian Universalist congregations hear many more sermons about the right to same-sex marriage than about how to keep one’s existing marriage alive and vital. Public statements and public witness about marriage remains uncommon amongst us.

However, many local congregations actually provide substantial quiet and implicit support to married couples. Support groups for men and for women often provide forums for talking about married life. Ministers and lay pastoral care providers provide support and counseling for those in marriages. Same-sex couples in states that don’t allow legal marriage for them can find that their local congregation provides real support in their religious and personal marriage. It would seem to make sense for local congregations to be more explicit and more public about the support they are already giving to people who are married, and I’m not sure why this is not happening.


That’s a rough description of Unitarian Universalist marriage today. I’m sure I’ve missed some things, or gotten some facts wrong. if so, please correct me in the comments below.

14 thoughts on “Rough description of marriage in contemporary Unitarian Universalism

  1. Chalicechick

    Great stuff-and no corrections from me. I really liked your look at divorce especially. I’ve seen the “couple gets divorced, one or both of them leave the church” dynamic before and I’ve often wished there were a way to better reach out to divorcing people and ideally keep them both. That may be impossible in many cases.


  2. Jean

    Okay, call me old-fashioned, or perhaps deluded, but nowhere in this post did I see the word … dare I say it? … “love.” Where does that fit in?

  3. Ellen

    Okay, so call me ignorant, but can you cite any sources for the history of multiple partner marriages you claim?

    And, while I agree with you that the computerization of marriage ceremonies certainly affects UU marriage ceremonies, it’s not a blanket situation. As a UU minister who performs weddings and has spoken to a lot of others, many of us insist that rituals added have theological and cultural meaning to the individuals and many of us advocate for lowering the cost of weddings.

    You should also point out, though, that the “weekend long” wedding version has as much to do with social networks as money, probably more. If one’s friends and family are scattered all over the country, an afternoon wedding with a short reception just doesn’t honor the travel they’ve all had to do nor take advantage of that time together. I’ve observed that many upper class folks in cities whose families are not scattered tend to concentrate their monetary wedding spending on the lavishness of the ceremony and reception (although sometimes in having everyone travel to the Caribbean…) while those whose social networks are scattered concentrate their monetary spending on events surrounding the wedding–including sometimes renting a B&B or whatever as what you call a “retreat” or other brunches and dinners.

    What differentiates this from a generation ago is cost of travel and ease of communication across distance. Since travel costs have generally decreased and distance communication has become cheaper and easier, this kind of gathering in of the extended community is much more possible.

    That this is common among UU’s I think points more to a social location around educational status, including what kind of college one attends (tending towards private rather than a state school) and a mobile existence which is a facet of some slices of American middle and upper class life, but not all.

  4. Bill Baar

    I appreciate this post. It’s the only serious posting I’ve seen on what UU’s practice and believe about marriage although I’ve heard it preached.

    I’m with Ellen though on your history of mulitiple marriage. My source on Marriage and it’s History is Stephanie Coontz’s “Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage” and I just don’t recall much on a Western History of Multiple Partner marriages.

    Omitting Love interesting considering UUA’s slogan is “Standing on the Side of Love”. Considering, per Coontz, that marriage wasn’t always much about Love; it’s interesting UUA picked that slogan.

    What do UU’s see new in Marriage to put Love as the deciding and focal criteria, and what have we cast aside from Marriage that maybe had been there for a very long time?

    Advice given to me upon getting married by the way was it takes a lot of work…

  5. Dan

    Ellen @ 4 — I’ll have to dig up those citations on multiple partner relationships, but yes reputable historians have documented such relationships. These relationships were not sanctioned by church or state, meaning there is no standard written record, which is why these relationships have been obscured. Obviously, we could argue endlessly about whether these constitute “real” marriages or not — just as people argue endlessly about whether so-called “Boston marriages,” long-term lesbian relationships in 19th C. eastern New England, count as “real” marriages or not. I will try to find those citations and write them up in a future blog post — but don’t hold your breath, as we’re still trying to get organized after our cross country move, and I still can’t find some of my books.

    As for consumerization of weddings: Yes, good ministers and lay officiants will impart theological meaning to added rituals. Yes, good ministers and lay officiants will advocate for lower wedding costs. Nevertheless, I hold to my statement that UU “weddings seem to follow the wider societal trend of increasing expense and elaborateness.” Here’s a relevant quote from Cinderella Dreams: The Allure of the Lavish Wedding by Cele Otnes and Elizabeth Peck (Univ. of California, 2003, pp. 25-26):

    “‘Ellen,’ who was married in 1966, recently described how she and her fiance spent less than $500 [$3,250 in 2008 dollars] for the knee-length dress she bought at a department store, her flowers, a professional photographer, and the reception. The groom wore a dark suit and tie. Her reception was held at a local restaurant, but there was no music or dancing… Twenty-seven years later, in 1993, when Ellen’s daughter Clarise married, the wedding was three times as large and thirty-six times as expensive. Clarisse and her fiance took twelve months to plan the festivities, which cost $18,000 [$26,500 in 2008 dollars, actually only 8 times as expensive]. Both sets of parents, as well as the bride and groom (who each had four attendants) helped pay for the event. They invited 325 people to the wedding, and 275 came…. The reception featured both a band and a disc jockey, as well as ‘a five-layer cake, all frosted in white, with real flowers at the top!’… Clarise’s [wedding] was a typical middle-class event for its time…. On the whole, the trend in weddings in the past century is that an event that was once relatively modest in scale has become much larger and grander and takes longer to plan….”

    Unitarian Universalists have not, in general, resisted this trend towards lavish weddings; nor are we extravagant compared to other denominations. The real point is that UU weddings, like all other U.S. weddings, are now more expensive and more elaborate on average.

    As for the weekend-long weddings, of course such events make sense when families are geographically dispersed. However, there’s a difference between weekend-long weddings where out of town guests stay with family and friends, and wedding events where everyone has to pay fairly high room rates to stay overnight in a hotel or resort. The former is a necessary response to changing demographic trends; the latter represents consumerization (especially when some of those invited don’t attend the wedding because they can’t afford to do so). Nor is it necessary to invite anyone from out of state to begin with; there is no theological requirement (or legal requirement) to invite cousins, aunts, uncles, college friends, co-workers, etc. to one’s wedding; one does not even have to have all of one’s immediate family, although from a psychological standpoint it’s probably desirable to have immediate family present. All of this leads me to believe that the primary driving factor here is the allure of the lavish wedding, rather than the geographical dispersal of friends and family.

  6. Jean

    Okay, thanks for the paragraph. But I really didn’t mean “romantic love.” I meant something deeper. Romantic love is just icing on the cake. It’s the cake I’m interested in.

    Anyway — thanks for the extra thoughts.

  7. Dan

    Jean @ 7 — The last sentence in the added paragraph does go beyond romantic love. If that’s not adequate, maybe you could be more specific about what you’re looking for.

  8. Ellen

    Dan, I agree with the overall increase in cost of weddings, I just wanted to expose some of the complications.

    I think that you’ve missed a critical vertical component of UU weddings which may be why you dismiss the perceived need to invite those out of town–many UU’s replaced the vertical God component of the marriage with a witness by community. Since we are so darn mobile, the community in which we actually dwell is not the community who cares for our marriages. We don’t have the formal “in care” status of Quaker marriages, but we declare something similar. In fact, I see more and more UU couples using a form of the Quaker wedding ritual of having all guests sign a document. This community witness is particularly important for same-sex ceremonies where the state witness is lacking or fragile (no state witness can currently be trusted to last).

    What we are lacking is any way that particular vertical axis–the community–has a role in divorce.

  9. DairyStateDad

    Very interesting and something I’ll want to muse on at greater length.

    Interestingly, I attend a UU church in which there are at least 4 divorced couples in which neither ex-partner left the church. (I’m a member of one of those couples.) The age of the children involved is one reason — all 4 of the couples I’m thinking of were and are active in the church and had school-aged children at the the time of the breakup. Perhaps having 2 services helps, although in the case of 1 couple, their breakup was long before we went to 2 services…

    I would be interested in your observations about the frequency of interfaith/multifaith ceremonies for couples being married by UU ministers, especially relative to other denominations. DairyStateMom and I (for clarity, I’ll state that she and I remain happily married) chose to have an explicitly interfaith wedding, presided over by a UU as well as a Christian (UCC, although employed by a Presbyterian Church in a non-pastoral position) minister, with both Christian and UU liturgical elements.

    On the question of “hard work” in marriage: I’m inclined to dissent, somewhat. I think far more important is fundamental compatibility. But that’s probably the topic for a whole ‘nother blog post, or more…

  10. Jean

    Dan @8 – Well, what I’m looking for is something less dry and intellectualized, and more poetic and stirring. I still maintain that’s not romantic love, but rather a deeply felt — as well as acted upon — connection between two human beings. Perhaps I’m not reading closely enough (I am jet lagged at the moment), but I’m not seeing that in this collection of ideas about marriage. Perhaps that’s not, however, your point or purpose either. So, I’ll just come back tomorrow and read again when I can remember what time zone I’m in!

    love, Jean

  11. Dan

    Ellen @ 9 — You write: “…many UU’s replaced the vertical God component of the marriage with a witness by community.”

    I can see why you’d make that argument, but in my interpretation that witness by the community has always been there; in the main post, I name that as one of the three dimensions of the covenant, and I define that as one of the horizontal dimensions. I have to say that I don’t believe that dimension has really gotten any stronger in recent years; at least, not compared to a hundred years ago; but it would be difficult to document any assertion about the historical relative strength of this dimension. You might wish to argue that the covenantal community has shifted from the local congregations (where it was historically located) to friends and family; I would argue that friends and family do not necessarily represent a covenantal community; and I would argue that a different set of human beings does not make this a vertical dimension.

    I do believe it is possible to create a kind of vertical dimension from this-wordly relationships; I would point to Bernard Loomer’s Unfoldings II as a wonderful source for making the Web of Life (carefully defined as a web of human and non-human naturalistic relationships, which Loomer is willing to call God, though he doesn’t insist on it) take the place of the vertical dimension most often taken by “God” or equivalent supernatural deity. However, this kind of vertical dimension is not about family and friends, and therefore would not require travel by out-of-town guests.

    Dairy State Dad @ 10 — I’d be curious to know how big your congregation is. In my experience, the bigger the congregation, the more likely it is that both ex-spouses can stay.

    As for interfaith marriages, that’s a good question. I’ll have to think about it. Maybe they deserve inclusion in the main body of the post.

    Jean @ 11 — I did not intend this to be a poetic or lyrical exposition about marriage. I’m just trying to document marriage as it currently exists amongst Unitarian Universalists. And knowing that I was going to take on some hot-button issues, I decided to keep the tone distinctly dry and removed from feelings.

  12. DairyStateDad

    Our congregation is about 250-300 people or so (a very rough number).

    The first example I know of of divorced people both remaining in the church took place when it was smaller. Both members of the couple had high profile involvement in the congregation. They also had young children and probably shared custody. And this was at a time when there was just 1 service.

    Amazingly, they made it work, and that probably set an example for the 3 other couples over time.

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