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a relationship or civil status which is similar to marriage, but does not have the same legal implications
'Civil unions would become a sort of "marriage lite". You could enter into them and take advantage of the legal benefits, but then leave them whenever you wanted. No messy divorces. No marital property laws. No alimony payments. No child support. All the benefits of marriage without any of the hassle.'World Magazine 28th February 2004
The number of people who are married has dropped steadily since the 1950s, and it is more than likely that in years to come, unmarried couples will outnumber married couples, a situation unprecedented in history. Over the last few decades, the English language has needed to respond to such changing trends and find new ways of describing committed relationships between two individuals, which do not always entail a legal marriage ceremony. For instance, the phrasal verb live together has taken on a very particular meaning, and legal systems have embraced terms such as common-law husband/wife. The term marriage lite is one of the latest coinages in this context.
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The phrase marriage lite is most often used in journalistic circles as an informal reference to the concept of a civil union. This is a legal arrangement which grants homosexual couples some of the rights associated with marriage, but does not exactly mirror marital status, e.g. a divorce is not needed to terminate it. Civil unions have become legally recognised in many parts of the world, including Canada, parts of the United States, Scandinavia, Germany, France and Switzerland. On the 31st March 2004, the Civil Partnership Bill was put forward in the UK Parliament and would introduce the concept of civil unions into England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Though originally conceived as a legal mechanism for giving homosexual couples the same social and financial rights as married couples, latterly there has been a great deal of interest in civil union as a marriage alternative for heterosexual couples. Many see it as encompassing all of the benefits of marriage, with none of the restrictions. Couples who live together could have some rights whether or not they decide full-blown legal marriage is for them. This is informally described by some as the option of marriage lite.
The term marriage lite is a compound form inspired by commercial products such as Coca-Cola Lite, a modified cola drink which contains less sugar than standard Coca-Cola. The adjective lite dates from the mid-20th century as a variant spelling of light ('not weighing much'), and can be used productively to mean 'containing a low amount of something', usually sugar, alcohol or fat as in, e.g. lite beer or lite mayonnaise. In the term marriage lite, the analogy is presumably of a union between two people which does not contain all of the ingredients of a standard marriage.
One of the earliest notable uses of the term was in the title of a book by UK author Patricia Morgan, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Civil Society. Morgan's book, entitled Marriage-Lite: The Rise of Cohabitation and its Consequences (Cromwell Press, 2002) is based on a range of surveys conducted over a 20-year period, and draws the general conclusion that cohabiting relationships are not as stable or permanent as legal marriage.
This article was first published on 25th June 2004.