The Difference Between a Wedding, Marriage, and Legal Marriage

Newlywed couple dancing at wedding

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A wedding is not the same thing as a marriage. Sometimes people use the terms "wedding" and "marriage" interchangeably, however, a wedding typically lasts a day while marriage is intended to last a lifetime. Another way of thinking about it is that marriage refers to the actual long-term relationship, while a wedding simply refers to a ceremony that celebrates two people together. A wedding also has several additional components aside from the marriage ceremony itself, including the reception, honeymoon, bridal shower, wedding parties, and more. 

Why the Terms Matter

These various definitions are particularly significant within the battle for legal recognition for gay marriage. Religious people against gay marriage, for example, may fear that they will have to celebrate gay weddings in their churches and houses of worship. Similar groups might also believe that legal recognition for gay people will change the meanings of their own religious wedding ceremonies. Some gays and lesbians have even devalued the worth of having a wedding if their marriage cannot have legal standing. For example, consider the controversy of Proposition 8, a ballot option in California created by opponents of same-sex marriage. Prop 8 eliminated the rights of same-sex couples to marry and passed in California in 2008. In the battle, some LGBTQ+ folks have said that when the bill passed, their weddings meant nothing. Since 2010, a federal judge decided it was unconstitutional, making it legal for same-sex couples to marry in California.

Having a Wedding

Having a life partner or a lifelong partnership between two people may be considered a marriage by definition, but it is not legal without proper documentation through the legal process. Legal marriage is not the same thing as a wedding nor is it meant to be a substitute for having one. Only you can decide when your wedding has real meaning and significance.

The wedding is only a ceremony, which is typically held during or after a marriage is finalized, whether legal or not. Many people simply appreciate the ritual of a wedding despite not wanting to or being able to get legally married. There are many things you can do to celebrate your relationship without getting legally married. For example, you can change your last names through a court order or get pronounced as united in love (rather than husband and wife).

Getting Legally Married

Same-sex marriages were ruled legal in the United States when the Supreme Court decided on June 26, 2015, that they were covered by the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment. Legal recognition by the state is important because it grants couples many rights and benefits.

To have a legal marriage, you must obtain a marriage license from your county clerk and pay the amount accordingly. The license should be granted as long as you and your spouse meet the requirements, although the legal requirements vary from state to state. Most states require spouses to be 18 years or older, for instance.