Before diving into the details of what a commitment ceremony can look like and how to plan one, we first need to define what exactly it is in the first place. At its core, a commitment ceremony is a ceremony where a couple chooses to express their commitment to one another without technically getting married, from a legal standpoint. It is a ceremonious affirmation of your commitment to each other.
With commitment ceremonies, you are not considered legally married. You won’t need to sign a marriage license. You simply are choosing to express your vows and dedication to each other, without the legal element that comes with marriage.
I just want to get a few misconceptions about commitment ceremonies out of the way first. A commitment ceremony can be for anyone or any relationship. It doesn’t matter whether you are straight, LGBTQ+, or in a polyamorous relationship. This type of ceremony, at its core, is a beautiful way to express your feelings of dedication. For couples who may not feel like a traditional marriage suits their needs, commitment ceremonies are an incredible route to take.
The shorter answer is no. When you have a commitment ceremony, it is not a legally binding marriage. For some people, this is exactly why they choose a commitment ceremony vs a marriage and traditional wedding.
There are various reasons why a couple may choose to not be legally married. Perhaps they don’t like the concept of marriage or they don’t think it effectively describes their type of union. Maybe they’ve made the choice to not be legally married for tax purposes. Or perhaps the place where they are from doesn’t allow for them to get legally married.
Your ceremony can be personalized in exactly the same way as an elopement or wedding. You can still share personal vows and incorporate any other wedding-related activities into your day. The only difference is you’re not signing a marriage license.
In fact, from the outside, commitment ceremonies won’t necessarily look or feel any different than a wedding, and there’s really no difference outside of a marriage license. All of this to say, if you feel empowered to write vows to your significant other(s), definitely consider how you can incorporate that into your ceremony.
Since a commitment ceremony is not legally considered a marriage, you have the benefit of having anyone you’d like perform a commitment ceremony for you. Or you can have no one perform it at all (essentially you and your partner(s)) can guide the ceremony yourselves. This is similar in style to a self-uniting wedding, minus the part about signing a marriage license.
When it comes to a marriage ceremony, things can be a little bit more complicated, so consider this a major bonus for having a commitment ceremony!
Unfortunately, marriage laws tend to be archaic in nature, and this is particularly relevant for polyamorous relationships. If you and your partners want to have the commitment of marriage but aren’t able to make it legal in the eyes of your state and/or country, a commitment ceremony is a great way to honor your relationship.
The marriage license process can sometimes be a bit complicated, depending on where you’re eloping. For some couples, bothering with the legal process of getting married at their destination just isn’t worth the headache. This is where commitment ceremonies come in.
As an elopement photographer, I’ve worked with couples who sign their marriage license months before their elopement ceremony, and then what we essentially refer to as their ceremony at their destination is actually technically a commitment ceremony. No marriage license is signed on that day.
This is pretty common with couples I work with who choose to elope in states where there’s a waiting period before they can use their marriage license. For example, if you want to elope in Washington state, you have to deal with this.
If you don’t have the time to get out to your elopement destination in time to pick your license and wait, having a commitment ceremony and then signing the legal paperwork either beforehand or afterwards back home works well.
Hey, marriage isn’t for everyone. For some people, the concept of marriage might seem a little dated, but they still like the idea of committing themselves to their partner(s). A commitment ceremony allows you to do exactly that.
Feel free to borrow what you do like about weddings and elopements, and leave the rest. For example, if you want to legally change your last names to be the same, you can certainly do that, whether you’re legally married or not.
The important thing to remember is that marriage is a legal construct, so if you choose to have a commitment ceremony vs a wedding, just remember the legal implications of the differences between the two. Ultimately, this is when you’ll want to consult your local laws, as this will vary from place to place.
Generally speaking, commitment ceremonies tend to be much more flexible than weddings, as you have more say in who comes along and you don’t have to deal with marriage license wait times. But with that said, what does it look like to plan a commitment ceremony versus an elopement? You might be surprised to find that they’re not that different.
First things first, I’d recommend narrowing down your guest list for your ceremony. Do you want it to just be you and your partner(s)? Would you prefer to have a small group of family and/or friends present when you share your vows?
The reason I put this as your first step in how to plan a commitment ceremony is because this will have a pretty significant impact on what locations will work for your ceremony.
Do you want to say your vows on the top of a mountain? On a hiking trail that meanders past wildflower meadows? In the deserts of California or Utah? Which landscapes speak to you and your partner(s)? And which ones will accommodate your specific group size, because not all landscapes are do-able with large groups?
Once you’ve figured out what landscapes speak the most to you, talk to your elopement photographer about what seasons and dates are best for that location. Most adventurous outdoors locations have seasons when they’re good and seasons where they’re not necessarily a great option. Your elopement photographer should be able to guide you on this.
Let’s take Colorado as an example of this. Certain mountain passes and trails are completely inaccessible until the summer months, due to adverse weather conditions. Knowing that, you wouldn’t want to center your plans around that spot if you can’t even get there in the first place.
A good elopement photographer will be able to help you craft your timeline for your commitment ceremony. They will know the best times of day to have your ceremony, how much time to include when hiking to your ceremony site, and what unique weather conditions you could come across at your ceremony location.
It’s important to talk to your photographer about the day-of timeline, as they should be able to walk you through this process to ensure you’ve included all the important elements you’ve been dreaming up into your day.
Once your timeline is sorted out, you’ll want to go ahead and book any other vendors you need for your day, whether it’s a hair and makeup artist, a florist, a private chef, etc.
After your timeline has been created, this is also a great time to go ahead and secure your lodging at your destination and look into booking your travel. Definitely talk to your photographer to see if they have any specific tips on lodging and travel for your location.
As someone who chose to elope instead of having a traditional wedding, I know what you’re going through in choosing to have a commitment ceremony. I too, didn’t feel like a traditional wedding resonated with me. For me, I chose to elope. For you, perhaps an elopement-style commitment ceremony sounds more like your vibe.
Either way, I’m cheering you on. Your choice to break from tradition is a brave and incredible one, particularly in an industry that tries to give people very limited choices.
If you’ve chosen to have a commitment ceremony, I’d love nothing more than to be with you throughout this process, because I don’t believe you should have to go it alone. If you’ve been dreaming up ideas for what your day might look and feel like, but aren’t quite sure how to bring it to fruition, I’m here for you and would love to hear more about your plans.
Check out some of our favorite elopement and adventure wedding planning resources:
Empowering You To Have Your Adventure Elopement, Your Way
Colorado Elopement Photographers + Adventure Wedding Photographers