LEGAL OR SPIRITUAL MARRIAGE? Options for Alternative Families


Options for Alternative Families

Rev. Neil Patrick Carrick

Families come in every shape and size today, and while many people would like to tell you that a traditional family consists of a husband, a wife, 2 kids and a dog, it really has not ever been that way. Many will say that is the way God intended things to be, but all we have to do is look into the history of our world’s religious faiths to realize that that has not always been the case.

As a pastor, I have been asked about my views on the subject, and as a Family Court/Law Mediator & Parenting Coordinator I am often posed similar questions. Actually, I have experienced some life-changing events with regard to this very matter in my own life.

Years ago as a pastor, I took in a 16 year-old, racially-mixed, young woman and her one year-old daughter, due to difficult circumstances in her world at that time. Today she is considered my legal child, a de-factor daughter. But the reality of her becoming so didn’t happen simply, or easily.

My own family brought ill feelings and a lot of skepticism to the matter, often raising the “she isn’t blood” issue. Attorneys involved in the court case would often tell me that she couldn’t be my daughter, at least not in the way I had referred to her in court documents. In the end, however, even the best attorneys were proven wrong. I remember watching one lawyer in particular disputing with a judge, as the judge tried to stop her from further arguing my points…the very points which eventually won the case, based on my claim that she was indeed my daughter.

We watch reality TV shows where people’s lifestyles appear far removed from what we consider “normal”.  GLBT (Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender) relationships, marriages, and families seem off the wall, miles from most of our own lives.  But at the water coolers of  American mainstream gatherings there seem to be plenty of discussions about such worlds, whether it be the HBO  TV series Big Love that even some of my traditionalist best friends were saddened and upset about (i.e., when the polygamist father/husband lay dying), as if he were actually part of their lives, or just some overheard remarks of how others felt badly for the family on the show Sister Wives, as the polygamist family had to move away from their home state, due to fear of prosecution under Utah bigamy laws.

Still, many members of our society are unaccepting of those who are different.  My de-facto daughter, who is Caucasian and African American, had to endure horrible name-calling, and worse yet, name-calling directed at her own children, solely due to their racial heritage; even from within her own blood relatives.  I recently watched an episode of the TV show AC360 where a child was being bullied because his parents were gay. But if TV has taught me anything, it’s that the power of God–and more so, the Spirit of Life–can be transforming for those who defend, and do not hide, their love for their own family, even if that family subscribes to a non-traditional lifestyle.

While the price of defending those you love can be high, it is often a blessing, as my daughter has been a real blessing in my own life. On the TV series Sister Wives, the father/husband and his wives make the point that while their honesty has cost them a lot, it has been a positive as well. Their children, for example, no longer have to deny their own siblings/family. Before, they often had to ignore pointed questions about their lifestyle or tell an outright lie. For spiritual people, this is incredibly problematic. Having to lie about your family is a despicable option, and it should not be how we, as a society, teach our children to live.

Right now we are living in a transformative time for spirituality, as well as for our societal idea of the family. People, regardless of their circumstances, can be spiritually married or united with others.  But ironically, many faithful people–be it Christians, Muslims, or others–who identify with a poly-lifestyle can currently only be united via spiritual and life connections, not legally, when it comes to the issue of marriage.

But people can be connected legally in some ways, and have many of the same rights as others via agreements, contracts, power of attorney, etc. Truly, though, it is their spiritual and human connection that makes them family, not a piece of paper that says “marriage license”.

If you look at stories drawn from the traditions of the world’s great faiths, including Jewish and Christian teachings, you will see that “family” is not defined in such terms as one husband and one wife, though many try to convince us that that is the only acceptable kind. Scriptures contain numerous examples of blended, adopted, and poly-families.  They also cite many examples of how jealousy and judgment over these very issues were often the cause of much grief and suffering.

If you consider yourself a member of an alternative family, then know you are not alone. Know that there are many ministers and spiritual leaders who will welcome your hopes and desires for your family, in both their practice and rituals.  There are ways within our legal system to often find accommodating and practical solutions for various family concerns, such as healthcare, children, property, and other related issues that are often confusing and difficult to understand.

Many ministers and spiritual leaders will work with families–regardless of their dynamics–to welcome and celebrate the seasons of our lives, like births, baptisms, marriages, and other special times. While I would hesitate to tell you to run right out to the local church and ask the pastor to assist in such special ceremonies, I think you’d be pleasantly surprised to find many who would. There are numerous denominations and faiths that welcome people regardless of their family dynamics. Even some of the most well-known traditional groups have become more welcoming. For many pastors, like me, it is not about “whom” but about the merits of the relationship. For instance, will the relationship stand the test of time? And, most importantly, is my concern for compassionate, considerate treatment of the children that are, or will be, involved in the relationship.

Alternative families can consider using legal instruments like Healthcare Directives to protect their own self-interest regarding who they’d want in control of their future, should something of a disabling nature happens to them. Using Co-Habitation Agreements and similar documents is another way in which many families have, in essence, created legal and binding contracts, thus establishing legal relationships with those in their family that would otherwise not be possible. And please note that unlike traditional litigation, planning ahead through use of these types of documents can be incredibly less expensive and extremely helpful in protecting your family’s interests.

Neil Patrick Carrick is Co-Founder and Owner of New Horizons Mediation and Counseling, He is an ordained pastor, speaker, writer, and facilitator in the Alternative Dispute Resolution in the family law field including mediation, conciliation, and parenting co-ordination. http://, 313-731-2237.