Created By: Hodor on February 25, 2014 Last Edited By: gallium on July 20, 2015
Troped

Not Really Married Plot

A comedy plotline where a married couple finds out they were never married due to a technicality

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Do we have this one already? I did a search but didn't find it.

Anyway, this is a stock comedy trope/sitcom plotline where a married couple, typically one married for a significant period of time, finds out that due to some kind of technicality/error, they were never married.

This leads to dialogue about this revelation meaning that they have been "living in sin" the whole time, as well as a plot in which one or both partners debate staying together, after discovering they aren't legally bound (if this is an ongoing sitcom, they will inevitably stay together.

Things are generally resolved either by the couple re-solemnizing their vows or else discovering that due to another technicality, the original technicality didn't actually prevent them from being legally married.

This is kind of a Dead Horse Trope for a couple of reasons: Sex outside of marriage is no longer as stigmatized (if at all), so the coy talk about living in sin is no longer a huge concern; The trope also implicitly lends itself to an earlier time in which divorce was stigmatized/required cause (whether or not legally accurate, the idea is that one or both parties could get an annulment at this point even if the law did not let them divorce). One other factor is that record keeping has improved, and so technicalities involving paperwork are less likely to happen.

Contrast with Accidental Marriage, which is essentially the inverse. Compare also with Oops! I Forgot I Was Married, where a "technicality" stops people from being able to get married.


Examples:

Film
  • Mr. and Mrs. Smith, directed by Alfred Hitchcock (no relation to the Angelina Jolie-Brad Pitt film Mr. & Mrs. Smith), has a couple find this out when in the mood to rethink things. When the husband gets kind of dickish about formalizing the marriage, the wife gets mad and starts demanding a divorce.
  • Please Get Married, a 1919 bedroom farce play written by Lewis Allen Browne and James Cullen, concerns a young couple whose honeymoon is ruined when word spreads that the minister who supposedly married them may have been a burglar.
  • The romantic comedy film We're Not Married has this its premise. A justice-of-the-peace is appointed and starts marrying couples on Christmas, even though his appointment doesn't officially take effect until January 1 of the New Year. Two years later, the error is uncovered, and he contacts the couples he married to let them know they were not officially married due to the mistake. The film deals with five different couples with diverse quirks deciding whether to stay together.

Live-Action TV
  • In Dinosaurs, the Sinclairs discover on their 20th anniversary that they need to renew their marriage license to stay married. Hijinks ensue.
  • In the Good Luck Charlie two-parter episode, "Snow Show", it is revealed that Bob and Amy Duncan were not legally married because they were scammed by a con man who impersonated a judge. At the end of the second part, they have a legal ceremony with all four of their children present.
  • Happy Days: Played for relief in an episode where Fonzie and Jenny Piccolo go on a halloween cruise as bride and groom and get "married" by the captain dressed as a priest. Jenny moves in with Fonzie and starts to set up house, but later reveals that they're not really married.
  • The I Love Lucy episode "The Marriage License" has Lucy discover a spelling mistake on her marriage license, leading her to believe that this means she's not really legally married to Ricky. Hilarity Ensues.
  • An episode of Gilligan's Island had Mr and Mrs Howell discovering they were not really married after hearing a news broadcast that the minister that married them had really been a con man and not actually ordained. Various hijinks ensue till they get the Skipper to perform a ceremony on a raft floating in the lagoon. At the end of the episode, another news broadcast reveals that the original broadcast had got the name of the minister wrong, and they actually had been married all along.
  • On one episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, Rob and Laura discovered they're not actually married because Laura had lied about her age in order to marry (she was 17 apparently). They fix it by quickly getting married ... again.
  • Inverted on Scrubs when Perry and Jordan believe themselves to be divorced. It turns out the paperwork had never gone through and both of them had been legally married up to that point.
  • This is used repeatedly as a plot in Shameless, with both Frank and Sheila and later Paddy and Mimi.
  • What I Like About You had Val and Vic enter an Accidental Marriage Vic didn't want undone, but Val did because of it flying in the face of her Control Freak nature. When Val finally decided she loved Vic and would just roll with the bizarre circumstances they got together under, embracing their marriage, it came out the Elvis impersonator that married them wasn't a licensed minster and their marriage wasn't actually valid. They then Altar the Speed and try to get married for real.

Newspaper Comics
  • An arc in Sherman's Lagoon involved Sherman and Megan finding out that the official who married them had been a fake, and they were never technically married.

Theatre
  • J.B. Priestley's comedy play (later filmed) When We Are Married deals with three Yorkshire couples who all married on the same day and discover on their silver (i.e. 25th) wedding anniversaries that they were never married due to a legal technicality. This leads them to re-evaluate their marriages and air their grievances, but they all eventually decide to stay together. Interestingly (and fitting this being a somewhat hoary trope) while Priestley's play was written in 1938, it is set in The Edwardian Era in 1908.
  • Please Get Married, a 1919 bedroom farce play written by Lewis Allen Browne and James Cullen concerns a young couple whose honeymoon is ruined when word spreads that the minister who supposedly married them may have been a burglar.

Webcomics
  • A storyline in Kevin & Kell, when they discovered that their marriage was never registered (Rudy was acting out about having a rabbit for a stepfather and "forgot" to post them), just as a law is being voted on that would prevent future predator/prey marriages.

Western Animation
  • One episode of The Flintstones has Fred and Wilma told that their pastor wasn't licensed when they went for a second honeymoon, leading Wilma to insist Fred court her again. At the end of the episode, they return to have a proper wedding where the clerk mentions a hilarious prank his colleague pulled the other day where he convinced a couple their marriage was illegitimate....
  • An episode of The Jetsons has George and Jane revealed to be not legally married due to the original priest who presided over them being a conman. They decide to actually get married and along the way go through a series of events that strangely enough mimics their pre-marriage romance. With their love rekindled ever more, they finally get married presided by an actual priest, who unfortunately was not let in the whole thing beforehand as he gets shock when he finds out that the bride and groom's fully grown children are the best man and woman.
  • Happens on The Simpsons, on the episode "Wedding for Disaster". As a Continuity Nod to the episode "A Milhouse Divided" (where Luanne and Kirk Van Houten divorce and Homer temporarily divorces Marge to give her a "proper" marriage), it is discovered that Reverend Lovejoy was not officially working as a reverend during that specific time (due to a snafu in paying the church a monthly operating fee), and thus the marriage was not official. The moment Rev. Lovejoy mentions this, tensions escalate on the Simpson house until it looks like Marge will abandon Homer, to not mention her becoming a Bridezilla during the new nuptuals and Patty and Selma kidnapping Homer and putting him through Saw-like tortures, hoping that Marge will forget about him.

Real Life
  • Has actually been known to happen in real life. In this case, the couple (who had been married 48 years) found they had no marriage license- the person who marries a couple is supposed to return the marriage license to the county records office, where it becomes a marriage certificate, and their pastor never did.
Community Feedback Replies: 47
  • February 25, 2014
    Snicka
    • Inverted in one episode of The Big Bang Theory, where Penny believes she had a fake marriage with Zack in Las Vegas, and the gang tells her it was a legal marriage. In the rest of the episode they try to convince Zack he should divorce Penny.
  • February 25, 2014
    Hodor
    That's actually another trope- Accidental Marriage- thanks for reminding me- I should note that is the inverse.
  • February 25, 2014
    Hodor
    Happens on The Simpsons, on the episode "Wedding for Disaster". As a Continuity Nod to the episode "A Milhouse Divided" (where Luanne and Kirk Van Houten divorce and Homer temporarily divorces Marge to give her a "proper" marriage), it is discovered that Reverend Lovejoy was not officially working as a reverend during that specific time (due to a snafu in paying the church a monthly operating fee), and thus the marriage was not official. The moment Rev. Lovejoy mentions this, tensions escalate on the Simpson house until it looks like Marge will abandon Homer, to not mention her becoming a Bridezilla during the new nuptuals and Patty and Selma kidnapping Homer and putting him through Saw-like tortures, hoping that Marge will forget about him.
  • February 25, 2014
    FlyingDuckManGenesis
    • In the Good Luck Charlie two-parter episode, "Snow Show", it is revealed that Bob and Amy Duncan were not legally married because they were scammed by a con man who impersonated a judge. At the end of the second part, they have a legal ceremony with all four of their children present.
  • February 25, 2014
    Snicka
    ^^^ Thanks! My example is actually missing from that page, so I'll add it.
  • February 25, 2014
    paycheckgurl
    What I Like About You had Val and Vic enter an Accidental Marriage Vic didn't want undone, but Val did because of it flying in the face of her Control Freak nature. When Val finally decided she loved Vic and would just roll with the bizarre circumstances they got together under, embracing their marriage, it came out the Elvis impersonator that married them wasn't a licensed minster and their marriage wasn't actually valid. They then Altar The Speed and try to get married for real.
  • February 25, 2014
    Hodor
    An episode of Gilligans Island had Mr and Mrs Howell discovering they were not really married after hearing a news broadcast that the minister that married them had really been a con man and not actually ordained. Various hijinks ensue till they get the Skipper to perform a ceremony on a raft floating in the lagoon. At the end of the episode, another news broadcast reveals that the original broadcast had got the name of the minister wrong, and they actually had been married all along.
  • February 25, 2014
    Prfnoff
    • Please Get Married, a 1919 bedroom farce play written by Lewis Allen Browne and James Cullen, concerns a young couple whose honeymoon is ruined when word spreads that the minister who supposedly married them may have been a burglar.

    The Dick Van Dyke Show example from Oops I Forgot I Was Married would also fit here.
  • February 25, 2014
    HellKillUsAll
  • February 25, 2014
    reub2000
    • Inverted on Scrubs when Perry and Jordan believe themselves to be divorced. It turns out the paperwork had never gone through and both of them had been legally married up to that point.
  • February 25, 2014
    paycheckgurl
    ^^ That sounds like What I Like About You. See three posts above yours.
  • February 25, 2014
    randomsurfer
    Another reason for this trope to be dead horse is, legal precedent has established that if a couple honestly believes they've been married, then the law says they are married even if it turns out that the officiant(?) wasn't legally allowed to perform the ceremony.
  • February 26, 2014
    Nazetrime
    Actually, Oops I Forgot I Was Married may be another form of inversion, since an already existing but forgotten marriage keeps on of the characters from marrying their current love interest.
  • February 26, 2014
    Bisected8
    • One episode of The Flintstones has Fred and Wilma told that their pastor wasn't licensed when they went for a second honeymoon, leading Wilma to insist Fred court her again. At the end of the episode, they return to have a proper wedding where the clerk mentions a hilarious prank his colleague pulled the other day where he convinced a couple their marriage was illegitimate....
  • February 26, 2014
    OmarKarindu
    It's worth noting that the Scrubs example plays out exactly like this trope otherwise, though; the lack of a legal divorce undermines their relationship until Perry and Jordan manage to get a real divorce put through.
  • February 26, 2014
    Alvin
    Film: Mr. and Mrs. Smith, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, had a couple find this out when in the mood to rethink things (I haven't watched it all the way yet.).
  • March 10, 2014
    Hodor
    Bump- hope to launch this soon.
  • March 10, 2014
    justanotherrandomlurker
    I'm all too familiar with the plot device this YKTTW is about, however, when I keep seeing the name Not Really Married, the first thing that comes to my mind is that episode of Seinfeld where Jerry and Courteney Cox's character pretended to be married so they both could get a family discount at the dry cleaners.

    Maybe perhaps this could be called Not Technically Married or something along those lines?
  • March 10, 2014
    DAN004
    ^ agree.
  • March 10, 2014
    Hodor
    Good point there.
  • March 10, 2014
    gallium
    The Alfred Hitchcock Mr. and Mrs. Smith needs to be on the list.
  • March 10, 2014
    Dalillama
    • In Dinosaurs, the Sinclairs discover on their 20th anniversary that they need to renew their marriage license to stay married. Hijinks ensue.
  • April 10, 2014
    marcoasalazarm
    YKTTW Bump. Just needs some more examples...
  • April 10, 2014
    Tuckerscreator
    • In the webcomic Marry Me, a pop star impulsively marries some random guy in the crowd of one of her concerts who just happened to be holding a "marry me" sign (and it was for his friend, not himself.) Her father's lawyers immediately start researching whether their marriage is legal, especially since there actually was a priest involved. In the end it turns out to not be legal, but the two decide to remain together anyway.
  • April 10, 2014
    randomsurfer
    Referenced in an episode of MASH with a private who is pretending to be a Captain and a lawyer.
    Potter: According to his captain—a real captain—Schaeffer here has been bucking for a Section Eight longer than you have.
    Klinger: A looney?
    Potter: Busted twice. Done four months in the slammer, has impersonated a doctor, a bombadier, a tank commander, even a chaplain.
    Klinger: A chaplain!
    Schaeffer: At this very moment, somewhere in America, twenty-five couples are living in sin.
  • April 26, 2014
    DaibhidC
    Webcomics
    • A storyline in Kevin And Kell, when they discovered that their marriage was never registered (Rudy was acting out about having a rabbit for a stepfather and "forgot" to post them), just as a law is being voted on that would prevent future predator/prey marriages.
  • April 26, 2014
    Elfkaiser
    • An episode of The Jetsons has George and Jane revealed to be not legally married due to the original priest who presided over them being a conman. They decide to actually get married and along the way go through a series of events that strangely enough mimics their pre-marriage romance. With their love rekindled ever more, they finally get married presided by an actual priest, who unfortunately was not let in the whole thing beforehand as he gets shock when he finds out that the bride and groom's fully grown children are the best man and woman.
  • April 26, 2014
    justanotherrandomlurker
    After all this time since my initial post... I still kinda think this thing needs a different title... unless the Seinfeld example does count, which I don't think it does, because, again, it's about pretending to be married, rather than some kind of clerical error rendering a marriage unofficial.
  • April 30, 2014
    boone
    Television
    • Happens with Hodge and Angela in Bones. Apparently, she was already married in a drunken one-night stand in the Caribbean.

  • May 1, 2014
    randomsurfer
    ^That's Oops I Forgot I Was Married. The two people involved* are about to get married when they get interrupted, telling them that she is already married.

    * (Not sure it warrants a spoiler tag, but whatever)
  • May 5, 2014
    qazwsx
    • Invoked and played for drama by Sansa Stark in A Song Of Ice And Fire. She doesn't consider herself married to Tyrion Lannister because the marriage was carried out by force without her consent or the consent of her family. According to the law, marriage vows said at swordpoint cannot be considered valid, but the Lannisters currently control the legal system of Westeros and want the marriage to be valid so they can claim the sovereignty of her homeland for themselves. The status of the marriage becomes less clear after Sansa and Tyrion disappear from court and the Lannister regime stumbles.
  • May 10, 2014
    gallium
    The Alfred Hitchcock Mr. and Mrs. Smith still isn't on the list, and the example list is pretty short for a trope with five hats. Seven examples—isn't the minimum 15?
  • July 2, 2014
    marcoasalazarm
    YKTTW Bump.
  • April 19, 2015
    marcoasalazarm
    We need just one more hat...
  • April 19, 2015
    Rjinswand
    ^ Can you add the examples? It'll be easier to see whether the trope page needs any additions.
  • April 19, 2015
    robinjohnson
    Corrected spelling of J B Priestley (not Priestly) and When We Are (not We're) Married.
  • April 19, 2015
    justanotherrandomlurker
    A year later, and I'm still saying I think this needs a better, or at least a slightly different name, because the name still makes me think of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry and Courteney Cox pretend to be married so he can get both of them a family discount on dry cleaning.

    I still say Not Technically Married would be more accurate, since this covers situations involving an technicality issue of a couple's marriage.
  • April 19, 2015
    DAN004
  • April 20, 2015
    randomsurfer
    Happy Days: Played for relief in an episode where Fonzie and Jenny Piccolo go on a halloween cruise as bride and groom and get "married" by the captain dressed as a priest. Jenny moves in with Fonzie and starts to set up house, but later reveals that they're not really married.
  • April 20, 2015
    PistolsAtDawn
    • An arc in Shermans Lagoon involved Sherman and Megan finding out that the official who married them had been a fake, and they were never technically married.
  • July 17, 2015
    marcoasalazarm
    We have to launch this.
  • July 17, 2015
    laurence
    • This is used repeatedly as a plot in Shameless, with both Frank and Sheila and later Paddy and Mimi.
  • July 17, 2015
    lakingsif
    launch
  • July 17, 2015
    gallium
    The examples listed in this YKTTW STILL HAVE NOT BEEN ADDED, including the Alfred Hitchcock Mr. and Mrs. Smith example that was first suggested a year and a half ago. How is it that we have five hats and folks saying "launch" when the examples haven't been added? I guess I have to do it.
  • July 17, 2015
    gallium
    Examples added. Finally.
  • July 20, 2015
    Dalillama
    • Schlock Mercenary: After the Toughs learned that their memories had been rewritten and had the Fake Memories flagged, Theo and Bunni realize that the memories of their wedding are false, and are very upset. Theo is also concerned that he's been violating his vows by sleeping with her before marriage, and has to make arrangements to renew his ordination as well as a wedding. Played with in that they are actually married; Admiral Emm performed a legally binding ceremony in their cell before the memory rewrite, which included a much better wedding with all their friends in attendance. It's just that everyone who knows about the real wedding is dead or has had their memory rewritten.
  • July 20, 2015
    randomsurfer
    ^^Missed MASH.
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