This trope represents a wedding-like moment that however is not an official wedding.
It can be a very intimate moment shared only between the lovers themselves. There's no one to officiate, no one to witness, and it most definitely isn't recognised by authorities, however, it is very meaningful to the lovers themselves. Their mutual promise is binding. Or the lovers can celebrate their commitment with a grand ceremony with guests, vows, reception, gifts, the whole shebang. The only thing is that the wedding is not really real and has no legal status, however, it's incredibly meaningful to the happy couple and it's also a very important moment for their family and friends. Alternatively, the lovers decide to throw a small impromptu wedding for fun among friends. Someone from the group will volunteer to "officiate" while others will jump in and be happy to play the maid of honour or the best man, basically the whole wedding party. However, it's only symbolic as they are not registered for marriage license, nor is the officiating person allowed to perform the ceremony.
This trope can come about in various ways:
- Perhaps one of them is dying and there's no way they could actually manage to call a priest and get married quickly. But they do want to be married before God, so they exchange their vows.
- Perhaps they both face certain death and hope to be reunited in the afterlife, or at least they think if they have a wedding-like moment, they'll be Together in Death.
- Perhaps they are a gay couple who live in a homophobic society and can't be together openly. However, they want to make their Secret Relationship more significant and assure each other that they consider themselves committed for life.
- Perhaps one of them is not a legal citizen in the country where they live. Or both of them are illegal and must be sailing under the radar.
- Perhaps their parents disapprove of or outright forbid the relationship, especially a wedding, so they do their own private "wedding rites" in secret.
- Perhaps they are underage and too young for a real wedding.
- Perhaps they don't really want to be tied down and have "a paper", but they still want to declare their love in front of their family and friends.
- Perhaps one of them is married already and can't get a divorce.
- Perhaps they want to make a pledge among multiple partners.
- Perhaps they have to keep their relationship secret, but still want to commit themselves to each other in the eyes of their chosen higher spiritual authority.
Whatever is the reason, it will not stand in the way of true love. The lovers want to be together for good no matter what. So they decide to have their metaphorical wedding and after that, they consider themselves as good as married.
The big grand ceremony is often the case of gay couples who want to have a wedding like straight people and the work happens to be set in the time where gay love is no longer persecuted, gay couples can be openly together, however, same-sex marriage is not (yet) a legal option.
Forbidden Love and its subtropes and related concepts may be the reason the lovers can't be together openly. Compare/contrast with My Own Private "I Do", which is a trope about intimate but legal weddings. See also Grand Romantic Gesture, They Do and Real Fake Wedding, and G-Rated Sex, where two characters share intimacy in a family-friendly work.
- Horatio Hornblower (Tv 'verse) fic "Nunc Atque Semper" note : Naval officers Horatio Hornblower and Archie Kennedy are incredibly tight and close friends in canon and Archie saved Horatio's life with a Heroic Sacrifice. In this fic, they were gay and considered themselves married. Hornblower's wife Maria is horrified when she finds their rings with engraved messages and other romantic tokens like a book of Shakespeare's sonnets with inscription "Nunc atque semper, A.K. to H.H. 1800".
"They'd exchanged rings. Horatio considered him his husband."
- The Second Try has Asuka and Shinji having the full ceremony complete with exchanging rings and vows, but lacked anyone to officiate or witness it due to them being the only two people alive in a post-Third Impact world (though one could say that they technically had the entire human race as their witnesses due to getting married next to the LCL sea). They're planning on having an official wedding by the time of the epilogue.
- Cultivating Empathy has Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue unable to officially become cultivation partners due to their political responsabilities. They acknowledge their bond by taking a night off to exchange love tokens — Lan Xichen gives Nie Mingjue his forehead ribbon and Nie Mingjue braids Lan Xichen's hair, two symbols of their respective clans.
- All My Loved Ones: Two Jewish children David and Sosha are great friends who live with their families in Prague on the brink of WWII. They are supposed to be rescued on Nicolas Winton's trains and travel together to Great Britain. They are inspired by David's sister's wedding and the two of them perform a Jewish wedding ceremony, complete with vows, drinking from one cup and smashing it to pieces. David later tells his mom that Sosha is his wife and that he will take care of her. She tearfully says they might really get married one day, but David insists they already are married.
- In Wet Hot American Summer, which is set in The '80s, Beth the camp counselor marries Ben and McKinley, who are both male and likely underage, to each other in a hippie outdoor ceremony in the woods.
- In Moonrise Kingdom, Sam and Susie, who are both 12, convince Sam's cousin Ben, a teenage senior Khaki scout, to marry them to each other. Ben explains that the marriage won't have any legal standing, but the symbolism is important.
- West Side Story: Tony and Maria play-act a wedding in the backroom of the bridal shop where she works. This mirrors the scene in its source material Romeo and Juliet, where the titular characters actually do get married.
- In The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Dr. Frank N. Furter's escorting his creation/spouse Rocky to their "bridal chamber" at the end of "I Can Make You A Man (Reprise)" is played out as a wedding, as a portion of Mendelssohn is played at the end of the song while the Transylvanians shower the "newlywed" couple with rice during their walk down the aisle together.
- In The Hunger Games, Peeta describes to the citizens of the Capitol how he and Katniss have already tied the knot, opting for a simple home ceremony of 'toasting'. During the toasting, the couple makes their first fire together and share toast over it as they don't want to wait for the big Capitol wedding. He openly states it wasn't an official ceremony as there was no paperwork, but Katniss notes the ceremony's symbolic value, as "no one really feels married in District 12 until after the toasting". Peeta's lying though because they never had any ceremony.
- Glory Road: When Star and Oscar Gordon decide to get married, they take part in a private unofficial ceremony based on an old Earth custom: the bride and groom saying a poem and jumping over a sword together.
- In Declare, Andrew and Helena's fellow spy who poses as a priest enacts a wedding ceremony for them as it looks like all three are about to die in 1961 Berlin. They survive, however, and although they are separated for many years immediately thereafter, Andrew remains true to his "spouse" for the rest of his life.
- In Podkayne of Mars, the local Mega-Corp on Venus doesn't bother with registering marriages by its workers, only caring about having new employees being birthed. People view themselves as married though.
- The Wheel of Time: Aes Sedai (the female wizards of the setting) often magically bond a warder — a big strong swordsman to watch their back. Officially, the relationship is supposed to stay professional, but in practice, the empathic link created by the bond tends to lead to emotional intimacy, and they are expected to stay together until death do they part. Becoming sexually intimate or flat-out marrying for real is officially frowned upon, but not exactly uncommon. It's not a real marriage, but many end up acting like husband and wife, and young Aes Sendai have lots of romantic notions about it. Some of them do get legally married, although they tend to keep it on the down-low since strictly speaking it's against the White Tower's rules.
- In the Sweet Valley High novel The Wakefields Of Sweet Valley, two characters trapped in rubble after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake exchange wedding vows (and they had come to San Francisco for the purpose of eloping), believing that they're going to die.
- Patience and Sarah takes place in 1810s America. The titular leads are lesbian lovers but cannot be open about their relationship. Even their own family scorns their love. When the two move to New York to be together, Patience internally compares riding on a sled to the boats as being similar to a wedding party. She can't officially marry Sarah, so the sled bells will have to be good enough for them.
- Naked Came the Stranger: Despite sharing a last name, Arthur and Raina Franhop are not legally married. Their marriage was sanctified by a nineteen-year-old Zen reader during a League for Sexual Freedom meeting.
- Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman: Ingrid and Matthew plan their wedding that's supposed to happen in a month. However, Ingrid gets bitten by a rabid dog. When she's dying, she regains some lucidity, and Matthew comes to her to say goodbye. Tearful Matthew holds her hand and says they are married now before God.
- Six Feet Under:
- Father Jack is under threat of being dismissed from his position because he has performed a symbolic wedding ceremony for a lesbian couple in his church.
- David and Keith attend a metaphorical wedding held by David's gay friends Terry and Paul. They registered for gifts, have a grand outside ceremony, and enjoy partying with friends.
- Before David and Keith go to Terry and Paul's thing, they discuss whether they should symbolically get married too. David thinks it would be great to have some kind of ceremony, but Keith insists it's not needed because they are practically married already, being in each other's will, etc. Shortly after this, David starts referring to Keith as his husband. (In the finale it's revealed that David and Keith get legally married in 2009.)
David: Maybe we should get married.Keith: So we can have people going on vase-buying errands for us?David: No. So we can say all those "forevers" and "no-matter-whats".Keith: You're in my will, I'm in yours. We basically are married, even if the law refuses to recognize it. But then again, I refuse to recognize most of the Bush Administration. I guess it all evens out.David: I still think some sort of ceremony in front of all our family and friends would make it more real.
- Friends, "The One with the Lesbian Wedding": Ross's ex-wife Carol and her lesbian life partner Susan are getting married. Considering the setting (1990s New York), the wedding is merely symbolic, but no one addresses the point and everybody acts like it's a real wedding. Briefly before the ceremony, Carol and Susan have a big argument and almost break up because Carol's parents refuse to come.
- Ally McBeal: Cindy McCauliff (played by Lisa Edelstein) is a transgender woman. She is still legally a man (much is made of her having a penis) and later symbolically marries another guy. Lawyer Richard Fish officiates. Interesting choice, because in Cindy's story arch, Richard was established as particularly homophobic and misogynistic.
- Roseanne: Scott and Leon are getting married (symbolically) and Roseanne volunteers to plan their wedding. Leon is shocked by Roseanne's taste as there are drag queens, male strippers, and pink decor everywhere. He attempts to run away (he already left Scott at the altar once 5 years ago) and even claims he isn't really gay as he hates shopping, he's insensitive, he hates Barbra Streisand and he votes for Republicans. He tries to kiss Roseanne but that only confirms that he's gay and goes through with the wedding. With the tacky decor toned down, Leon and Scott exchange their vows.
- The Handmaid's Tale: Kit and Fiona are two women sent to work themselves to death to colonies and they are in a relationship. Kit is very weak, on the brink of death, and Janine organizes a wedding for them. The ceremony is presided over by another prisoner, Sally, a female rabbi. It is their last moment of happiness before Kit dies. The next morning Kits body is buried in the graveyard. Gilead ruled all same-sex marriages void and the authorities certainly don't recognize such unions as legal, but the wedding ceremony was very meaningful to all prisoners who witnessed it.
- The Golden Girls: Blanche's gay brother Clayton plans a commitment ceremony with his boyfriend Doug. Blanche has a hard time adjusting to the idea. It appears she would be ok with him being gay if he were also celibate. However, when Clayton makes it clear he will choose Doug as his family over Blanche if she doesn't accept them, she makes her peace with it and assures Clayton she will consider Doug her brother-in-law.
- Guiding Light. Held prisoner by local psycho Brent, Super Couple Lucy and Alan-Michael recite wedding vows, believing that it's only a matter of time before he kills them.
- All My Children. Resident psychopath Billy Clyde Tuggle kidnaps local Mary Sue Dixie Cooney after becoming obsessed with her and forces her to recite wedding vows. Mercifully, she's able to fend him off when he wants to consummate the "marriage".
- The Good Place, "Chidi's Choice": Jason and Janet decide to get married. Janet is a walking talking user interface for the celestial mainframe and Jason is a guy who died. Eleanor and Tahani attend the wedding and voice both their concerns and objections, as well as appreciation of their unusual romance. The two exchange marriage promises and Janet declares them married. In a later episode, Janet says it was not a legal ceremony, but they consider themselves married.
Michael: And by the way, Janet is not your wife, or your soul mate. There's a Janet in every neighborhood.
Jason: Well, I'm in love with this Janet. We did a bunch of amazing, awesome stuff which almost turned out to be sex, and we were married in a legal ceremony.
Janet: It was not legal.
- Grey's Anatomy: In season 5, Derek and Meredith are married this way. Initially, they had planned a big wedding but then decided to give it to Izzy and Alex, since Izzy had cancer and Meredith didn't want a wedding anyways. Their plan was to go to the courthouse for a quick and legal wedding, but they end up being too busy for even that. They quickly write their vows onto Post-It notes, and from there consider themselves married, referring to each other as husband and wife going forward. In season 7 they finally have a courthouse wedding, but only because they are trying to adopt a child and being legally married would help with the adoption process.
- The Haunting of Bly Manor:After she and Jamie have lived together for some time, Dani gives her a ring and says that although they can't formally get married (as same-sex marriage isn't yet legal during the time period), she still wants to spend the rest of her life with her. They later enter into a civil union and Jamie still wears the ring years after Dani's death.
- Shameless (US): Kevin drunkenly proposes to Veronica, but then he later has to tell her that he never bothered divorcing his first wife. She doesn't really care, and they end up having a wedding anyways, both to appease Veronica's mother, and also to receive wedding gifts. It wasn't legal, but they went on to have twin daughters and are still together.
- Final Fantasy XV ends with Noctis and Luna at what would have been their wedding ceremony, representing them being Together in Death.
- Ky and Dizzy from Guilty Gear refer to themselves as a married couple, but were never able to officially tie the knot because Dizzy lacks any legal identity as a Gear and had to fake her death.
- Kingdom Hearts III: Before the confrontation at Keyblade Graveyard, Sora and Kairi share a paopu fruit and vow to keep each other safe. This might not mean much, but in the culture of Destiny Islands (the world where they come from), sharing a paopu fruit with someone means that you tie the knot with them.
- In The Autobiography of Jane Eyre, Ed Rochester wants to be with Jane forever and persuades her to have a symbolic wedding, with white dress and reception and all that stuff. Jane is thrown off balance a bit that he didn't ask her to marry for real, but she agrees to go through with it. Just before the ceremony, Jane finds out he's already married. His wife has serious mental issues and he doesn't want to (or can't) get divorced. Jane decides to leave him although it breaks her heart. She is able to empathize with him to a degree though.
- In the 1840s and 1850s, slaves were not allowed to marry legally, so couples would announce their commitment to each other by jumping over a broomstick together in front of witnesses. "Jump the broomstick" became slang for marrying in the South as a result.
- Roman legionaries couldn't be legally married, but some of them "married" local women anyway. When they were demobilized, such unions were recognized by law.
- In places where same-sex marriage isn't legal but queer culture is still prevalent, such couples might hold "commitment ceremonies" where they exchange vows and rings in front of their friends and families. These ceremonies are generally not called weddings because they have no legal backing, but they can be every bit as extravagant as their hetero counterparts. "Domestic partnerships" or "civil unions", are a kind of "official" metaphorical marriage in places that want to show a commitment to LGBT rights, but aren't quite prepared to offer equal marriage.
- Some opposite-sex couples who aren't legally married for whatever reason, including consciously declining to be, will still consider themselves life partners and refer to themselves as such. In some jurisdictions, this might count as common-law marriage.