Political opponents of the legislation say the poor showing – which compares 458 civil unions to about 20,000 marriages – proves the move was "political symbolism".
Figures released by the Department of Internal Affairs yesterday show of the civil unions, 178 were male-male unions, 199 were female-female unions and 81 were heterosexual unions.
Labour MP Tim Barnett, the politician who drove the legislation that put civil unions on the same legal footing as marriages, said yesterday he was not surprised by the figures.
"I'm happy with that. I don't think I ever thought it was going to be a numbers game. Although our opponents put figures on it, we saw it simply as giving same-sex relationships a legal standing, and it has. Civil unions have become part of the wallpaper of the nation," he said.
Barnett, who is planning his own civil union late next year, said despite criticism, the legislation had obviously answered the call for many gay and lesbian couples.
"It has given them what they need. And the fact that 460 couples have taken it up while 20,000 have also opted for marriages shows the two can co-exist. Its not about numbers on either side, it's about choice," he said.
National MP Bill English, a vehement opponent of the legislation, said the figures proved the legislation had been about political symbolism.
"I'm not surprised (by the low figures). It was much more about symbolism than reality. There was only ever a small number of people that wanted that recognition for their relationship," he said.
"I don't think there was ever an overwhelming demand for it and it was much more political symbolism for gay activists than anything else."
The small number of heterosexual couples taking the civil-union option showed the legislation did not offer anything different for most New Zealand couples, he said. "It was largely a waste of time. I do concede that for a small group of people it matters, but the impact has been minute compared to the emotion that was put into it."
One of the first Christchurch couples to sign up for a civil union disagree with English and say they finally have recognition for their relationship. Mike Peters and long-time partner Tracy had a civil union on April 29 last year and planned to celebrate this week with a pizza night for family and friends.
"It was legal recognition for us because there were anomalies that discriminated against de facto couples," Peters said yesterday.
"I thought it was a very good piece of legislation, not just of same-sex couples, but also if you wanted a non-religious option."
Civil unions have proven more stable than marriage in the short term. One civil union was dissolved in the last year and that couple went on to get married. Two couples have switched from marriage to civil unions.