The first article I ever wrote that got big attention was for Start Marriage Right: The One Thing Marriage Does That Living Together Doesn’t. My thesis? Marriage makes you family.
A committed, cohabiting couple can pool their assets and their ambitions. They can affirm their commitment, they can have children, they can have happy homes. They can have sex, they can travel. But cohabiting couples are, at best, committed companions. They are not family.
The vows said in marriage create a covenant between a couple: they are life-and-death commitments of self and service. The words “I now pronounce you husband and wife” solemnly declared by the officiator are not just public niceties and a cue for the congregation to clap; they are declarative, status-changing words. Just as God’s words “let there be light” made a real, creative change in the status quo and brought something to be where there was nothing before; so the words “I pronounce you man and wife” declare a real, substantive change in the couple’s status quo. That declaration, which is bound in earth and thus bound in heaven, brings something to be where there was nothing before: a family is born.
I got some push-back from readers on this essay: the woman whose husband abused her for years, treated her like scum, and from whom she ran when she had a chance. She has made a new life with a kind man: “we are not married, but he treats me better than my legal family ever did.” The friend who has been living with her partner and their son for nearly four years: “What about us? Are we not a family?” I received maybe a dozen letters and comments like this.
I read those letters mostly with a heavy heart: sad for the terrible way in which people sometimes treat their families; and sad, too, that in these hard times that people are giving up on marriage altogether. In A Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L’Engle writes on this very thing:
(Young people) have trial marriages, or just share a pad, rather than entering into relationships which are intended to last for life, often following the example of parents who have separated or divorced, with the concomitant philosophy that if you try marriage and it doesn’t work, you quit. They are rebelling not against our morality and discipline but against our lack of morality and lack of discipline. They are unwilling to commit themselves with promises of fidelity in relationships because they have known too many grownups make these promises and then break them as though they didn’t matter. Somehow or other, promises as well as adulthood, must be redeemed.
The brokenness within marriages doesn’t mean marriage as a system is broken. Rather, it speaks to the brokenness of the people in it: people who remain broken whether they’ve made covenants or not. Marriage doesn’t make or break relationships: people make or break marriages. It’s not marriage that makes people abusive or neglectful where they otherwise wouldn’t have been. It’s people themselves who are abusive or neglectful: living together or marrying doesn’t change this. And, I add my story to Madeleine L’Engle’s in agreeing that the promises we make in marriage can (and should) call forth deeper resources in us. She continues:
My seminar students asked me, “But isn’t it better not to make the promises at all? Isn’t it more honest?”
I shook my head. “No. I don’t think so… I’ve been married to the same man for almost twenty-five years, and we love each other more now than we did twenty-five years ago. When we were married we made promises, and we took them seriously… There’ve been a number of times in my marriage when—if I hadn’t made promises—I’d have quit…. Perhaps we made (those promises) youthfully, and blindly, and not knowing all that was implied; but the very promises have been a saving grace.”
Marriage vows have been a saving grace to us, too.
But, to return to my original point, beyond the fact that marriage vows do us good in calling us to a deeper and more secure commitment, marriage vows still do something in reality which Facebook only hints at on a screen: they give us a real-life Status Update. There is something qualitatively different about being married as opposed to living together.
I’ll give a quick pair of illustrations.
There are two ways to take a class at our local community college. You can audit the class or take it for credit. Both options allow you to attend the class, and both options cost money. The credit option costs more: both in money and in commitment. Those auditing the class only have to attend, but they need not (and cannot) take the final exam. Can you learn something from auditing an class? Yes. Can you earn a college degree if you’ve learned something? No. Attending class is a necessary but not sufficient condition for graduation. You also need to have received credit for the classes. To be a registered student in a class is a STATUS change, and it confers both responsibility and privileges on those who wear its mantle.
Second illustration: we are legally resident in the USA as visa holders. But we are not, as yet, “legal residents” in the sense of being allowed to remain here indefinitely. We can stay, we can pay tax, but we cannot draw social security or vote. You couldn’t tell the difference just by watching us in a crowd of people at the 4th July Fireworks, but the difference is there nonetheless: one of legal STATUS.
Now, you may be a truly terrible student: a C-student, or a D-student, even – but if you are a registered student taking a class for credit, you can still graduate with a college degree. A brilliant student who is only auditing the class may win the admiration of his peers and teachers, but he will not graduate from college. The quality (or lack thereof) of one’s participation doesn’t change the status of the student.
Similarly, Joey-Boy could be a rioting, cussing, menace to society, as well as an American-born citizen. And Sheila-May could be an exemplary girl-guide-troop-leading, tax-paying, honest-to-goodness community leader, even though she is a visa-holder. But no amount of bad behavior from Joey-Boy will take away the fact that he has the legal status of CITIZEN, with all its rights; and no amount of good behavior from Sheila-May will earn her a passport.
Marriage is a status update: from not-family, to family; in a way that co-habiting and living together is not. We don’t get to decide on the definitions of “family”. It’s a status update. What is up to us, however, is to work on being the A-students, and the exemplary citizens, in the institution of marriage. For the sake of our own marriages, and the generations to follow: to take Beyoncé’s advice and Put a Ring On It, and then do our utmost to keep those promises ’til death do us part.