The One Thing Marriage Does That Living Together Doesn’t

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Marriage living together

I confess I like watching movies as much as anyone. I love a snappy dialog, a twist at the end, new characters to love (or to hate), and I love that I can enjoy all this without having to commit to anything for longer than two entertaining hours. I like to think that I can just walk away after those two hours: entertained but unaffected. But the truth is, more and more I’m realizing how much of my education has come from the lingering lessons learned in front of a screen.

Movies taught me that you know a woman is pregnant when she inexplicably feels nauseous. Also, you know the baby’s coming when she finds herself in an unexpected and embarrassingly timed pool of water. Three babies later, I now know that Real Life happens differently.

More subtly, movies taught me that the order in which men and women develop their relationships is this: friendship (optional) – flirtation – sex – dating – exclusively dating – living together…. and then a long time later (usually when kids are in view), marriage. I hadn’t realized how deeply entrenched this cultural “wisdom” was until several years after I got married and I was sorting through all sorts of questions about God’s view of sex, the place of dating in our culture, and the bigger question (which was earnestly put to me by one of my college students): “Why shouldn’t my boyfriend and I live together? And what if we don’t have sex? What about that?”

I stumbled for an answer. I found articles in favor of marrying young, articles citing that couples who cohabited before marriage were more likely to divorce, and others claiming the opposite. However, those arguments seemed to be saying: your decisions are a gamble. The odds may never be in your favor, but popular wisdom still would send you to the cohabitation arena. “It’s all risk”, says our culture. “Maybe you’ll break up, but then again – if you marry, maybe you’ll divorce.” So why not gamble, and just hope for the best?

Except for this one thing. This one thing that marriage does and living together doesn’t. 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. They may have loved each other before, they may have been committed before, but marriage makes them relatives for the very first time.

A few days before our wedding, I shared a teary breakfast with my dad. There was something about the gravitas of being “given away” in marriage, in taking my husband’s name and forfeiting my dad’s, that made this truth “click” for me. I tearfully thanked my dad for his years of protection and care, I thanked him for trusting my choice in a man he did not, in truth, know very well yet. My primary family connection was to change that week: a new family was to be created, one that had not existed before. I had always thought that “leaving and cleaving” was just part of the poetry of weddings, but as I looked at my dad over my tear-soaked scone, I knew there was more to it than that. My dad was tearful too, but he affirmed his joy at being able to give me away with his blessing.

Perhaps, then, I should say that there is not one thing, but TWO things that marriage does that living together doesn’t. A marriage makes you family, and a marriage is blessed. My dad’s blessing was a portrait of a greater blessing that was to come as my husband and I stood before our friends and family that Saturday. We promised our “I do’s”, and we heard the minister’s declaration. But quietly, quietly behind that – there was the voice of the Author of Marriage, saying “It is I who have joined you together. Be blessed, new little family. Be blessed.”

This article first appeared at Start Marriage Right, where I am a regular contributor. I have a new post up this week:  A Newlywed’s Guide to In-Laws and The Holidays

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13 thoughts on “The One Thing Marriage Does That Living Together Doesn’t”

  1. This is a great post! I hear “we’re committed, we’re just not doing the whole ceremony thing” or “it’s like we’re married, we just don’t have the paper.” No, actually, it’s not like you’re married. And you’re not that committed, or you WOULD BE married. You’re playing marriage. You’re playing house. Like a 5 yr old in her momma’s dress and pearls…it’s cute, it’s fun, but it’s NOT THE REAL THING.

    I’m not even saying everyone should be married, I’m just saying that you either are or you aren’t there’s no “it’s like being married.” No it’s not. Nothing is “like” marriage, you can’t “test out” marriage…anything less than an actual marriage is the difference between reading about it, and living it–simply incomparable.

  2. I have to disagree. Maybe its because you had a family of origin that was supportive and caring and you felt the change was significant. But for me, my father did not (does not) know who I am, nor did he bless my marriage in any way that was meaningful to me. My marriage was not blessed. My marriage was a mistake. Brought on by the pressure of family and church that being married, no matter to whom, would make me acceptable, would solve the problem of my being a single, unwed mother, would “fix” my “broken family” I rushed into marriage with the first man that met their criteria. My marriage ended after years of abuse, by a guy everyone thought was a “good Christian man” and who still maintains that image. My marriage did not make us a family. I have now met a good man, a man who takes care of us, goes out of his way to make sure we’re safe and happy, and sacrifices his goals, needs and plans to support us.He is someone who is awed by the things I do to take care of him, things I did for my ex husband who demanded and was never satisfied. He has now moved in with us, and I can honestly say we are a family. We are more a family, a team, than I ever felt with my ex husband. Our living together has been a natural outgrowth of our growing together as a family. No piece of paper, no ceremony, no paternalistic blessing can force people together to be a family. We may or may not get married — not because he doesn’t want to, because he does, but because I am ambivalent — but that isn’t and won’t change the fact that we have become a family. The results of marriage have led to further pain, children who’s father is unsafe to be around, and who has largely abandoned them, and a mother who is desperately trying to cling to my faith, despite the best efforts of the church to alienate me, along with the legal and financial costs of divorce.

    I say all this to say that living together may have its own perils and frailties, but so does marriage. Marriage does not make you a family anymore than living together does. Marriage may be more socially acceptable still, especially in the Christian community, but do not think for a moment that just because a couple has managed to stay married for decades means they are a family. The family relationship is not defined by a ceremony or piece of paper. It is defined by the behaviours and feelings of loyalty, love, kindness and faithfulness, and all too often marriages lack all of those. But they have the piece of paper, they did the ceremony and party.

    The significance of the ceremony and paper is only given when the relationship is there to provide meaning. It isn’t there just by itself. The ceremony and paper is meaningless without the proper relationships and support. And that relationship and support can be there without the paper to prove it.

  3. I agree with xeramama’s comments. A “ceremony” is only important to the couple if it actually means something to them both. Many couples I know of could care less about the vows they made. Especially the ones married too young. Ones without any life experience. The argument that family is created by marriage is incorrect on many levels. What about committed, loving gay and lesbian couples who are raising children? Is that not a family because they don’t have the legal paperwork to support it? What about the “family” created in marriage whose children and/or spounses are ignored and neglected or worse, abused? Is this a good definition of family? No of course not. So I hate to be the one to give you this education, but the world is not so black and white as your “marriage = family” belief. Although it would be wonderful, a contract does not create the love, care, consideration and committment between people and couples that defines happy families.

    1. I agree with both searchingandfearless34 and xeramama’s comments. I have been in a similar situation as xeramama, but I can also say I found that perfect for me guy after my divorce we become friends he helped me to just get by emotionally some days, we moved in together were together almost five years before we wed. I am absolutely happy, my two kids from ex love and call my husband their dad even though they do have visitation with my ex and still call him dad. We are a family, we were when living together and even more so now. I sometimes wish I couldn’t met my husband sooner and not married my ex, but then I think I wouldn’t have my kids this is what God made for me so I am happy with that!

  4. I think you are right on with your thoughts. True, the marriage commitment itself is not always taken seriously, but, for Christians, the question of living together or getting married should not even be up for debate. Is it any wonder that marriage is under attack so much today? Marriage was the first institution created by God and so it only stands to reason that Satan would attack it from the first. He has been trying to undermine its importance from the beginning of time, and part of that is the idea that marriage means nothing and that a couple who lives together is just as committed and is just as much a family. It is sad how acceptable the idea of living together has become in the Christian community. Thanks for sharing these reminders of what marriage is meant to be.

  5. Bronwyn, this post made me think of Ann Patchett’s essay (in the book of the same name): “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.” Patchett’s upbringing gave her a terrible impression of marriage; when she herself married at a very young age it was disastrous. When she fell in love with a divorced man later in life, she lived with him for 11 years but, because of her past experiences, absolutely refused to marry him. Only when the prospect of (his) serious illness faced her did she realize she had been wrong — that they needed to marry. He was facing possible death, she was his longtime, committed companion … yet she was not family.

    I also just wanted to add in response to searchingandfearless that I don’t think you’ve said anywhere in your post that marriage creates a HAPPY family. I like your line “Marriage makes them relatives for the very first time.” That’s very significant.

    1. Thanks, Jeannie. I appreciate this. I”m thinking of writing a follow up explanation next week on this. I haven’t read Patchett’s essay – your commendation makes me eager to find it!

  6. Pingback: Pick of the Clicks 10/31/2014 | bronwyn's corner

  7. Stupid hormones, this made me cry! Just beautiful. And so very, very true. I cohabited with my daughters father for 6 years. During that six years, I knew it was wrong. This still tiny voice, it’s not for real. The foundation is missing. Your family is a lie. We pretended, until it ended. I wasn’t protected, there was no paperwork to fill out, no acknowledgement of what we felt was there. In the eyes of society and law, we were “playing”, not to be taken seriously. I am married now, and we did not live together until we said “I do”. Wow. With the foundation being there, I have to say, we are truly a family. Thank you for this beautiful post, I shall be sharing it!

    1. Thank you, Neyssa. I am so glad to hear you have found family, and blessing in this season of your life, and thank you for sharing my post! -BL

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