What does marriage mean? That’s a good question, and its answer has a significant impact on how we perceive the social construct. Marriage means commitment, defined in the dictionary as the formal and legally binding relationship of a couple. On the one hand, many people assert that commitment can take place outside of marriage, and many are in court fighting for the right to the same benefits enjoyed by married persons. People are questioning why a piece of paper, a legal document, is even needed to prove that you are in a permanent relationship, since people who have that piece of paper still split up in rather significant numbers. In other words, the argument here is that marriage doesn’t necessarily mean commitment. On the other hand, there are those who say that making the commitment legally binding with that piece of paper is essentially putting your money where your mouth is. According to them, if you really feel that you’re permanently committed to each other, a piece of paper shouldn’t be a problem. Many people agree that this sounds logical.
Circle back to the topical question: what does marriage mean? Marriage essentially is a means of creating the committed hub from which all other relationships in life radiate. In other words, marriage is fairly important, and has a significant role in the wider community, as well as in the family itself. Why is marriage that important as compared to a couple who simply state themselves publicly to be committed? Do not such couples stand every bit as good a chance of being permanent as a couple who actually marry? Let’s bear in mind that we’re talking about civil partnerships as well as marriage, since a civil partnership has the same legal and effectual scope in terms of community and family impact. In essence, we’re going to be comparing legally recognised committed relationships to partners who simply co-habitate, as well as the issue of children resulting from those relationships.
When addressing the questions around the level of commitment in marriages as compared to partnership made permanent by co-habitation, we might compare two ways of living in a home: purchase or rental. Now, buying a house is a huge commitment. We know that it isn’t just about the deposit, or even the monthly mortgage. That payment will be due every month for the next 30 years, and 30 years is a long, long time; but in addition to that payment will be the responsibility of maintaining the house and garden. There will need to be considerations in the budget for any big expenditures, such as roof repair. There will need to be regular maintenance, such as gutters cleaning and lawn mowing. When you sit down and begin to really go through all of the details that you’ll need to be prepared for, all of the years that you’ll be needing to live up to this, what would happen if you can’t pay the mortgage or repair the roof, when you’d be able to sell up without losing a fortune, etc, you really begin to recognise the level of commitment you’re making. How does this compare to just renting a house? Well, everyone always points to the fact that in many cases, mortgage payments can be cheaper than rent, especially if you happen to have a good down payment. However, unlike a home owner, a renter doesn’t have to worry about major repairs, property taxes, or any of the other added expenses that go with home ownership. They get to let the person who owns that property worry about all of that. Instead of having a savings account that serves as a safety net should anything huge need to be dealt with in home ownership, the couple renting can have a savings account for a nice holiday. Of course, the money in that account stands a good chance of being used instead to fund the move to a new property because the owner of this one decided not to renew the lease for any number of reasons, or because the new lease brought increased rents, or even worse, because the owner wasn’t taking care of repairs and the living conditions were becoming unbearably substandard. Because you don’t own the property you’re renting, you can’t control how repairs get done or when, you have no control over whether or not the lease gets honoured or renewed, and you can be evicted. You can be forced to move each time the lease is up, so there’s always that sense of things not being entirely permanent somewhere in the backdrop. Okay, so how does this apply to the meaning of marriage?
In the illustration, we used the assumption that the couple could actually afford to buy a house, but chose not to. The questions that they sat down to try and find answers to involved the level of commitment they were prepared to meet, which is similar to the questions around marriage. If a couple sat down to go over all of the things that a real, long-term, legally binding commitment meant, it could get a bit overwhelming. In the case of marriage, you aren’t talking 30 years….it’s a lifetime commitment. If we were to use the same process for counting the cost of owning a home for thirty years to count the cost of being married for life, we would consider what happens if our income or circumstances change. What happens if there’s a major, life-changing event, such as illness that is debilitating? What if one of you loses your job? How would you cope if children came along who might not have been planned for? What is the plan regarding children, for that matter? Children are a commitment of at least 18 years, and often longer. The expenses of child-rearing can be comparable to the expenses of owning a home, and then there are other things to consider, such as school, after-school clubs, or if your son wants to play football, or your daughter wants to be a physicist. Children do not come with guarantees, so you would both need to make sure that you’re on the same page in terms of how you would cope with all of the unpredictability that children bring. A couple thinking about all of that could easily become overwhelmed and decide to “rent” their relationship by moving in together and taking it all in stride. Where it all falls down is when the circumstances of life change. It becomes too easy to use the fact that you’re not actually married as an excuse, and to just walk away. There’s that little loophole of not actually owning the house. You can always leave. Now, as was said from the beginning, even a legally married couple can do that. They frequently do, but the ones who do are usually the ones who didn’t really sit down and plan for how they would navigate the storms. The ones who did are the ones who are most likely to be able to stick with it for the long haul. When young people ask older ones for the secret to staying married for so many decades, many different answers are given regarding patience, tolerance, a sense of humour. However, the most important answer is this: make sure you mean it when you say forever. Make sure that you count the cost of what that will mean, and that you’re prepared to meet that cost regardless of the difficulties encountered.
So, what does marriage mean? It means that you’re willing to put it all on the line so that this relationship will last, regardless of the difficulties, hoping for the best whilst being prepared to weather the worst. It means that you’re willing to make that commitment a legally binding contract, to prove to your partner that you really mean what you say…that you’re putting your money where your mouth is. It means that you’ve sat down together and counted the cost, and then said that you’re going to get married anyway. If we’re being honest, we might be able to see why that would make a relationship more secure than one that is entered into with no such contract, just like we can so easily see why you wouldn’t want to get too settled into a flat that you’re renting without a lease, with no written promises of what will happen should things go wrong or if repairs are needed. Marriage means security, faith, hope, determination, and love. Marriage means the courage to face a life-time commitment of whatever happens. Children born into this marriage between two parents who have that level of determination and commitment are more secure, do better in life, and are most likely to go on to have good marriages themselves. The family have benefited from that commitment. Because the family is stable, there are stronger support systems in place to help cope with life-changing events that happen to us all. The more determined and committed the couple, the stronger the family unit, the more resilient each member of the family unit can be. That actually benefits the wider community in many ways, as well.
What does this mean for couples who have developed significant problems that they can’t cope with together, couples who feel that they’d be better off splitting up? Well, a good marriage counsellor might be able to help them to sit down and count the cost of doing that, comparing that to the cost of trying to repair the damage. Many times, a marriage that has gone through that process comes out stronger than before. Divorce isn’t the only option, and isn’t always the best option. The only requirement for success at getting back on track is that each person must be equally determined to make it work, equally committed to doing the work necessary to getting back on track. If you have that to work with, your chances of successfully repairing any damage are very good. Marriage doesn’t mean that there won’t be difficulties. Marriage means that you’re willing to fight hard to keep the relationship alive forever.