The One Thing Marriage Does That Living Together Doesn’t

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.”


Bronwyn Lea loves Jesus, writing, ice-cream and the sound of her children laughing. She writes about the holy and hilarious things in life at, where she also hosts a faith and relationship advice column. Find her there, or follow her on Facebook or on Twitter.

  • Love this so much Bron!! Nailed it:) love Katie

    • Thanks, Katie!! Love to you and your family!

  • Kris Childress

    Thanks for sharing little sister. How true, how true.

    • Thanks, Kris. I appreciate your encouragement so much.

  • SO well written. Masterfully articulated with grace.

    • Thank you, Kate! I’m so glad you were a witness on that happy day 🙂

  • Rachel

    This left my scones tear-soaked as well. Cheerios to all of us, loving married couples!

    • Rachel, you made me laugh out loud. Cheerios to all!

  • Glenda

    So simple, yet so profoundly true. Thanks for slipping the focus and pointing toward what truly matters.

    • Thank you, Glenda. It is so encouraging to think that our marriages have Gods gracious blessing spoken over them, isn’t it?

  • Thank you, Glenda. It is so encouraging to think that our marriages have Gods gracious blessing spoken over them, isn’t it?

  • Suse

    Thank you for this, it is beautifully articulated! I am thinking about getting married, and waht it will be like to sit across from my Dad and have that conversation and think of all that is to come; it is completely daunting when you word it like this, it is also incredibly beautiful!

    • Getting married is a huge change… Daunting is a good word for it! But it’s beautiful and blessed too: I hope you have a special time talking with your dad beforehand 🙂 congratulations!

  • Jacob

    Just to add a counterpoint to your article…

    1. Marriage only makes relatives between two people in a symbolic sense. In other words, you’re right, but what you’re saying is a tautology. The status change conferred on a couple is only a matter of (a) how the couple themselves regard it and (b) how society regards it, which can be very different depending on whom you ask.

    2. But at what point is a marriage blessed? What if the couple isn’t Christian? And at what point does a relationship become a marriage? And what does blessing mean anyway?

    • Hi Jacob, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

      In response to the points you raise, I disagree that marriage only creates family in a symbolic way. Marriage creates family in a real, legal way: the act of marriage changes one’s legal and tax and inheritance status, it changes your next-of-kin. A couple in particular and society in general take their cue of “regarding themselves as married” as a RESULT of these real, legal changes in status. You make a fair point that people differ in their estimation of what marriage means, but that it is a real, legitimate “thing” is not a question of opinion, it is an issue of fact. The question “are you married?” is a yes/no question, not an “it depends” question.

      With regard to blessing, I don’t claim to have an authoritative or complete view on how blessing works, but the Bible does say that when people get married, it is God who joins them together. I presume that is true whether the couple acknowledge God or not, just like I believe that it is God who sends rain (whether people acknowledge His contribution or not). Genesis tells us from the creation account that he blessed Adam and Eve: there are no details about their “wedding ceremony” in Genesis, but we do know they were considered married and blessed from the beginning. As far as what blessing means, I understand it to mean the active, benevolent favor of God: it includes his approval, his help, and his commissioning.

      If you are not yet married, but hope to do so, I would say that your relationship becomes marriage on the day that it is declared to be so: in the presence of God and witnesses, officiated by someone with the authority to do so. And that day, when it comes, is truly a good and blessed one 🙂 Thanks again for reading, I hope this helps!

      • Jacob


        1. The law is positive law, not natural law. As such, it only codifies the status our culture has given it. You could argue that, in your view, marriage exists separately as an institution of god, but that’s a different argument altogether. Moreover, the law hasn’t been particularly clear about this (common law marriages, e.g.). Cohabitation could just as easily acquire legal status.

        2. My experience with many Christians is that they tend to be very loose with words like blessing or anointing such that they have little meaning. Blessing tends to mean “good things come of it.” But if that’s the case, then what about bad marriages? I’d argue that marriage isn’t any more of a blessing than the quality of the relationship between the two people–which, incidentally, could be said of any relationship.

        • Thanks for your comments, Jacob. Did you see Alastair’s comments below? I don’t think I can add anything more clearly than that – especially his points on symbols being signifiers of (rather than substitutes for) reality.

    • Interesting questions, Jacob. Here are a few of my thoughts. I hope that they are of some help.

      1. ‘Only a symbolic sense’—I wonder whether you aren’t undervaluing symbols here. A coronation, for instance, is only a set of symbols and rituals. Nevertheless, there is a dramatic change in the status of the crowned regent as a result. Symbols are the primary means by which our social world, its meanings, and its bonds are formed. The fabric of our identities is made of symbols.

      It would be ridiculous for the newly-crowned king to wonder ‘but am I really a king: do I feel kingly deep in my heart?’ The reality is found in the symbol. Through the ritual and symbols of the coronation, a social transition is accomplished. People now treat him differently. He has new legal prerogatives and authority. He should have a new sense of who he is. The ritual and its symbols have made him into a new person. So it is with marriage.

      The couple and their society may have a rather impoverished understanding of what marriage is, but it remains marriage nonetheless. As we believe that marriage was established by God, we believe that it ultimately bears the meaning that he established it with. Marriage isn’t just a culturally constructed institution, although its form is heavily culturally constructed in many respects. God is the one who joins people together and this joining together can occur even when the society or the couple don’t truly recognize what they are doing. Conversely, recognizing something such as same-sex marriage as marriage won’t make it marriage when it runs contrary to the institution that God established.

      All of this said, however, I think that the status change conferred upon a couple, even in a society that depreciates the union, is quite considerable. Unlike in the case of a non-marital relationship, marriage has levels of meaning that you do not get to choose for yourself. In marrying you are entering into a cultural institution, into something that has meaning and purposes beyond the private ends of you and your partner. You receive legal privileges and responsibilities. There are restrictions on the ease with which you can dissolve the union. It forms new legal bonds.

      2. The institution of marriage itself is blessed. It is a particular reality established by God for our good. And this good can be enjoyed by non-Christians too. It is like food in this respect. Now, of course, there are ways in which we can rob ourselves of or miss out on the blessings of such things as food or marriage. However, they remain good gifts of God in which we can experience and enjoy his gracious and loving purposes and provision for us as his creatures.

      There can be unhappy marriages, but marriage itself remains a blessed union because it was given as a particular means for our blessing and well-being. People can drink judgment and curse to themselves in the Lord’s Supper, as Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 11, but the cup is still the cup of blessing, because that is the end for which it was given. Same with marriage.

      There are obviously different ways of making a relationship a marriage. Most relationships become marriage through a wedding ceremony. Most Christian understandings of marriage require such things as consent, witnessed covenant, and consummation. In some contexts marriages could be formed through cohabitation (with the presumption of sexual relations) alone, apart from a witnessed covenant-making ceremony.

      Part (though not all) of what it means to be married is to be in a socially defined and recognized union. Consequently, whether or not and how your society recognizes your form of union matters. And God’s commands address such areas of meaning contingent upon a wider society. An obvious example of this is when God calls us to abstain from obscene language. The meaning of our language isn’t something that we dream up in our heads. I can’t say ‘bookcase’ and insist that by ‘bookcase’ I mean ‘pineapple’, nor could I use an obscene word and invent my own private meaning for it. The meaning of an obscene words is socially defined, but culturally relative. The fact that the first readers of the relevant New Testament passages were Greek speakers doesn’t mean that the different obscene words that one finds in English are OK. A marriage becomes a marriage when the meaning of ‘marriage’ consistent with the divinely established institution is achieved according to the effective actions, rituals, and symbols—the symbolic language—of the relevant society.

      Identifying the precise point at which a couple becomes married is not an entirely helpful exercise, as different candidates could be brought forward (is it after the vows have been exchanged? when the officiant declares them man and wife? when they consummate the union? etc.). In some ways this is akin to asking at which exact moment you became a grown-up: processes aren’t designed to be sliced and diced in such a manner. Suffice it to say that, once the union has been consummated, it should be fairly clear that you are married before man and God.

      • Thanks, Alastair. I whole-heartedly agree and appreciate your clarity.

  • Anna

    I totally agree. You are a new family unit, and the world sees you as such. You also officially become family with their family! Ironically, you share a name with my niece (who is family now that I married her uncle, my husband!)

    • Hi Anna, thanks for commenting! My name seems rare enough in the USA, although it was fairly common among women my age in South Africa. Strangely enough, there is another Bronwyn Lea in the world: a famous Australian poet! Tell your niece she is in global company 🙂

Copyright © 2014 Start Marriage Right. Disclaimer