What Does It Mean to Be Married?


So many of us today drift into marriage. We date. We move in together. We make a baby. Then we marry.
Or we make a baby, so we move in together and, if we can find the time, date, hoping to kindle enough of a fire to want to marry.
Or it’s our second time around. We will make no more babies. We date. We live together to save time or money. Eventually we marry because one or both grow tired of being a couple without the status and protections offered to married couples.
Often, we take these routes because we have seen marriages (even our parents’ marriages) fail. We hope to avoid this. We imagine that living together will give us a clue as to how well we’ll work out as a married couple. Unfortunately, research says it’s not much help. Those who jump in without knowing do at least as well as those who test the waters first.
Marriage, it turns out, changes very little about our relationship with each other. What it changes is our relationship with everyone else. It changes whether our mate’s family considers us family or temporary guest. It changes whether folks hoping to socialize with one of us automatically include the other. It changes the reception we get from our mate’s conservative religious friends and colleagues.
Unless we take legal steps ahead of time, it changes what the ICU nurse allows when our partner is in life-threatening circumstances. It changes who makes the decisions while the person we love lies unconscious on the brink of death. It changes what money we’re entitled to when our mate retires and what’s ours when death parts us.
It changes what we owe the tax collector, both while we’re together and while we are grieving if we outlive our partner.
It changes what questions we must answer in court.
It also changes who decides who owes what to whom if the relationship ends.
What marriage does not change is our differences of opinion, our misunderstandings of each other’s motives, our expectations, or how well our spouse meets them. It does not change anything about the push-pull of wanting to both be together and be ourselves. It changes nothing about our fear of abandonment and the unhappy choices we make when we worry our relationship is unraveling. It gives us no new rights or authority over our mate while married.
Getting married is about choosing to play a particular role in society together. It is a very important role worthy of great respect. If you hope to play it for the rest of your life, don’t count on your wedding day helping much. Instead, learn everything you can about how to nurture your relationship. Practice daily.

About the author

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.


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  • Im reading this becuz my boyfriend of 6 years is wanting to get married… Im just not sure I am, ive seen so many people fail in there marriage and it just seems easier to have never gotten married. My boyfriend thinks of it as more than just being in love or having children he thinks its a next step that would be good for our relationship, start us on another branch through our journey together in life… I see it as a piece of paper that tells us we share everything now and im just not sure.
    Before I had our daughter (9months old now) I didn’t feel this way I wanted to get married at least I thought I did, than the post partum hit and almost ended our relationship but he stuck thru helping me over every obstacle and before we had talked about getting married and him adopting MY daughter, we have been together since she was a year old she knows him as daddy and he teaches her everything she asks him to but she doesn’t understand why her last name is different than our other children.. Im just not sure about how I should move forward even with all these good reasons we should get married I still see it as just a paper we sign and nothing greater….

  • Jenna, of course marriages fail. Relationships fail, too. In fact, they fail a lot more than marriages do.
    When they fail, the pain is just as bad. The confusion over whether to do this to your children or not is just as bad. The legal battles over custody and child support are just as bad.
    There won’t be any rules about how quickly you can call yourself available again, but there also won’t be any rules guaranteeing you get any part of any assets acquired during your time together, no recognition of the financial value of your contribution to your mate’s professional education, no pensions or Social Security based on the income your spouse earned while you took a decade off to care for your children, even a disabled child.
    But many marriages succeed, too, especially when both people are committed to each other, and it sure sounds like you’ve got someone committed to dealing with both the good and the bad in your life. And they succeed more often than other relationships in large part because they encourage everyone else to support the success of your relationship.
    If your marriage fails, the actual divorce process (as opposed to the breakup) will affect maybe a year or two of your life.
    If it succeeds, the advantages will affect every year for the rest of your life.

  • FINALLY someone has answered my question. My boyfriend is in the army and wants to get married in the fall right before we both turn 20 so I can move with him. Everyone says marriage is such a big deal and when I asked why, no one had a real answer. Until now. Definitely gives me more to think about. Thank you

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.

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