Why I See Marriage as a Verb, Not a Noun

Not a capstone, but a cornerstone

bride and groom exiting wedding

I got married at an age that would be considered young in certain circles, but not shockingly so in most. I was twenty-five, nearly twenty-six on my wedding day, and my now-husband was one year older. We met and started dating when I was twenty-one. As we push closer to thirty, I’ve realized that I’ve spent almost the entirety of my twenties, a time full of change and growth and maturity, side-by-side with this man.

A few years ago, a fairly comprehensive study on marriage was released. In that study, they talked about marriage as a capstone versus marriage as a cornerstone. Put simply, marriage as a capstone presumes that marriage is one of the later steps in a long list of milestones—something you do when you’re established, stable, and undeniably grown up. Marriage as a cornerstone, on the other hand, assumes that marriage is a foundational partnership, a stable base to build up from even when stability is noticeably lacking in other areas of your life.

To me, marriage isn’t a goal or a target that you reach. It’s a fluid, active concept—a verb, not a noun (no matter what Merriam-Webster’s dictionary says). It is something you learn to do, slowly, clumsily, and not without error. It also provides the stability that allows you to take those risks, make those mistakes, and challenge yourself in ways you didn’t necessarily before.

When we said our wedding vows, we made promises to each other that emphasized that our marriage was foundational (although it wasn’t intentional at the time). We stood in front of family and friends, and promised to build a life together, to create a home together, and to make the conscious decision each day to love each other and choose this life together again, day after day. We vowed to love what we already know, and trust that we will continue to love each other even as we change and evolve.

Our officiant spoke some wise words from the APW book during our ceremony. He said, “A good marriage makes you free. Marriage allows us to support our partners to become the people they were meant to be. To empower them to pursue their dreams, and to live bravely and honestly. It allows us to live bravely and honestly ourselves. Marriage gives us the strength to continue to say yes to what is right for us. It gives us a foundation on which to build and the strength to dream big dreams.”

Marriage can make you very brave. My marriage neither completes me nor defines me. I was a whole, complex, flawed person when I entered my marriage, and so was my husband. What marriage has brought to my life though, is a sense of home that is rooted more in a relationship and a particular person than it is in a particular place. My marriage gives me roots and support in a way that frees me to challenge myself and push my own boundaries, with the knowledge that I have something to fall back on should I fail miserably. I am able to move forward knowing that the man by my side is ready to learn and change with me, and that he will wake up each day and choose “us” again, just as I will for him.

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  • BeccaC

    Wonderful piece – it really resonates with me! I am in a very similar situation to you – I started dating my fiance when I was 20 and he was 19. We are getting married next January at 26 and 25 and we both thank our lucky stars that we grew in the same direction and at the same time. We are both very different people from when we started dating, but we credit so much of what we have become to each other. I can’t wait to see how marriage strengthens our bond, but I hope it brings me the same things it has brought you!

    • Kate

      I love the phrase “grew in the same direction at the same time.” It’s how I think of my relationship with my husband, as we started dating as teenagers who grew up in the same town, went to separate colleges and did long distance, and got married and starting building our (still not geographically stable) lives together after that. It’s definitely worked out that I have a cornerstone marriage, and while I know it doesn’t work for everyone, I am grateful it has so far for me.

      • Rachel

        I love that phrase too! Such a beautiful way to put it.

  • Ann

    This is a lovely piece. I got married at the same age as you, and promptly entered a graduate program where most people were right out of their undergraduate years. When one guy was discussing how it’s been hard to navigate what to do when his girlfriend graduates college (their undergrad institution is in the same city), he made a comment on how he couldn’t imagine being committed to planning a life around someone at such a young age.
    I told him that it is both easier and harder. Harder because sometimes, what’s best for one person’s career isn’t best for the other’s. It’s easier because you have someone beside you when you fail, because there’s someone who has committed to growing along with you. Both my husband and I feel more free to take risks since we know that we always have someone there for us. Overall, I think it’s easier, but I also think some of that comes from the fact that neither my husband or I *have* to have our career look a certain way.
    My husband has been a factor in every major decision I’ve made about my life since I was just nineteen years old. Sometimes I think about the fact that I have no idea what an adult life without him by my side would be. I’m okay with it.
    (One of my high school students once asked me what was the most important thing I got out of my college experience–totally a good question to ask the young adults around you when you’re making the “where do I go to college” decision. I was silent for a moment and then said, “This will sound horribly unfeminist of me, but the answer is my husband. Had someone told me I would give this answer before I went to college, I would have thought they were joking. But you never know what situations you’ll find yourself in and what you’ll learn from it. Go somewhere where the academics fit, and then find your people. There’s no way to predict what your life will look like 5 years from now.”)

    • Eh

      That’s really good advice to give high school students. I went to university an hour from where I grew up but I knew very few people (it was a very large university and only three or four people from my graduating class went there and none of them were in my program or my college). I totally agree that you “find your people”. I didn’t find my husband there but I found “people” and I did meet a man I dated for over five years who helped me realize my potential and the possibilities in my life. If I hadn’t met and dated that man for half my undergrad and through grad school and into my early career, and if I hadn’t moved to another city because he got a job there I wouldn’t have met my husband (and other things like have the great job I have).

      • Lindsay

        I have almost the same story…it’s so similar I found your post eerie!

    • Rachel

      Your experiences sound similar to mine. There are absolutely some things that are harder, but I wouldn’t change anything about how it has all turned out. Thanks for your thoughtful reply :)

  • Kt

    Thanks for this! My partner and I started dating at 19. It was my first year away from home and he was living out of halls for the first time. We really have grown into adults together and I love that. It’s not been easy and there are certainly advantages to meeting later but there is also something beautiful about this. Whilst our lives and adult-selves have very much been formed around each other, we have also had to let each other be independent (we each had inflexible 4 year plans when we met which would see us spend at least 2 years long distance). Sometimes the fact I have never been a truly independent adult scares me yet as you say, a relationship can make you brave. A cross-country move is fine if we are in it together. Freelancing is less daunting with his support. Here’s to young love.

    • Sarah E

      I’m with you, in that I’m still trying to reconcile the sense of forming my adult-self with the strong presence of my relationship, while knowing (and ensuring) that my relationship is not what “complete” me. My head knows each separately, but has a hard time painting the right picture around the two.

      Like you and the author, I’ve spent nearly all of my twenties- a time of growth, change, and becoming- with my partner. I have no doubts about my relationship and its foundational aspect in my life. It does make me wonder sometimes what happens (God forbid) that foundation is ever taken away. Something I regularly ponder. . .

  • Alison O

    Marriage is about being married, not getting married.

    • Rachel

      So true!

  • I’m getting married on the “younger” end of the spectrum at 25 (though here in the South, it’s not really all that young). We started dating when I was 20 and a sophomore in college. He’s a couple years older, and we have grown together through this relationship, not apart. I think the point you make about seeing marriage as a cornerstone and not a capstone is a very important concept that a lot of people miss. People get so excited about the wedding and seeing the “getting married” part as the end-all-be-all, when it’s really just the beginning.

    • Lauren

      I gave my boyfriend a timeline that I *will* be married before I turn 26, because, yes, I’m in the South and 26 sounds old to me for getting married! I can’t make sense of 25 being on the younger end of the spectrum, at least not for myself. I’ve always felt like I was born to be a wife and mother, so once I got with the right guy, I wanted to make it happen! Of course I am also a whole, complex, flawed person and I have dreams and wants outside of marriage and motherhood, but those things are so important to me and I want to start that part of my life as soon as possible – even if it’s considered young to some people – because like you said, it’s just the beginning.

      • I would have been fine with married later, but when you know, you know. Whereas before I met my fiance I imagined myself getting married in my late twenties/early thirties and having kids in my mid-thirties, now it’s looking like I’ll be married with kid(s) before 30. We didn’t really have a timeline, it just felt right to move forward with legalizing our commitment at the time we did. And I’m sort of of the mindset that there’s no reason to wait if I don’t have to. :)

  • lady brett

    i love the cornerstone/capstone descriptions.

    also, this is driving home something i’ve been thinking about from yesterday’s letter from the editor – the roots that marriage has provided *terrify* me – i’ve never been so grounded before this. i am (slowly) trying to learn about the kind of freedom you are talking about; it’s not what i was accustomed to, and it’s certainly not the freedom i’ve always daydreamed about.

    • jashshea

      I’m not sure if this is exactly what you mean, but I feel similarly. Or felt similarly. I can be independent to an unhealthy extreme – think of the small child who refuses their parents’ assistance, then has a meltdown when they can’t do the thing – and it’s very hard for me to feel dependent on people. No trust falls for me, thanks!

      But as one half of a partnership, I simply HAVE to rely on my other half. I can’t just insist he do things my way, nor can I do all the things myself. I have to relinquish control over some things and compromise. It’s living consistently outside of my comfort zone to do so and I have to try all the time.

      That being said, I want to be better. This isn’t a particularly attractive personality trait and I want to tamp it down. Having my partner in my life means that I get the freedom to work on that (but it also means I HAVE to work on it).

      • Emily

        THIS. YES.

    • Rachel

      I can totally relate to this. While I’d say I’ve always had strong roots, I’ve also always loved the ability to make spontaneous decisions, travel, move around, and change my mind. I have to keep reminding myself that being married doesn’t mean that stops, it just means there’s an extra person to consider when making those decisions – and that sometimes I’m not going to get my way. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s definitely an adjustment.

  • K.

    The last paragraph of this piece reminds me of how, early in our relationship when we were wee 19-year-olds, my fiance and I bonded over Rainer Maria Rilke’s philosophy on solitude and individuality in relationships, and I’d say it’s a major cornerstone of how we approach our relationship. We’re planning on using either: “Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other” or “I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other” (maybe both!) in our ceremony.

    I think we’ll have more than a few guests who won’t ‘get it’ so to speak and may even actively dislike the quotations, but the idea really isn’t that far off from what is talked about here and beyond — the bravery and freedom in marriage, and having someone to support the complex, flawed person that is you, for better or for worse. Just maybe a bit more esoterically put.

    (Plus, we’ll also throw in the more universally palatable, “For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been given to us, the ultimate, the final problem and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.” Because we definitely believe that as well!)

    Tangent, but very viscerally reminded me of this. :) Beautiful work!

    • Rachel

      As an introvert, I absolutely love this: “Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other”. I’ve never heard it before, so thank you for sharing it!

  • C

    Lovely. Thank you for the reminder… cornerstone, not capstone.

  • emilyg25

    Yes yes yes. All of this.

  • anon

    This, to my mind, is veering awfully close to saying that people who get married young have better marriages than those who get married later in life. I’m not ok with that. The capstone/cornerstone talk in the analysis of the marriage trends was a way of explaining a trend toward marrying later in life. It was not suggesting that people who marry later have some ridiculous notion that a spouse is an accessory like a designer handbag that you can eventually afford once you’ve “made it.” The changing trends are a reflection of the fact that more and more women want to get educations, work outside the home and otherwise are motivated to pursue goals that aren’t necessarily family-oriented. It reflects the fact that what many people feel are the bare-bones necessities one needs to have in order to start an adult life with a partner (housing, transportation, income, insurance) are becoming harder and harder to obtain at a young age. It has to do with the fact that, increasingly, pursuing a career requires geographic mobility, and young couples are forced to early on make hard choices about staying together or splitting in the face of obstacles that previously would have come only much later in one’s career and life. It DOES NOT suggest that people who marry late take their marriages less seriously or that their relationships are less valuable.

    • Interesting. I didn’t get that those who marry young have better marriages at all from this piece.

    • Rachel

      Hi Anon! Thanks for your comment. I should be clear, this piece is a personal reflection on my own experience, and an experience shared by some of the other commenters here. It is by no means prescriptive or intended to imply that earlier marriage is preferable to later marriage. For some people, and for a wide range of reasons, including some of the ones you’ve mentioned – later marriage is absolutely the best choice. For other people, an earlier marriage works well.

    • Alyssa M

      Speaking positively about one choice does not have to mean denigrating other paths. As someone marrying at 25, to the man I’ve been with since I was 16, I really loved this piece. I often have to check myself to not get down about how often APWers make comments about how happy they are that they waited till later to marry. I’ve done a hell of a lot of changing with my partner by my side, and I believe it is just as valid as the change and growth people who are singe in their 20s go through.

    • Meg Keene

      I don’t get that from this piece, and I definitely didn’t marry young. In fact, since I’ve been with my partner for a long time, I COULD have married young, but I view marriage as more of a capstone than a cornerstone, so I chose not to.

      IE, just a reminder, that personal essays have to do with the writer, and are not a judgement on us. I approached my life in a totally different way, but I still think hearing about the other ways people approach life are enriching to me.

      So yes, of course people who marry late don’t value their marriages less, nor are their relationships less valuable. This essay isn’t saying that, it’s simply exploring the author’s experience, which is increasingly the less common experience in most of the US.

    • Kt

      i think this is just pointing out a genuine benefit and a specific beauty in young marriages. marrying young is often either seen as wrong point blank or aww sweet fluffy but rarely is it seen as genuinely good as such. it’s nice to see some strong positive things being said about young marriage instead of groundless, meaningless sap or negative bile.

    • Jane

      I wanted to respond to this comment, because I was surprised that most commentators here have not brought up the politically-loaded nature of the discussion of “cornerstone” vs. “capstone” marriage. These terms are frequently discussed in conservative circles, because the “capstone” view of marriage prevalent in modern American culture is seen as being a root cause of a host of societal problems, such as delayed onset of adult responsibilities, children being born out of wedlock, and single-parent homes.

      The “capstone” view of marriage is portrayed by conservatives as being unrealistic and out of reach for most people, an elitist mirage that nevertheless has permeated contemporary society to such an extent that people feel that in order to be married they must have all of their educational, financial, and career ducks in a row–in addition to being able to afford the lavish wedding that has come to be expected of two fully launched adults who have achieved that blissful and elusive status of having found their soul mate in each other. Quite a tall order!

      Being highly socially conservative myself, and very much believing in “cornerstone” marriage although I personally did not marry until I was 33 (it took me until 32 to meet the right guy) I appreciate the timbre of this piece. Indeed, I keep coming back to this blog because it is such an interesting crossroads of liberal and conservative viewpoints (although personally I find it leans liberal most of the time) on marriage and family life. But I feel I ought to back up this comment–“cornerstone” marriage is indeed a very politically charged idea! In this particular essay, the author does not purport to tell anybody else how to live, but rest assured it is a term that conservative commentators use frequently to promote a traditional, “family values” understanding of marriage that is sometimes in conflict with the views of APW.

      • Rachel

        Hi Jane, thanks for sharing an interesting perspective! I should add that I’m not American, so if there’s any political weight behind those terms in the States, I’m officially out of the loop :) I don’t think they have the same political associations here. I’m actually very socially liberal so it’s funny to hear that the term is associated with social conservatism in the US.

        That aside – I totally agree that one of the best things about APW is the mix of viewpoints and experiences that are shared here. I think it’s so important to be exposed to a wide range of perspectives and experiences, and I love that this site gives us all little glimpses of that!

        Thanks again for your thoughtful comment.

        • Dawn

          I’m fascinated by the cornerstone/capstone issue. On one hand, I do think it is elitist to suggest that people need to be financially stable before marriage, especially given the current economy and its disproportianate consequences on young people. And it makes me sad to hear about couples who are committed and want to marry but feel unable to because they haven’t solved the problems of life.

          On the other hand, I think it absurd to suggest that marriage is a “capstone” — even in the less political sense. Don’t get me wrong– I love Jane Austen and get as much pleasure from the marriage plot novel as anyone! But the idea that marriage is the end of the story is strange. In fact, when marriage plots were so popular, I would suggest that marriage was culturally understood to be the cornerstone, even if the woma marrying was 18 or whatever.

          Personal note: I married at 32. Sounds capstone-ish? But I’d just finished my PhD and was in career flux. I definitely grew up independent of my husband in a way someone who married at 19 or 25 would not, but our lives were not figured out. Life doesn’t get figured out, really, though it can become more stable, especially if stability is a priority.

      • anon

        Yep, Jane’s comment hit on exactly what I was responding to. This “capstone” “cornerstone” talk is politically loaded in the US. I can understand why Jane supports the sentiment if her values lean conservative. For those of us who lean the other direction, who intentionally put off marriage to pursue a career, who’ve watched more than one friend who married young struggle through a heartbreaking divorce, the sentiment is harder to endorse. Though, it also makes sense to me that, outside this political context, the terms wouldn’t read that way at all (in the same way “I’m not wearing pants” reads different to Americans and Brits). It seems that the meaning I perceived was in intended by the author, but it feels front a center for someone surrounded by this kind of talk.

        • Rachel

          So interesting how differently the terms can be perceived in neighbouring countries :) To the best of my knowledge, there’s absolutely no political association for those words here. I suppose it’s not surprising given that partisan politics aren’t nearly as intense or divisive here as they are in the US (not to say they don’t exist, but they aren’t anywhere near as dramatic). A “social conservative” by typical Canadian standards is still pretty liberal by American standards, so issues around marriage and family aren’t as contentious and polarizing here as they are in the States. Thanks for sharing your perspective!

          • Aubry

            Yes, I’m Canadian as well ad I’ve never heard of these words used in any political conversation. I had no idea. I also move in very liberal(by canadian standards) circles who don’t discuss marriage age/financial readiness as a political discussion.

  • I love this.

    When I was a teenager I planned out my life and my plans stopped with “Get married and have kids.” I didn’t plan anything after that because I didn’t know there were other things to plan.

    Then life happened. And now I know that “get married and have kids” is only part of the journey of life and there are still so many other things to plan. And the best part is now I get to plan them with my husband and kid(s).

    • Meg Keene

      I want this comment to be an essay.

      This was true of a lot of people I grew up with, and sometimes I’m deeply afraid that some of them that got married and had kids at 19 never got a chance to see the other bits. It’s one of those deep down haunting kinds of pain for me. It’s not that the marriage and kids parts aren’t wonderful, they are. It’s how painful it is when those things… become a dam, not a river to the sea.

      • The kid has finally settled into an almost predictable nap routine. I’ll see what I can do about expanding this to essay length.

      • Legatosaurus

        I also grew up in a community where it was unspokenly expected that all the girls would grow up, and get married by 19-25 and start having babies — and that was it. People still view me and a few of my contemporaries who didn’t follow that rule with concern. I’m twenty-five, and I can feel the pressure and eyes on me that I have not married and had kids. It’s as if not marrying young has invalidated my life: choosing to go and see all the other parts of life and explore things on my own means that I am, in some subconscious way, a failure.

        I am so afraid for many of my childhood friends that they have stopped their own lives for the sake of following that expected narrative. Even (or especially) my own mother, who has encouraged me to do what I want and follow my dreams, still projects this fear that I am going the wrong way about my life. One of my oldest male friends jokingly said to me the other day that he and I should have got married at eighteen and settled down … when I laughingly relayed that to my mother, she took it seriously. It’s a really scary thing. I see my friends who want more from life already getting married and doing nothing more than being Married. Which, if you choose it deliberately, is a wonderful thing. But choosing it for the sake of what is expected of you … I worry for my friends.

    • This is a super awesome comment. I know that for my partner and I, “get married and have kids” is not the end of the line. I never imagined it would be and actually, when I was younger I never even really envisioned marriage or children. It just worked out that I’m getting married kind of young (25) and we do want kids soon-ish. Kids aren’t going to be too far in the future but I guess for me I don’t see that as a roadblock in my life, just one of those things that happens and I’m looking forward to it. I’m still going to get to plan and experience life… and I can’t waiiiiiit

  • BeeAssassin

    This is great, thank you for sharing it – it’s definitely helpful as I think about the vows I’ll be saying later this year. My fiancee and I are getting married after almost a decade together, so in some ways our relationship/marriage feels both like a cornerstone (we met very soon after undergrad, and the relationship provided stability through some significant life changes) and like a capstone (we’re getting married in our 30s, only after finishing grad school, settling a bit into our careers, and buying a home). In some ways it’s held us back at turning points in our lives, when we’ve decided to prioritize the relationship over other things, such as not moving for a job if the other couldn’t as well. And in some ways it’s propelled us forward, as we’ve supported each other through some tough decisions, like going back to grad school and through a career change that led to better income.

    It sort of reminds me of a tree – the deeper and wider the root structure, the taller the tree can grow. The tree can’t move from its chosen spot on the ground, but it can reach closer to the sky.

  • Rachel

    Wow. The extent to which i identify wtih this post is impressive. We were 21 when we got involved, and I just turned 25, and am starting to think about getting engaged (although it hasn’t happened quite yet). I love the distinction there–I think that when I feel like I’m too young to get married (or, rather, that other people will think I’m too young), it’s because I’m thinking of it as a capstone. When really we’re at a point in our lives where it’s a cornerstone. Thank you for writing this! All I can hope is that I’m in a position to feel the same in a few years. I loved your description of yours vows; it’s similar to what I’ve been thinking about marriage. That part of it is a choice, every day (or at least, almost every day) to keep and build on what you have. And that while I love her for herself in this moment, too, it’s also about building a future and a family together.

  • Bets

    Thank you for this piece. In a society where there’s so much pressure to get our ducks in a row, the idea of marriage as a cornerstone is really beautiful and reassuring.

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  • mimi

    thanks for sharing this…i will be getting married soon and it makes me feel at ease knowing that i can learn a lot from people who have gone through the process. tanks for your inputs.


  • bo

    Marriage makes you brave? Seriously? How, exactly? Way to pat yourself on the back. Marriage doesn’t make you braver. It makes you married: a dubious, archaic legal arrangement with no innate benefits, other than the government-sanctioned benefits. Signing a legal document doesn’t magically make your relationship any more valid. Getting married is deeply illogical and more and more people are realizing that.