When I married I believed marriage was a covenant. Not just a contract, but a holy contract between God and us, the couple. It was a commitment to be faithful, to have a spiritual household, to stay together for life, and to raise any children we might have under the same values—trusting that if we put God at the center of our marriage, God would give us everything we needed to sustain our household in faithfulness to God. My husband and I took our vows and ended them with taking communion.
After our wedding, we continued to go to church every Sunday and volunteer there every Wednesday. We called our church community our “church family,” because our church functioned like an extended family support network. They were a part of our everyday life, and they provided support for our marriage. We were just twenty-three and twenty-one when we wed, and people looked up to us and our young marriage as an example.
This covenant between us and God was important to me because I didn’t have another successful example of marriage to model after. My parents divorced two short years prior to our engagement, and I was terrified of marriage. But I loved this man and believed that when you fall in love you get married. I believed in the idea that if we made promises to God then he would support us in our marriage, which gave me the reassurance I needed: even though I was still young, I could do this big thing. So we set about making a spiritual life together to sustain us.
When The Floor Drops Out
Then things started to fall apart. As we read the Bible together, we began to discover passages that didn’t make sense to us. We saw a God who acted in ways that didn’t line up with the all-loving God we believed in. We learned that the Bible-based worldview we’d learned to believe in didn’t align with basic science. We saw examples of relationships that didn’t sound anything like the marriages our church had presented to us as ideal. The Bible was filled with alternative relationships—from polygamous marriages like that of Rachel, Leah, and Jacob; to the homo-romantic dedication of Ruth and Naomi; to the betrothed lovers of Song of Solomon, who seem to be engaging in premarital sex.
Then as my husband dived deeper into research about the things we’d been taught to believe, his faith started to crumble. It reached the point that when he asked himself if he still believed in God, the answer was no. Meanwhile, as I delved deeper into my faith, I became more and more progressive. My new beliefs came into conflict with the conservative beliefs that I had tried to make work for me up to that point. Though I hadn’t come to terms with my own sublimated queerness, I was an LGBTQ ally, and our church—the community I looked to as our support system—held subtle but pervasive anti-LGBTQ views and was a voice of authoritarianism. Our church started to become a toxic place for me.
All of our beliefs were shifting. Our foundation was disappearing. I had a sickening sense that we were just floating, and it seemed we could be blown away by a breath of air. We had built our marriage on a framework provided by our church, which was unmoving on what a godly marriage looked like. Shaped by marital roles, daily habits, faithfulness, and religious values shared with our church, to us a godly marriage was an ideal marriage, a clear image of what a Christian marriage was supposed to look like without much room for deviation. So in this sense, our idea of marriage was a piece of theology. As we continued to examine our beliefs, our theology shifted and, with it, our view of what marriage should be. If our marriage was not a covenant with God, what was it? It became more important to discuss our ideas of what our marriage was and wasn’t, and we sought something solid to reference in order to give us a sense of security in an ever-changing landscape.
Expanding On An Old Contract
We were already in agreement that being married did not mean we could never be attracted to anyone else, and we were already open with each other when attractions surfaced. (As a mentor of mine in the church once said, “I’m married, not dead.”) Through our discussions about our relationship, we ended up agreeing to have an open relationship, and the decision felt like a really natural extension of the openness we already shared.
Given all of these changes to our faith, identities, and ideas surrounding marriage, I felt I had to leave our church. I knew that despite three years there, it had never come to feel like home, and I didn’t feel like I could fully be myself when I was there. I found that taking a break from church attendance was a breath of fresh air, but I struggled to hold on to my faith as my learning progressed and my beliefs shifted. Very occasionally I would try a new church in hopes that it would be a better fit, looking for a framework to cling to, hoping to find a place that would help me align my increasingly progressive values with a belief in the God of the Bible.
While I struggled to find a new home in my own heart for my religious beliefs, my husband explored his newfound atheism, and this religious divide became a struggle in our marriage. We went from a place in our relationship where we knew all of the rules and guidelines, one where we had all of the same baseline assumptions, to a place of conflict. We argued about ideas as we learned new things together and came away with different takes on them. We found that belief and disbelief were beyond a matter of argument—one either believes or one doesn’t.
I never did find a place of worship that also encompassed my progressive ideals and was robust enough to stand up to my critical thinking. Over the next year I continued questioning and assessing my faith, getting farther and farther from a functional theology as I went, until I realized I had shifted from faith to agnosticism. While I was open to the idea that I could be wrong, I simply didn’t believe anymore.
After these huge changes, I didn’t know how to define our marriage anymore either. God was out of the picture, but I had promised to love this man for the rest of my life. Our covenant, without God as a part of it, felt inadequate.
A New Contract
For a long time I still believed our marriage was a contract. We were changing the terms of the contract and that was terrifying, but having a contract felt like a foundation in a time when stability was lacking. I had not yet encountered an idea of marriage that worked without this kind of framework, so it seemed essential to our continued marriage. We explored faithfulness, values, and goals; we examined what we wanted to promise to each other.
It took therapy to repair the damaged trust we’d sustained while leaving our faith and community, and we used it as an opportunity to redefine our marriage outside of the religious mores we’d grown up with. We took a break from having an open relationship in order to focus fully on this work and came up with new vows that were just between us—a new understanding that we promised to each other.
Our new understanding of marriage came down to four pillars: Family, Finances, Companionship, and Sex.
These pillars are the true significance of our marriage when stripped of everything extraneous. First, we are each other’s chosen and primary family. Second, we are the ones always there for each other, and making a home together is a part of that. Third, our finances are combined, and we both work for the benefit of our family. Fourth, our sexual relationship is prioritized (although we are open to having others). Having the stability of a new contract combined with the newness of redefining our values around marriage gave us the confidence to continue on the path of a shared future.
For a while this contract was enough to sustain us in our marriage. It framed our conflicts and supported our connection, allowing us to build something with each other. During this time we decided to try to conceive our first child and supported each other’s burgeoning career paths. So two years later I was surprised to find myself chafing against the boundaries of our renewed contract and vows. What was happening to the new contract we had worked so hard to establish?
Not A Contract, A Negotiation
When I got married I thought our covenant was important because I needed a model for marriage. I thought that would bring us success. When we left religion, I clung to the idea of needing a framework to follow. But I’ve grown and changed so much since I married my husband. Our open relationship turned into polyamory, as we decided that putting restraints on falling in love was just as unrealistic for us as putting restraints on sex. We’ve had our first child, come up against the seven year itch, and gone through intense seasons of personal growth. I’ve fallen in love, fallen in lust, and come to terms with my bisexuality in the process. What was right for me yesterday may not be right for me tomorrow.
Our marriage feels the strain of these changes, but I now realize that no two marriages are the same, and our marriage is not the same through time. For us, building a marriage around who we are becoming every day is our path to success. A contract can’t take into account future consent. It can’t predict who I will be five years from now and five years from then and twenty years from then. Nor can it predict the person that my husband will be.
I’ve found I can’t promise forever. I can promise today and today and today. In this eternal dance of the present tense, my marriage isn’t a contract; it’s a negotiation.
A Breathing Thing
To do it right, our marriage is actually a constant renegotiation: “How can we both be the most fulfilled and empowered versions of ourselves? How can we both get our needs met? How can we build intimacy and vulnerability? How can we cause each other the least harm and increase each other’s happiness? What does it mean to be each other’s safe space?” The answers to these questions determine the shape of our relationship.
Our marriage is a web of energy between two people. It flexes and grows, shrinks and strains, gives support and becomes drained. It responds to what is fed into it. Our marriage is made up of what I am and what my spouse is and what we are together. Finding that space of what we are together requires us to be constantly communicating what we want out of our relationship. It requires us to learn anew about each other and negotiate our boundaries, our desires, our consent. So as we change and grow, as we learn, explore, and have new needs and desires, our marriage is only as strong as it is flexible. While we may have begun our marriage with a covenant, and then salvaged a contract when we left our faith, our path forward is to remain by each other’s side with openness and honesty, continuing to negotiate what our marriage will be today.