Ask Team Practical: The Meaning of Marriage

What does it mean to get married?

I should maybe say, what does it mean for non-religious people to get married? What does it mean for people who believe in marriage equality, but still apply for a marriage license to get married? When the religious and legal definitions of marriage don’t represent or capture what you are doing, what is the event, the promise, the meaning of marriage? What does marriage mean when you strip away some or most of its historical context?

Oh guys. I know it’s head-y stuff, but I could use your help. Pretty please.

This post and question is born out of a conversation I’m sure most wedding graduates have had: the writing of the vows. This is, obviously, the most important of the to-dos turned “what does it mean” items—what is the thing we are agreeing to. My partner and I have slightly different ideas, and I imagine that won’t change. I’m not so much worried about our vows being different, but I’ve found myself wondering about others’ promises and definitions as my partner and I explore what we want to promise and define as marriage.

I know I’m not the first one in this spot and am curious about y’alls experience, thoughts, and ideas. There’s wisdom here at APW, and I could really some: so, what did you find? What is your meaning of marriage?


Dear Anonymous,

I think we both know this question is well beyond my pay grade. Beside that, it’s guaranteed to be different from person to person based on (like you said) religion, but also culture, tradition, and whatever else.

So, I’m going to tell you what marriage means to me (apart from the pieces tied up in my personal spirituality), and then I want to hear what everyone else has to say in the comments. Deal?

I know you said that the legal definition of marriage doesn’t exactly capture what you think marriage means, but I think it’s a pretty good starting point.* When a state chooses to grant legal marriage rights, it means you are then recognized as “next of kin” as far as the government and hospitals and whoever else is concerned. And legality aside, that’s what marriage means to me. Not just that I get to choose how my husband is treated when he’s at the hospital, but that he’s now my “next of kin”—my family. And not only a part of my big, loud extended family. He’s the family for me now. He’s tied to me the way my mom and my brother are, but only closer and with higher importance. That’s major.

Not only are you becoming family, but you’re declaring to everyone that you’re now a “unit.” That idea sometimes creeps people out because, honestly, who wants to sacrifice their individuality? But that’s not the case at all. You’re still you, your separate and individual self. But, sort of like in a business partnership, you can speak for one another (which comes in handy when the guy calling from the credit card company is giving you attitude). You might recognize this from the icky historical assumption that when a man married a woman, he owned her and spoke for her. Sort of like that, only the assumption is no longer that women are idiots who need men to do the tough tasking of thinking for them, but instead that two grown-up human people can intelligently reach agreements and make decisions. Whereas once upon a time, the marriage unit meant ownership, now it signifies partnership.

All of that adds up to my partner becoming The Most Important Person to me. And I’m his. Which means our relationship is top priority among my family, my friends, and whoever else. Even above the cat. And that comes with a bit of responsibility. When he’s sick, when it’s his birthday, when he has a crappy day at work. I try to be that one person he can always depend on to join him in laughing and celebrating, or crying and mourning, or occasionally, to tell him to stop being a tool. Don’t read me wrong, here. I’m not saying that I’m responsible for making him happy. Oh lord, do I groan when marriage is pared down to, “S/he makes me happy.” So not the point. My whole purpose in getting married wasn’t to find someone who makes me happy (though he does sometimes. And other times he makes me laugh, and other times he makes me want to stab him in the belly), but to find someone to share all of the stuff that makes me happy. And also, all the stuff that makes me sad, and all the stuff that makes me angry. That’s who I try to be for him. The person to be there as he experiences all the good and bad of life, and to maybe make the happy times happier and the sad times less burdensome with my presence. He does the same for me.

The great thing that I’ve seen within my marriage is that the broader strokes take shapes that I maybe hadn’t originally foreseen or intended. So, sure, my husband promised to “love” and “honor” me. But only since having the flu last week I’ve seen that love and honor take the form of long, uninterrupted naps while he takes care of my end of the chores. And meanwhile, I’ve figured out that sometimes loving and honoring him means sucking it up and watching something gross about zombies. The details change, but that core of being a family, being partners, and being there for one another as we experience life stuff, that all stays the same.

*Editor’s Note: Of course, we understand that not everyone in this country is currently granted legal rights when they marry, and this response is in no way meant to negate the commitment that anyone makes to another person while being denied the rights that go with that commitment. If anything, it just further supports the fact that marriage rights should be granted on a federal level, thus eliminating all this grey area.


Team Practical, this one’s all you. What does marriage mean to you?

Photo by Leah and Mark Photography.

If you would like to ask Team Practical a question please don’t be shy! You can email Liz at: askteampractical [at] apracticalwedding [dot] com. If you would prefer to not be named, anonymous questions are also accepted. Though it really makes our day when you come up with a clever sign-off!

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  • Marriage means that we’re a family.

  • Christine

    I thought a lot about this question also. And then I stumbled across the text from the landmark 2003 ruling in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, which declared gay marriage legal in Massachusetts. Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall wrote:

    “Civil marriage is at once a deeply personal commitment to another human being and a highly public celebration of the ideals of mutuality, companionship, intimacy, fidelity, and family … Because it fulfills yearnings for security, safe haven, and connection that express our common humanity, civil marriage is an esteemed institution, and the decision whether and whom to marry is among life’s momentous acts of self-definition.”

    I love this text so much that I’m including it in our (heterosexual) wedding ceremony. I love both what it says explicitly, and what it symbolizes implicitly – a commitment to a definition of marriage that does not discriminate between gender or religion.

    • Shiri

      God, I love how smart Team Practical is. Where else do you get this kind of response to the above question? And, for that matter, where else do you get the above question written in such a insightful and thoughtful way?

    • Jashshea

      I used that one as well. 99% because it’s awesome and 1% as a small Eff you to the folks who won’t/don’t support marriage equality.

      • Catherine B

        That’s our plan! A subtle (?) eff I hope.

        • Jashshea

          Not many people drew the connection and many people commented on how great the ceremony was. Regardless on someone’s feelings about marriage equality, they can’t really deny that the passage is beautifully written (especially for a legal decision :)).

          Both families (catholic and baptist) were more disappointed at the lack of God-speak in the ceremony.

          • Catherine B

            Thanks for the feedback! I’m also anticipating disappointment in the lack of godspeak…oh well!

          • Copper

            I’m already anticipating that disappointment as well. To the point of realizing that there are a couple of people who I just don’t want there, because their definitions of what marriage is and my definition only have around 10% overlap.

    • I love that excerpt from Goodridge v Dept. of Public Health!
      We put that text on our wedding programs (which, sadly, never made it to our wedding, but we showed our guests before and after!) and we had a bit in our ceremony that said “No state may ultimately create a marriage. Loving, committed individuals marry each other. Since you exchanged vows of love, I may now introduce you as “husband and wife” for the very first time. Please kiss.”

    • I’m planning to use this too! <3

    • Teresa

      We used this too–our officiant opened our ceremony with this! Love it!

    • sandyliz

      Me too! I was struggling with the right wording, and find that verdict so exactly what I feel about marriage without god.

    • We used this in our ceremony as well, and also had it framed at the reception (along with the other readings). Now the frame sits in our living room. I love looking at it when I’m gathering my keys and things before I walk out the door.

  • Catherine

    Wow, that was great! And I agree. You’re committed for life, You’re family, BAM!

  • Jiggs

    My vows had a line in them that said “Today you take into your care and keeping the one person in all the world who you love best.” It still makes me cry, and it’s the only part of the vows I remember clearly (probably because I immediately burst into tears).

    That is the meaning of marriage to me.

  • Shiri

    Here is what marriage is to me (and yes, my vows very much reflected this):

    1) We are now family, as Molly and Liz have said. This means that our families recognize each of us as part of the other’s family of origin and that we have a very concrete responsibility to each other.
    2) The external world recognizes what our internal awareness has been for some time now. We now have a word, a category, to describe what we mean and are to each other.
    3) It means that his needs are as important to me as mine are, and if I’m not making them my (joint or outright) first priority, I need to re-calibrate.
    4) It means, somewhat above all, that I promised to try. That if/when things get bad, my first instinct will be to try to make it work, to try to be what he needs me to be, to try to live up to my commitment, no matter what.

    • “The external world recognizes what our internal awareness has been for some time now. We now have a word, a category, to describe what we mean and are to each other.” I love the way you stated this. This is definitely high on my “what it means to me” list too!

    • p.

      Your second point reminded me of something we had in our wedding ceremony, although we used public/private rather than external/internal: “Today, P and Z are making a public declaration of the private commitment they have already made to one another.”

      • Shiri

        That’s really nice. We didn’t actually say anything about that specifically, but it was the tenor of it. I like the way you phrased it.

      • We had something like that too! I actually got it from some rom com or something I was watching, but it seemed appropriate since to my husband he felt the commitment was made the moment we agreed to spend the rest of our lives together, and we had been together at least 8 years when we got married, so the exact line was “We stand here to bear witness to a public ceremony of something that was
        privately committed to a very, very, very long time ago.” which was honest but partially designed to get laughs, because our officiant is fantastic.

  • Like you, Anonymous, we’re not religious and are uncomfortable with the fact that not all couples can marry but we did it anyway. But why?

    Because pledging my love to my partner in front of family and friends was incredibly powerful. Because we’re able to declare ourselves to the world as a unit. Because (like Liz said) he is THE family for me. Because of the legal protections it gives us.

    Marriage. Heavy stuff. Good luck to you anonymous!

  • Kelly

    I think Liz hits it on the head with the idea that it’s choosing to put this person first. They’re your emergency contact when you fly, the person who gets your stuff if something happens to you, the first person you call when something major comes up. I think many of us reach that stage with someone before we get married these days, but the reason to have a wedding and actually get married (whether you get a marriage license or not) is the opportunity to announce that relationship publicly, either to the state, your church, or just to the people you love.

  • Another Meg

    I’m writing my vows as well, and I’ve been thinking about this very thing.

    To me, our marriage will be a patchwork of responsibilities and rights that vary from being able to pick up his medicine from the pharmacy to being the one who scoops the cat poop when he’s tired and needs to go to bed early. We are a team- we’ll comfort each other and share feelings and sometimes pot pie.We put our relationship before others, but part of that is that we’ve built a strong enough foundation that I can abandon him for a few days to be with my sister when she’s going through something. Part of what we love about each other is our devotion to friends and family, so for us marriage will include me not being mad if he suddenly needs to leave town for a friend emergency, and him being ok with movie night getting pushed back so I can buy my friend a drink to celebrate her promotion.
    This is basically what our relationship is now, but with the kick that every decision is made for the long haul.

    Here’s the thing- right now we hold ourselves to this. But we’re going to have a ceremony next year that not only grants us legal rights, but means our witnesses can hold us accountable for keeping our vows. And I’m counting on my sisters and parents to help me when times our tough, to remind me. I have a word that ties up all of my love for him and my commitment to him and our future, and in a way I get to declare that every time I call him my husband.

    • ….witnesses that can hold us accountable. Love that. Never heard it.
      This year I came off an experience with two dear friends headed for divorce because the husband unfortunately strayed. I am not coming from a place of anger whatsoever but could not help but notice that nobody held him accountable. Not for what he was going through personally, not for the pain he caused. Nobody showed up to defend their marriage or their vows.

      Witnesses. Interesting. Not married yet myself but I know there is legal jargon that the official witness signs but other than that what is their role?
      That leaves me wondering if there is some responsibility that I have been ignorant to when I go to people’s weddings and participate in the bridal party? Is there some lost meaning in standing by the side of the bride or groom (or both)?

      • Copper

        I’ve been to ceremonies where the minister (these were religious ones, but I think could apply secularly as well) instructed those in attendance to safeguard the couple’s union. We were instructed as specifically as not speaking badly of our friend/family member’s partner, not encouraging viewpoints or thoughts that were counterproductive to the union, and if a member of the couple came to us to complain about their spouse to encourage them to go talk to that person and work it out. I’m not putting it very eloquently here, but at the time I remember being moved to imagine all of the ways that we influence each other’s relationships, and truly felt like I was some small part of the couple being together.

        • Thanks! Yeah, I’m not sure my question was framed very eloquently but you got exactly where I was going. That seems pretty important and/or really moving. In fact I think I would love to see something like that in my ceremony. Thank you so much! Maybe we should propose this as an interesting question for Team Practical!

    • kyley

      “I have a word that ties up all of my love for him and my commitment to him and our future, and in a way I get to declare that every time I call him my husband.”

      This had me crying on the train this morning. Thank you for such thoughtful writing.

  • Nina

    Yeah, what you said.

    No seriously, I think you put my thoughts on the meaning of marriage into words far better than I could. (Even at the time of writing my vows – it’s too late to rewrite those isn’t it?) The part about “next of kin” gave me chills and I love this perspective of happiness – “My whole purpose in getting married wasn’t to find someone who makes me happy , but to find someone to share all of the stuff that makes me happy.” A thousand times yes to this. “He makes me so happy” is just another of those flippant phrases thrown around about marriage that I just can’t fit into my worldview. I am happy WITH him, and that’s quite different.

  • Martha

    This is such a great response. I especially enjoyed the part about zombie movies. I was recently telling my sister about this awesome horror movie I watched – to which she replied (in disgust) “you watch horror movies!?” I just laughed – since moving in with my boyfriend/now-fiance, I have watched so many horror movies. Now I even like some of them . . .

  • KATE

    This is so timely for me! My fiance and I are working on our vows now, and we just took a peak at each other’s drafts last night. His vows made it clear that his definition of marriage is fairly similar to Liz’s response, especially this line:

    “He’s tied to me the way my mom and my brother are, but only closer and with higher importance.”

    I love my fiance so much and consider us best friends and partners in life, but I can’t say that I love him MORE or that he’s more important to me than my mother or my sister. It’s just a different kind of love. After I saw that his vows included lines like “you are my world, my family, my greatest love,” I felt terrible that I didn’t feel such exclusivity about him. He’s not my only family or my only love. I keep thinking about the hypothetical burning building and having to decide between my fiance and my mom….I can’t do it! Is that wrong?

    Obviously these thoughts (especially the burning building scenario) are mainly induced by stress and sleep-deprivation as we move into the final stretch of wedding planning, but is anyone else having trouble with this?

    • Liz

      NEVER with the burning building! NEVER!! Worst hypothetical situation ever conceived, and always leaves me sobbing, “I WANT THEM BOTH.”

      But say instead that your mom and husband are arguing about something for which there is no “right” answer. Who do you side with? If it’s a choice between, say, doing what your mom wants for the holidays, and doing what your husband wants for the holidays? In my mind, by getting married, his opinions get more weight.

      • EXACTLY. Marriage means being in your partner’s corner. (Unless, as you said, they’re being a tool… Even then. Break it to them gently.)

      • KATE

        This is a great response, thank you! I guess I’m still struggling with the idea of creating a new family, just the two of us, while still remaining a part of my much-loved family of origin. And luckily, the fiance fits in great, so I probably won’t have too many problems with “what mom wants” versus “what husband wants.”

      • KC

        I think “something they both care more or less equally about” is perhaps an important qualifier (at least with fraught holiday stuff). If spouse has very mild preference for X at the holidays and mother has extremely strong preference for Y, then discussion will happen, probably followed by Y, and that’s not necessarily a problem. But generally, in the absence of all complicating factors (which probably never actually happens in real life), I agree. :-)

        • KATE

          Exactly. I also like what “Another Meg” said above about being flexible and knowing when you can put your partner on the back burner and when you need to focus on the relationship.

      • That is a great way to consider it! I’ve definitely been worried about the same thing as Kate. It’s helped me to think of us as a new family, something I hadn’t really considered until reading the APW book. It was tough for me sometimes to think of my relationship as having the same amount of weight as my family ties, if that makes sense. For example, I personally wouldn’t have skipped a holiday with my family to spend it at with a boyfriend’s family, but I would to spend it with my new family (my fiance and me).

        And you’re right, the burning building hypothetical is awful!

        • KATE

          Holidays are definitely where this issue comes up! I just want to smoosh my fiance into my big family, whereas he would rather we start our own, new traditions. It’s just hard for me to always choose our baby family, since that choice kind means departing from my existing family. So if I’m spending a holiday with my fiance in our house, it might be totally fun and great, but it means that I’m missing from my parents’ house, and so their family is incomplete.

          • I know what you mean. This coming year will probably be the first that we do the holidays together either with his family or mine, and I don’t like the idea of my family doing Christmas without me. There are only five of us, so one person missing (or two, since my brother is getting married this year) feels like a huge absence. But I feel like choosing your new family doesn’t always have to mean doing your own thing, since maybe his part of choosing the new family means spending the holidays with your family sometimes? Blerg… I hope this gets easier for both of us the longer we’re married. Good luck, Kate!!

          • p.

            Your parents may feel incomplete without you at holidays, but remember that they may also feel really proud of you for finding someone to create your own family with.

            I’m not a parent, but I imagine parenting includes both feelings at times–some sadness when your kid does things without you and also some pride that your kid is ready to do things without you.

          • It’s also important I think that these shifts happen gradually. If family tradition is big and elaborate, it would probably be really weird to all of a sudden withdraw 100% (I think this is why my parents struggled when I moved so far away, they went from being a big influence on my life to all of a sudden having barely any say in anything). And always be honest. My (half-)brother made a lot of excuses about why he didn’t want to come to our house for Christmas over the years, and it would always upset my dad which would upset my mom. I think if he just said “You know Dad, we kind of want to keep Christmas to ourselves” it would have been a lot easier for my dad to handle.

          • AliceMay

            In my parents house, they have a sign that says: ‘There are two things we must give our children: roots, and wings’. That kind of captures it for me (though it doesn’t always make it easy), and I am so grateful to have had parents who really have given us both of those things.

  • To me, it’s the one thing you bring up immediately: Family. It means we are now a family. Of course, you don’t need a ceremony, rings, or vows to make that so. You can just say it and it is so. But, unfortunately, legally, that will not be so until you sign the marriage certificate.

    My fiance and I have agreed to be our own family, and that’s why we are getting married. To make it legally so.

  • Coco

    Most of what I’d say just echos what everyone else has said. So I’m going to just add this quote from “Safety Not Guaranteed”, since it nicely sums up what I see as the both the best and hardest thing about this upcoming marriage thing.

    “To go it alone or to go with a partner. When you choose a partner you have to have compromises and sacrifices, but it’s a price you pay. Do I want to follow my every whim and desire as I make my way through time and space, absolutely. But at the end of the day do I need someone when I’m doubting myself and I’m insecure and my heart’s failing me? Do I need someone who, when the heat gets hot, has my back?”

    Yep. I do.

    • Emmy

      Yes, this! Before we even moved in together, but knew we were marriage-bound, my guy and I watched this. We both kinda teared up at this part. Especially me, because I had been so happily single and had a bit of a rocky transition to coupledom. Kicking and screaming would be hyperbole, but I wasn’t the most eager beaver! But this line explains it all.

  • We are both spiritual, but not affiliated with a religion (although I grew up in a very religious community), and are deeply saddened by the fact that not all the couples who want to marry are allowed to do so. But, we got married anyway. Although it doesn’t sound romantic, our decision to get married came about when I dropped a big wooden block on my head and started slurring my speech, so he made me go to the emergency room, against my nonsensical protests. (I recall lying on the floor, holding a cell phone, and yelling “call my parents! They’ll tell you I’m allowed to just take a damn nap!) Although we already lived together, owned a business together, and had 2 (now 3) cats together, we weren’t married, which meant he had to sit in a different room while slurred through examinations with various doctors. I found myself really upset that I couldn’t insist he sit beside me as “next of kin,” and he found himself angry and helpless in the waiting room. For us, the legal definition of family was very important, along with all the legal protections that come with it.

    The transformation into a legal unit and the fact that we did it in front of a community of people who loved and supported us were the most important parts of our wedding. Our vows reflected these ideas, and we view our marriage as a commitment to be a supportive team.

    Our vows were much longer than this, and were basically structured as 1. who we are 2. why we love each other/what the other offers that we don’t have and 3. what we’re promising, but here’s the “promising” section of mine:

    “I promise to love you, unconditionally, without hesitation, on your best day. And I promise to love you even more on your worst day.
    I promise to laugh and dance with you in times of joy and comfort you in times of sorrow.
    I promise to treat you as an equal partner. I will share in your dreams and challenge you to reach your greatest potential.
    I promise to love, respect, and trust you, and give you the best of myself.
    I will fight for our relationship when I need to, and I will never try to hurt your just because I’m angry or tired. I will always work to be worth of your love, and accept that neither of us is perfect.
    I promise wherever you go, we will go together, where we will build a life far greater than we could ever imagine on our own.
    I will trust you, even when we veer from gps directions, schedules, itineraries, and to-do lists.
    I promise you will always be my family, and we will always be a team.
    I will stand by you for better and worse, in sickness and health, in sunny days and hurricanes.

    You are my best friend, my shelter from the storm, my partner in mischief, and, from this day forward, my husband. I will love and respect you always. With these words, I marry you, and bind my life to yours.”

    • “With these words, I marry you, and bind my life to yours.”


      • Steph

        Yep, I read this line in some APW comment thread ages ago and IMMEDIATELY bookmarked the page. These words made it into our vows, too, and they still make me a little teary.

        (Edit: same as the post Liz links to about three inches below, sorry to jump the gun!)

    • MissStumptown

      Your promises are absolutely beautiful! I got a little choked up at work because of them. I’ll have to remember your format you mentioned for your vows when I write my own later this year, because it sounds perfect for my FH and I.

      • We borrowed the format, and the “with these words” part from the APW post where readers shared their vows! There’s approximately 80 bajillion comments, all of them smart, and many of them straight-up tearjerking.

        • Liz
          • BAM! It’s that post! I couldn’t find the link. Thanks, Liz!

          • MissStumptown

            Yay thank you! I don’t know how I have never seen this post, but I am now bookmarking it for future inspiration.

    • kyley

      Wow, your vows are beautiful and inspiring.

  • Maddie

    I love Liz’s answer so much. In our vows, the part I remember most clearly is promising Michael that “we are a family now, and that’s something that can’t be undone.”

    The funny thing is, it was inspired by my divorced parents. I looked at what I admired in them the most and it was that, despite their divorce, they still treat each other like family. And I told myself, “that’s something I want to emulate.”

    Not the usual inspiration. I know. But true.

    • Um. Yeah. You posted your vows on an APW open thread like ages ago. And we totally borrowed that line for our vows too.

      • Maddie

        I need new stories. :)

        • I mentioned that thread in my comment somewhere above this, but I totally read your vows with everyone else’s in that thread, and I cried, because they were simple and awesome. I’m sure your new stories are rad as well, though!

          • Maddie

            Aw y’all are the nicest. I forgot putting those there! File under: things I don’t remember sharing with the internet.

          • meg

            Oh MAN. It’s totally time for another APW open thread on vows.

        • kyley

          Dude, I’ve been reading APW religiously for four years and I missed this one until now, so keep on with the same stories. :)

  • Jashshea

    We’re not smooshy-love-kissy-face people and our vows, though awesome, were the result of about 2 hours of googling and plagiarism. Not exactly the super personal/meaningful vows people are usually after, eh? We both suffer from some stage fright, so the idea of deeply personal vows in front of 300 of our closest friends, family and family’s friends didn’t appeal.

    So…my 1/2 joking answer is that marriage means he’s my mofo. He’s the family I chose (and vice versa) and we have to work together to honor that choice. It’s up to us to make our home & family (broadest definition) awesome and a “place” that we both want to be.

    • Samantha

      My fiance and I are going to exchange our own personal vows before the ceremony alone in the woods/ near a waterfall. We really wanted to think about what marriage means to us and what vows we want to say but we didn’t want to necessarily say all those things in front of our 100 family and friends. During our Catholic ceremony we will say the traditional vows. I love this because I feel like we get the best of both worlds. I also love the traditional vows

      I, (name), take you, (name), to be my husband. I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.

      especially the last sentence.

      • A friend did something similar at her wedding. They exchanged public vows, which were more traditional, but then took a moment to step away (it was an outdoor ceremony) and exchange private vows. I thought that was a very meaningful addition to the day, despite my intense curiosity to know what they said.

      • Jashshea

        Awesome idea! Shy people/introverts/private people – Do this!

  • Moe

    I come from a heavy religious background (church raised, bible college grad, prodigals daughter) and STILL I am trying to define what marriage means to me.

    The traditional, the cultural, the religious, the spiritual (oh there’s a big difference between spiritual and religious but that’s another blog) the political, the feminist, the historical influences have all their viewpoints.

    My first gut reaction to the question was to say that, for me, marriage was a safe place. A place of belonging and security. Then upon further thought and reflection on all 6 months of my married life I have to say that’s it’s also a safe place for me to be pushed to my limits, challenged, and uncomfortable.

    I learned that I don’t fight fair. Now I get to hash this out with my husband and even though it’s a scary place, there is security in knowing we are in this together and niether of us is going anywhere. Together we get to push and challenge each other to become better people.

    I spent years learning and studying about love (in a religious, scriptural and traditional sense) but now in marriage I am in a laboratory where I get to actually live out and experiment with what these ideas actually mean when put into practice. I live out my days with this other person who I think I know. (Some days I realize that I have oh so much more to learn about this man!) I get the lifelong privliege of learning about how to love him. I get put into practice the act of loving and allowing myself to be loved.

    • LIZ (SINCE 1982)

      I want to Exactly this louder!

      My first gut reaction to the question was to say that, for me, marriage was a safe place. A place of belonging and security. Then upon further thought and reflection on all 6 months of my married life I have to say that’s it’s also a safe place for me to be pushed to my limits, challenged, and uncomfortable.


      I spent years learning and studying about love (in a religious, scriptural and traditional sense) but now in marriage I am in a laboratory where I get to actually live out and experiment with what these ideas actually mean when put into practice. I live out my days with this other person who I think I know. (Some days I realize that I have oh so much more to learn about this man!) I get the lifelong privliege of learning about how to love him. I get put into practice the act of loving and allowing myself to be loved.

      Amazing, amazing. I’m tempted to adapt it or just think back on it as a touchstone when creating my own vows.

  • For me, the fact that it was permanent was incredibly important. I want a partner in my life, to do all the things that Liz talked about, to share my life, to share in his life. And I wanted to BUILD a life with a partner and I wanted that partner to be permanent. We got married because it was important for him religiously and it was important for me to make a statement that this man was my partner and he wasn’t my partner for now or until further notice, he was my partner ’till death’ and there was no getting out of it. We got married in the Catholic Church (which I disagree with on a number of issues) because the Catholic Church was the only one we knew that didn’t accept divorce and teaches that even if you get divorced your vows are permanent and your souls are permanently bound. (Sidenote: annulment get called Catholic divorce but when you get an annulment you are saying that your vows weren’t true or there was something that held you back from making a free choice and so you were never actually married.)

    • Just to add to your side note – annulment is very difficult to get, including requiring interviews of people who know/knew you (background check style), and can take many years. So, yeah, not “Catholic divorce” at all.

    • Permanence. Yes. While I understand that some marriages end and that sometimes it’s the best thing, and sometimes it’s necessary, for me that promise of forever was big part of my drive to get married. I can only imagine one situation in which I would contemplate ending a marriage, and I trust my husband to make sure that never happens. This isn’t something to back out of just because we change, or life gets hard, or we’re not communicating properly, or one of us feels left out or needs more. It’s a promise to work through all that and know that when we get to the other side we’ll still be there, together.

  • Jaya

    My boyfriend and I have been together for a really long time, and we’ve already made most of these commitments to each other, late at night in bed or sitting on the couch, in minor ways that add up to something huge. To me, marriage means going public. It means saying these things out loud in front of our friends and family. It means wearing a ring so strangers know I feel this way about somebody, and that somebody feels this way about me. That sounds sort of superficial, but I think it can be just as important as the personal commitment. You can make these promises all you want, but now you have witnesses.

  • We said “I do” to the traditional vows and then I wrote vows for us to say as we exchanged rings. For us, the “in sickness and in health” portion of the traditional vows is especially meaningful since my husband is a military doctor and sees the ugly reality behind that statement in patients he treats and all their spouses go through with them. And he’s seen spouses walk away rather than uphold that vow, particularly when war wounds are more than they can handle. It could be him someday, coming home without legs or with a traumatic brain injury or me getting cancer (both of my parents have had it) and so that was a promise that we didn’t make lightly.

    The line that stands out for me from our original vows was “I promise to put our team first and that home will always be wherever we’re together.” It wasn’t as well-worded as I’d have liked, but those were important sentiments to me to include. Being teammates and partners is a big part of how we see ourselves as a couple. Putting our team first means not only does our team come ahead of other people, it comes ahead of myself. Having been single for over 30 years meant it was a BIG adjustment from only having to consider what was best for me to considering what was best for us. And him being in the military means that home is going to have to be something we take with us.

    We started our vows with “I choose you today to be my lifelong partner and I promise to choose you every day.” Because we believe that real, lasting love is a decision, not a feeling. Sometimes that’s an easy choice to make, but we may as well go ahead and acknowledge that there will be days when it’s not. Marriage, to us, means that on those days, we still make that choice because we’ve committed to do so.

  • jules

    Marriage meant that we’d be legally allowed to stay together in a country different than his. All the other stuff (commitment, love, for better or worse, etc) was already there.
    I don’t even remember what we read for vows. It was something traditional they handed out to us to read. Didn’t pay much attention. I was perfectly willing to rub that blue mud all over my belly just to get the thing done with, and since we weren’t able to modify them or chose our own, I decided not to worry about them much. In the end we are together for the long haul, to take care of each other and make sure that we become better people together.

    • Emily

      Cheers to that, girl.

  • rys

    Caveat: there are many possible meanings for marriage, depending on context — time, place, beliefs, laws, etc. Indeed, different religions and cultures understand marriage differently. That said, I had a fascinating conversation about what marriage is with an older, wiser mentor recently. She emphatically insists on marriage being a contract between 2 people. As she put it, it’s not about romantic love (though that may instigate marriage) but about working about terms of a partnership between 2 equals. And the corollary to this definition is that contracts can be broken, and that’s ok.

    She said she absorbed this idea from her mother (who is in her 90s and remains married to her father), lives it (still married to the man she started dating in college), and passed it on (to her 2 kids who, at least right now, appear to be happily married). In fact, her partnership with her husband is one of the ones I view as a model for the partnership I’d like to have one day — equals who built careers around one another, raised kids, travel together and separately, and still talk about the letters they wrote while apart one summer during college. So even if “marriage is a contract” doesn’t harken flutes and doves, it’s an idea and attitude that I deeply value.

    • Katelyn

      Thank you for this additional perspective. Whenever I read “why marriage” comments, I can’t shake the feeling that I already have so many of these things people say marriage is for in my non-married state. It makes it hard to justify why I still want to be married. Viewing it from a contract perspective, as “unromantic” as it may be, is a really compelling argument in the list of social differences between the two (the legal differences are pretty obvious).

    • Rachelle

      Just want to point out that is is a very traditionally Christian way of looking at marriage. The Bible actually calls marriage a covenant similar to the covenant between Jesus and human kind. You definitely don’t need to be spiritual or religious to see it this way, but it’s good to know where that idea comes from :)

      • rys

        In terms of (Western) religious origins, marriage as covenant comes from Christianity (with marriage as a sacrament being a particularly Catholic form), but marriage as contract comes from Judaism, which is generally a more law-based religion. Covenant and contract are subtly different, but different nonetheless.

        • Caroline

          I definitely think of marrying him as a contractual thing. In fact, we will be having a marriage contract, and not marriage vows. This is how traditional Jewish weddings work. No vows, but a contract, and a statement of sanctification (umm ok, really traditionally it’s kind of a statement of sanctification and acquisition of the bride by the groom, but we’re modern folk and I’m acquiring him too.). It’s a statement that says “I set you apart, as holy and sanctified to me as my spouse according to the laws of the Jewish people.” Since my fiance isn’t Jewish, we will be changing the wording a bit, but otherwise sticking to that tradition.

          The whole Jewish framework of marriage is more contractual. Which I love, because we’ve already got the love and commitment stuff down. What I’m looking for out of marriage is the social and written contract that helps us get through the times when love is not enough. And reminds us of our efforts to be our better selves for each other. And which binds us together, in something we’ve already written the terms of, and know the terms of.

          My mom and step-dad actually I think view their marriage this way. At least, I know that their marriage is contractual in the sense that it is not unconditional. There are agreements they both made which would end the marriage if broken. This is a contractual type agreement they made when they got married, and I think it’s really beautiful.

  • JessPeebs

    To me, my marriage means that my heart found a home, and when we’re happy, my heart can delight in the presence of my spouse, and when we’re sad, I can find solace there — and I can rely on it, forever.

    We’re on the younger side of the spectrum, and so there are still a lot of uncertainties about where we’ll be and what we’ll be doing in the next couple of years, but I can be confident that my husband will be by my side.

  • Kait

    We haven’t got to the actual writing of our vows yet but we have talked about what marriage means to us. We’ve been considered common-law for a few years now but are getting married this fall. Without trying to oversimplify it, marriage to is to both of us making and committing to a CHOICE of picking the other as our life partner. A choice that we are making freely and proclaiming infront of those who are the world to us.
    My partner is a scientist and always gets mad when I say I love you with all my heart (because it’s an organ that can’t make decisions) so he would also say that he loves me with his whole brain and that is where the choice to committ is coming from.

  • KateM

    I thought this was really beautiful as well, and a different take. It is from the movie Shall We Dance. I think there is more to marriage than this, bu I do think it is worth noting.

    “We need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things, all of it, all of the time, every day. You’re saying ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go unwitnessed because I will be your witness’.”

    • Kate

      Thank you so much for this quote. The man in my life has anxiety attacks that sometimes revolve around being forgotten. I think this could be really comforting to him.

  • Class of 1980

    MARRIAGE = The only next-of-kin you get to CHOOSE.

    This person will affect every part of your life and even your relative’s lives. If you have children later, this is the first and most important decision you will ever make for them.

    Choose wisely.

    • Anon

      Absolutely! When my sister married someone who happened to live in her apartment building (no relationship – don’t ask), and things went badly, and she just up and moved to another state, I begged her to initiate a divorce. I reminded her that if she was ever in a serious medical emergency and this guy showed up at the hospital, he would have more standing than anyone else. His opinion would be the only one that mattered. She did finally divorce him but it took a while to convince her.

    • Jacquelyn

      Exactly. We’ve chosen each other, for various reasons, and there’s potential for grandness. It’s now us two against the world, a combining of forces, whatever those are.

    • As always, Class of 1980 swoops in with a comment that cuts straight to the heart of the matter (for me, anyways).
      +1 for Class of 1980.

      • Class of 1980

        Aw, thanks. I would have thanked you earlier, but I forgot I wrote this. ;)

  • When my now-husband and I were still years away from being married we had a discussion about why I felt a desire for a wedding and marriage (I came from a big happy family and had lots of examples in my life of healthy marriages, him, not so much). He had the same questions, can’t we just love each other and commit to each other without a wedding? What is so special about marriage. At the time I explained my feelings to him this way:
    Remember when our relationship was new, when our friends asked us what was going on between us we said we were together, but we were a bit vague on details. We didn’t want to say too much because we were worried about jinxing things, about having to answer awkward questions if things didn’t work out. As we felt more confident, we started doing things like telling our parents about each other, telling our best friends from home, then introducing each other to our parents and lifelong friends. Each time we did something like that, we were showing just a little bit more confidence in our relationship, and tying our lives together a bit tighter, making it a bit harder to just give up and walk away if things got hard.
    I picture marriage as the end game of all of that. Standing up in front of all of our friends and family and making a promise to love each other no matter what life send our way, to me is a gesture that shows the ultimate confidence in the love we have, in the life we have built together, and our commitment to stick it out when things get hard.

    I hadn’t thought about it in a while, but now, 6 months after our wedding, I think I was onto something all those years ago. I would never make a promise I didn’t intend to keep in front of 250 witnesses and something about making the promise so public made it even more true.

  • I love everything about Liz’s answer; it sums up a lot of the conclusions I’ve come to as I thought about this same question over the past couple years. I’d also recommend “Marriage, a History” by Stephanie Coontz to Anonymous or anyone else trying to answer this question…it’s a fascinating read and it definitely helped me define marriage for myself!

  • Rachelle

    For me, marriage is about the legality of it. I know that’s not the most romantic way to think about it, but my fiance and I are (for all intensive purposes) already each other’s family and we’ve already made those commitments and promises to each other.

    The day we moved in together our lives were no longer just about ourselves. Another person’s feelings and space had to be considered with every decision. If things got rough, we couldn’t just decide not to see each other any longer. We would have to separate our things and find new places to live. Our lives are already bound together.

    It’s possible that once we are married I will see things in a different light, but I certainly don’t expect much to change in our relationship. The changes are all external. Introducing someone as your husband rather than your boyfriend makes people view your relationship differently (right or wrong as that may be). We will have different legal rights once we are married. We will file taxes together. We will check a different box on forms. We will have to go through the legal process of divorce in addition to packing up and moving if things go wrong. None of that seems very romantinc or focused on love to me.

    All that said, I still want it. I want to declare our love publicly and have everyone recognize what we have as being “official.” I want the ring to mean that I belong to him and he to me. I want to be his next of kin legally, not just in our minds and hearts. And it breaks my heart that same sex couples don’t have the right to that.

  • meg

    This. I love Liz. RIGHT?????

    (Speaking of February, you know what marriage is not? The kind of love described in Rom Coms.)

  • Teresa

    Before I got married, I viewed it as legally making us family and legally holding us to our commitments. Now that I am married, I still think that, plus I feel like it made us a team. I felt like we were a team before marriage–we were together almost 7 years when we got married and living together for almost 5, so we certainly had been a team before–but after we got married…whoa. I felt a shift, a tangible change. I felt like it was us against the world, that we could take on anything as long as we did it together. Together, we were stronger and braver than we were apart. Finally, I feel like marriage is putting each other and your marriage first. That isn’t to say that my marriage is the only entity or relationship that matters, but I hadn’t realized before we got married how strongly I would feel that my husband and my marriage and the life we are creating together are my priority. Though I was the one in our relationship that wanted to elope, I am grateful everyday that I had a wedding and that all of our most important people were there to witness our vows and to promise us that they would hold us accountable for the vows we took that day. There was nothing religious about our wedding at all, but it changed us. It was full of joy and love and it felt like something terribly important was happening, because it was.

  • For me marriage meant a combination of a lot of things, some of which are so intangible I can’t quite put my finger on it.

    A lot of it was making the relationship and commitments we had already made “official”. We’d already committed to each other, and made each other family in our minds and hearts and built the relationship, and started treating our little family as the team we play for, but marriage gave it an official quality it was missing, and was a declaration of the fact that this is forever for us.

    Making things legal, becoming each other’s next of kin and default emergency contacts and decisions makers was huge for us as well by the time we got married. When we got engaged, not so much, but our engagement period was marked by his father’s death and a minor medical emergency. It got to a point where for us to have gone through all that together and not have legal rights over each other if something happened was unthinkable.

    In the same sense making a declaration and a commitment to each other that was recognized by society, our friends, and our extended families was important though we went about things in a private way.

    For me there was also a very big sense of tradition. Of tying ourselves to the millions of other couples who have made these same promises for generations. I felt like there was some serious power in that, and so even though we’re not religious it was important to me to have traditional vows for that connection. (Courthouse vows were pretty traditional.)

  • For my husband and I, being married means that we are now a team, that we support one another while also holding each other accountable. We most decidedly involved our wedding guests in this effort, as we included this in our ceremony:

    “As families and friends, you form the community of support that surrounds Heather and Ian. Each of you, by your presence here today, is being called upon to uphold them in honoring and loving each other. Always stand beside them, never between them. Offer them your love and support, not your judgment. Encourage them when encouragement is needed and listen to them when they ask for advice. In these ways, you will help reinforce the bond between them. Do you offer your love and support to strengthen their marriage? Please answer by saying, ‘We do.'”

    In addition to the teammate and accountability facets, the legal aspects of being married make life much easier. It’s definitely possible to obtain some of these benefits through Power of Attorney, etc. But once a couple has reached that level of commitment, it’s way faster to go the marriage route. Which is one of the many reasons why it’s crap that not everyone can take that legality shortcut.

  • Hannah

    I know that the Christian church has been responsible for a lot of pain throughout history, and I love that this website is sensitive to the experiences of each person in this community. So I generally refrain from posting anything religious. Still…since Liz said “deal”, I’d love to share with you guys what marriage means to me, as a (still-somewhat-unsure-about-a-lot-of-things) Christian.

    Marriage, and engagement, actually, have taught me a lot of things about my faith. As Christians, we believe that marriage is a picture of the unity we will have with Christ one day. I’ve come to think of life as an engagement, where I am committed to Christ and we are bound to one another, but we don’t get to experience full intimacy until heaven. In the meantime, I still am being pursued and loved by him, and I’m getting ready for the wedding by inviting people. Also, by changing me, he’s preparing me to be a bride of beauty. The Bible talks about how God grants us the privilege of dressing in “fine linen, bright and pure,” in heaven, which refers to Christ’s goodness given to us. I actually have experienced some cool symbolism for that – my fiance David’s family actually provided my wedding dress for our wedding: an antique gown in their family that fits me perfectly. That helps me remember that I’m not the one paying for my “dress” or goodness when I marry Christ, by trying to be a perfect person. Christ is the one who has, and will, make me beautiful and good.

    That probably sounds completely crazy, but I thought it would be kind of cool to share that with you guys – a pretty different meaning of marriage. Also, keep in mind that my thoughts don’t sum up Christianity by any means, and there are probably plenty of Christians who would want to correct or qualify things I said. But that’s some stuff that has been meaningful to me lately.

  • Copper

    I want to address the issue of getting married even though not everyone is legally allowed to, because it’s something I’ve thought about a bit. How do I tell my lesbian aunt, who’s been with her partner 3x as long as I’ve been with mine, that I’m taking this step she can’t take? I thought about that, about what to say if she is hurt or wants me to stand up for her better. And what I realized was: yeah, other people can’t, but the fact is that I can. And so if I don’t, it’s by my own CHOICE. And if I choose not to commit to this person, not to promise him everything and make him my family, that’s a choice I made to not give that last inch. And even if it’s only a little, that’s me holding back, and putting something else or someone else (this issue and all those other people who can’t get married) before him. And the whole point is saying that nothing and nobody come before him in my book, so this is one example of me putting him, and our relationship, first.

  • Can this get a “words to say when you wed” tag? So much good stuff here in the comments.

  • AnnDee

    To me, the words were important (though not always original – hello internet!) I’ve always loved words and reading. I’m trained as a historian, and my days are full of research and writing and thinking and talking and analysis. To me words matter. Words shape perceptions, and life, and reality. And getting married gave me an opportunity to think about how the ideas and the words and the future could be a part of my relationship, and shape that relationship, more than ever.

  • Laura

    Dear APW,

    Hi. I know I’m a day late commenting on this post, so probably nobody is going to see this comment, but. The reason I didn’t read this post yesterday is because, yesterday, B and I were on a plane to Kauai. And then on a beach. And then watching the sunset. And then sitting by a fire pit. And then officially getting engaged (with a ring and a question and an answer, the whole shebang). As I type this on my phone, I shake slightly still. And when I woke up today before sunrise with a headache in our ocean view room, curled up next to my (gahh!) fiance (cue more shaking) and decided to check this blog and read this post, I fell to pieces, because the topic couldn’t be more poignant. I’ve spent the better part of the past 18 months on the “what would marriage even mean to me?” roller coaster. And the conclusion I finally came to, with B’s help and such deliberation, is *exactly* this post. So, thank you for being so apropos and so awesome.

    Much respect and appreciation,

    • Miriam

      Congratulations on your engagement!! =) sounds like an awesome trip

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  • js

    My daughter gave me the words I needed to hear myself as I fumbled to explain what marriage was to her one day after school as we sat at the kitchen table. After my many attempts to explain all the legal and romantic definitions, she put her hand on mine and said, “It’s ok, Mom. I get it. Marriage is just a promise you make and you do your best not to break that promise.” She is the smartest ten-year old girl I know.

  • Louise

    A few weeks ago I learned about an incredible opportunity… In India. My husband and I talked about it casually at first, and then more seriously. One night, after a few days of talking about it, our impending adventure led me to this thought: he’s the ONE person I get to bring with me across the world. Not my parents, or my best friends. Him. Then I thought to myself, “oh, I guess THAT’S what it means to be married.”

    So, my answer is twofold: marriage means you’re choosing this person to be the only one by your side if you, say, decide to move to India AND your definition of marriage can and likely will change over time.

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