Help for today. Hope for Tomorrow.

Is Marriage Just a ‘Piece of Paper’?

You may not have noticed yet, but there is an ongoing debate about marriage in our culture—and it’s not just about gay unions. A growing number of couples are choosing not to be married at all.

In a recent article in Newsweek magazine titled, “Yes to Love, No to Marriage,” Bonnie Eslinger wrote that marriage is not necessary to demonstrate the love and commitment she feels for her partner, Jeff. “I am a 42-year-old woman who has lived life mostly on my own terms. I have never sought a husband and have still experienced intense, affirming love.”

She went on to say that Jeff had proposed to her, but she wanted to remain single. She listed a number of the common arguments for her position:

We are committed to spending our future together, pursuing our dreams and facing life’s challenges in partnership.

Yet I do not need a piece of paper from the state to strengthen my commitment to Jeff. I do not believe in a religion that says romantic, committed love is moral only if couples pledge joint allegiance to God.

I don’t need a white dress to feel pretty, and I have no desire to pretend I’m virginal. I don’t need to have Jeff propose to me as if he’s chosen me. I don’t need a ring as a daily reminder to myself or others that I am loved. And I don’t need Jeff to say publicly that he loves me, because he says it privately, not just in words but in daily actions.

I am Jeff’s partner, his friend and his lover, and he is mine. The terms “husband” and “wife” wouldn’t even begin to describe our relationship.

Eslinger also reasoned that marriage was no guarantee of success in a relationship, and said she could not accept the fact that homosexual couples were denied the right to marry. “I don’t want to send a message to anyone, including my daughter—who may someday choose a same-sex life partner—that the value of her relationships can be determined by law and the affirmation of others.”

Reader comments

Naturally, Eslinger’s article drew quite a few comments from Newsweek readers. Quite a few applauded her stand. “What a refreshing article,” one wrote. “I’m in a loving relationship that we have chosen not to justify with a marriage certificate. I don’t think that how I choose to love my partner is condescending any more than those who choose marriage are condescending to me. It’s just a choice.”

But just as many readers were critical. For example:

If she is really in love with Jeff and she plans to stay with him forever, then she should marry him because he asked her to. Obviously it means something to him. In addition, if she doesn’t marry, she’ll miss out on the deep, loving place her relationship has the potential to go. I had no idea that I could love my husband any more than I already did. Then after we got married, the intensity of our relationship deepened to a place I never thought it could. I am more madly in love with him today than I ever have been—an extraordinary state of happiness I wouldn’t be enjoying if we never married.


I agree that a marriage certificate is no guarantee for a lifelong relationship with one person. Too many people rush into a marriage and then it fails. That is not a good reason to bash marriage. If your relationship is that strong then instead of being the free thinker that you claim to be, get married. It won’t ruin your relationship, I guarantee it.

In a culture that is growing increasingly “me-oriented,” marriage is increasingly viewed as an institution that exists for increasing personal fulfillment. I think it’s important for churches and for ministries like FamilyLife to present a compelling case for the value of marriage—not just to the individual, but also for the society as a whole. As one of my favorite online writers, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler, said in response to this same Newsweek article:

Marriage is not primarily about what we as individuals think we want or need.  It is about a central public commitment that the society needs, that couples need, that children need, and yes, that the spouses need.  Marriage is a public institution, not merely a private commitment.  It identifies the couple as a pair committed to lifelong marriage and thus to be respected in this commitment.  The fact that our society has weakened marriage offers only further incentive to get it right and to strengthen this vital institution.

The traditions of the wedding ceremony are important as a part of solemnizing and recognizing this covenanted relationship—but the traditions are expendable.  Marriage is not.  There is a universe of difference between a private promise and a public pledge.  Marriage is about a public vow made by the man to the woman and the woman to the man whereby they become now husband and wife.

Why is marriage important to you?

When I first wrote on this subject in my Marriage Memo column last month, I asked readers for their thoughts. “Why is marriage important to you and to our country?” I asked. “Why do you think we need to continue encouraging couples to get married?”

I was very pleased by the response. In fact, many of the comments were much more perceptive than my own.

A number of readers felt that people like Eslinger don’t have a full picture of marriage. “A ‘piece of paper’ does not define a marriage,” wrote Lisa Best. What does define it is “your commitment before God that you will love each other with the love that Paul describes [in 1 Corinthians 13].”

Christi Rudolph wrote, “A wedding is a ‘piece of paper’ but a marriage is no such thing. A marriage is the commitment that two people enter into that state they will honor, protect, love, sacrifice all they have to the other person.”

Bridget Groothuis wondered what makes people fearful of marriage. “Marriage is meant to be a very freeing experience, a very rich experience, a place of safety, a place of reality, a place of commitment that builds the other up,” she wrote. “It’s a fortress you build together to keep out anything/anyone that seeks to destroy what you share, but it’s also an oasis where two can find renewal and refreshment without fear.”

Danni Sutana of New Mexico wrote that she could relate to what Eslinger wrote in Newsweek, but she said God changed her attitude:

For a long time I believed that I did not want to change me or dilute the illusion of me. Marriage would have done that—so I believed. I often thought I did not want to lose myself in my marriage. I often thought if I lost myself in marriage, I would become unhappy. I think I misunderstood the true concept of marriage.

I understand now that my relationships did not work out in the past because I was self-centered. The world revolved around me and my identity. When I was able to identify with God, my life became God-centered …

After almost 3.5 years of living in sin with a man I love, God met me at a crossroads. My relationship was not working out no matter how much I claimed to love Art … Living together isn’t good enough for me nor was it good enough for Art. Our marriage is a smooth sail compared to the turbulence we experienced. All we had to do was correct our ways and start living God’s way.

Some of you told of the blessings you’ve experienced through marriage. Leané du Toit wrote, “Me and my husband live in South Africa and have been married for a mere (WONDERFUL) two years. In my limited experience of married life, I can’t begin to explain the passion I feel towards marriage and unity within a marriage! Few things make me prouder than to present myself as Mrs. Du Toit. I’m proud of my husband, and I’m proud of being his wife … Calling him my boyfriend, life partner or whatever other name than MY HUSBAND just wouldn’t stick! I love committing to him and never a single day felt insecure about his commitment to me and our marriage! There’s a certain kind of trust and security that can only be found within a marriage.”

Let me close by quoting from an e-mail by Greg Paintner, who said he “tried to think of an eloquent response to your questions but the best I could come up with is a list of things about marriage that I have enjoyed since being married.” Here is his list:

  • Someone to bring me closer to God
  • Daily acceptance
  • Support through the toughest struggles
  • Love so great it can’t be understood outside of marriage
  • The ability to create life with our love
  • Someone to share my life and love with forever
  • Someone to keep me humble
  • Another family to be part of
  • A sense of true selflessness
  • The excitement of getting closer to someone than ever imaginable 

I couldn’t have said it better myself.


Copyright © 2008 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.


One Response

  1. Shalom,

    I need your advice :

    I paid full lobola, did the traditional wedding ceremony and had a white wedding ceremony last year *BUT* our marriage hasn’t been legalised yet because my wife isn’t keen for us to go to Home Affairs Department and legalise our marriage.
    She says that there is no need for us to legalise it because its just a certificate and we have done what matters the most – ie the ceremony. She says we can do it at a later stage.

    Now she wants us to buy a house and I refused to do us unless we get married officially.

    Please advise – I don’t know if I am wrong?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.