All relationship forms are not created equal.

Cohabitation is not a junior, apprentice form of marriage.
Cohabitation is not an on-ramp to marriage.
Cohabitation is not marriage’s spring training.
Cohabitation is not marriage-lite.

Cohabitation is just “moving in together” so we can save some money on rent, spend more time together, and see how the relationship works out.

Marriage is an action, a decision, a statement.

Marriage is giving our all to another and stepping up and proclaiming it to the community of people around us.  And that commitment makes us different kinds of people, different partners, different parents.  It says we are clearly for another, or at least that’s what the others around us—those who witnessed our exchange of vows—expect of us.  Marriage demands something of us.  And this expectation makes us act differently.

Marriage is definitive.  Marriage is absolute.  Marriage leads us into new worlds—and it closes off others.

This is the virtue of marriage.  This is why marriage makes real, measurable differences in our lives.

Marriage is so much more than we tend to think it is.

Marriage is more than the wedding

Too many young couples today act as if the wedding is what marriage is primarily about, rather than just simply the doors a couple passes through on their way into matrimony.  Researchers and journalists who talk to young couples about why they are delaying their marriage find these couples often explain they aren’t marrying because they can’t yet afford a wedding.

To listen to these young folks, mostly the women, one would think their pastor or the clerk at City Hall will reject their application for a marriage license because they can’t spend at least $10,000 on their wedding.

When Jackie and I got married in 1982, big weddings were as much the craze as they are today.  But we were two kids who had fallen in love in high school and wanted to get married as soon as we could.  Our wedding probably cost $800, including rings, Jackie’s dress, and my dorky white tux.  No one told us we were dishonoring marriage.

We were, however, honored by the number of people who told us that night and afterward that it was one of the most beautiful weddings they had ever attended.  It certainly wasn’t because we put on an impressive party on such a tight budget.  It was because our wedding was the simple, honest celebration of the commitment two young people were making to one another.  Today, we would describe it as “organic.”  Then, we just didn’t have much money.  Less was more.  It had to be.

There is absolutely no research showing that couples who drop a gigantic wad on a wedding bash have longer, happier marriages than those who don’t.  In fact, those who think the ceremony is the big thing probably end up less satisfied in their marriages.  They are focused on the frosting rather than the cake.  Those who invest themselves in the marriage that comes after the wedding are investing in something that really matters.  And it will pay serious dividends in the form of contentment, intimacy, support, love, and genuine happiness.

I saw a billboard on the interstate some years ago with an important message:

“Loved the wedding! Now, invite Me to the marriage!”—God

It’s a good message for all couples planning their wedding.

Marriage is more than getting a soul mate

I am not a fan of the soul mate concept of marriage.  You see this idea in commercials for certain online dating services.  “We will help you find the spouse of your dreams …” they claim.  Do I think they should help you find the match of your nightmares?  No.  But this “I want to marry my soul mate” idea of marriage gets it wrong on two important levels.

First, marriage is not like a shopping trip where we scan the aisles looking for that perfect something we need to complete some need in our life.  A spouse is not a consumer product we shop for to fulfill us in just the right way.

Second, marriage is not so much about us and our needs and wishes.  The soul mate idea of marriage makes it about us—and turns our spouse into something that suits us, for us.  And when this person reveals their human flaws to us in the intimate microscope of marriage, we become prone to wonder if this imperfect person is really the God-given soul mate we thought we were getting.  It happened with the first two humans.  And it has happened with most couples since.

So should husbands and wives not be soul mates?  It is not a question of whether but when!  Find any couple successfully married 30 years or more and ask about their spouse as their soul mate.  Then ask if their spouse was their soul mate from day one.  They will most likely laugh.  You see, we don’t marry our soul mate.  We marry the person whose soul mate we want to become.  And the key word is become.  The soul mate status of a relationship usually takes time—sometimes a great deal of time.  And only after many bumps in the road.  Marriage doesn’t give a soul mate, it makes a soul mate: out of us—and out of our spouse.  And these soul mates are the best kind.

Marriage is more than “happily ever after”

Where have you heard the line “and they lived happily ever after”?  It’s not announced by the pastor as the newly-married couple walks down the aisle.  We hear it only in fairy tales.

Did I just throw a big cup of cold water in someone’s face about happiness and marriage?  Not at all!  Married people tend to be happier on a wide scale of measurements—more so than people who are single, dating, cohabiting, or divorced.  Married people enjoy very high levels of happiness.  But they don’t enjoy constant happiness.

Marriage has its struggles, hardships, and heartaches.  Again, find any couple married 30-plus years and ask if they have lived “happily ever after.”  If you ask my wife and me (we’ve been married almost 30 years), we would look at each other with knowing smiles and answer, “For the most part!”  But our marriage, like all marriages, has gone through some very difficult times.

Marriage is a joy, but it is also hard work.  This is one of its strengths.  As one man told me about his own marriage, “There are days I feel I could trade my wife for a warm Diet Coke; but those are rare.  Most days she is the greatest thing going!”

These less-than-happily-ever-after days make us better people—and make the good days more fulfilling.  This is one of the reasons marriage makes us better people: It compels us to hang in there through the rough times and see it through.  To try to do better next time.

Marriage can be compared to wise retirement investing.  Pick a good stock.  Stick with it through the highs and lows.  Make substantial, regular, and occasionally even painful contributions to it over a lifetime.  You will find over time that you have a greater treasure than you could have imagined.

Marriage is more than about you

Marriage tends to produce more happiness in our lives than any other adult relationship.  There is a reason for this.  It has to do with the unique nature of marriage—the commitment it demands.

Happiness is never a destination we can run straight toward.  We can’t pursue it directly.  In fact, those who put a great deal of energy into seeking happiness are the ones less likely to find it.  The happiest people are typically busy doing other things.  And marriage is a strong route to happiness because in marriage we gain the opportunity—even the privilege—to live for and serve others.  This means first and foremost our spouse, then our spouse’s extended family as they enter our life and we learn to love them, and then our children.

Marriage increases our happiness because marriage is more likely than any other relationship to make us live for others.  Marriage keeps doing this in my life.  And those who know me best know that I too often fail.  It makes me struggle.  It makes me work harder to be more giving.  But this work also makes me happier.

Marriage had this effect on most of us.

The first chapters of Genesis teach us that the first two humans became husband and wife before they became anything else.  This was God’s plan—and delight—for them.

Marriage builds a relationship like no other.  It makes a difference.  And that difference is very good.

Marriage is more.  Don’t settle for less.

Adapted from The Ring Makes All the Difference by Glenn T. Stanton. Published by Moody Publishers. Copyright © 2011 by Glenn T. Stanton. Used with permission.