Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Marriage Is More Than Just A Piece Of Paper

July 24, 1995

What difference does a piece of paper make? I occasionally hear this expression from couples who are sharing a household and many aspects of married life. Living together - it walks like a marriage, talks like a marriage but it isn't a marriage.

Marriage is more than a legal contract that insures rights to property and children. It is a commitment to an exclusive relationship in which the marriage partners place great trust and security. They can be themselves and yet know they have a commitment to work out differences, solve problems and offer mutual support and love to each other.

I have worked with several couples who have come in for relationship counseling. Often I can tell just how their living together status contributes to their problems. Here are some areas cohabitating couples find to be murky and difficult to solve.

Conflict. Lack of commitment can hang over a living together relationship like the Sword of Damocles. They do not address differences - even if a couple has been together for several years. Bringing up problems threatens the security of the relationship. Each partner knows their mutual commitment is based on convenience and is subject to motivations and changing circumstances. They may even feel they don't have the right to make certain demands on each other.

Communication and conflict resolution skills remain untested. One bad argument can result in a broken engagement or one partner leaves or is asked to leave on short notice. Financial and emotional risks are too great for some kinds of arguments. No wonder some couples say that their fights didn't begin until after they married.

Sexual exclusivity and jealousy. Some couples handle their living together arrangement as a form of going steady. They know their partner may be open to other relationships. Dissolving the relationship - based on their partner forming a new relationship - is a real possibility. Their commitment is verbal and can be dissolved without great expense or legal hassles. Jealousy is common in these arrangements.

Power. Instead of equality, the power in a living together relationship flows to the partner who has the least commitment. It may be used consciously or it may serve as a subtle screen for avoiding problems when the risk for confrontation is too great.

Dependency and autonomy. How independent are the partners from each other? How much do they need to consider each other's feelings and wishes? These issues are difficult enough in marriage but in a live-in relationship the rights to each other's time and consideration are subject to even more confusion and conflict.

Money. Who pays the bills? Who pays which bills? Lack of commitment is recognized in the way money is handled. There is a separation of resources, savings, obligations and personal expenditures. A greater potential for arguments, unfairness, misunderstanding and lack of cooperation exists. What is mine, yours and ours have to be sorted out. Pooling resources implies future commitment - often an issue too delicate to mention.

Parenting. If you think step family relationships and children are complicated, try living together arrangements. What role does the live-in partner play in parenting children? It is all negotiable and all very confusing to the adults and children.

Long-term commitment is necessary to develop attachment bonds and to be regarded as a parent figure with authority. Lack of clarity about the relationship status makes everyone more unsure and tentative. Important steps are delayed toward blending the family. The issues around children are often used to delay making commitments that would move the relationship forward.

Holidays and family relationships. How do parents accept the live-in relationship? Does it interfere with family bonds and celebrations? Who goes where on holidays? The lack of marital commitment plays a role in deciding what the obligations to the extended family are and how these relationships evolve. More fights. More confusion.

Long term commitment. Other things in the relationship may be going well but the lack of commitment to marriage can create anger and confusion. One partner may be anxious to move the relationship into marriage while the other holds back. The unpleasant and anxious dance of courtship takes place m the most intimate of settings. The potential for hurt and rejection is great.

Lack of commitment is a hard subject to talk about and resolve successfully. People have strong dreams and expectations about marriage. People don't want to get married because they won an argument. They want their partner to choose them freely and willingly.

Making plans. Marriage joins the future. When there is no marital commitment, making plans is difficult. When common goals and the future are left out of a relationship, a great deal of joy and togetherness is left out too.

Why settle for a half loaf when a whole loaf is available? That special piece of paper opens the door for a relationship to take on all the richness and depth that it can have.