Sex and Marriage: What difference does a piece of paper make?

Suppose—just suppose—that tomorrow morning you woke up and found that something astonishing had happened overnight: you had just lost all interest in your boyfriend or girlfriend. He or she just didn’t do much for you any more. You’d fallen out of love—gotten over the infatuation. With clearer eyes you could see his faults as well as his strengths, and you just didn’t feel that positive.

What would you do?

I suspect your relationship would end, just as millions have ended before it. There’d be nothing holding it together.

Yet the ending wouldn’t be fun. You’d be a different person because of your involvement. You’d have sexual patterns that you’d tend to carry over to other relationships. The deep spiritual bond between you and your partner will likely stay with you, and might even haunt you.

You may think you’ll never break up. You’re in love! It seems impossible to ever happen. But it does—almost any married person can tell you about it.

Loving someone isn’t always easy—it’s not just acting what you feel. Emotions go up and down. Every partner has petty faults. Some mornings you get up feeling cranky, and your partner is as attractive as a slug. Being in love just doesn’t cut it some days, which is one reason why “marriage” was thought up. It works to convert the strong feelings of being in love into something that lasts forever. You want that. If you and your partner are meant for each other, then you don’t want a bad mood to get in the way of your lifelong commitment to each other.

You probably think what most people in America think: sex is for those who are in love. I want to try explaining something surprising: being in love, which feels absolutely earth-shaking, isn’t nearly so important as it feels. It stands tall, but it needs support; by itself it crashes.

You can hunt your way through the Bible and hardly find anything about being in love. But there’s a lot there about love itself—love seen as an act of the will, something you decide to do whether you feel it or not. It’s a long shot from the kind of love that suddenly “happens” and dumps a lot of rich, warm feelings on you. According to the Bible, intercourse isn’t for people who are just in love. It’s for people who are married.

But you consider yourself married. You are madly in love, and possibly living together. What’s the difference Diamond on rosebetween your present state and Christian marriage? For one, you haven’t made a solemn, public promise to God, each other, and your friends and family that you’ll be sticking together no matter what. It could be that your relationship is as much a marriage as many in today’s married-today/divorced tomorrow society, but it’s miles away from what the Bible talks about when it mentions marriage. Marriage is not a state of emotion. It’s a total commitment.

Don’t knock pieces of paper, by the way. If I loan money to someone, there are two ways to do it. If I loan five dollars, and don’t care much about it, I only want a verbal promise to repay. But if I loan enough money to really care about, I’d like a legal piece of paper to affirm that promise. It doesn’t have to make us less friendly—it’s just an assurance that he’ll keep his promise. For any promise you name, marriage included, I’ll bet more on one with a “piece of paper” than one without. A piece of paper isn’t a guarantee, of course, but it’s a help. There are a lot of divorces despite pieces of paper. But many more marriages “last forever” than do those “living together” arrangements that aren’t cluttered with legality.

Some people talk of this total commitment as a chain that keeps two unhappy people locked together, when they’d be happier just splitting. Sometimes it does function that way. But marriage is meant to work as a different kind of lock—a lock two people establish between themselves to keep their love in, to focus and preserve it over the course of a lifetime.

There are three dimensions to marriage in Genesis 2.24. The first is “leaving.” A man and woman must leave their pasts, particularly their past families, to start life together. The wedding ceremony symbolizes this when the bride is given away by her father and mother. The two enter the ceremony as individuals, but they leave with each other. Their old life is over; a new family has begun. It’s a tremendous social change, not one made just by going to bed together.

The second is “unity.” Real unity occurs when two people share their lives: their schedules, their money, and their home, as well as their bodies. It’s not just a feeling—it requires commitment. When he talked about this, Jesus said that God creates this unity, and it ought never to be broken (Matthew 19.4-6).

The third dimension is becoming “one flesh,” which is sex. But sex, according to the Bible, isn’t simply a physical act. It is an act with deep spiritual and emotional effects that creates a bond between two people.

Marriage is wonderful when it’s done right, but it’s very bad done wrong. You want to be careful before getting married. It’s a serious commitment—nothing tears like splitting up after you’ve known each other intimately. That pain is to be avoided at all costs—that’s why there is a long finding out period before marriage and before sex. The longer you’ve known someone, the more time you’ve had to think things over, the more statistically likely it is your marriage will last.

It hurts badly to break up, and more so if you’ve had sex. You’ve become knit together in a deep, spiritual way that doesn’t break apart easily or painlessly. Yet something like half the engagements never make it to marriage—what about an engagement that’s included sex?

Sex before marriage can even make splitting up more likely, by damaging the relationship. It’s very possible for your times together to become dominated by sex. Real love—forever love—takes time to grow, and has to feed on more than “us.” Sex is seen as the ultimate expression of love, but before marriage it creates a tendency away from the other kinds of communication that are actually far more personal. It also diffuses the binding attraction of sexual expression that is meant for marriage. Before marriage, sexual fulfillment without total commitment can lead eventually to boredom. Nothing is holding you together, and no curiosity brings you back.

You need all the commitments of marriage to really play the game. Instead of “as long as we both shall live,” relationships become “as long as we both shall love.” It’s a prescription set up for failure in too many cases.

An article in USA Today (2002) addresses the research that has been consistent before then and since then: Women living unmarried with guys and expecting a lasting, committed marriage down the line had better review their options. Men who cohabit with the women they eventually marry are less committed to the union than men who never lived with their spouses ahead of time. Many live together first to try things out first, with the hopes of testing the waters and avoid the agony of divorce. Ironically, the divorce rate among those who once lived together is higher than among those who have not. What difference does a piece of paper make? Apparently a significant one.



These thoughts and words are directly from Tim Stafford, “Love, Sex, and the Whole Person,” Campus Life Magazine. Thank  you, Tim, for truth told with such love and care.

Karen Peterson, “Cohabiting can make marriage an iffy proposition,” USA Today, July 8, 2002

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