I KNOW SEVERAL thoughtful and highly principled young couples living together without benefit of clergy or of anybody else who argue eloquently against the institution of marriage. "As long as ye both shall live" is transformed into "As long as you both shall love," and their view seems to be that to institutionalize such a relationship as theirs is to rob it of much that is most authentic and spontaneous and human about it. They point out that for a man and woman to commit themselves legally to honor and cherish each other for the rest of their lives is unrealistic at best and hypocritical at worst. Their love for each other should be bond enough to hold them together, and when the love ends, then the bond should end with it, and they should go their separate ways.
As for me, I find much in this that is persuasive. Who can deny that many a man and woman have married for no motive more edifying than that it was the only respectable way to enter into a full sexual relationship and that, as things turned out, they would have done better in every sense that one can imagine mattering much either to themselves or to God simply to have had the relationship and forgotten about the respectability which, once the first, careless rapture was passed, became a cheerless if respectable prison to them both? Who would argue that the vows exchanged at weddings are anything other than wild and improbable? Who can look at the apparent devotion and well-being of many an unmarried pair who live together, even have children together, and call them simply wrong in either religious terms or any other?
All I can say in response is that it was within the bonds of marriage that I, for one, found a greater freedom to be and to become and to share myself than I can imagine ever having found in any other kind of relationship, and that-absurdly hopeful and poorly understood and profoundly unrealistic as the commitment was that the girl in the white dress and I made to each other in the presence, we hoped, not only of most of the people we loved best in the world, but of God as well, in whose name Dr. Muilenburg somewhat shakily blessed us-my life would have been incalculably diminished without it.
-Originally published in Now and Then (1983)