Long ago in a faraway place called 20th century America, when lovers would get serious about their relationship, they would usually announce to the world that they were “going steady" (or, "going together"), and then if all went well, that they were engaged to marry, ideally even to "enter holy matrimony" with a church wedding. There God would not only be asked to join them together, but to make the marriage work by joining their families and friends together as a faith community for the couple. How many of those weddings have you even heard about in recent years?
Nowadays we have new rituals for love. Today’s lovers are more likely to just hook up (have sex), shack up (move in together), announce a destination wedding, or worse still, a civil ceremony that is a done deed by the time you hear about it. Each of these rituals might mean just about anything to the couple, or almost nothing. It all depends on the commitments the lovers have made to each other. Commitments these days are often minimal, and hard to fulfill without the help of many family and friends. These rituals may or may not mean that one or both lovers have committed to pursuing a healthy marriage, so it's hard for others to know how much to celebrate the mile markers in today’s love relationships.
A couple would do well to tell each other quite plainly in advance of their first sexual union what difference they hoped this activity would make for their relationship. Perhaps they would agree that a good sex life would deepen their communication, improve relationships with each other's families, enable them to earn and save more money, or help to solve problems they are having in their relationship. If any of these goals turns out not to be met down the road, they could jack up their incentives for reaching them after taking a break from sex until this or that goal is met.
Likewise before they move in together, the couple would do well to tell each other and their loved ones what their cohabitation is being designed to accomplish. For example, which of the following goals (and in what prioritized order) will they hope to accomplish by living together: companionship and saving money, romantic love and good times while they last, growing up and finding direction for themselves individually and as a couple, deepening their communication and commitment, or preparing for their future married life together? Telling everyone why they are going to live together allows the couple to back off from people that will undermine their goals, and to receive guidance and support from those who will embrace them.
After choosing to leave home, the most important decisions an adult person will ever make are giving their lives to the service of God, getting married, having children, choosing a career, and choosing a place to settle down and live (I believe in that order of importance). Choosing a life partner and designing how their marriage will work are both important decisions, and they impact each other tremendously, plus all the other decisions that will follow.
For those romantics who are loving, loyal and lucky enough for their libidos to last long enough, some kind of wedding usually gets planned. Describing for one's lover a healthy mission for their marriage is one of the best ways I know to repel unhealthy lovers and attract healthy ones. (I have written a previous column about this, and would be glad to send it to anyone who requests it, at [email protected].) Briefly, some healthy goals that might be part of a good marriage mission are: building a partnership of equals, earning and saving money, promoting each other's faith and career, nourishing each other 's physical and emotional health, supporting the healthy growth and welfare of each other 's families and friends, raising healthy children, and relying on mutually trusted third parties to help the couple understand what “healthy” means in a given situation.
A wedding ceremony should be designed to build a spiritual, emotional, and relational house for the couple to live in. It might include vows, communion, inspiring songs, dedication of the guests to support the marriage, and encouragement and teaching from the pastor. By contrast, many wedding ceremonies today are designed primarily for the temporary enjoyment of the couple and their guests. A civil ceremony (justice of the peace presiding) merely joins their beds and bank accounts, giving the couple joint ownership of their stuff and their debts. It builds no cultural house for them to live in, celebrates no role models to remind them of their vision, and creates no family of faith to help with their mission.
That is so foolish. It reminds me of a home I once visited in one of the more rundown sections of town to deliver a Christmas basket from our church. I was shocked when I walked in to find a huge flat-screen TV inside that was twice as big as my own fat tuber. Everything a family member would need to be healthy in that house was dirty, worn-out, in short supply, or missing altogether, all because of the time and money that had been put into the television. It produced a household of occasional pleasure and lots of time that was emotionally shut down, just like too many marriages today who didn’t build themselves a better social and spiritual home.
When today’s young people pass through their premarital rituals of making love, deciding whether to shack up, and planning their wedding, the quality of their future marriage will depend in large part upon the meanings and purposes they do or don't give these little rites of lovers’ passage. So if your close friends and family don’t tell you what these rituals will mean for them if and when they go there, feel free to hand them this article and ask them.
Dr. Paul Schmidt is a psychologist life coach you can reach at [email protected], (502) 633-2860.