How Long is a Marriage?

Meaning of marriage rings

How long is a marriage? And I don’t mean how long do you hope a marriage lasts, or how long you hope your marriage lasts. I mean, by its own definition, how long is a marriage? When does it end?

There are two popular answers to this question.

1) Marriage lasts for as long as you both shall live.
2) Marriage lasts for as long as you both want it to.

The first, of course, is the traditional (and also Christian) understanding. It’s also the one many people say that they mean, while not really meaning what they say.

The second is the most common today. And while many people would insist that they believe the first, in practice, they actually believe the second. For instance, if you believe that it is possible (for anyone) to have a “divorce” and end a marriage, get “re-married”, etc. Then you can not possibly believe in the first definition. I’m not being harsh or judging anyone here, these are just the logical facts.

I point this out not to call anyone out on their divorce or anything like that. That’s not for me to judge. I point it out because it is one of the most important factors in the stability of our society. Which definition a family subscribes to changes the entire nature, foundation and stability of that family.

A relationship between a man and woman that is rooted in certainty – a certainty not that things will always be roses, but that you will stick it out no matter what – is entirely different than a relationship, or partnership, that can end at will.

The first breeds security and stability. And though perhaps sometimes still challenging and imperfect, it provides a safe and dependable foundation from which children can become healthy individuals and to learn to relate to others. It gives the couple some immovable walls they can safely bounce around within when life has its hiccups.

The second does none of that. It breeds insecurity and instability. And it is especially detrimental to children when the very relationship that literally created them is insecure or unstable.

(I want to make one important point clear, however. If being around your spouse is endangering you or your kids, you need to separate and work out the best solution. You’re still married, of course. But being married to somebody doesn’t mean you are forced to stay in a dangerous situation. So don’t. That is all.)

Some will say that they believe divorce is possible, but they wouldn’t personally consider it. But this, too, is unstable and undermines the integrity of a marriage because it is based on a personal, present day feeling about divorce. Sure, they would never consider leaving each other now. But there is a decent chance that will change. That’s where the first kind of marriage comes in. It offers a kind of stability that transcends our own weakness and instability by its very nature. It does not even offer the option to divorce. Which, contrary to how it seems, is actually what sets us free to love most deeply.

In marriage, there may only be a 1% difference between a 98% and 99% commitment. But there is a total difference between 99% and 100%. Because it’s not just a difference in level of commitment, but the kind of commitment. It’s an entirely different kind of relationship. That’s one of the things that makes marriage special. It’s not just a contract or a mutually beneficial partnership. It’s an “all in” kind of deal. Either you’re all in for the long haul no matter what, or you’re not. If you’re not, it ain’t marriage.

Just hoping you can make it work until “death do us part”, is not good enough. That’s not a marriage. A real marriage is a covenant. A commitment that goes beyond any promise to “feel” a certain way about somebody for any length of time. It’s a life-long bond we are bound to no matter what.

It is only in such a commitment that we are truly set free. Set free to be ourselves without fear of losing the other. Set free to depend on somebody despite their imperfections or our own. Set free to create new life – children – who have every right to be born into that kind of stability. Set free to commit 100% without fear of the other committing only 99%. Set free to fight it out knowing that there’s no way to get thrown out of the ring. This is where relationships thrive. This is where children thrive. This is what makes marriage an amazing adventure unlike any other kind of relationship. Do not accept anything less.

How long is a Marriage?

(PS – There are also other important aspects that make up a true marriage, but are issues for another post.)

29 comments Add comment

Artie January 13, 2011 at 11:17 am

A real marriage is a covenant. A commitment that goes beyond any promise to “feel” a certain way about somebody for any length of time. It’s a life-long bond we are bound to no matter what.
This sums it up perfectly! Great post!

Adrienne January 13, 2011 at 12:03 pm

This “forever” view of marriage is such an unpopular opinion today, but I couldn’t agree with you more. I wrote a blog post a while back with a similar focus. My primary point was that if you are asking yourself if your marriage will survive, you have already assumed failure is an option. (

One thing I struggle with is thinking about my marriage being over when I die. I can’t imagine heaven without being married to my husband, but then again I’m sure my idea of heaven pales in comparison to what it is really like.

Ed-e January 17, 2011 at 9:38 pm

Adrienne, my wife of 32 years passed away recently and I also struggled with the thought that our marriage was over. I have decided that our marriage is not over and never will be.

Adrienne January 18, 2011 at 11:58 am

Ed, I’m so sorry for your loss. I can’t imagine how you feel losing your wife after 32 years of marriage, but my heart goes out to you. You and your wife will be in my prayers.

It is comforting to hear I’m not the only one who struggles with the concept that marriage ends at death.

Mark S. January 13, 2011 at 12:34 pm

Well said! Interesting that we discussed this very concept at RCIA class last night. The students (and teachers) were unanimous in their agreement with what you wrote.

Catherine Alexander January 13, 2011 at 1:17 pm

This is timely as the Byzantine Catholic eparchy/diocese of Parma (they’re Eastern Catholics in full communion with Rome) is doing a lecture on marriage tonight as part of their year-long initiative to implement the US Catholic bishops’ National Pastoral Initiative for Marriage.

It is being broadcast live at 8 PM EST following the live broadcast of Vespers before that at 6:30 PM EST. They’re focusing on the epistle reading at a wedding ceremony and St. John Chrysostom’s writings about it.

You can see more about it in the neon green box at the top of their website:

Thanks for the post!

kerath25 January 13, 2011 at 1:22 pm

This is just like what I was attempting to explain to some friends a week ago. Their idea was that they needed to get a pre-nuptial agreement before their civil marriage, “just in case.” Another friend didn’t see why this was such a big deal and couldn’t understand why it was so upsetting. I wrote a bit about it in my last post. Interested if there is any other thoughts on the matter.

dbond January 13, 2011 at 2:32 pm

If at the time of the wedding there are not 3 committed persons (Our Lord, Who is always committed, and the man and the woman) taking part in the sacrament, then it is not a sacrament, nor a marriage. So many today enter the institution of marriage as they would in trying out a leased car-if we like it, we’ll commit to buying it. If there is not the committment to a life-long bond to the other person on the part of either or both humans involved upon entering this state of life, then it is an invalid marriage-they do not know what they are doing. Much more work needs to be done in the preparation of people who wish to enter into marriage-but, it needs to begin by parents promoting marriage as a life-long committment and preparing their children for the responsibilities and informing them of the graces to be received that come not only with the sacrament of matrimony, but, also that come with all of the sacraments. Spiritual formation MUST begin in the “first” church, that being in the family’s home. We who are married need to be a possitive role model to our children who one day may also contemplate entering into this sacrament. So many receive Holy Communion unready and unworthily, and other sacraments are also partaken of/entered into without spiritual preparation or a correctly formed notion of what it means to receive a particular sacrament and what the duties and committments are upon it’s reception. If we as parents as well as other famiy members do not foster good examples of what it means to be married people, they will look at that as well as what the whole world offers as the “social norm” for marriage(which is-marriage is just a formality), and they will grow up with a corrupt view of what marriage is. We have to be “counter-cultural” and give good example of married life, and speak up in behalf of the covenant, the sacrament, of marriage and explain that it is a life-long committement, never to be entered into lightly or without great reverence and responsibility.

Heather Whistler January 13, 2011 at 3:36 pm

This is a great post! My husband and I have been married for 4.5 years, and I can tell you that I didn’t truly understand what “for better or worse” meant until he suffered from a psychotic break. A number of people told me to “run,” saying that I hadn’t had children with him and would therefore be “dodging a bullet.”

Although I did have some fleeting doubts, I am so grateful that I believe in the commitment of marriage. I was able to really help my husband when he needed it, and our marriage is much stronger today.

When I came down with appendicitis during my pregnancy, my husband was there for me 100%. If I’d run away, I’d have run INTO a bullet, not away from one.

Karl January 13, 2011 at 5:28 pm

Till annulment do us part.

My wife and her lover have long been supported
in their public adultery in the Catholic Church.

For the past ten years they have been welcomed
by a Byzantine Catholic Priest with deep
sympathies, I suspect, for Eastern Orthodoxy.

Marriage has been gutted of meaning by the actions
of clergy.

Karl January 13, 2011 at 5:31 pm

BTW. Rome ruled twice in favor of our valid marriage.

It was a waste of time on my part to think the Church
would lift a finger to help heal even a marriage that
The Papal Court ruled to be a sacrament.

Sad and scandalous and true.

dbond January 13, 2011 at 6:01 pm

If the Papal court (I take it you mean the marriage tribunal) ruled in favor of the validity of your marriage, Karl, I am not sure what else you expect the Catholic Church to do. If it has been ruled to be valid, then, she is not able to remarry in the Catholic Church, be it Eastern or Roman rite. If a particular priest “marries” them knowing that her first marriage was ruled by the tribunal to be valid, then, it is the sin of that particular priest, NOT the whole entire Catholic Church, and he will at some point have to answer for it either in this world or the next, or both. You cannot expect the church to hog-tie her and return her to you. But, YOU can pray for her as well as the Catholic Church, and that will assist you in dealing with your bitterness towards both, as well as gently guide you in the steps of Our Dear Lord towards your own healing. I am sorry for your suffering. I know it is intense, but, it can be joined to the sufferings of the Cross of Jesus, in that way, “where sin abounds, grace abounds the more.”

Allison Welch January 13, 2011 at 6:12 pm

I teach high school religion and just today the students taught me a term I’d never heard before – “trial marriage”…

zubismom January 13, 2011 at 10:00 pm

the new term around here is “starter marriage”. Sad

Brett January 14, 2011 at 9:35 am

Thanks Matt.
Marriage is HARD. Even for people with no serious issues like addictions, abuse troubles, history of family divorce etc.
Knowing that divorce is simply not an option has been a major factor in our ability to work through many issues.

On the other hand, there is one thing that does need mentioning whenever we insist on the absolute indissolubility of marriage, namely that the fact that your marriage is permanent does not mean that the Church requires you or your children to stay in a dangerous situation. Sometimes you have to get the heck out of the house. That doesn’t mean your marriage is over. Reconciliation should be left as at least a theoretical option if the dangerous party can be rehabilitated. But it does mean that the Church does not require you to put yourself or your children in danger.

Matthew Warner January 14, 2011 at 9:55 am

Brett – that is a very excellent point and, yes, one I should make in the post (thank you so much for making it first – I’ll edit the post to reflect that now).


Brett January 14, 2011 at 11:51 am

Always glad to help.
Thanks again for a nice piece Matt.

Jeff January 14, 2011 at 12:58 pm

If you believe the Bible to be completely inspired by God (which I personally do), then, by the grace of God, we must do our best to trust Him when He states this about marriage in Matthew 19:9, “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” God’s Word should always be our ultimate authority. Yes, we all do make mistakes. And it’s only by God’s grace through faith in Jesus that we are saved from the eternal repercussions owed from them.

Martha Wiggins January 14, 2011 at 7:27 pm

Thirty seven years by the Grace of God. Couldn’t have done it without Him! Marriage vows are a commitment made before and with God. Without God at the heart of it, it isn’t a secure marriage. With God taken out of everything in secular society, there aren’t many couples today who realize their commitment is not just to each other, but to God. I believe marriage and family are one of the most important factors in the stability of our society. I made a lifelong commitment to my husband and to my God. By the Grace of God, I intend to keep it.

zubismom January 14, 2011 at 8:01 pm

My dear Hubby and I have been married 40+ years. With God’s help we have push and pulled each other through time. Each taking the lead when necessary. No, it isn’t always easy, but it has been fun. God made us do he always says… :-)

Raph May 4, 2011 at 9:44 am

40 YEAR!!!!! wow :) Ive been dating my girlfriend for just over 3 years and we’re waiting for me to finish university so we can get married…I can’t wait to push and pull our way through 40 years of marriage!!!!

LIVING ON PRAYERS January 17, 2011 at 11:18 pm

It all sounds lovely but what if the norm of marriage is rockier, more volatile and breeding more insecurity than not?
Can we still say that marriage is the best environment to raise secure children in?
Is it ‘right’ to even make vows before God when it also states in the Bible that we ought not to make promises because who of us can keep them?
Should one really stay in a fruitless, destructive marriage just because we believe it to be honouring to God?
What if that marriage suffocates every other relationship including that with God?
Can we still say that marriage is forever when spouse and children are mentally and emotionally scarred from adhering to dogma?
And what of spiritual adultery – divided interests that take one’s significant other away from the family – Is that grounds for divorce? Sexual immorality as the only grounds for divorce doesn’t just happen; it starts in the mind.
What if the only two functioning beings in a marriage are spouse and God?
Is it marriage when the significant other chooses not to be actively involved?

The biggest question for me…
Is there forgiveness and non-judgement for those who seek to leave a destructive marriage after many years of agonising, of endless tears, of watching one’s chldren become fearful and oppressed, of praying over and over again for a newness of heart and mind so that I might carry on still?

The God I know is forgiving, loving and patient. Surely He will understand that after years of weariness and woundedness one yearns more than ever to be closer to Him, Who promises a good plan free of captivity, in Jeremiah; and abundant life in John’s Gospel. If leaving the marriage will allow that then so be it! After all we are told to seek first His Kingdom and His Righteousness and all these things will be added.

I’ve been married for 13 years, separated for 2.5 years. Though I rebuke divorce at every mention I cannot see, at this time, any hope unless my spouse chooses to get help rather than cause the children and I more suffering with negative and manipulative ways. Please pray that I may return to share of a miraculous and joyful outcome.

Brett January 18, 2011 at 7:48 am

Thank you for pointing out that, too often, marriage can be the context for very unhealthy relationships. Certainly the Church is aware that there are situations in which you cannot stay with a person, whether for yourself or for your children.
Furthermore, there are cases where “trying harder” won’t cut it, because one is trying all alone.
As to whether or not it actually is a marriage, that is something that can only be answered on a case-by-case basis. But a marriage is not automatically null because of the problems you list.
I am sure you are trying to do what is right and I pray that you find support and good advice in your community of faith. And even for a ‘miraculuous and joyful’ return.
All God’s best.

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