marriage contract or marriage covenant?
One of my favorite roles as a counselor is leading engaged or seriously dating couples through marriage preparation sessions. Among the many important topics we cover in the sessions is making the shift successfully from “me” to “we” thinking. The couple usually nods their heads and we begin to discuss what they think about that idea. Initially, I think each person gets the idea, and sees how important “we” thinking is, and then we go a little deeper to talk about what they understand the purpose of marriage to be. That’s a revealing question, and I’ve heard lots of different answers. Many people include the “h” word- you know, “happy”- as part of what marriage’s purpose is. While I do hope the couple will experience many wonderful times in their years together, I point out that a constant state of happiness is not possible. No one disagrees; at least I haven’t had that happen yet.
I want to push the couples’ thinking to a core understanding deep down inside them, and challenge them to consider how their mindset will work for them in their contribution to a life giving, fulfilling marriage. I then ask, “Is marriage a contract, or something else?” On one level, it is a contract with the government. Then I ask if either of them has heard of a covenant, and if so, try to define the difference between marriage as a contract and marriage as a covenant.
We don’t use the word covenant much anymore, and it seems like an Old Testament word that may not apply in today’s culture. I explain that a contract protects one’s best interests. If I sign a lease for a car, or to buy a home, those are contracts designed to protect me. “If they don’t stand by their product, I can sue to get what’s mine.” The other party is thinking the same thing. “If this guy doesn’t pay, I can sue.” A covenant is much different. A covenant protects the relationship. It protects the “we”. A covenant states that we will work together to achieve a unified goal that we both see to be rich and beneficial. We’re on the same team, the same side. A contract clearly states we are not on the same side.
Many folks understand marriage as a contract without even realizing it, because they are so “happy” as they prepare for marriage. When troubled times hit (and they will, right, married people?) they are confused because at first they want to focus on the “we”, but quickly revert to the “me”. When folks come in for sessions to save their marriage, this is often where we must begin. The work is focused on trying to help them rethink what type of relationship marriage is designed to be. If we can get the foundational thinking right, with time and care, we can repair and restore the marriage.
Here’s the problem with a covenant: maintaining one is hard work. A reporter once asked Billy Graham’s wife, Ruth, “In all your years of marriage to Billy, have you ever considered divorce?” Quickly Ruth replied, “Never. Murder? Many times.” Great marriages are great marriages because each partner understands covenant. Each understands there will be a huge need for forgiveness. Each one understands there will be many opportunities for sacrifice. Forgiveness and sacrifice are not necessary components for a contract.
So if anyone is going to enjoy a lifelong marriage (filled with many more highs and joys than lows and sorrows) they will need to clearly understand that the shift from dating to marriage really means we’re shifting from “contract” to “covenant”, from “me” thinking to “we” thinking.
Greg is a Board Certified Pastoral Counselor, and his practice is in Marietta, GA.