Meaning of Marriage

Exploring One’s Values Regarding Marriage

Through a variety of experiences, individuals develop a personal definition of what marriage is, as well as values regarding marriage. Some individuals see marriage as primarily a legal or social institution. Others emphasize the spiritual or religious nature of marriage. Clearly, our religious backgrounds can strongly influence our views and values around marriage. Therefore, it is important that couples from different religious backgrounds take the time to explore the values or meaning that each gives to marriage.

Factors That Influence Our Views on Marriage

Individuals develop their views or values about marriage from a variety of sources. As you read each section below, consider how your views or values regarding marriage have been shaped by each of these sources.

Religious Socialization – Different churches or faiths may have varying beliefs about marriage. Catholics, for example, define marriage as one of the seven sacraments. In contrast, many Protestant denominations believe only baptism and communion are sacraments, and view marriage as a covenant rather than a sacrament. Different faiths can also have varying positions on other issues related to marriage, such as birth control, or the acceptability of divorce and remarriage.

Childhood (Family of Origin) – Our views of marriage can also be shaped by our childhood experiences, particularly in what we saw modeled by our parents. For example, Ted witnessed his mother having nine different marriages, which made him question the permanence of marriage. In contrast, his partner Samantha saw her parents remain committed to one another despite a difficult illness that her mother experienced. Samantha wanted assurance that Ted would love her in the future, an assurance that Ted was unwilling to give because he doubted the long-term viability of marriage.

Friends – A pastor once said that there are two important decisions that a couple will make that will impact the success of their marriage. Who they choose to marry is the most important decision they make. The second most important decision was whom the couple chose as their circle of friends. He stated if the couple had friends who saw divorce as a viable solution to marital difficulties, then they would be much more likely to act or think that way. If a couple chose a circle of friends committed to making marriages work, even in difficult times, then they would be more likely to do the same. Thus, he urged couples to carefully consider their choice of friends in light of their potential influence.

Culture – An individual’s racial or ethnic background can influence his or her values surrounding marriage. Some cultures put primary emphasis on the marital bond, while other cultures put primary emphasis on the parent-child bond. Racial or ethnic messages about marriage are often intimately intertwined with family and religious rituals or customs.

Society – Our society can also shape our views of marriage. The fact that the vast majority of Americans will marry at some point in time illustrates that society places a value on marriage. Yet at the same time, ending a marriage through divorce has been become quite common. Society can also influence our views on what it takes to have a successful marriage. A common belief in our society is that “love conquers all,” ignoring the fact that certain knowledge or skills can help couples sustain a healthy relationship. In our culture, it is customary for couples to spend considerable time and money on a wedding, but devote little time or money to marriage preparation. Indeed, it often takes more preparation and training to get a driver’s license than a marriage license.

Topics that Couples with Religious Differences Should Explore

It is important that both you and your partner explore your views or values regarding marriage to ensure you are sufficiently compatible with one another. Being compatible does not necessarily mean that you agree on each and every item. There should always be room for individual differences. However, on major issues there should be more similarity than differences. This section explores possible topics that may be particularly important for couples with different religious backgrounds to explore given the potential for differences to arise in these areas.

The role of God in the relationship – Research shows that interchurch couples are more likely than same-church couples to differ in the importance that each partner gives to religion. Therefore, you might explore how important God is to each of you, and how differences, if they exist, may impact your relationship. Does one of you, for example, see marriage as primarily as a legal arrangement, while the other sees it as primarily a religious union? What role, if any, does each of you see God playing in your relationship? Do you see God having little or no influence on your relationship, or do you believe God should play a central role in your relationship? Will you and your partner pray together to God about your relationship? What spiritual principles or values, if any, will guide the two of you as you face the inevitable challenges of marriage?

Divorce and commitment – Churches or religions can differ in their acceptance of divorce and remarriage. Although couples in love often do not think about divorce, it is recommended that you explore with one another your views on commitment and divorce. Under what circumstances, for example, would divorce be acceptable to you or your partner? What actions will you and your partner take if you encounter difficulties in the future? Would you both be willing to seek help from a therapist or clergy person if problems arose in the relationship?

Gender roles – Different churches or faiths can also vary on the gender roles that are prescribed or allowed for men and women. Some religious faiths teach that the husband is in a leadership position, and that the wife should submit to his authority. Others believe that both men and women are equally called to love and submit to the other’s needs. Regardless of one’s position, it is prudent that a couple share a common view of gender roles. Do both you and your partner favor equal or egalitarian roles for men and women? Or, do you both view the husband in a leadership position, with the wife submitting to his authority? To avoid serious conflict, it is important that each of you be clear with one another regarding your expectations in this critical area.

Children and religion – Couples generally recognize the wisdom of exploring with one another whether or not to have children, and how many children are desired. For couples from different religious backgrounds, it is also wise to explore the importance that religion will play in the upbringing of children. What role, if any, will God play in the family life? Are both partners equally committed to providing a religious upbringing for their children, or is one person more committed to this than the other? Have you and your partner discussed the core values or teachings that you want instilled in your children? What are your expectations about which religious tradition the child will be raised in? This can be a difficult topic for many couples, and will be discussed in more detail in the Children unit.

Family planning/contraception – Different faiths can also have different teachings regarding the acceptability of various forms of birth control. The Catholic Church, for example, forbids the use of any artificial form of contraception. Other denominations, in contrast, do not necessarily prohibit couples using artificial means of contraception. Given these potential differences, it would be helpful for couples to discuss what forms of family planning will be acceptable to both parties. The couple should also discuss what they would do in the event an unplanned pregnancy did occur. Would they decide to raise the child, or consider another alternative such as placing the child for adoption? To what extent does each partner see abortion as a morally acceptable or unacceptable alternative? The answers to these questions can significantly impact a relationship.

Other Areas – These topics or questions do not address all the areas that a couple can or should explore in assessing the compatibility of their values or expectations. Ideally, you would also explore your attitudes and beliefs on other topics such as how to handle finances, relationships with extended family or friends, sexuality, leisure activities, or career decisions. The topics that have been discussed here, however, are the areas that may be particularly important for couples from different religious backgrounds to address. If you are interested in exploring your relationship in other areas, you may want to take a relationship inventory such as FOCCUS/REFOCCUS, PREPARE/ENRICH, or RELATE. These inventories are commonly used in premarital counseling or marriage enrichment to help couples explore their relationship in more depth on a wide range of topics.

A Process for Exploring Your Level of Compatibility

This section outlines steps that you and your partner can take to evaluate how compatible your views of marriage are with one another. These steps, used in conjunction with the topics or questions suggested in the previous section, will help you develop a shared understanding of where you and your partner are similar or different in regards to key values and beliefs.

Step One: Know Yourself – The first step is to clarify what your own key beliefs and attitudes are about marriage. You can use the questions in the section above to facilitate this process for yourself. In reality, learning about ourselves (and our partners) is an on-going process.

Step Two: Critically Examine Your Beliefs – Beyond identifying your beliefs, it is can be helpful to critically examine the validity of those beliefs or attitudes. As children, it is often difficult to assess the validity of the values or beliefs passed on to us by our parents or other authorities. As result, we may adopt and live by a number of beliefs or attitudes that have never been closely examined. Beliefs or attitudes about marriage are no exception. When examining your beliefs or values, you may want to ask yourself a number of different questions. Where did you learn this belief or value? Why is the belief or value important to you? What is the rationale behind this belief or value? As you and your partner explore each other’s beliefs, you can anticipate that your partner will ask you why you hold certain beliefs or values.

Step Three: Know Your Partner – The third step is to learn all that you can about your partner’s beliefs about marriage. During this step, it is important to be curious rather than judge your partner’s beliefs or values. Your partner no doubt considers his or her views or values to be valid based on what he or she was taught or experienced in life. To help maintain this sense of curiosity, you may want to pay attention to factors that have shaped and influenced your partner’s beliefs or attitudes about marriage. For example, what did your partner learn about marriage from his or her family growing up? To what extent have different cultural or religious experiences shaped your partner’s beliefs to be different from your own?

Step Four: Mapping Areas of Differences and Similarities – In the fourth step, you and your partner can try to develop some understanding of where there are differences and similarities in your values or beliefs regarding marriage. It is not only important to map out your differences, but to also note your similarities. Look carefully at your differences to see how much of a difference really exists. This point cannot be emphasized enough. Two things may look different on the surface, but may share much in common if one digs a little deeper. Many individuals, for example, believe that they are baptized into a particular church or denomination. In reality, Christians are baptized into Christ’s church, which is broader and more inclusive than just one denomination. That is why a Lutheran who later becomes Catholic does not get baptized again. The Catholic Church recognizes the individual’s original baptism into the Christian community as valid. In a similar manner, interchurch couples could focus on the fact that Catholics see marriage as a sacrament while Protestants define it as a covenant. What both beliefs share, however, is an understanding that God is an intimate part of the marriage union.

Step Five: Assessing Compatibility – At some point, consciously or unconsciously, couples evaluate their level of compatibility. Your values surrounding marriage are no exception. No couple will have the same values or expectations in all areas. Therefore, all couples will have some areas where they are not perfectly matched, and must accept that their life partner is different from them in some ways.

When evaluating compatibility, you can ask yourself some important questions. How will this difference impact the relationship? Is the area of disagreement a minor area of concern, or is it a major difference that threatens the viability of the relationship? Can the two of you agree to disagree? Is there any room for compromise? Or, does the difference challenge a fundamental or core value that each person holds and is non-negotiable?

Although the process has been outlined in five sequential steps, in reality the process is not always as straightforward. It can be difficult, for example, to get in touch with our own values regarding marriage until we are exposed to someone whose beliefs are different from our own. Therefore, learning more about your partner’s beliefs may help you get in touch with your own beliefs about marriage as you compare and contrast them with your partner’s. Likewise, assessing compatibility and trying to find common ground may lead you to challenge some of your own beliefs and examine their validity. Therefore, you may find that you cycle through some of the steps as you progress.


  1. You and your partner should go through the five-step process outlined in this unit to explore and develop a shared understanding of marriage. To begin the process, each of you should individually write down the answers to questions raised in this unit (Step 1). As you answer each of these questions, also try to write down how you came to adopt these beliefs or values (Step 2). Each of you should initially do steps one and two by yourself without consulting your partner. After both of you have completed these steps, get together with your partner to share your answers (Step 3). After sharing each other’s answers, map out the areas where your responses seem very similar, and also the areas where there seems to be disagreement (Step 4). For areas of disagreement, be sure to consider possible areas of commonality. Finally, discuss with your partner which of the areas of agreement and disagreement are most significant to you (Step 5). Are the differences minor and easy to live with, or are some of the differences major and potentially problematic? If there are significant areas of disagreement, consider using the communication and problem-solving skills in the previous units to clarify and perhaps renegotiate expectations.
  2. Discuss with your partner what role you think God should play in your relationship.