Is Marriage a Contract?

November 11, 2018 Updated: November 15, 2018


On a Catholic pilgrimage to the Holy Land, couples in our group were offered an opportunity to renew their wedding vows at Cana, where Jesus performed his first public miracle of turning water into wine at a wedding feast. I had not thought wedding vows expired, like a driver’s license, or needed to be renewed.

Our priest assured me that such vows do not expire and do not need to be renewed. The ceremonies underwent there were a “made-up thing,” he said; a concession, I assumed, to modern times and sensibilities, or perhaps to tourism.

If marriage is not a contract that expires or needs renewal in the sense a driver’s license does, what is it? Is it a contract at all? Or something more, or less?

The adoption across the United States and in many other countries of no-fault divorce suggests it is less. When I contract with my plumber, we both agree to his providing specified services and my paying a settled amount upon their completion. We are both bound by the contract we willingly entered into.

A marriage that is an agreement to “stay until the wind changes”—to use a Mary Poppins phrase—is no contract at all. It is an arrangement, a kind of friendship that either party can renounce unilaterally, with or without the consent of the other.

Even if marriage were treated, as it once was, as a contract that could be enforced by law, marriage is more than that.

Marriage, and the family that usually grows from it, starts with an agreement. But it is different from other contracts in many ways. The young couple cannot know what they are getting into—the pain and difficulties, the responsibilities and anxieties over the children, as well as their own parents as they age and become infirm.

A family, as Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony points out, is very different from a business enterprise. No one expects a person, whether partner or employee, to stick with a company out of mutual loyalty, especially when it seems against his personal advantage. But a family can, and does, elicit extreme sacrifices, even of life itself.

It is right that a wedding should focus on the bride and groom, on their love for each other, and our wishes and prayers for their future happiness together—two individuals coming together to make a new life, to form their own enterprise.

But let us pause, as a wedding should, to acknowledge and reflect on all the other people—living, dead, and, all being well, to come—who are brought into this new relationship, this ancient institution that ties together individuals, families, and generations.


Marriage is not just a name for a friendship or love that we get the state to register. It is a social, legal, and religious institution bigger and more powerful than friendship or cohabitation. It not only reflects the love of bride and groom; it has a power of its own to sustain that love.

As Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in the sermon he sent from a Nazi prison to a young couple for their wedding (shortly before he was executed), “It’s not your love that sustains your marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.”

Now, marriage is not only about the happiness and fulfillment of the two people who marry. It is also an expression of the profound truth that we find happiness and deep, lasting love, not through pursuing our own personal happiness, but through the complete gift of self, holding nothing back. And that giving of self extends beyond the giving of each to the other. Marriage is also the sacrifice each generation makes for the next.

It’s true that marriage involves the sacrifice each generation makes to previous generations. If not, there would be no in-law jokes, no wonderful opportunities for forbearance on the part of irritated sons– and daughters-in-law—and no opportunities for equanimity and tongue-biting on the part of parents-in-law in the face of choices that are, and should be, no longer theirs to make.

Marriage brings not just two individuals together, but two families, two genetic endowments, two histories, family trees, traditions, quirks, and sometimes two faith communities. And it creates and contributes to a new family, drawing on what preceded it and building something unique and new.

As Hazony puts it, “Marriage and family are instituted to pass on to another generation an inheritance that has been bequeathed to us by our parents and their ancestors.” Or again, “A family is established to repay a debt to one’s parents and forefathers for the inheritance from them, a debt that can only be repaid by raising up new generations that will receive it and, if possible, improve upon it in turn.”

Marriage and family depend upon and foster mutual loyalty, not the calculation of individual advantage as in business or market transactions. We are born not as unencumbered, autonomous individuals but into a family, culture, and nation. All those are relations of indebtedness and reciprocity. They depend on mutual loyalty rather than calculation of individual advantage. Marriage, then, begins with a contract—even if in modern divorce law an attenuated one—but, rightly understood, it is much, much more than that.

Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawai‘i and was a professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is” and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.