02/26/2015 02:00 pm ET Updated Apr 28, 2015

What Marriage Really Means

Back in our parents' and grandparents' day, the world, and our descriptions of it were pretty much, this or that. People were male or female, single or married, working or looking. Things have gotten a lot more complicated, and our vocabularies, have had to keep up. I read an article last week about people in the process of transgendering wanting their own pronouns. Him and his, her and hers, were not descriptive of who they are, or is it, were. And naturally, they felt dissed -- which isn't good.

For every trend, however, there is a counter-trend. In this case the counter-trend is toward the loss of specific meaning. Vocabularies are being simplified and distinctions being lost. At the extreme, thousands of years of language development are being erased as language is reduced to glyphs displayed on smartphones rather than cave walls.

Change is inevitable, but in the process, important and valuable information can be lost. I perceive that this is what has happened with the definitions of "to Marry" and "Marriage". These words have particular importance to me as a collaborative divorce lawyer, who contradictorily, is devoted to providing support for couples who want their partnerships to be more successful, durable and satisfying.

You see, without getting into the structure of language, about which I have no more than the remnants of a fifth grade education, we have, in the use of our language, conflated "Marry" and "Wed". The DIY sign on the back of newly wed's escape vehicle doesn't say, "Just Wed" as correctly describes the situation, but rather, "Just Married".

If we look at the word "marry" as a verb, "to marry" out of the context of nuptials, it means something a kin to blending, a merger of characteristics, a combining of two different things to produce a third that retains the individual characteristics of the separate sources. The best description I've found is buried in the dozen or so dictionary definitions of "to Marry", where it is described as the process by which different strains of tobacco are stacked together in close proximity in a controlled environment. Over time the favored characteristics of each strain are shared with the other, and unfavored characteristics masked or lost. The result being a blend which has the best characteristics of each original strain. That isn't something that happens quickly with tobacco, so you can imagine how long it takes with people. It certainly doesn't happen in the time it takes to exchange vows.

This difference isn't trivial. How we think and how we act are shaped by the meaning attached to the words we use. At some level, the couple leaving the ceremony believing they are now married, believes the work is done, or mostly done. "I wanted to be one with Sean and now we are." Well, ask the couple with twenty-five years into the marriage process and they'll tell you, "A wedding just marks the start of the marriage process. It takes many years, and a great deal of hard work to accomplish." Marriage, the somewhat mystical relationship that develops between partners over time, is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon. There is no switch that gets flicked and now we're married. It is incremental and zig-zag, developing over time in an environment of sustained commitment, persistent love (despite challenges), patience, understanding, and effort. However, all of this work is not without a reward. The journey itself has many associated rewards. There are the delights, frustrations, and elations that come from guiding and abetting the development of children into adults. There is the attachment of two individuals at a profound level of intimacy. There are the events and moments experienced and shared along the way. And ultimately, there is a zen tranquility and shared bliss that exists outside and above the pains and pressures of change and even tragedy.

Wonderfully, this long-term phenomenon is not just the province and reward of wedded couples, but has the potential to be the product of every partnership. If we accept from the beginning that marriage is a long-term process and journey available to committed partners, our expectations, our standards of achievement, and our prospects for success will all be changed in the direction of more successful, durable and satisfying partnerships. And that, from my divorce perspective, is a very good thing.