10/24/2011 12:39 pm ET Updated Dec 24, 2011

After the Wedding, What is Marriage For?

Congratulations! You've married your best friend. You had a gorgeous ceremony, an awesome reception, and that dress to which you said yes knocked everybody's socks off. Now what? After the wedding, what is marriage for?

Marriage is a public promise. Lots of people today live together before or instead of getting married. When you're just living together, things are casual and uncertain. You may move in without much discussion. One person may think the relationship is a trial for marriage, while the other thinks it's a great way to hang out, have sex, and split the rent. By contrast, marriage is a public promise. It requires a decision and consent from both of you. It brings your families and friends together. In front of both your families you pledge to care for one another through good times and bad. When times get hard, those families are a lot more likely to be there for you. (Think about it from the parents' point of view. Dads, would you loan money to your daughter's live in boyfriend? Probably not. But you might be willing to help out your son-in-law.)

Marriage builds a stable nest for children and a nest-egg for families. Today in the U.S. more than forty percent of children are born to unmarried parents. Research is revealing that the road is much rougher for those kids. While marriages do break up, cohabiting relationships break up far more often, leaving kids to be raised in the confusion that comes with mom and dad each dating, living with, or marrying others, and possibly breaking up again. Marriage is not perfect but it's the best institution we humans have figured out so far for the raising of children. Married couples also build more wealth over time. In these uncertain economic times, it's more important than ever to recognize the role of marriage in helping families to build a nest-egg as well as a nest.

Marriage is a long term care plan for you and your family. Granted, fresh off your wedding day "long term care" might not be on your mind. But our bodies are vulnerable and all of us - parents and sometimes children - will have needs sooner or later, due to illness, disability, or aging. When families are fragmented, it's much harder for their members to get the care they need. Divorced men die sooner than married men. Infant mortality is higher in unmarried families, and it's more of a struggle for single or divorced parents to care for children who have physical ailments. Aging alone is a frightening thing and an increasingly reality for too many Americans today.

When marriage gets hard, you are not alone. Our society has seen a lot of changes in marriage in recent decades, with more divorce, more remarriage, and more couples living together. In the process, though, researchers and therapists have learned a great deal about what helps people when their marriages hit hard times. It turns out that most people who get divorced had marriages that don't look that different from those who stayed married. Most of us are dealing with the same kinds of challenges and conflicts around child raising, sex, and how we spend our time and money. Divorce is a necessary option for very bad situations such as those involving abuse, untreated addiction, or serial infidelity. But divorce also brings many new unwelcome challenges, and remarriages end at a higher rate than first marriages. Nurture your marriage the way you would any other living thing. Seek support for your marriage from your friends, family, pastor, or a marriage-friendly therapist.There are also excellent secular or religious marriage strengthening materials online, in bookstores, and at your library.

Finally, to learn more about the research referred to in this post, see the marriage publications at And best wishes for a lifelong, healthy, happy marriage.