Anti-gay-marriage advocates commonly portray marriage as unitary and monolithic, capable of being nullified if stretched too far. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), for example, describes it as:

faithful, exclusive, and lifelong… intimate partnership of life and love… a living image of the way in which the Lord personally loves his people… a relationship of persons and an institution in society… a unique, essential relationship and institution…

If the real-life experience of couples preparing for it are any indication, though, it defies stereotypes.

Pastor Richard Seim, of Trinity Baptist Church in Renton, WA told the Seattle Times:

The vast majority of couples he marries — as many as four out of five, he said — have committed to do nothing physical besides kiss and hold hands before their weddings. About one-third kiss for the first time at the altar, he said. And when he gave his own daughter away at her wedding, he felt sure he was placing her hand into her husband-to-be’s for the first time ever.

Jill Merry and Adrian Burwell, parishioners at Seim’s church, were profiled in the article:

They got engaged in May. But the first time they kiss will be Aug. 16 — at the altar, in front of more than 600 people.

For the couple, who met at a Southern Baptist evangelical church in Renton, not kissing, not hugging and not having sex before they are married is an avowal of purity.

From another perspective, Marshall Milller relates:

This weekend, D and I attended the Exeter, Rhode Island wedding of our friends M and D (no relation), and last weekend we were in Denver for the wedding of T and E. Two great couples, two fun weddings. I am biased, of course, but I can’t help but think as these couples walk down the aisle that they seem so right for each other in part because they know they are– they’ve already been living together for nine years and four years, respectively. It seems so clear that more years of happiness will surely follow.

Miller and his partner Dorian Solot, co-founders of the Alternatives to Marriage Project, offer Ten Ways To Improve Your Chances for a Good Marriage After Cohabitation.

At the bottom of this page they note that studies have shown that over 70% of straight cohabiting couples plan to get married, and here they mention that 55% of all cohabiting couples marry within 5 years. In answer to the question of why people live together before marriage, they quote Frank Furstenberg, sociologist at University of Pennsylvania, from Newsweek May 28, 2001:

Paradoxically, more people today value marriage. They take it seriously. That’s why they’re more likely to cohabit. They want to make sure before they take the ultimate step.

Marriage can be everything the USCCB suggests, everything that Jill Merry and Adrian Burwell hope for, everything that Miller and Solot’s newlywed friends expect. And yet for some, it lives up to few of the ideals set by bishops or spouses.

In the end, the primary unifying characteristic of marriage is that, like engagement, it is defined by its participants.

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