by Jay Johansen | Apr 19, 2010
These days you often hear people say things like, "Why should we get married? We don't need some piece of paper to be able to love each other."
People who say this are confused about what a marriage certificate, or any other formal document, is.
Suppose you heard that your doctor had never been to medical school. You ask him if this is true, and he says, "Hey, I don't need a diploma to be a good doctor. How is some piece of paper hanging on the wall going to help me treat patients?"
This is, of course, completely true, and totally misleading. Yes, the diploma itself, that is, the piece of paper, does not make someone a good doctor. So does this mean that a diploma from a medical school doesn't matter? Of course not. It is not the piece of paper that makes someone a good doctor. It is the years of education and training that that paper represent. If a doctor's diploma was destroyed in a fire, that would subtract nothing from his skill. If he bought a forged diploma on-line, that would add nothing to his skill. What matters is the training.
Likewise, it is completely true that a marriage certificate stuck in a filing cabinet is not going to make you love each other. And it is equally misleading. What makes a marriage is not the piece of paper, but the commitment that that paper represents, the commitment to each other and to God.
You say you are totally committed to each other? That you will love each other for the rest of your lives? If you are serious about that, then why are you unwilling to sign a piece of paper saying so?
This is especially baffling when one party wants to get married and the other replies with the "just a piece of paper" argument. If this piece of paper is just a redundant exercise, if you are committed to love this person without the piece of paper, then why are you reluctant to sign it? If it doesn't matter, why not do it if that's what the other person wants? You love her desperately, you have dedicated your life to making her happy, you would give your life for her … but you aren't willing to sign your name on a piece of paper that you think is meaningless but she considers important? (You can, of course, switch the "he" and "she" here.)
Frankly, this sounds very suspicious to me. It is the sort of response that makes us suspect people are not being honest with us in other contexts. Like suppose you are considering buying a new car, but the engine is making a funny noise and you are worried that there may be something seriously wrong. The salesman tells you not to worry, that his mechanic has checked the car out and it's in perfect shape. You are encouraged, but just to be safe, you ask him to give you a written guarantee that if you find anything wrong with the engine, he will repair it at no additional charge. He refuses. "The car is in perfect condition," he says. "Some piece of paper isn't going to make the car run any better." Would you accept that, or would you suspect that if he really thought the car was in perfect condition, he'd be willing to sign the guarantee?
If you don't want to get married, is it really because you believe this is a superfluous formality? Or is it because you are not really committed to this other person? You love the person in the sense that you like spending his money or the sex is fun, but you are not prepared to make a commitment to spend your life with this person, "for better or for worse, in sickness and in health".
A marriage certificate is not "just a piece of paper". It is commitment between two people that they will love each other for the rest of their lives, made before God. The piece of paper is just the physical symbol of that commitment.
© 2010 by Jay Johansen
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