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Must Marriage Come Before Baby?: Ask Harry and Louise
Our husband-and-wife team weighs in on whether committing to raising a child, but not to a marriage, can provide a strong-enough family foundation. By Harry Jaffe, Louise Jaffe
Comments () | Published November 4, 2011

Dear Harry and Louise:

I have a friend who is very much in love with her boyfriend. Do you think it’s okay for these two people who are living together and in love to have a baby but not get married or plan on getting married?

Friend of Lovers

• • •

LOUISE SAYS: What that innocent, dependent baby needs most is parents who are committed to each other and to raising the baby together. Marriage is a societal and religious precept that some now consider vestigial. In other words, some folks don’t see its value. They know they love each other, and they know they are committed to staying together and raising a child together—so who needs a piece of paper to prove this is true?

Having said that, I think the little one changes everything. Ask your friend the following question: Are she and her boyfriend averse to marriage, or are they simply indifferent to it? Big difference. If they are averse to the institution of marriage for some political, social, or personal reason, then nothing anyone suggests will change that. If they are indifferent to the idea of marriage because they know their sweet romance will not benefit from any additional love juice squeezed from the marriage certificate, then maybe you can help give them some perspective.

There are many versions of family, and one is not inherently better than another. I would never suggest that only the married moms and dads are doing a good job raising their children. However, they do have it easier. Having Mom married to Dad makes life legally, financially, and socially easier for the little guy and for them as a family. When that baby arrives, this couple’s main goal in life will be to do what is best for the welfare of the baby. This does not mean conforming to every societal expectation played out in The Donna Reed Show, but it does mean projecting the image of themselves as a family forward and shifting the image of themselves as a couple into second place.

I don’t think a marriage certificate will make them love each other more, but neither will it suck the love out of their connection, if it’s strong.

• • •

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HARRY SAYS: Short answer: No.

There is a different level of commitment between “very much in love” and the vows of marriage. I know I sound like a crank who doesn’t understand that marriage kind of lost its luster in the ’50s and got totally blown apart in the free love days of the ’60s. Yes, I know that a marriage certificate is no guarantee of longevity or happiness or sanctity of a home. But I also know that “very much in love” can wilt in a blink when you add a newborn to the equation. The lovemaking part evaporates for a time, certainly. Sleep deprivation from raising an infant can make one forget that sweet lover’s face. Projectile vomiting leads to the complications of day care, followed by the terrible twos and, in some cases, competition between Mom and Dad. I’ll never forget the time I went to comfort a toddler daughter in the middle of the night and she said, “Not you.”

What gets a couple through these incredibly trying times is a sense of commitment that goes beyond “very much in love” and buoys a relationship with a belief in the future—together. Love waxes and wanes. We who create families need all the help we can get to stay together and raise children. We need a support system of friends and family, perhaps of religion.

That tired tradition of marriage, the rituals of celebrating a bond, that piece of paper that makes it legal all help when the baby comes. And your friends will need all the help they can get.

LOUISE SAYS: Ahhh. So my guy who lived in a free-love commune back in the day is now taking the traditional view of marriage.

HARRY SAYS: Free love doesn’t pay for diapers, day care, or college. When a baby is in the equation, add vows and commitment.

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Posted at 11:47 AM/ET, 11/04/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Blogs