Thursday, November 15 , 2018, 1:47 pm | Fair 76º


Harris Sherline: Why Bother to Get Married?

Live-in couples can and do enjoy successful relationships, but where's the commitment?

Celebrities Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins split after living together for 23 years. They never married, even though they had two sons together. And, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell have lived together for more than 25 years, raised two children and appear to have maintained a successful relationship.

Harris Sherline
Harris Sherline

However, a few questions come to mind: If couples such as these can live together successfully for many years, what’s the point of getting married? Is the commitment to each other as strong without the so-called “piece of paper”? What happens when such couples do decide to split — to the man, the woman, the children?

For one thing, presumably, celebrity couples are financially independent and, generally speaking, can end relationships anytime without anyone having to be concerned about earning a living.

But when Joe Six Pack and his girlfriend decide to break up after living together for many years, what happens? Who owns the home and furnishings, bank accounts, cars, retirement accounts and other assets? Who is responsible for their debts? How about child support if there are young children involved?

Without the resources and the financial independence of the rich and famous, the result is often a disaster — especially when children are involved.

We sometimes hear the argument, “My parents got a divorce, and it was so devastating that I just don’t want to risk it.” However, I don’t see how living together avoids the risks of a failed marriage. As a matter of fact, dissolving a live-in relationship can be more difficult and costly to resolve than getting a divorce.

Writing in the Jewish World Review (Oct. 3, 2006), Dennis Prager offered the following reasons why people should get married rather than just live together:

“First, no matter what you think when living together, your relationship with your significant other changes the moment you marry. You have now made a commitment to each other as husband and wife in front of almost everyone significant in your life. You now see each other in a different and more serious light.

“Second, words matter. They deeply affect us and others. Living with your ‘boyfriend’ is not the same as living with your ‘husband.’ And living with your ‘girlfriend’ or any other title you give her is not the same as making a home with your ‘wife.’ Likewise, when you introduce that person as your wife or husband to people, you are making a far more important statement of that person’s role in your life than you are with any other title.

“Third, legality matters. Being legally bound to and responsible for another person matters. It is an announcement to him/her and to yourself that you take this relationship with the utmost seriousness. No words of affection or promises of commitment, no matter how sincere, can match the seriousness of legal commitment.

“Fourth, to better appreciate just how important marriage is to the vast majority of people in your life, consider this: There is no event, no occasion, no moment in your life when so many of the people who matter to you will convene in one place as they will at your wedding. Not the birth of any of your children, not any milestone birthday you may celebrate, not your child’s bar mitzvah or confirmation ...”

“Fifth, only with marriage will your man’s or your woman’s family ever become your family. The two weddings transformed the woman in my son’s life into my daughter-in-law and transformed the man in my daughter’s life into my son-in-law. And I was instantly transformed from the father of their boyfriend or girlfriend into their father-in-law. ... I was now related to my children’s partners. Their siblings and parents became family. Nothing comparable happens when two people live together without getting married.

“Many women callers to my radio show have told me that the man in their life sees no reason to marry. ‘It’s only a piece of paper,’ these men (and now some women) argue.

“There are two answers to this argument. ... One is that if in fact ‘it is only a piece of paper,’ what exactly is he so afraid of? Why does he fear a mere piece of paper? Either he is lying to himself and to his woman or lying only to her because he knows this piece of paper is far more than ‘only a piece of paper.’

“The other response is all that is written above. Getting married means I am now your wife, not your live-in; I am now your husband, not your significant other. ... It means we have legal obligations to one another. It means my family becomes yours and yours becomes mine.

“When you realize all that is attainable by marrying and unattainable by living together without marrying, you have to wonder why anyone would voluntarily choose not to marry the person he or she wishes to live with forever. ... Unless, of course, one of you really isn’t planning on forever.”

In the final analysis, the question is: Who really benefits from living together?

— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog,

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