Published: Tuesday, Mar. 30th, 2021
Covenant marriages are legally distinct from other types of marriage, in ways that make it much harder for couples to divorce. They appeal to religiously minded couples, or partners that want a more binding legal contract.
These strict marriage agreements are only found in a few states -- Arizona, Arkansas, and Louisiana -- and are usually entered into for religious reasons. Currently, it’s estimated that only one to two percent of couples in these states choose covenant marriages.
Although they’re uncommon, the legal distinctions and religious foundation of these ceremonies can be useful for wedding officiants to understand.
Unlike more common marriages, there are strict requirements for entering a covenant marriage and restrictions for ending one. These guidelines vary somewhat by state, and couples are encouraged to research the rules in their state thoroughly before applying for their marriage license.
In general, before entering into a covenant marriage, couples must seek premarital counseling from a marriage counselor or member of the clergy. During these counseling sessions, couples discuss the seriousness of this lifelong commitment and the legal difficulties of ending it. They must also declare their desire for a covenant marriage on the marriage license application, and provide the clerk with additional documentation. For detailed instructions, couples should contact their local county or court clerk.
The legal grounds for leaving a covenant marriage are very limited. Most often, one of the partners must engage in a specific type of behavior or wrong-doing to qualify.
Most couples choose covenant marriages for faith-based reasons.
For example, the strict nature of these agreements might be more in line with a couple’s religious beliefs than a conventional marriage contract, which can be ended at will. Others believe these agreements help to repair and preserve struggling relationships, because they require couples to seek counseling when problems arise, and to complete a waiting period before finalizing a divorce.
For officiants, completing a covenant marriage license is no different than completing any other marriage license in the state.
The marriage license issuance office will include specific instructions on how the license should be returned after the wedding. Couples and officiants should make sure they follow those instructions closely.
These traditional religious ceremonies are centered around a couple’s faith and their enduring promises to each other. This makes it especially important for the officiant and couple to discuss the tone and desired religiosity of the ceremony during the first meeting. There’s more at stake here. Make sure that everyone is comfortable participating before any decisions are made or contracts signed.
Officiants should be honest with themselves about whether or not they’re comfortable saying and reading the religious words and texts involved in the ceremony. As with any ceremony, if the officiant isn’t comfortable, it’s best to say so right away, so that the couple can find a better fit.
Officiants can always refer couples to a colleague, perhaps one with more experience performing traditional religious ceremonies.
Different denominations have different traditions and rituals for the covenant of marriage, but all ceremonies will center on the couple’s religious beliefs and adherence to specific moral ideologies.
Some denominations suggest unity candles or salt covenants, or recommend specific scripture readings or hymns. Discuss each of these elements carefully with the couple, and decide which is appropriate to include, and in what order.
Couples will usually want the ceremony’s invocation to emphasize that their union is unbreakable, followed by a prayer or sermon. Themes of loyalty, fidelity, devotion, patience, commitment, joy, sacrifice, love, togetherness, dedication, hard work, and continuing faith are also emphasized.
The vows and pronouncement will echo these sentiments, along with any special readings and unity rituals.
These marriages are intended to be lifelong. This should be emphasized in the vows! While modern ceremonies will often leave out or modify this wording, covenant marriages will not.
“I ______, take you, ______, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in good times and bad, in sickness and in health, for as long as we both shall live.”
Officiants should always talk with their couple to decide on the specific language to use.
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