What Does It Mean to Leave and Cleave in Marriage (Genesis 2:24)?

What Does It Mean to “Leave and Cleave” in Marriage (Genesis 2:24)?

Genesis 2:24 says, “A man shall leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife.” Read or listen to this material from Your Marriage God’s Way to learn what it means to leave and cleave in marriage.

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A newly married young woman argued with her husband. Because she had a good relationship with her father, amid her hurt and anger, she went to see him. She knew her father would affirm how wonderful she was and how wrong her husband had been.

When she arrived, the father opened the door, looked at his daughter, knew she was upset, invited her in immediately, and asked her what was wrong. After a few pleasantries, the daughter divulged details about her argument with her husband. The father gently rebuked her and suggested she return home. He explained, “Your husband is now the most important man in your life. You two will have problems, and you can’t return to me when that happens. It would be best if you learned to work things out together. I love you, and I’m all for the best in your marriage, so I’m giving you this counsel.”

Scripture agrees with the father’s response. Genesis 2:24 says, “A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” The term leave and cleave comes from this verse. We know it portrays God’s divine plan for marriage because it was instituted at creation and brought forward into the New Testament by Jesus and Paul (Matthew 19:5; Mark 10:7; Ephesians 5:31).

“Leave and Cleave” Means Keeping the Marriage in the Marriage

When Paul commanded “a man [to] leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife” (Ephesians 5:31), he was, in effect, encouraging couples to keep the marriage between the husband and wife. Married individuals should cling to their spouses instead of anyone else, including their parents. When couples experience conflict, as all couples will, they should work things out together instead of running to others. The father in the story above understood an essential truth about marriage: under most circumstances, problems should remain between the husband and wife.

In-laws can end up contributing to marriage problems, especially with newlyweds who aren’t used to being separated from their parents. But this scenario isn’t limited to parents. When couples experience conflict, frequently, they are tempted to go to friends or coworkers to criticize their spouse and talk about how badly they have been treated. They want to do this because they expect those close to them to take their side in the dispute. Some wives turn to their girlfriends. Some husbands talk to their guy friends. While parents are the only ones mentioned in Ephesians 5:31, we can extend this principle to say that if we shouldn’t complain to our parents about our spouse, we shouldn’t complain to anyone else.

The dangers here should be obvious. Pouring out our anger merely stokes it. This will make us feel justified in responding poorly to our spouse, feed our belief that we deserve better treatment than we are receiving, and discourage us from seeking forgiveness for our fault in the conflict. We’ll be filled with pride instead of humility, worsening an already-strained relationship.

An even worse scenario is when the offended party shares the grievances with someone of the opposite sex. The result will be:

  • A married woman thinks I wish my husband listened to me the way he listens to me. I bet he would never treat me the way my husband treats me.
  • A married man thinking, I bet she would show me more respect than my wife shows me. She would appreciate me and all my hard work.

Complaining about your spouse to someone of the opposite sex is detrimental to your marriage and can quickly become the first step toward gossip and— even worse—a sinful relationship.

Seeking Godly Counsel Is the Exception When Talking Badly About Your Spouse

Before I go any further, I want to bring up this important point: In cases of abuse, I am not suggesting that people cannot go to their parents or others for help. The other major exception to the rule of not going outside the marriage is when husbands and wives need godly counsel. Couples who are having problems commonly make one of two mistakes:

  1. They do not want to admit they are having problems and thus pretend everything is okay. They want to believe the problems will go away on their own. Pride causes them to keep their struggles a secret. As a result, they do not get help, and their marriage worsens. This is one time the marriage should not stay in the marriage. When a couple cannot resolve their marital problems, they should seek spiritually mature help outside the relationship. They must put their relationship ahead of their pride.
  2. They act as though they are seeking godly counsel when, in fact, they are only looking for the opportunity to disparage or gossip about their spouse. People who do this say, “I’m having problems in my marriage and would like some advice.” They then proceed to list everything bad their spouse has ever done without any intent of receiving counsel. Nor do they take any responsibility for their part in the dispute. They do not acknowledge any of their weaknesses or failures. They never say, “I know I shouldn’t have done this. It was sinful. What do you think I should have done differently? How could I be a better spouse?” These people are not looking for godly advice. They are just looking for an opportunity to complain or slander.

Unfortunately, those who want to bad-mouth their spouses will not have much trouble finding someone who will listen. Some people are all too eager to hear the denigrating information that should remain private.

If you want excellent and helpful counsel, do not seek out friends more concerned about maintaining your friendship than helping your marriage. Many of these “friends”—who usually end up hearing only half of the story—will poison a husband or wife against the spouse. In doing so, they will worsen the situation or even encourage sin against God. Typical responses from such people sound like:

  • “I can’t believe your wife did that. She’s gone way too far. You should be mad!”
  • “Your husband doesn’t know what he has in you. You don’t have to put up with that. You deserve so much better than him.”

Instead of speaking to people who will provide biased or faulty counsel, go to mature individuals spiritually, be willing to receive criticism, and hear what you need to do to bring about change. Seek out trustworthy, godly friends who love you and care about your marriage. Pursue counsel that sounds like this:

  • “You shouldn’t have responded that way. You need to go back and ask for forgiveness.”
  • “Scripture commands you to love your wife. I’m sorry she did that to you, but you must think about what Christ wants you to do.”
  • God says you should respect your husband. He shouldn’t have done that, but you must stop talking to him like he’s a child.”

If you take the marriage outside the marriage, look for people with the wisdom and willingness to offer hard truths such as these. These are the ones who will give you the counsel necessary to help you leave and cleave, strengthen your marriage, and, most importantly, your relationship with the Lord.

Let Not Man Separate What God Has Joined Together

Genesis 2:24 is instructive about the permanence of marriage. Again, Jesus remains the standard for husbands. In John 10:28, He said this regarding His bride, the church: “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.” In the same way that Jesus is committed to preventing His bride from being taken away from Him (showing husbands what it means to “leave and cleave”), husbands should be committed to preventing their bride from being taken away from them.

Weddings are beautiful events in which God divinely joins two individuals into one flesh. The Greek term translated “joined” is proskollao, and it means “to glue upon.” When a husband and wife are married, two people are glued together to create one whole, hence the words “they shall become one flesh.”

A marriage should never come apart. God designed for husband and wife to have a one-flesh relationship, which reveals why divorce is so terrible. When asked about divorce, Jesus quoted God’s original command in Genesis 2:24, adding an even stronger injunction: “Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6). Divorce tears apart what God Himself created.

For a married couple to divorce is like ripping apart two pieces of metal that have been welded—or joined—together. The result will never be an amicable split. Both pieces of metal will be damaged, taking some of the other piece with them. When I say this, I am not trying to condemn those who have already gone through a divorce (and the vast majority of people who have experienced the tragedy of divorce would confirm what I am saying here about the damage divorce causes). Instead, I want to urge married couples never to consider divorce as an option. I hope to spare families, especially those with children, the deep heartache divorce brings. My experience has been that most people who have been through a divorce are among the first to encourage pastors to preach strongly against it. They want to see others avoid the grief they have suffered.

How does God feel about people destroying what He has joined together? He hates it: “Let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth. For the Lord God of Israel says that He hates divorce, for it covers one’s garment with violence” (Malachi 2:15-16). These strong words equate divorce with violence. Why is that? Because divorce is the tearing apart of one flesh into two. God’s hatred of divorce conveys two responsibilities to professing Christians:

  1. No matter how difficult it might be—and it is tough when we see people struggling in their marriage—believers are responsible for encouraging others to stay married. While separation should be supported under certain circumstances, including abuse, divorce should always be discouraged. When God says that He hates something, how can we, as believers, think of supporting it? Christians have the responsibility to help “what God has joined together” to stay together.
  2. Christians should not use the word divorce concerning their marriages. Once this word is spoken, even if it is forgiven, it is often not forgotten. My wife and I counseled a couple who could not trust each other because both had used the d-word. Each was convinced the other said it first, but that didn’t matter because both had said it. Neither could forget what the other had threatened, leaving husband and wife with little confidence in the other’s commitment to their union.

The Greatest Way to “Leave and Cleave” in Marriage

God wants “a man [to] leave father and mother and be joined to his wife.” Jesus wants something similar from His bride, the church. In Matthew 10:37, He said, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me.” We are to leave father and mother—and everything else for that matter—for Christ!

This is the essential way to “leave and cleave” in marriage because when we place Christ, our Bridegroom and Head, first in our lives, we strengthen our relationship with our spouse. Only in loving Christ and committing ourselves to Him can we become the husbands and wives God calls us to be.

C.S. Lewis said, “When I have learned to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now. When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.”1 Having a deep and sincere love for Christ is the best way to have a deep and sincere love for our spouse.


  1. C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy 1950–1963 (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 1952.

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