What Does “Leaving and Cleaving” Mean For Marriages in India?

Resistance to "leaving and cleaving" can cause much marital distress. How can this biblical pattern heal our conflicts and deepen the joy of being married?

In fifteen years of being a pastor in Delhi and counselling couples who are struggling in their marriages, one issue causes the greatest amount of marital discord: the unwillingness to “leave and cleave.”

One or both spouses are unable or unaware of prioritising their spouse over their parents. In my experience, many problems in marriage can be traced back to this root cause.

What Does it Mean to Leave and Cleave?


After God created Eve from Adam, he united them together as the first married couple in human history. Genesis offers a parenthetical note on the nature of marriage itself: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).

The old King James Version uses the word cleave instead of “hold fast”, which is where we get the popular language of “leaving and cleaving.”

The main idea of “leaving and cleaving” is that a married person must undergo a change of priority.

The Hebrew word for “leave” in this verse literally means to forsake. It does not mean abandoning our parents. Rather it means the son cannot have the same relationship with his parents; he has a new priority in his life.

This is even more striking because, in ancient Israel, husbands and wives lived with the boy’s parents after marriage, just as is often the case in India.

The main issue is not physical separation from parents, but a change of priority that takes place because of marriage.

The main idea of “leaving and cleaving” is that a married person must undergo a change of priority.


“Hold fast” in this verse literally means to cling or to be stuck together, further clarified by the two becoming “one flesh.” This includes sexual intimacy but is not limited to it.

Neither the husband nor the wife is complete in themselves anymore. They have been bound together in a covenant union with one another.

We often hear it said, “There is no relationship closer than a blood relationship.” But the Bible tells us one relationship is closer than that: a one-flesh relationship.

Humanly speaking, it does not get any closer than this. It clearly follows that, apart from God himself, a married person must prioritise their spouse over everything else in life.

What Leaving and Cleaving Looks Like Practically

The Saas Bahu Struggle

“Leaving and cleaving” brings immediate clarity to the classic saas-bahu struggle that most Indian marriages face.

Many Indian men face tremendous tension because their mother and wife have different opinions on things. Sometimes they are in direct conflict with one another. The man feels caught between these two women whom he loves dearly.

But if the man understands that his wife must be his first priority, then his situation at least becomes much clearer: he needs to ensure that he meets his wife’s needs and concerns first.

Of course, this does not mean that he ignores, disregards, mistreats, or neglects his parents in any way. The duty of children to honour their parents always remains (Eph. 6:2).

However, if there is a conflict between a man’s mother and his wife, he first needs to take into consideration his wife’s needs and concerns. Then hopefully together as a husband-wife team, they can look to serve their parents in the best way possible.

Children and Work

Married couples have two other great rivals to prioritising one another: children and work.

In the midst of the constant needs of children and the daily demands of our jobs, it is easy for marriage to take a backseat. But this is a big mistake.

A healthy marriage and a happy home are the greatest gifts that we can give to our children. When our marriages are strong and growing, we also go into our work worlds each day from a position of strength and confidence.

A New Family Unit

Leaving and cleaving means the husband and wife are meant to form a new family unit. The common expectation in India is that the wife will “leave” her family and “join” the husband’s family—not only physically, but also in their way of doing things.

But the Bible clearly indicates that it is not just the wife who should “leave” her family. The husband needs to “leave” as well. Even if a married couple lives with the husband’s parents, they together need to decide how they want their new family to look and feel and behave.

A healthy marriage and a happy home are the greatest gifts that we can give to our children.

Leaving parents means more than just deciding together what you want your new family to be like. It also means being free from the control of one’s parents.

This means not being dependent on one’s parents financially, at least in the long term. It means not insisting on doing things the same way as your family of origin. Equally, it means not insisting on doing things a different way, because you did not like the way your parents did it.

Leaving means not continuing to please or gain the approval of your parents. On the other hand, if you still harbour anger and bitterness against your parents, you still have not “left” them yet.

Leaving our parents and cleaving to our spouse is a comprehensive concept, encompassing every dimension of life. It reveals the high priority that God places on marriage.

No couple can thrive in God’s plan for their married lives if they do not understand and apply this critical biblical pattern for marriage.

Clinging to Our True Husband

Leaving and cleaving is of great significance for a godly marriage. But the Bible takes it one step further.

In his teaching on marriage in Ephesians 5, Paul quotes from Genesis 2:24 before adding: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32). This mystery is profound indeed!

Throughout the Bible, we are told that marriage is an image of God’s love for his people—more specifically Christ’s love for the church, his bride.

Jesus left his heavenly home. He was forsaken by his Father so that we can be united to him forever (Matt. 27:46).

Even though we fall short in so many ways, particularly in our married lives, the very concept of marriage points us repeatedly to the amazing love of our Saviour and our true Husband, the Lord Jesus.

As we cling to him, we find the strength, wisdom, and grace we need to leave our parents and cling to our spouses.