Everybody knows what it means to “consummate” a marriage, right? It means to “complete” it; to bring it to its highest state. That’s what the words mean anyway.
That brings us to the question of what a marriage is. Is it, for instance, one thing with common and identifiable characteristics? If marriage has a common character, then the partners would know what choices and commitments to make, what actions were moving their marriage along toward its highest point.
On the other hand, maybe it would be better to say that every marriage is unique, not just in the trivial way in which snowflakes are unique, but in the important way that the standards of consummation will be different for each one. I am inclined to say that this kind of uniqueness is factually true, but unimportant.
I like to work in the area between those. I believe that it is reasonable and also useful to say that there are “kinds” or “categories” of marriages and that each kind has the norms of growth and health that are appropriate to it and therefor the kind of consummation that is appropriate to it.
In any case, it is clear that when we move away from consummation as a one-time event we have to begin to consider it as a process. If one “consummates”  a marriage by bringing it to its highest point and keeping it there, then we have to leave the yes/no language that would be appropriate to an event and arrive at the need for a language that we can use to describe a level of development over time.
This came to my mind when I was reading a book about something else entirely. It was Leonard Sweet’s The Gospel According to Starbucks. Sweet and I may have somewhat different priorities about the gospel, but we are completely united in our appreciation of Starbucks and he knows a lot more about why Starbucks works than I do. So I was reading along, thinking coffee-ish thoughts, when I hit this sentence on page 52:
“A spirituality that does not bring together body and mind is like an unconsummated marriage. It’s a spirituality that could well be annulled.”
Traditionally, of course, when the bride and the groom have sex after the wedding ceremony, the marriage is “consummated.” But then again, traditionally the main reason to be married was to have children, so it isn’t that the two concepts are unrelated. The sexual union produces the children which brings the marriage to its highest and best state.
We haven’t been traditional in that sense of the word for a long time in the U. S.  We have an array of reasons for continuing to marry and it makes sense that if there are so many different reasons, there are likely different pictures of what the highest and best form of the marriage is.
Let’s start on the easy end of the scale and work up. Let’s say a young couple discover each other at a party by a beautiful lake and fall instantly in love. This is a really terrific feeling and their idea is that if they get married, they will continue to feel that way about each other. Marriage “locks in” the feelings of infatuation, in other words.
OK, we all know that is not going to happen. There is no hope for the consummation of this marriage in the way we are considering that word in this essay. But if they are good people and particularly if they get help, they can repent  of their folly and adopt a sturdier and more realistic notion of what their marriage could be and what they want it to be. There is no way to tell in advance what the consummation of this renewed marriage is going to look like, but I certainly wish them well and I recommend to them this piece of wisdom (in the section below) from Ruth Bell Graham.
The two parts of a marriage
I think of relationships as being composed of intimacy and collegiality. I know those are not common terms, but it isn’t common either to divide relationships up the way I do and I need these words. By “intimacy,” I mean to refer to the face to face, “I know who you are” part of the marriage. By “collegiality,” I mean to refer to the side by side, “I am so glad we are working on this together” part of the marriage. Every functioning marriage I ever saw has both of these elements. It’s the balance that is different from one to the other and that really needs to be different.
The balance is important because collegiality can decay into routine or even into drudgery. There’s nothing routine about a jolt of intimacy. Intimacy can decay into volatile emotions and loss of trust because when you go that far inside , neither of you knows what is there. The steady friendly pace of shared work is a wonderful balance to all that volatility.
Two kinds of marriage
Here are two unusual considerations of marriage. We can use them to practice on.
I have nothing bad to say about a marriage where one of the partners is wounded or fragile and who needs to be cared for and protected by a spouse who is much stronger. I am a fan of egalitarian marriage, myself, but that kind of marriage requires people who want it and who are competent to pursue it. How should a marriage be consummated—how, remember, should it be brought to its highest and best form, its “summa?” The stronger partner must bear the weight of the marriage while always remembering that the weaker partner is to be protected, not dominated. The weaker partner must bring harmony or beauty or gentleness to the marriage refusing always to treat weaker as in any way “less valuable.”
I paid a lot of attention to avoiding personal pronouns in that paragraph because there is no reason at all that the weaker partner ought not to be the man in a heterosexual marriage and the stronger partner the woman. If a strong woman and a weak or wounded man marry with the intention of building the best marriage they can make out of the materials that they have, they are not going to get anything but admiration and appreciation from me. And if the man is stronger and the woman weaker, I would feel the same way about it. Or, at least, I would try to. I would take a lot of heat for that from my friends, but I would try to do it anyway.
On the other hand, I have seen marriages that looked like business partnerships to me and that still provided all the values the partners were looking for. Each is independent of the other, sometimes financially independent as well as emotionally independent. Yet something more than convenience seems to keep them together and to enable them to take pleasure in their common work. They don’t seem, at least they don’t seem to me, to be taking pleasure in each other. Maybe the routine and the stability their relationship offers them gives them what they need most.
The consummation of such a marriage would, following the metaphor I am using, bring their cooperation as well as the freedom each enjoys within the relationship to its highest point—to its (con)summation. It is the granting of personal freedom by the partner as well as the celebration of the common work that consummates the marriage and should they fall away, for any reason, from that tenuous balance, they will look back at the time when their relationship was at its best and mourn the loss.
The kind we like best
The marriage I want for myself mixes all those values together in the way Bette and I like them mixed. I proposed a marriage like that when I proposed to Bette and I think she said yes to me partly because that kind of marriage sounded good to her. It was not clear to either of us at the time, just how we would go about defining and achieving that balance. 
When I think about the consummation of the kind of marriage we have, two things are immediately clear and were clear even from the beginning. The first is that it would take both of us working at it consistently to achieve it. I am thinking, for instance, of the kind of work it takes to make sure that our emotional bank account always has enough funds for us to draw on day by day. And, should it come to that, for emergencies as well.
The second is that we need to be sure we know what we are trying to do. In the context of this essay, I think I can say that we need to know what consummates our marriage. Not “a marriage” or “someone else’s marriage.” We need to know what consummates our marriage. We’re ten years into this—eleven if you start counting at the first date—and we still have the “doing it on purpose” kind of marriage we set out to have. I feel really good that we are still working (and playing) at trying to keep the kind of relationship we first set out to build.
On the other hand, we aren’t always successful. We achieve that tenuous balance of intimacy and collegiality really well sometimes and not so well at other times. That’s where Mrs. Graham’s maxim about forgiveness comes in. But I think of those ups and downs the same way I think about the ups and downs of temperature in our home. The temperature, as the thermostat measures it, is sometimes too hot and sometimes too cold. When it is too hot, the thermostat turns on the AC; when it is too cold, it turns on the furnace. Think what that means for “consummation.”
I think that if a marriage has a goal, if there is a “kind of marriage” the partners are trying to make and keep, that can serve as a temperature setting. It helps us tell when “the marriage”–the relationship itself– is too hot or too cold even if each of us is comfortable at the moment. We are the ones who need to know that and to bring on the cooler or the warmer air. There isn’t any machinery for that; that is something we need to do.
But that really is what we are trying to do. It is not, as I have been pointing out in this essay, the only kind of good marriage. But it is the kind of good marriage we like best and keeping it “consummated” is the work and the pleasure of our life together.
 The summa in consummate is the same as the summa in summa cum laude. Of course “highest and best” is only good if we are talking about virtues. A “consummate” [it’s an adjective there and pronounces slightly differently] liar is the highest and best kind of liar which is the same as the lowest and worst kind of liar.
 Don’t get trapped into imagining that there is any relationship between consummate and consume. Consume is based on the Latin verb emere, “to buy or to take.”
 The perspective of former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia aside, that is. Scalia said that he had nine children because God wanted them to have nine children.
 The word most often translated “repentance” in the New Testament is the Greek noun metanoia, which means literally “to change your mind.” The hope here is that these post-romantics could change their mind about what they want and need.
 The English intimacy is based on the superlative Latin adjective intimus, “most within.” That is one of the most helpful etymological reminders I ever received. My own view is that in addition to “inside me” and “inside you,” which people generally grant to be mysterious, there is an “inside us,” i.e., “inside the relationship,” which is a different kind of thing entirely and even more mysterious.
 Bette is not a defining and deciding kind of person and maybe if I had her instincts for balance and her generosity of spirit, I wouldn’t have to be like that myself. I am, though. I am a defining and deciding kind of person. I could call them discernment and agency if I thought it would help you feel better about it.