Question: "What does it mean that a man shall leave his father and mother (Genesis 2:24)?"

Answer: Genesis 2:24 provides Christian couples with an indispensable blueprint for marriage: “A man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (ESV). Adam and Eve had no father and mother to leave, yet God knew this bit of marital counsel would be essential to the success of every future marriage for the rest of time.

Married couples run into trouble if they fail to leave their fathers and mothers. According to Genesis 2:24, when we step into marriage, we walk out from under the authority of our parents. So important was this command—“a man shall leave his father and mother”—that Jesus reiterated it in Matthew 19:4–6. Countless marriages struggle or fail because husbands and wives don’t fully understand the new covenant relationship that has been formed. No matter how strong or cherished one’s child-to-parent affinity may be, each spouse must prioritize the new family relationship, or the marriage will have trouble.

Most young couples move out of their parents’ homes when they get married. A man shall leave his father and mother might include the physical act of leaving but it goes beyond that. The English word leave in Genesis 2:24 is a translation of a Hebrew term meaning “abandon, forsake, to leave behind.” That does not imply that married people must cut all ties with their parents. The Bible calls adult believers to honor and respect their parents (Proverbs 30:11, 17) and to care for them in their old age (Mark 7:10–13; 1 Timothy 5:4–8).

Rather than abandoning parents altogether, “leaving” involves cutting emotional ties of loyalty and dependency. Until a couple marries, the strongest emotional bonds in their lives are most often with their parents. When we enter a marriage covenant and “become one flesh” with our husband or wife, our relationship dependencies must shift entirely from our parents to our spouse.

A man shall leave his father and mother means a married couple no longer has the option to “run home to Papa” or let a meddling mother-in-law come between them. The Hebrew expression translated as “cleave unto” (KJV), “hold fast to” (ESV), or “be joined to” (NASB) in Genesis 2:24 means “to adhere to, stick to, weld, or glue.” The terminology emphasizes a total commitment to stick together like glue. Two people can’t get much closer than being welded together as one flesh. No other relationship with any former friends or family members should be more intimate or important than the one between a husband and wife.

So, what does leaving and cleaving look like in a practical sense? It means our spouse becomes our best friend and closest confidant. We don’t keep secrets from each other or share secrets with our parents or any other person. We don’t pour out the nitty gritty details of our marital problems with our parents or anyone else except in counseling. Instead, we nurture intimate companionship with our husband or wife by opening our innermost selves only to them. Building such intimacy will require a consistent, conscious, and lifelong effort. But God promises to create an unbreakable bond when we put our marriage relationship before all others and love each other deeply and exclusively.

Oneness in marriage extends to every aspect of the relationship—physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, financial, and social. Leaving and cleaving as one flesh doesn’t usually happen overnight. It is a process that develops through mutual submission and mutual agreement between two partners in marriage (see Ephesians 5:22–33). Couples must make every effort to solve problems and make decisions together (apart from the pressure of parents or others), praying with each other in every situation and considering each other’s preferences as they negotiate mutually agreed-upon solutions.

A man shall leave his father and mother is part of God’s design for marriage. The “leaving and cleaving” principle is threatened when parents are allowed to interfere and break the oneness of any aspect of the couple’s relationship. Parents demanding continued obedience or emotional dependence are running the risk of damaging their child’s marriage. When one partner continues to rely emotionally on a parent rather than the spouse, an unbiblical imbalance occurs. For a Christian marriage to thrive, both partners must guard against treating a child-parent relationship (or any other relationship) as the priority over the union between husband and wife.