In our last article we focused on how the marriage relationship can be a call to personal growth. This article addresses how our marriage vows play themselves out in our married life.The wedding ceremony is the culmination of all the marriage preparations. The only two elements essential to a legally binding wedding are the vows that the couple make to each other and the proclamation by the officiant that they are now married. The vows are the emotional and spiritual heart of the ceremony, although not all couples choose to view them that way. We usually ask couples if they prefer to write their own vows, or choose vows from a selection they find most meaningful, or have us do them from our own basic ceremony.
What are the questions that couples generally ask about creating vows? What do they mean to convey to each other in their vows? First, we hope that couples take the formulation of vows seriously. It has been our experience that young couples in particular underestimate the importance and the power of exchanging vows with each other. After all, if couples have progressed far enough to commit themselves to a legally binding agreement they should realize that what binds them emotionally and spiritually is the content and character of their vows. The vows are the heartfelt promise of intention that they convey to their beloved to live, love, and behave in certain ways from this day onward that will form the basis of their daily interactions as a married couple. The power lies both in the spoken word and in their public expression before witnesses (even if the officiant is the only witness). Just as they pledged allegiance to the flag in school, so they are now pledging allegiance to their life-long mate. We emphasize not only love in our basic vows but also loyalty that derives from respect and companionship. A couple’s vows become a sacred trust expressed in this moment for all the years they’ll share as a married couple. They are not some frivolous activity that can be measured by a brief intensity of feeling in words “to get through the ceremony as quickly as possible”, but rather an appreciation of a process whereby they continue to grow into love as they mature within the marriage.
Second, we believe that the choice of words used to express a couple’s commitment to each other is a measure of the effort they have put into the vow selection. Our experience suggests that some couples contemplating marriage for the first time are likely to choose traditional vows: “I take thee…to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish till death do us part….” This is certainly acceptable, but we wonder whether some couples have chosen such vows simply because they’ve heard them before without realizing the full power of these words. All vows are a pledge to live daily as faithfully as possible to the meaning of the words they said to each other on their wedding day. The hope is that the couple will be able “to love and to cherish” each other as they are conscious of their partner’s responses to the challenges of coupleship, whatever they happen to be. We view ourselves as “officiants” for life.” It is as important for us to help couples to be true to their vows, and thus remain happily married, as it is to marry them in the first place.
Other couples are quite happy using our vows that have been lovingly crafted from our own ceremony experiences over the years. They emphasize love, loyalty, and responsibility and are pledged with conviction. We share these vows with them during our pre-ceremony consultation, but they can be modified to accommodate the meaning they wish to convey during the vow exchange. Still other couples like to choose their vows by surfing the vast resources of the internet or by perusing the many books on the subject. They are making an effort to find meaning in words already compiled and expressed and that, too, is perfectly acceptable. Such couples will often seek the perspective of the officiant on their choices during their consultation For some couples, however, only their own words will suffice.
This brings up our third point about vows: it is as important as to how couples express their desires to each other as it is to choose the words. It is for this reason that we ask the couple (if they have not already done so) to turn, hold hands, face each other, and make eye contact. If the couple has already chosen readings they will usually repeat them after the officiant. If, however, the couple has chosen to write their own vows in advance, reading them to each other can convey more deeply the meaning they wish to express to each other. Making these promises in the presence of witnesses is the most emotionally charged and most memorable moment of the entire ceremony. We have witnessed numerous occasions in which both bride and seemingly stoic groom have expressed their vows in joyous tearfulness.
Some of the most poignant moments for us have occurred when there were no witnesses – between older couples marrying again seeking to consolidate the maturity of their love in another relationship, or couples blending families together and choosing to incorporate their children into the new relationship.
We feel honored to be included in such experiences because they remind us of a truth we have consistently expressed in our articles—that marriage is not only a very special social institution but a process in which we grow into love as our coupleship evolves.