At eighteen years old I really wanted to write my own wedding vows. I was hopelessly in love, and I didn’t want to say the same old words everyone else had been saying for years. That was stale, passé. I wanted to be original, unique, special. (Perhaps there was a bit of pride there too?) So my fiancé and I wrote our own vows. Ten years and four children later, we renewed them — with the same minister and in front of the same congregation.
Lately I have been thinking about those seventeen-year-old vows. How they were somehow incomplete. Not that they were insincere — they were so very sincere. But they were incomplete. And they were very, very young.
In the last couple months circumstances have conspired to distress us on many levels. (Jesus wasn’t joking when He told us we would have trouble in this world.) But in the midst of these recent difficulties, I’ve been drawn to the beauty and majesty of traditional vows. Vows in which we acknowledge the sacredness of the marriage covenant. Vows in which we promise the same things married couples have been promising for centuries.
When a bride and a groom promise “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death,” it’s beautiful and romantic. But when we are young, we do not imagine we will ever be sick or old or poor. We imagine we will be young, healthy, happy, and wealthy — for always. We imagine that loving and cherishing will be easy. We say these vows, and we mean them, but we do not know the fullness of what we say. We do not imagine we will need to live them out sacrificially.
Young couples promise each other, before God and before the congregation, to “live together in holy marriage, to love, comfort, honor, and keep, in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others, be faithful as long as we both shall live.” In that breathtaking moment we can’t imagine that any better “other” may ever come around, but nonetheless we vow to forsake the others. These are grand promises that we make. And they are promises I intend to keep, even if I didn’t make them in so many words.
My own personalized vows skirted around these issues. I promised to respect and support my husband in a generalized “in everything I do, in every season God gives us” rather than specifying any potential struggles with “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.” One sounds gentle and all-encompassing. The other is harsher, more abrasive. But I wonder now if the second one is more exactingly truthful when troubles start to rain down on a married couple: we committed for just such a time as this.
Instead of vowing to forsake all others, I told my new husband, “I pledge my faithfulness to you, my best friend and one true love.” My youthful version almost assumes that because my 18-year old self considered Jonathan my best friend and one true love, that I always would. That faithfulness was a mere matter of friendship and finding one’s soul-mate.
Now, I still consider my husband my best friend and one true love, but what if that changed? What if we grew apart? What if our relationship were strained? Would I still owe him my faithfulness and my fidelity? I believe I still would — especially in a situation like that. But I’m not sure my personalized vows were specific enough. “Pledging my faithfulness” sounds pretty, but “forsaking all others” much more accurately describes the turning away from temptation that all married people must do.
Seventeen years after I said “I do” (metaphorically speaking of course, because we didn’t actually say those words), I understand more fully the weight of these lifelong vows. And I also know what it means to live in holy matrimony with one person through the various seasons of life. It’s a big deal to commit to a single person, regardless of what happens from that point on. And a lot can happen in a life. A lot of tragedy. A lot of heartbreak. A lot of things that can threaten to swamp a young marriage (or even an older one). A lot of reasons to remember and fulfill the specific promises that we made to each other.
I want to renew our vows again on our 20th wedding anniversary. But I’m not sure whether I want to repeat my initial vows or say the traditional ones. I think about these traditional vows often, and I’ve come to consider them my own. I didn’t say them on my wedding day, but I’ve said them to my husband since then. And I’ve come to understand that there’s a reason traditional vows have held up over time. They distill the essential aspects of a holy institution down into just a few sentences. They are guidance and they are wisdom. And they are a picture of what true love looks like.
The traditional vows are hardy. They can apply universally to Christian couples. At the same time I love listening to people’s personal vows; they are lovely and heartfelt and meaningful. But they necessarily apply to only one couple. Perhaps, though, we need both universality and specificity in our marriages. Perhaps we need both unity with other married couples throughout time and a sense of uniqueness in our own love story. It makes me think that if one my children ever came to me and asked me for wedding advice, I might suggest saying both traditional vows and personalized vows. Because maybe a marriage can use a bit of both.
For any concerned readers, infidelity is not something our marriage has dealt with. I’m only reflecting here on the magnitude of the promises we make at the altar.
Sources for traditional vows and their history.
A list of the other marriage articles we’ve written.