My Word's

an occasional column by
Marylaine Block
June 9, 2002


I recently went to Boston, where my son and his wife got married, and to Scotland, where they exchanged traditional "for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health" vows in a blessing ceremony performed by a minister of the Church of Scotland. For the actual wedding ceremony, though, they wrote their own vows. Among the things they promised each other was to remind themselves always of what had brought them together. They vowed that even in the hard times, they would focus on the things that were right between them rather than those that were going wrong. They pledged themselves not just to love each other but to respect each other.

Of the two separate sets of promises, I liked theirs better, and not just because, by being so oft-repeated, the standard vows have taken on a rote quality that can diminish their meaning. I liked their vows better because they had actually talked about what they wanted most from each other, and then promised to give each other those things.

I am happy that my son has become a man who does not promise lightly, and who honors the promises he makes. He believes, like me, that a deal is a deal, and marriage is the most important deal we ever undertake. And yet an awful lot of us, myself included, end up breaking that deal. We walk, or stalk, away from the people we pledged to love forever.

I wonder if perhaps that's because we pay more attention to the promises we THINK were made to us than the ones that actually were. Nowhere in the traditional wedding vows does it say that we will always anticipate and meet each other's needs. Nowhere does it say we will always listen to each other. We pledge faithfulness without promising that we will never find other people attractive. Nowhere do we promise never to change. We pledge to honor each other, not to be romantic, full of compliments and sweet nothings.

Our notions of what marriage promises us are shaped, whether we're conscious of it or not, by fairy tales and by the unreality of our popular culture. Despite the songs and movies and romance novels that always end at the beginning of the marriage rather than its troubled middle, love is NOT all you need, not when you are harnessing together two very different people, with different strengths, weaknesses, needs, and emotional baggage.

One promise we believe was made to us is that our mates knew and told us the truth about themselves in the first place. And yet sometimes we make promises we think we can keep, and find out later that we entirely misunderstood ourselves when we made the pledge. My husband and I agreed from the start that we would have children, but when the subject became imminent rather than theoretical, he realized that he was utterly terrified at the thought. There was no way we could both get what we wanted, and we ended up resenting each other for something neither of us could help.

We believe our mates promised to understand us and love us for our unique selves. Yet many of us choose our mates to make up for hurts in our past, and end up casting them in some complex psychodrama in which they play the role of fathers or mothers or past lovers. That can be difficult, especially if we don't understand the roles we're expected to play and their complicated history.

We may believe there was a promise that our mates understood our basic premises, and we are wounded when it turns out they don't. That's why women who believe their mates should intuitively understand all their needs so often choose men who have to be told explicitly, repeatedly, and preferably with Power Point, exactly what their wives want them to do. Women who want to talk endlessly about the relationship have a way of marrying men who figure that taking out the garbage is all the proof anyone needs of their commitment, just as people who cherish togetherness in all things somehow choose mates who need large stretches of privacy and time with old friends.

Any promise of eternal romance we thought was made to us fades with the reality of mortgage payments and dirty diapers and whining six-year-olds. There may still be plenty of romantic moments but if you're in it for the long haul, the balance has to move more toward friendship, deep-seated trust, mutual reliance, and an understanding that "happily ever after" is not a state but a process. There has to be tolerance and acceptance of each other's faults, and a willingness to change behaviors that cause pain. There has to be room for each person to grow and change, and room for each to keep what is childlike and playful in themselves alive under the crush of unremitting responsibility.

That's why I like the idea of writing your own vows, stating exactly what you expect to give each other and what you want from each other. Carry it one step farther and you could post the vows on the wall where you could look at them from time to time and ask yourself if you're living up to your side of the bargain.

But we make our vows, mostly, when we're young and unformed, when we don't understand ourselves very well, let alone our partners. As we change and grow, perhaps it would be a good idea to incorporate what we have learned about each other and about our own needs into new vows, that build on and add to the original deal -- perhaps a pledge to perform at least one conscious act of kindness every day, or a promise to cherish each other's differences, or a promise to play together regularly. A deal is a deal, but the best deals of all include a means for renegotiating the terms.

A toast to my son Brian and his sweet-natured Cindy. May they keep the vows they wrote together, and dance through life, remembering to take turns leading. Everybody needs a little sweetness; may they always provide that for each other.

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