An Argument For Traditional Wedding Vows
To understand why the United States has the highest divorce rate in the world, go to some weddings and listen to what the brides and grooms say. In particular, listen to the vows. To a remarkable degree, marriage in America today is exactly what the newlyweds say it is: a loving relationship of undetermined duration created of the couple, by the couple, and for the couple.
Our tendency may be to shrug off the significance of formal marriage vows, viewing them as purely ceremonial, without much impact on the "real" marriage. Yet believing that the vow is only some words is similar to believing that the marriage certificate is only a piece of paper. Both views are technically true but profoundly false. Either, when believed by the marrying couple, is probably a sign of a marriage off to a bad start. In fact, the marriage vow is deeply connected to the marriage relationship. The vow helps the couple to name and fashion their marriage's innermost meaning. The vow is foundational: the couple's first and most formal effort to define and therefore understand exactly what their marriage is.
Recent research into the determinants of marital success, especially the significance in marriage of what the scholars Scott M. Stanley and Howard J. Markman call "dedication," underscores the central importance of the vow. As much as shared interests, or good communications skills, or even erotic attraction or feelings of true love, it is the content and integrity of the dedicating promise itself--what we say and mean when we say, "I do"--that shapes the nature and destiny of the marriage.
In recent years, two basic innovations have transformed the marriage vow in the United States. Both innovations are particularly widespread in both mainline and evangelical Protestant churches, in which about half of all U.S. marriages occur.
First, as Barbara Dafoe Whitehead points out in "The Divorce Culture", marriage vows today commonly downplay or avoid altogether any pledge of marital permanence. The old vow was "till death do us part" or "so long as we both shall live." Most new vows simply leave the question of marital duration unasked and unanswered, as if the issue were either irrelevant or beyond knowing. Other new vows incorporate hopeful but qualified phrases such as "as long as love lasts."
The second change is more subtle but far more profound. Today, growing numbers of couples--perhaps most couples--compose their own vows. My wife and I did in 1986; most couples we know did. I cannot find any data to verify the dimensions of this trend, but my sense is that, principally excepting Orthodox Jewish and most Catholic weddings, self-composed vows are more the rule than the exception today. One wedding book, by Steven Neel, an ordained minister advises couples, "Your wedding ceremony can be highly distinctive and individualized if you use your imagination to personalize your expression of love and commitment." Consequently, Neel urges couples to "accept the challenge of writing your own vows."