What Do Marriage Vows Actually Mean?

It struck me the other day when talking to a client that we all may need to revisit the marriage vows and remind ourselves of what they demand and expect of us. “Let’s not write our own vows”, she suggested to her fiance, “I just find it really cringey, so let’s say the traditional ones”. If ultimately you decide to follow suit and make the traditional set of vows at your wedding, then I think it’s really important that you know what you are actually vowing to do.

In fact, a delve into the ol’ history books will enlighten us to the fact that the vows that are used in christian marriages today are the same vows as were written in 1662. And if, like, me, you think the 60’s were a long time ago then you’ll know that vows written in the 1660’s are pretty ancient. We’re talking a time before arguments over which Netflix series to watch, before the Brexit debate divided couples, and before a time where divorce was acceptable and it was no longer taboo to walk away from a relationship which no longer makes us happy.

At the time they were written, in 1662, it was entirely expected that as soon as you got married you were to stand by your husband through anything - violence, disrespect and unfaithfulness. (I say husband because we all know that this was a time where men could do whatever they wanted without consequence). And in all honesty, that’s why they are written in such a way that they sound so unconditional - because well they were supposed to be. They don’t leave any scope for conditions or exceptions, and yet this does not reflect the time in which we live now; where women have the vote and a greater sense of equality and autonomy.

Without an update, a lot of expectations and pressure are put on us when we make these vows. Expectations and a pressure that these vows mean we should never be leaving our partner. If your partner develops post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of something that’s happened to them, and this leads them to domestically abuse you, then this is a result of their illness. But should you stay with them, despite the abuse, just because you vowed on your wedding day to take them as your husband / wife in sickness and in health?

If you have promised to love your partner for richer for poorer, and yet your partner loses all of your joint savings because of a gambling addiction, should you stay with them because you vowed to still be their husband or wife despite their economic situation?

Vowing to stay with someone “for better for worse” is all well and good, but what if for worse means they’re stressed about work and take their emotions out on you, failing to treat you the way you deserve.

It’s important to realise that these vows are conditional. A priest won’t make this clear to you because the Church does not like divorce or broken marriages. Sadly, I know a few people who have stayed in a marriage they are deeply unhappy in because they vowed to do so. When really, vows are contingent on the fact that the latter of each statement will be short-lived and apologised for afterwards. We’re all imperfect little humans at the end of the day.

In relationships, it’s good to follow the 80/20 rule - if you’re happy and appreciated 80% of the time then it’s okay the rest of the time to feel a bit narked with your partner. If the balance is skewed in another direction and you feel you aren’t treated right, then it’s time to realise your partner isn’t upholding their end of the vows and you’re allowed to do something about it. Just because they may be going through a hard time and you have agreed to stand by them as best you can, if they are taking things out on you, you need to assess whether you have upheld your vows as much as you want to.

That is why when my wedding rolls around, I will be writing my own vows. I will be promising exactly what I want to promise, and know I am capable of promising, to my partner. There are more specific things I would like to say to the man I am marrying than just the ambiguous “for better, for worse”. I want him to know what I expect of him and what I expect of myself going into married life, not just what some guys in 1662 expected of me all those years ago.

But regardless of whether you choose to write your own, or stick with tradition, I hope you have a better understanding now that these vows have limits. That above all, your love and respect for yourself should transcend what you are promising to someone else. That what you promise your partner should be something you decide, not something that is decided for you.