Take a deep breath, pose at an Instagram-friendly angle, and deliver the words that will govern your marriage for eternity. No pressure.
We all know the terms of the traditional wedding vow: about sickness and health, richer and poorer, till death do us part. This might be a fair enough expression of love and devotion, but the world has changed since its first invocation. Marriage following the sexual revolution centered, finally, on romantic harmony. Women’s empowerment and the extension of the institution, in the United States, to those in queer partnerships, have made marriage more egalitarian than ever. The relationship expert Esther Perel says, in a new “Annals of Obsession” video about the evolution of the vow, that the promises we make to each other at the start of a marriage reflect “the very themes of our modern existence.” As such, many of the couples taking a trip down the aisle now abandon the traditional pablum and write their own vows.
A contemporary handcrafted wedding vow is expected to be many things at once. It is tailored for an audience of one but performed in front of every living person you care about. It must consolidate, neatly, all of the elements that ignited the relationship in its early, fevered days yet carefully forecast the utterly unknowable future. It should be creative but not overtly avant-garde. And, please, for everyone’s sake, keep it quick. Take a deep breath, remember to pose at an Instagram-friendly angle, and deliver the words that, as the matrimonial wordsmith Charanna Alexander Jean says, will “govern your marriage”—presumably for the rest of your mortal life. No pressure.
Blessedly, Alexander Jean and Perel properly adjust expectations. A good vow, Perel explains, “embraces the imperfection. It highlights it. It doesn’t pretend it doesn’t exist.” It shouldn’t sound anything like a Hallmark card. As with all things, authenticity is paramount, and it is important to keep in mind not to promise too much.
And, anyway, perhaps “forever” is an unrealistic goal. Divorce has liberated wedding vows from the pressure to appeal to the eternal. “Love is a verb, and it’s not a permanent state of enthusiasm,” Perel notes. No less than the New York Times Vows section, a purveyor of idealistic romance among the upper crust, has conceded that many marriages come with an expiration date. A few years ago, the Times began accepting stories that cover the ground from “romance to vows to divorce to life afterward,” for a column delightfully titled “Unhitched.” The experts don’t forecast that “until we submit our divorce story” is likely to become a popular line in future covenants, but the Vows pages, filled to the brim with tales of the unrelatable courtship, have benefitted from this dose of reality.