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: the words of mutual promise exchanged by couples during the marriage ceremony. To a remarkable degree, marriage in America today is exactly what these newlyweds increasingly say that 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 us do 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.”
Either way, the underlying philosophy is the same. To pledge marital permanence would be to make a false guarantee. We are in love today, but the future is something that should not or cannot be promised. How long will our love last? We hope forever, but only time will tell. As one bride puts it in a recent book called Creative Weddings: “It was important for me not to make promises or to predict the future, but to make intentions and commitments . . . . We avoided using words like ‘forever,’ but focused on what was honest for the moment and nothing more than that.”
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 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 among newlyweds today. As one wedding book flatly asserts: “The majority of brides and grooms these days are rejecting traditional wedding vows and reciting their own personalized vows instead.”
One wedding book by Steven Neel, an ordained minister, advises couples that “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 today to “accept the challenge of writing your own vows” which “contain the unique expression of your feeling.”
It would be hard to exaggerate the symbolic importance of this shift toward self-composed vows. The old vows were created by society and presented to the couple, signifying the goal of conforming the couple to marriage. The new vows are created by the couple and presented to society, signifying the goal of conforming marriage to the couple. The two approaches reflect strikingly divergent views of marriage and of reality itself.
In one view, the vow is prior to the couple. The vow exists on its own, exerting social and sacred authority that is independent of the couple. In this sense, the vow helps to create the couple. For in making the same promise that others before them have made, and that others after them will make, the couple vows on their wedding day to become accountable to an ideal of marriage that is outside of them and bigger than they are.
In the new view, the couple is prior to the promise. The vow is not an external reality, like gravity or the weather, but instead a subjective projection, deriving its meaning solely from the couple. From this perspective, the couple approaches the vow like a painter approaches a canvas. Rather than the vow creating the couple, the couple creates the vow. As a result, each marriage becomes unique, like a painting or a snowflake.
With this one procedural change in the making and exchanging of vows, a ceremony of continuity and idealized forms is displaced by a ceremony of creativity and personal expression. Subject and object trade places. Theologically, the transcendent becomes mundane as couples, in effect, become the gods of their own marriages. A reality in which the marriage is larger than the couple is replaced by a reality in which the couple is larger than the marriage.
Of course, many of the motivating ideas behind the new vows are understandable and even admirable. Couples want to avoid hypocrisy. They want the ceremony to be dramatic and personally meaningful. In part, the new vows represent a practical response to the growing phenomenon of mixed-tradition marriages.
But the essence of this change reflects a dramatic shrinking of our idea of marriage. With the new vows, the robust expectation of marital permanence shrinks to a frail, often unstated hope. Marriage as a vital communal institution shrinks to marriage as a purely private relationship. Marriage as something that defines me shrinks to something that I define.
Finally, as the idea of marriage gets weaker, so does the reality. In this sense, the new vows are important philosophical authorizations for our divorce culture. They are both minor causes and revealing results of a society in which marriage as an institution is decomposing before our eyes.
Who is to blame for this transformation of the vow? There are three possible answers: society, the couples, and the pastors. All things considered, I suggest that we blame the clergy.
I understand, of course, that many large social forces and institutions, from trash TV to the legal profession, are conspiring to weaken and privatize marriage. I also understand why many couples might aspire to confect, rather than inherit, the meaning of their marriage. But I do not understand why the clergy, the custodians of our marriage tradition, so willingly relinquish their authority and, in effect, collaborate in their own marginalization. Why have the teachers agreed to trade places with the students?
Much of the content of contemporary weddings, of which vows are only one aspect, stems from a massive transfer of authority—generally, from the community to the individual, and specifically, from the pastor to the couple. As the brides’ magazines and wedding books endlessly emphasize: “It’s your day!” Throughout this advice literature, the master recommendation is to “personalize” your wedding.
By accepting and even embracing these ideas, many pastors become little more than entertainers, bit players, in the weddings they conduct and in the marriages they launch. Many couples choose a church for their wedding primarily on the basis of architecture. Cut loose from enduring communal forms, which are the foundations of all true ceremony, weddings today increasingly become occasions for what Judith Martin calls “amateur theatrics about sex and philosophy.” Consequently, despite the sincere hopes and the intensive planning, what is most important about the wedding is increasingly overshadowed. The party gets bigger; the embrace of the marital promise gets smaller.
What is to be done? Here are four proposals. First, individual pastors, and ultimately denominational leaders, should reclaim the historic responsibility inhering in communities of faith to promulgate and maintain the integrity of the marriage vows exchanged in their churches. Central to this reclamation would be the revival of the vow of marital permanence.
Second, pastors should agree to marry couples in their churches only when at least one member of the couple is also a member of the church. Third, pastors should require all couples who marry in their churches to participate in a serious program of church-sponsored premarital education. And finally, individual churches should formally embrace the goal of strengthening marriage and lowering the divorce rate in their congregation, specifically through on-going programs aimed at marital enrichment and “marriage saving,” and generally by seeking to create a marriage culture within the faith community that is distinct from the divorce culture in the larger society. (Pastors can also take heart from growing signs of public dissatisfaction with the divorce culture, such as Louisiana’s new “covenant marriage” law in which individual couples can now choose to opt out of the no-fault system and enter into a legally more binding marriage.)
Together, these policies would convey a clear message to engaged couples. Couples who get married here learn what marriage is. Couples who get married here understand and accept as their own the marriage promise that this community of faith requires, including the vow of marital permanence. Couples who get married here become part of a community that affirms and supports marriage. As a result, couples who get married here are more likely to be able to keep their promises, in part because they make promises worth keeping.
David Blankenhorn is President of the Institute for American Values in New York and coeditor of Promises to Keep: Decline and Renewal of Marriage in America (Rowman & Littlefield, 1996).