Love is patient, love is kind, love endures, blah blah blah, isn’t it all wonderful? Vowing to persevere through sickness and health and in wealth and poverty is tradition, and it’s comfortable when associated with lace and roses. But hasn’t it proven to be fairly useless when it comes to forging marriages that last forever? How many people have mouthed the words, “until we are parted by death” while privately plotting to move on as soon as a more attractive option presents itself?
Here’s a set of wedding vows with practical merit. They might sound unconventional and unromantic. They’re certainly not poetic, but these promises, if kept, will go far in sealing a marriage for the ages.
1. I promise to clarify my expectations.
A marriage ends because a spouse has failed to meet the expectations their partner brought to the marriage. Expectations are unique, and come packaged inside your fiancé’s brain. You may think these things are obvious or universal, that “everyone knows” what makes a good husband, what makes a good wife. But the truth is, your expectations are yours alone — spawned from your experiences and locked in your head. There is nothing you can assume about your partner’s idea of what a good marriage looks like. No harm will come from being very specific and concrete about exactly what you want, not just in bed but in the bank account, at the dinner table, with regard to parenting and everything else. If you’re too shy to mention what you believe is the right way to behave, and you’re hoping everything will become obvious as time goes on, you’re not ready to get married. Get it all in the open, and keep putting it out in the open. If someone fails you, they should have to do it by choice, and not have ignorance as an excuse.
2. I promise to give you the benefit of the doubt when it comes to money.
One of the biggest adjustments when entering marriage is joint finances. From being on your own and subject only to your own ups and downs, you’re now responsible for another person, or you’re depending on another person. That can be scary. Here’s a vow you can make that will help: If your spouse spends a lot of money on something, trust that they know what they’re doing. Trust them until it becomes impossible not to trust them. Don’t come out of the gate suspicious. Here’s why you can do this: You didn’t marry an idiot. Right? If you think they’re overspending this month, chances are they’re expecting a special check, or they’re compensating for underspending last month, or something else. This is not a fool; this is your spouse. Surrender the worry that they’re going to drive you into financial ruin. Give the benefit of the doubt. If they really do appear to be ruining you, then the last benefit of the doubt you can give is that they don’t know any better and need help. Help kindly and respectfully, not with judgment and blame.
3. I promise to make sure I’m not just hungry before I yell at you.
Do your wife or husband a favor: Eat your favorite sandwich and then come back and yell at her/him all you want, if you still feel like it.
4. I promise not to give in to you for the sole purpose of using my compliance against you later.
Some people call this passive aggressive behavior, but this is a very specific maneuver that you can understand and avoid: Being the good person, even though you don’t want to, is not always good. Being so compliant and docile that a halo pops out of your hair and lofts itself over you, bathing you in its golden light, is sometimes a trick, and you really intend to strangle your spouse with that halo somewhere down the road. Being so good that next time there’s an argument, you can point back to this moment as an example of how your goodness practically rent the sky in half — that’s not goodness. Don’t do that. It’s not going to help in the long run. If you don’t want to do something, fight not to do it. If you want to do something, fight to do it. Be honest and don’t posture.
5. I promise to defend you to others, even if you are wrong.
Your spouse is going encounter plenty of haters and critics. Don’t join them. Ever. In the privacy of your pillow, or your sofa, or your minivan, you can have conversations that need to be had, if there’s really something that needs to be addressed. But you don’t need to agree with someone who’s calling him a boor, or her an idiot. There is nothing uglier than watching a husband degrade his wife or a wife demean her husband in front of other people. It doesn’t make you smart or funny. It’s just a low behavior. Your spouse’s criticism hurts plenty, even if it’s private and kind. If it’s public and rude, it’s almost unbearable.
6. I promise to try to put you before the children.
This is tricky, because your biological imperative will be to put the children first. Your physiology will be directing you to eat the face off your spouse if he or she threatens the children’s progress and happiness in any way. This is why it’s possible to make this promise to each other: to really try to prioritize each other sometimes, even though the children are absorbing so much of your life. In reality, if you truly prioritize your spouse and leave your children out on the porch in a dirty diaper in the rain, the police will come. But because you’re a normal person and not some child-abusing monster, you’re not going to do that. Making this promise might actually result in some time spent together as a couple, some choices made for the benefit of Dad’s or Mom’s agenda and goals instead of the kids’ activities all the time, and some needed balance.
7. I promise to do the stuff neither of us wants to do, if you really don’t want to do it more than I don’t.
My husband hates to do the dishes. He really hates it and thinks it is disgusting. I do not like to look at spreadsheets or think about money. At all. It gives me panting fits. Now, I don’t especially want to do the dishes either. Nobody wants to do the dishes. But I’m okay doing the dishes — yes, every single time, even if I also cooked the dinner, even if he left a plate full of gravy and broccoli bits hardening in the sink. I don’t really care that much, and I’m not going to stand on principle to try and chase some goal of “fairness” and make him do the dishes half the time. If fairness were what we were after, then I would have to pay attention to the checking account and have a budget and worry about mortgages. And I don’t. That’s not fair either. But we don’t care because we’ve made this promise:
8. I promise not to keep score.
You can’t win marriage. There are no points. Any reckoning or score-keeping on your part is only going to result in told-you-so trumpeting or sad dissatisfaction. Not keeping score means you don’t have to pay back the good stuff, and you don’t get to punish the failures. It also means you can give freely, and that you have a soft place to fall when you fail yourself. There are consequences for every action — good and bad. That is true. But “forgive and forget” works two ways — you forget the good stuff you did and the bad stuff he/she did. In return you can expect your bad stuff to be forgotten, and your spouse to give you good stuff without measure.
9. I promise to not care if you get fat or skinny or old.
I’m talking about getting fat, people. Butt, huge. Arms, wiggly. I’m also talking about hot bodies wasting away to nothing. Boobs, gone. Butt, gone. Can we talk about hair falling out? Not just boy hair, but girl hair too. Weird moles developing. Facial hair getting thicker or thinner. Googly eyes. The truth is, you don’t really care about these things. Your favorite person is your favorite person until the end of time, even if their head falls off or they grow a third leg. Even if a dragon comes and eats off the lower half of their body or they turn purple or get warts. You know what matters is on the inside, and you can articulate it. If you want to utter the most romantic words a woman will ever hear, say, “I will love you forever, babe, even if you get wicked fat.” Trust me. Your skinny fiancé will love you for this.
10. I promise to put your happiness before mine.
Really it all boils down to this, doesn’t it? You promise to subvert your needs, your wants, your goals and priorities, to those of your spouse. And he or she does the same for you. If you’re both working for the other’s happiness, earnestly and sincerely, then you’re both going to be ridiculously happy. Here’s the key though: It’s not enough to sublimate yourself and be a virtuous martyr for his/her dreams to come true. You also have to allow your spouse to do the same for you. You have to be able to say “Okay!” when he says “Go!” To say “Thanks!” when she says “I don’t mind!” And trust that when it’s your turn to reverse roles, you’ll do the very same. Because in the end, it’s not even selflessness. It’s working for the common good. And if you can’t say you’ll do that, then “until we are parted by death” is just going to be a long, dull, sad life sentence.
In my opinion, if you can’t wholeheartedly vow these things, you shouldn’t be getting married. Yep, it’s a little tougher to promise “in fatness and in emaciation, even if my mother hates you” than it is to promise “in joy and in sorrow, forsaking all others.” But which is really braver, and what promise more meaningful?