Consider the vows that two young people said out loud to each other in front of their community of family and friends—I was attending the wedding and found their vows so lovely that I opened my book, Marriage Rules, with their words.
They said in turn:
I promise to always treat you with kindness and respect.
I promise to be faithful, honest, and fair.
I promise to listen carefully to what you are saying.
I promise to apologize when I am wrong and to repair any harm I have done.
I promise to cook and clean for you.
I promise to be your partner and best friend in the best and worst of times.
I promise to bring my best self into our relationship.
I promise to live these promises as a daily practice.
Like many folks, I love being witness to wedding vows. They remind us how people enter marriage brimming with optimism and hope, vowing to be fair and responsible partners. They remind us, too, of our own good common sense about what makes marriage work. Did this couple come up with their vows by consulting relationship experts and studying the latest research on the ingredients of marital success? Of course not. They consulted their own hearts and best thinking. If they follow their vows, with even a large measure of error, their marriage will have a splendid chance of succeeding.
If you exchanged wedding vows, tape them to your bathroom mirror and read them aloud to yourself every morning along with the ritual brushing of teeth. It’s not realistic to believe that you will live your promises as a daily practice—unless you’re a Saint or a highly evolved Zen Buddhist. Not where marriage is concerned. But you can make a practice of returning to your vows when the going gets rough.
Which it will. Once out of the “Velcro stage” of the relationship, life is messy and complicated. Marriage is a lightning rod that absorbs anxiety and intensity from every source. We humans are primed to fight or flee under stress, and even the most resilient relationships get stuck in distance and blame. Paradoxically, it’s in our most enduring and important relationships that we’re least likely to be our most mature and thoughtful selves.
That’s why we need to return to our promises—or perhaps write new ones or compose them for the first time as the case may be. Some of the most profound promises may sound unromantic and unceremonious, like “I promise to cook and clean for you”—my favorite, actually, and the sexiest as far as most of my women friends are concerned.
Put your written promises where you will see them, if not taped to the mirror, then in your sock drawer if you prefer. Then when you can’t stand your partner take them out; you can still reach for your best self along with your written vows.
The challenge of marriage—indeed the challenge of all key relationships—is to keep your behavior congruent with your deepest values and principles rather than simply reacting to your partner.
As my dear friend and colleague, Marianne Ault-Riche put it, “It’s just when your partner is being the biggest jerk that you’re called upon to be your best self." In this, the greatest of all human challenges, your wedding vows can be your guide.