- Marriage vows are a commitment to one's spouse; not what one is going to get from the relationship.
- Marriage vows are not guides for how to work things out in the day-to-day function of the relationship.
- It helps to follow marriage "rules" that support working collaboratively for the betterment of each partner and the relationship.
I ran across a 2001 article by a divorce lawyer who spelled out why your marriage vows entitle you to nothing.1 Surprised? Read on. His point is that your marriage vows provide for your spouse, not you. You take a vow “to love, to honor, to cherish, (to obey), to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, for better for worse, until death do us part.” And, he argues that this vow means no excuses.
For lawyer Forrest Bayard, marriage is an institution comprised of non-negotiable rules called vows. However, these "rules" do not tell you how your marriage will work—how to resolve differences, how to decide who is accountable for what in the marriage, how to talk about what is important for you to flourish, and how to listen to and support your partner.
People divorce (the only way to undo your vows) because they are not getting what they want out of the marriage and don’t know how to get it. When one or both partners seek therapy, there is not much conversation about vows made to the other person; instead, it's often self-righteous complaints and a sense of entitlement to the things they want that they feel they are not getting.
What Are the Rules of Marriage That Allow You to Get What You Want?
Currently, there are two popular ways in which couples try to work things out in their marriage—to get what they want out of the relationship.
Rule by Gender
Even though gender is becoming less significant in defining relationships in most areas of our lives, it remains a central motif in marriage. “Doing gender” in marriage is about acting out your current ideas about masculinity and femininity. Husbands and wives demonstrate their masculinity and femininity in the way they interact around everyday household activities, childcare, displays of affection, etc. The success of the marriage is defined by how well each conforms to their ideas about masculinity and femininity.
Rule by the Business Model
A newer approach to working things out in marriage is the business approach or the self-interest model. As in business, partners do things for each other with the expectation of a return—it’s a quid pro quo arrangement. In this approach, what we want from each other is expressed as “I need.” Our wants and wishes (for a good life) become “needs." Applied to marriage, this translates into the idea that we must fulfill our partner’s self-identified individual needs—but we expect our own needs to be fulfilled in return. The basic idea is “You satisfy my needs, I satisfy yours.” The success of the marriage is defined by how well you feel your needs are satisfied.
A Different Way to Work Things Out in Your Marriage
A better way to work things out in your marriage is to see it in terms of how you interact with each other—what psychologists call the relational or interpersonal processes that occur between the two of you. The idea is to develop relational processes that foster the physical and mental well-being of both partners as well as the relationship itself.2
Here are a set of “interpersonal rules” to follow so that this can happen.
- You each feel a special concern for the other—"every concern of yours is a concern of mine.”
- The things that are important for you to flourish are viewed as wants that are negotiable—they are never “entitlements." Your wants are not needs.
- How you sort out getting the things you want is through negotiating collaboratively with each other—you are willing to negotiate in “good faith.”
- Being collaborative in negotiating means sharing authority—neither partner is privileged by gender, how much they make, etc.
- Being collaborative in negotiating means accepting responsibility for negotiated outcomes.
- Being collaborative means that neither of you expects a “return” for what you do for your partner—you give because you are interested in your partner’s well-being.
Self-Reflection: The Fundamental Requirement If You Want a Collaborative Marriage
The basic requirement to establish this kind of collaborative marriage is the capacity for self-reflection. Being self-aware as a habit allows us to keep track of the things that are important to us and remember to be accountable to our partner.
Jennifer Porter, a managing partner in a leadership and team development firm, has a terrific take on self-reflection, which is how we can become more self-aware:3
… The most useful (self)-reflection involves the conscious consideration and analysis of beliefs and actions for the purpose of learning. Reflection gives the brain an opportunity to ... sort through observations and experiences, consider multiple possible interpretations and create meaning. This meaning becomes learning, which can then inform future mindsets and actions.
Self-Reflection Is the Way to Deal With Marital Conflict
Differences and disagreements are not conflicts. You can disagree about when to go to the movies, how to discipline your children, when to have sexual relations, or where to get the car serviced. When you disagree with your spouse, it is about something not about each other. You can deal effectively with disagreement through collaborative negotiation.
In contrast, when you and your spouse are in conflict, you are making assumptions about each other and you will feel self-righteous and entitled. In a conflict, you are not talking; rather, you are yelling, avoiding, accusing, talking over each other, etc. These actions fuel the relationship conflict. There is no negotiation in conflict—no resolution—and no benefit to the relationship.
The way to resolve conflict is for each person to be self-reflective and personally accountable for his or her part in the relationship breakdown. There are two major indicators of when you are primed to get into a conflict with your spouse: specific emotional reactions and how you characterize what your spouse has done.
Emotional Reactions That Can Provoke Conflict
Psychiatrist David Viscott describes the way we talk about our emotions.4 Anger can be expressed as being irritated, miffed, teed off, irked, annoyed, furious, or burned. Fear can be expressed as being scared, edgy, jittery, concerned, worried, insecure, uptight, or getting the shakes. Being “hurt” is a catchall term used to describe all sorts of feelings without admitting much. Pay attention to how you code your emotional reactions to your spouse so that you can reflect, not react.
Learn to Describe, Not Characterize, Your Spouse’s Actions
When you get angry, afraid, or hurt, you will resort to labeling, i.e., characterizing your spouse’s action that triggered your emotional reaction. An example:
Your spouse did not pay attention to what you were saying in the way you wanted him or her to. That is a description of what was done. If you feel hurt or angry about this event, you will say something like “I can’t believe you ignored me like that."
To characterize your partner as ignoring you is interpreting what she or he is doing. While she or he may understand and acknowledge that they did not listen as you expected and wanted (and likely would apologize), he or she will not cop to ignoring you.
When you characterize your partner’s actions rather than work to describe them, he or she is likely to react emotionally (i.e., personally). Your characterization and his or her emotional reaction (e.g. anger or hurt) sets up the conflict.
The only way out of this marital conflict is for both of you to step back and self-reflect. Avoiding conflict requires practicing describing, not characterizing, your spouse’s actions—it will pay off for your relationship and you will feel more grounded and secure.
Marriage Vows and Marital Rules
I like the marriage vows as they are (without the "obey" part, of course)—your commitment to the well-being of your spouse. As Mr. Bayard points out, they are not rules for how you work things out. These are the commitment-to-care-about-your-spouse-vows.
I think we should add working vows. These are vows that you are willing to negotiate collaboratively with your partner. They help develop the interpersonal processes that foster the physical and mental well-being of both partners, as well as the relationship itself. They also develop the invaluable skill of self-reflection. We take these working vows because we care about each other, not because it makes us more feminine or masculine, and not because if I do for my partner, he or she will do for me.
1. Forrest S. Bayard. "After the Wedding Vows, Couples Forget About the Vows. Chicago Tribune (May 09, 2001) https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2001-05-09-0105090045-story…
2. Aponte, C. E. A Marriage of Equals: How to Achieve Balance in a Committed Relationship. Berkeley, Ca: She Writes Press, 2019.
3. Porter, J. "Why You Should Make Time for Self-Reflection: Even If You Hate Dong it. Harvard Business Review, March 21, 2017.
4. Viscott, David. The Language of Feelings. (n.p.) Priam Books, 1976/