I’ve been to a ton of weddings. I’ve even officiated a few. As a therapist, I spend a lot of time with engaged couples. Some are interested in really preparing for a great marriage. Most are pretty acutely focused on the wedding. I’ve found that the best and most lasting way that I can help a couple prepare for a wedding is to focus on the wedding vows.
I truly believe in the power of a good wedding vow. What makes the best ones? That it’s believable. When a couple knows what they are saying and truly believe in it, then a wedding vow carries weight and really means something.
Out of all of the weddings I have officiated and attended, I have to say, it’s rare that I believe what the bride and groom are saying to one another. I’m actually not sure they believe it. It’s not that I think they’re lying. I just don’t think they have any idea what they’re saying.
I have a couple in my practice right now, married nearly twenty years. They’re struggling. She’s actually angry about her vows. She said, “I can’t believe they make you repeat these silly promises when you get married. You don’t know what they are. You don’t even know who you are.”
I asked her, “What should they say?” Her answer: “Good luck.”
But I think it takes more than luck to have a successful marriage. And I think vows matter. I just think they should be believable. Believable vows have at least these four things in common:
Your vows should declare something. They should state your goals for the best version of yourself over the journey. They should also invite your partner to become the best version of themselves. They should say…”I’m doing this thing on purpose. I choose marriage on purpose. I choose you on purpose."
Your vows are your statement of intention. What do you intend to do in your marriage? My biggest regret about my own vows is that I didn’t have any idea what I was saying. I was just parroting our officiant. In that way, I couldn’t really have intention. Now, whenever I officiate a wedding, I take a moment after the vows to ask if they really mean the words they’ve spoken and whether they believe the words they hear.
I think sense of purpose falls just shy of a full-blown promise—for reasons that may become clear in the next section—but your vows should have some sense of commitment to intent and some sense of commitment to chasing your best selves for the long run.
The biggest challenge I have with pre-married couples is that they have no idea how much they don’t know. Wedding planning often limits your point of view as you focus on a single day. The thing about perspective is that it’s sometimes more powerful to acknowledge that you only have some rather than believe that you have all you need.
I think the most believable vows reflect that you’re mostly ignorant about the thousands of days that will follow, or at least acknowledge realistic expectations for the longer journey. A couple that married last summer vowed to “be the person I will work out arguments with for the rest of my life” and to “be gracious ten years from now when the qualities I love so much about you are actually what’s driving me crazy.” Recognizing in advance adopting a long view, one with perspective, can help you persevere through the tough times that will eventually come.
03. Personal Relevance
I’m all for traditional vows. I love them and I think they have a great sense of gravitas and poetry. I think phrases like “for better and for worse” and “love and cherish” are deeply powerful. But they should also be personal. You should spend some time examining what these words mean to you. What does “sickness” mean? What does “richer” mean? What does “cherish” actually mean?
I officiated a wedding once where the couple, who had written their own vows, went on a mutual tangent about how they would each cherish by taking care of the dishes in the sink. The dishes and the sink meant something deeply personal to this couple, and I believed their vows.
A wedding is a celebration. So is a marriage. Don’t forget to include a little play in your ceremony, kind of like that couple did with the dishes. Some of the most enjoyable and believable vows are exchanged with a great deal of joy and laughter. Don’t be afraid to sprinkle some of that in.
My favorite example of this was a couple who practiced acrobatics together and executed a balancing exercise in the middle of the ring exchange. It sounds strange, I know, but their community celebrated wildly with the break from tradition. Another couple had been obsessed with one of those wedding-photo apps and encouraged their guests all weekend to take and send photos of the experience. As the officiant, I orchestrated a “wedding selfie” from the altar which included all the guests taking pictures of the selfie itself. It was playful but also important.
Commit early on to play with your partner. The healthiest couples laugh together a lot. Why not start with your vows. And if you’re more prone to a serious reflection from the altar, at least promise to play. You won’t regret it.
The vows are my second favorite part of a wedding. The first is when it’s confirmed that both partners have actually shown up. Showing up—day after day—is what marriage is really all about. It’s about remembering that your vows matter and that you need to keep making them over and over again. That’s how you beat luck. You add purpose and perspective and personal relevance and play. That’s how you maintain a marriage after a wedding.
Photo Credit: Cynthia Chung