One of the consequences of being a priest is that I’ve likely attended more weddings than you have attended. Waaay more.
At weddings, couples exchange vows. For better or worse. For richer, for poorer. In sickness and in health. I won’t have sex with anybody else, ever. To love and to cherish. Until death do us part.
You know the drill.
These are the vows. The traditional vows. The obvious expectations. The heartbeat of marriage.
One of the consequences of being a marriage counselor for the past 30+ years is that I’ve likely listened to more marital complaints than you have. Waaay more.
In marriage counseling, couples make fierce moral claims on another set of marriage vows. These vows are less obvious. These expectations lurk in the shadows of marriage. In fact, these vows tend not to become overtly stated until and unless they’ve been disappointed. Betrayed.
These are the Implicit Marriage Vows. You don’t even know you’ve promised them. They hide between the lines of marriage ceremonies.
So, let’s make these vows overt. Let’s say them out loud.
I promise never to stop showing up for my own life: I promise not to become dull and boring. I promise to feed my brain, to nurture my own continued development as a person. I will learn. I will nurture a life of vitality, health, happiness and enthusiasm.
I promise to respect and encourage your life’s calling – your vocation. I know that will sometimes mean sacrifice. That we will pinch pennies, perhaps, while you return to school. That sometimes you will come home late. That sometimes you will be tired. I understand that I will not, in every day or every moment, be the center of your attention. I understand that loving me is not your only work in the world.
I promise never to love my job more than I love you. I will set limits. I will come home. I will regularly preserve my best energy to be with you, be present with you, play with you, make love to you, talk with you and listen to you. The president of the United States during thermonuclear exchange is not without 37 seconds to text the spouse and say “I’m thinking of you.” I will never be so important that you will be endlessly subordinated to my work in the world. I will never be too busy to remind you once each day that you are cherished and loved.
I promise to embrace your family. I promise to respect and support their love for you, and your love and familial duty to them. I will never ask you to choose between me and them. I may not like all of them, but they are family, and therefore deserve my respect. I hope we can make sport of the nuttier members of your family on the way home, just to blow off steam. But, to their face and in their company, they will have my every patience and decorum.
I promise that I will never put my family ultimately before my marriage. I know you will never ask me to choose between them and you. But, should any member of my family ever ask me, in word or deed, to choose between them and you, I promise to choose you. I will set limits with my family. I will have the strength to tell my family “no.” Or in some cases, “Don’t.” Or “stop.”
I promise to treat you with warm courtesy and decorum. “Please … Thank you … Excuse me … Can I help you? … After you.” There is no excuse for me to speak to you with chronic impatience or shortness in my voice. Littler excuse still to speak to you with disdain or scorn. I promise you the best of my civility, the best of my good manners.
I promise I will sometimes be moody and pissy and have not the slightest idea why. When I’m like this, I promise I will overlook any or all of the above mentioned promises. I will ‘forget myself.’ I will leave both you and myself looking for The Other Me. The Best of Me. My Better Self. If it means anything to you, I promise that, when I come to my senses, I will have the common decency to be greatly embarrassed by my low-life, entitled behavior, and to ask your forgiveness.
See, nobody ever says these things out loud during a wedding. But, I promise you, it gets really loud a few years in, when spouses fail to make good on these same vows.
(You may reach Steven Kalas at email@example.com.)