I have the great good fortune to lunch frequently with one of the people I collaborate with on creative projects. We have favorite spots chosen because we can sit and talk for an extended period in the middle of the day and not be given the evil eye from wait staff eager to turn the table. It was on just such a lunch date that the question of vows came up and much to my amazement I was caught thinking about the conversation many days later. By way of background, we were discussing a mutual friend who was about to get married under circumstances that were both stressful and incredibly romantic. We are very fond of this person and while I am excited and happy for her, my colleague and I, both a bit older than her, expressed some anxiety about rushing into a marriage. I made a long-winded speech about how things can come back to bit you in a marriage when the foundation has not had a long time to settle. What seems like a romantic gesture at the time becomes an accusation later. I raised, for example, the couple who marries to get the health insurance coverage they need. The argument is that they would get married eventually anyway, but right now they lack health insurance, so why not go ahead? All well and good until the marriage hits a rough patch and one party says to the other; “you only married me for the health insurance!” My friend, however, had a much simpler response. Marriage he noted is a vow.
I have always loved the Episcopal marriage service. The whole “to have and to hold from this day forward” is just so utterly beautiful and I must confess a real regret that the most recent version of the Book of Common Prayer removed the phrase. “and thereto I pledge thee my troth.” The pledging of a troth seems so beautiful to me, a throwback to the days of Henry VIII and a less romantic time when brides were expected “to obey.” But even with this omission, the Episcopal marriage service is full of history and delight in its simple liturgy. It is indeed a pledge, a vow, one to another, to live the rest of your lives together for better or worse.
It is an unfortunate fact of life that approximately half of all the marriages in the US end in divorce. The church, true to its admonishment to let “no man put asunder” that whom God has joined together, had a very public aversion to divorce. When I was small, if you were divorced your second marriage was probably not in a church, and some parishes withheld communion from those who having divorced, dared to remarry. In time things eased up a bit, and the church became less centered on shunning divorced people and more focused on counseling before marriage. If you choose not to undergo the advice or other acts of penance, you might (again depending on the parish) get married in the church, but you would not receive the nuptial blessing at the end. Having attended many Episcopal weddings, I remember being stunned when my brother-in-law was married to an Episcopalian (both had been divorced), and there was no nuptial blessing. Alas, this marriage ended in divorce, so maybe the clergy was right to withhold the blessing.
Marriage is a vow, an oath that should be entered into solemnly with thought. We all know this, and thousands of us make these vows among the spectacle of a wedding only to break the pledge. Why is it that the importance of the promise seems to be so overlooked? It would seem we all give it lip service, we all agree that we must be faithful to each other, “forsaking all others,” but adultery has become so commonplace one hopes cheating on your spouse does not preclude you from heaven. If so there will be quite an overcrowding in hell. I do not judge those who find themselves in these stressful situations nor do I wish to be seen criticizing those who do not believe in fidelity, I don’t understand why, if you make the vow, you don’t keep it. Why have we become so self-indulgent that we can only handle the good times and don’t stick it out in the bad times? How can someone leave the husband or wife they pledged to stay with, in sickness and health, because one or the other falls seriously ill?
One of my closest friends for many years never married. He is fond of saying that marriage is a contract, and he knows he can not honor it. I respect that attitude if you can’t keep the vow or honor the commitment, don’t entered into marriage. As my luncheon pal said it is a vow, once made you are honor-bound to keep it. In the not too distant past, it was not easy to divorce; barriers existed in the church and law. Of course, people found ways to get around those barriers, but it was a real effort, and perhaps some failing marriages managed to stay together and made it to a happier time. It is unreasonable to assume we will go back to a time when divorce carried a social stigma, but I do believe we need to think more carefully about what it means to make a vow – one to another – and stick with it.
There is no longer a social stigma to living together without marriage, or to sex outside marriage or any of the old-fashioned morals that were so prevalent in a different time, so why not make the vow of marriage something much more important? Why not attach to it a significance beyond expensive dresses and receptions that last all night. The church perhaps needs to teach the meaning of an oath, not just in premarital counseling, but all the time in a hundred different ways. Certainly, sermons can emphasize fidelity, but Sunday Schools can teach the importance of keeping your word and adult education could explore what it takes to stay faithful to your vows in a world where it doesn’t seem to matter too much anymore.
We are surrounded by a secular culture which seems to have given up on valuing morals and commitment. Lies are as frequent as truths, if not more frequent. We no longer seem to appreciate specific necessary behaviors, like honesty, so it is not surprising that the institution of marriage has become decidedly weakened. For some inexplicable reason, we no longer see the value in a marriage that lasts a lifetime. We read about the marriage of George H.W. and Barabra Bush, and we are amazed at the love story. We treat it as a rare and peculiar thing that we might envy but seem unwilling to emulate.
I once asked a highly successful young executive and fellow business associate of mine how he balanced what seemed to be an equally successful family life with his rapid rise in business. I often think of his answer. What he told me was that he had negotiated his business contract with strict restrictions. He said he told them that he would work non-stop Monday through Friday, but he would be focusing on his family on weekends. He told them he would leave every day at six so that he could be home with his kids as they were getting ready for bed, and he told them he would take vacations that would not be interrupted. His last words to me on the matter have stayed with me always. “All I really care about,” he said,” is that when I die they put on my grave, here lies a good husband and a good father.” To which I say, Amen.