So Long As We Both Shall Live -Maybe

David Blankenhorn, Charlotte Observer, 11/24/1997

Many of the motivations behind the new vows are understandable, even admirable. Couples want to avoid hypocrisy. They want the ceremony to be personally meaningful. In part, the vows are a practical response to the growing phenomenon of mixed-tradition marriages. But this change reflects a dramatic shrinking of our idea of marriage. As the idea of marriage gets weaker, so does the reality. In this sense, the new vows are important philosophical authorizations for our divorce culture. They are both minor causes and revealing results of a society in which marriage as an institution is decomposing.

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Subjects: Divorce, Marriage

More by: David Blankenhorn

To understand why the United States has the highest divorce rate in the world, go to some weddings and listen to the vows: the words of mutual promise exchanged by couples during the marriage ceremony. To a remarkable degree, marriage in America today is exactly what growing numbers of newlyweds say that it is: a loving relationship of undetermined duration created of the couple, by the couple and for the couple.

In recent years, two basic innovations have transformed the marriage vow in the United States. Both innovations are particularly widespread in Protestant churches, both mainline and evangelical, in which about half of all U.S. marriages occur.

First, as Barbara Dafoe Whitehead points out in "The Divorce Culture," marriage vows today commonly downplay or avoid altogether any pledge of marital permanence. The old vow was "till death us do part" or "so long as we both shall live." Most new vows simply leave the question of marital duration unasked and unanswered, as if the issue were either irrelevant or beyond knowing.

Second, growing numbers of couples – perhaps most couples – compose their own vows. My wife and I did in 1986; most couples we know did. It would be hard to exaggerate the symbolic importance of this shift. The old vows were created by society and presented to the couple, signifying the goal of conforming the couple to marriage. The new vows "are created by the couple and presented to society, signifying the goal of conforming marriage to the couple. The two approaches reflect strikingly divergent views of marriage and of reality itself.

In one view, the vow is prior to the couple. The vow exists on its own, exerting social and sacred authority that is independent of the couple. In this sense, the vow helps to create the couple. For in making the same promise that others before them have made, and that others after them will make, the couple vows on their wedding day to become accountable to an ideal of marriage that is bigger than they are.

In the new view, the couple is prior to the promise. The vow is not an external reality, like gravity or the weather, but instead a subjective projection, deriving its meaning solely from the couple. Rather than the vow creating the couple, the couple creates the vow. With this one procedural change in the making and exchanging of vows, a reality in which the marriage is larger than the couple is replaced by a reality in which the couple is larger than the marriage.

Many of the motivations behind the new vows are understandable, even admirable. Couples want to avoid hypocrisy. They want the ceremony to be personally meaningful. In part, the vows are a practical response to the growing phenomenon of mixed-tradition marriages.

But this change reflects a dramatic shrinking of our idea of marriage. As the idea of marriage gets weaker, so does the reality. In this sense, the new vows are important philosophical authorizations for our divorce culture. They are both minor causes and revealing results of a society in which marriage as an institution is decomposing.

Who is to blame for this transformation of the vow? I suggest that we blame the clergy. Many pastors have become little more than entertainers, bit players, in the weddings they officiate and in the marriages they launch. Many couples choose a church for their wedding primarily on the basis of architecture. Consequently, what matters most about the wedding is increasingly overshadowed. The party gets bigger; the promise gets smaller.

What is to be done? Here are four proposals.

1. Pastors should reclaim the historic responsibility inherent in communities of faith to promulgate and maintain the integrity of the marriage vows exchanged in their churches. Central to this, would be the revival of the vow of marital permanence.

2. Pastors should agree to marry couples in their churches only when at least one member of the couple is also a member of the church.

3. Pastors should require all couples who marry in their churches to participate in a serious program of church-sponsored premarital education.

4. Individual churches should formally embrace the goal of strengthening marriage and lowering the divorce rate in their congregation, specifically through ongoing marital enrichment programs, and generally by seeking to create a marriage culture within the faith community that is distinct from the divorce culture in the larger society.

These policies would convey a clear message to engaged couples: Couples who get married here learn what marriage is. Couples who get married here become part of a community that affirms and supports marriage. As a result, couples who get married here are more likely to be able to keep their promises, in part because they make promises worth keeping.

This article originally appeared here.

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