- Weddings today commonly feature recitations by the bride and groom that are called “vows” but may include no promises at all. Tweet This
- Traditional vows place the ceremony in a world shared with friends and relatives—words honed into dignity and humanity through many centuries that haunt songs, novels, and poems everyone knows. Tweet This
- Traditional vows are promises that real, imperfect human beings can live up to. Tweet This
Tradition assumes that marriage rests on a unique kind of love—love that gives and asks for an exclusive, sexual, permanent, tender, respectful, and protective regard. To get married, couples promise each other just these things in a few words spoken before one or more witnesses.
Today, self-written vows so often replace traditional ones that young couples may almost consider them a requirement. Self-written vows have made for many a warm, wonderful wedding, but sometimes they go wrong. After one painful day trying to write my own, I gave up. The traditional vows said what I wanted to say and were beautiful and moving beyond anything I could write—and, as a bonus, were stress- and time-pressure-free.
The original source of all contemporary versions of traditional vows is the 1662 Anglican Book of Common Prayer (BCP).1 The words below are for the groom. The bride’s first speech differed from his by omitting “comfort” and including “obey him and serve him” and the second by adding “obey.”
[The officiant says:]
WILT thou have this woman to thy wedded wife, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live?
[The officiant asks him to repeat after him:]
I N. take thee N. to my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth.
Although state laws don’t mandate vows of any kind,2 officials like judges, mayors, or notaries who get asked to officiate in a traditional style often use secular rewrites of the BCP vows that omit religious references, drop the woman’s vows to serve and obey, and modernize the language. Otherwise, they are basically the same. An example:
______, will you take this [woman/man] to be your wedded [wife/husband] to live together in the estate of matrimony? Will you love, honor and keep [her/him]; in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others, keep yourself only unto [her/him], as long as you both shall live?”3
Today’s religious vows, like secular ones, almost always give men and women identical vows that otherwise echo the BCP. We’re prone to describe all weddings as “taking vows,” but many religions, including Judaism and Islam, traditionally don’t use vows in weddings (though some couples today may choose to add them).
Vows are solemn promises, and, as such, legally and morally call for witnesses, whether a single justice of the peace representing the community or a room full of wedding guests. The ceremony both cements the couple’s union and gives it social recognition and support.4 This is why in the BCP ceremony and all the many world traditions built upon it, the officiant’s first words address not the bride and groom, but the assembled company, in the familiar words: “Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here . . .”5
Traditionally, the ceremony includes only vows that address the heart of the marital relationship because those are the ones the community has a stake in witnessing—the ones that create a marriage. Community support strengthens marriages, and strong marriages strengthen the community.
Some self-composed versions simply supplement or modernize the traditional vows without changing their content. Others, though, discard some or all of them. Weddings today commonly feature recitations by the bride and groom that are called “vows” but may include no promises at all, and substitute poetic or amusing declarations of love, hopes for their marriage, how they met, and similar themes. All this serves mainly to amuse or entertain the guests and makes the vows into a show starring the bride and groom. Online, you’ll sometimes find the wedding guests referred to as “the audience.”6 But the guests—friends, relatives, coworkers, teachers, employers, clergy—are witnesses, participants in the ceremony, not strangers looking for amusement.
Some couples who write their own vows describe their love, then give a long list of funny, romantic, or admirable promises, such as this one:
I love the way you dance to make me laugh.
I love that you always push my hair back when it's in my face.
I love that I get a kiss from you every time we stop at a red light.
I love that you're open to trying new things.
Today, I want to make promises to you that I will always keep.
I promise to never stop holding your hand.
I promise to make sure I'm not just hungry when I get upset.
I promise to share my food with you, never go to bed angry and always honor your passion for the Red Sox,
but NOT your passion for the wave.
I promise to stand by your side while you face the world. Listen to you when you speak.
I promise to join your laughter with my own and when you can't look on the bright side, I will sit with you in the dark.
I promise to grow alongside you, but also to never grow up.
I promise to love, respect, protect and trust you, and give you the best of myself . . . .7
Most of this is sweet-talk, teasing, and jokes about private matters that concern only the couple, not their community. The unique vows of marital commitment, permanence and fidelity, are omitted; promises “to love, respect, protect” could be about siblings or best friends. Laughs and teasing are ancient wedding traditions, but traditionally come in the celebratory before or after events—parties, showers, toasts, and dinners—not in the vows. And light material (“honoring your passion for the Red Sox” or “always letting you have the last blueberry pancake”) implicitly makes light of the solemn vows that create a marriage.
Self-written vows sometimes backfire when they exaggerate how good the couple will be to each other, and sound like promises to be a wonderful human being and mate: “I will always be honest with you, kind, patient and forgiving.”8 In the traditional vows, you promise each other not to be a stellar mate, but just to be a mate. The traditional vows (excepting “forsaking all others”) call for broad, life-long courses of behavior in which common sense expects ups and downs. Everyone will be unkind and unloving sometimes, but that’s not breaking the vows of love and care because those vows address the overall shape of their relations and lives. The traditional vows are promises that real, imperfect human beings can live up to.
Every wedding is the ritual celebration of what a new marriage shares in common with all other marriages: it says that here’s one more couple who’ve found love and will build their lives on it with the support and good wishes of their own little community.
For various reasons, couples may omit promises of permanence and sexual fidelity—the two things love wants most—perhaps through mere inadvertence or simply taking those things for granted. But this may sound as though they don’t believe in or trust those vows or those values. In fact, some self-composed vows rephrase the traditional ones as wishes and hopes, or promises to “try:”
I, (Name), take you, (Name), to be my lawful wife (husband). I will try to be a loving wife (husband). I promise to respect you as an individual. I want to develop as a person in partnership with you. I want to love you through good fortune and adversity, while we both shall live.”9
Trying to be a loving wife isn’t promising to be one, and “wanting” to love you until death parts us" isn’t promising lifelong love. The guests may hear a whisper of “divorce pending” behind these hedged promises. Why, they may wonder, are we all making such a big fuss about this iffy relationship? (Infidelity is a leading cause of divorce).10
The same effect may be created by vows that sound defensive or worried, as though the future spouses are trying to persuade each other that marriage isn’t really going to be so awful:
I promise to respect you and cherish you as an individual, a partner, and an equal, knowing that we do not complete, but complement each other. May we have many adventures and grow old together.11
The insistence on equality can come across as an argument with someone who thinks men and women aren’t equal. The words about complementing but not completing each other suggest qualms about being tied down; hopes for adventures hint at worries about boredom or living a conventional life, strangled by social rules. Google “wedding vows” together with either “adventure” or “accomplice in mischief,” and you’ll find them in published sample vows remarkably often.
Couples who choose to write their own vows want a unique, personal, and distinctive wedding. But what works best may be what’s familiar. Because the traditional vows are known everywhere, they place the ceremony in a world shared with friends and relatives. Their words have been honed into dignity and humanity through many centuries, and haunt songs, novels, and poems that everyone knows. Every time a new couple steps up to repeat the familiar words, that resonance deepens and helps weddings do their job.
Every marriage is the start of something new and unique. Every wedding, no matter how conventional, has its own special flavor. But every wedding is also the ritual celebration of what a new marriage shares in common with all other marriages: it says that here’s one more couple who’ve found love and will build their lives on it with the support and good wishes of their own little community. This is good news for them and for society.
Cheryl Mendelson received her Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Rochester and her J.D. from Harvard Law School. She has practiced law in New York City and taught philosophy at Barnard College. Her books include the bestselling Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House, a trilogy of novels about Morningside Heights, and, most recently, The Good Life: The Moral Individual in an Antimoral World.
1. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer (BCP), the version now in use in the Anglican church, is a revision of versions from 1549 and 1559. The words of the vows are identical in all three, and all hark back to even earlier versions. The woman’s vow of obedience seems to have been added only in 1506. Almost all modern American versions of the vows, religious or secular, omit the woman’s vow of obedience, but the BCP retains it.
2. A few require you to say or write that “I take you, _____, as my husband/wife.”
3. Sample Ceremony One, from Civil Marriage Ceremony Handbook for Mayors of Michigan, published by the Michigan Association of Mayors in coordination with the Michigan Municipal League, 1973, revised December 2015, p. 21. I’ve collapsed the questions to the man and woman, as they are identical. The Handbook gives five different sample ceremonies, and couples can choose one of the five or substitute any others they like, perhaps from their own religion or self-written ones.
4. R. Kelly Aune and Krystyna S. Aune, “Skydiving Weddings and Social Support,” Family Studies Blog, October 15, 2014.
5. The greeting in the 1549 and 1559 versions was even more clear: “Dearely beloved frendes,” it begins. The priest also treats the guests as witnesses when, in more words we all still know, he calls on anyone present who knows of any reason why the couple can’t lawfully marry to “speak now or forever hold [your] peace.”
6. For example, see Note to 4, Wedding Vows of Brian and Kim, on getting the best rise out of the “audience.” Accessed on April 30, 2021 at Daydreams.com.
7. "11 Beautiful Vows from Couples Who Wrote Their Own," Example 3, The Knot, Updated July 13, 2020.
8. How to Write Wedding Vows Step by Step: “Romantic Wedding Vows,” Shutterfly Community, Updated Mar 11, 2019.
9. Joshua Withers, “Example Wedding Vows,” Example 16, Wedding Blog.
10. See Scott, Shelby B et al. “Reasons for Divorce and Recollections of Premarital Intervention: Implications for Improving Relationship Education.” Couple & family psychology vol. 2,2 (2013): 131-145. See also Frank D. Fincham, Ross W. May, “Infidelity in Romantic Relationships," Current Opinion in Psychology Vol. 13, Feb 2017, 70-74.
11. Heather Lee, "Nonreligious Wedding Wows,” Minted Weddings, last updated on May 14, 2020, Sample 15.