Why “For Better or Worse” is a Fatal Vow

Marriage and DivorceWe walk down the marriage aisle convinced our marriages will thrive. And with utter sincerity we make a vow that is the pinnacle of commitment—“For better or worse.” But what if that vow is the beginning of the end for our marriages?

THE HAPPIEST DAY OF OUR LIVES

Watch them.

He stands waiting. Brow glistening. His friends lined up behind him like faithful penguins. And the doors open and she appears radiant and bathed in white and she begins to glide toward him and her face is like the sun. And his smile widens and now his eyes are glistening.

With a blessing from her father, their hands are joined and they turn to face the person who will walk them through the ritual, joining them forever. The questions are asked.

“Do you take this man to be your husband?”

“Do you take this woman to be your wife?”

“For better or worse?”

And, from both, “I do.”

Watch them. Watch closely.

Something is off. They make this for-better-or-worse promise, this eternal commitment of their hearts, this gutsy-courageous vow to remain through anything—heartache and a lost baby and a house fire and joblessness and sickness and pestilence and even death. And how do they make this promise? With a smile. In fact, they look downright relieved.

Watch them closely, because this could kill their marriage.

THE COMMITMENT DECEPTION

Half of first-time marriages end in divorce. The odds of survival are the flip of a coin. How do we go from the tranquil confidence of the wedding day vow, to the vicious certainty of the courtroom battle?

I look around, and I wonder if our commitments are a façade.

I love purchasing from Amazon. Why? Because if I don’t like what I get, they make it so easy to return. We can walk away from mortgages as if our houses are old tents at a campground. Employers treat new hires like they’re trying out for the high school baseball team—miss the numbers for one quarter and you’re instantly replaced. People move in and out of commuter neighborhoods like they’re Red Roof Inns. We shop churches like malls, moving from one to another when newer and shinier products are offered.

In a world of exchangeability and transience, our commitment muscles have atrophied. In a world of customization and customer satisfaction, the hard-endless work of committing to one thing may have become too excruciating to endure.

But if our wedding day vow isn’t really a commitment, what is it?

Maybe when we make our for-better-or-worse vow, we aren’t even speaking to our partner. Maybe we are actually speaking to our own hearts, whispering to ourselves a subtle reassurance: “They’re mine now. They can’t leave me. No matter what I do or don’t do, I can’t mess this up now. I won’t be abandoned.”

I think this could be the unspoken underbelly of the marital vow. It’s why we smile with relief when we make the forever-promise. Our hearts aren’t actually entering into the demanding task of life-long commitment. Our hearts are anticipating assurance and certainty and the stability for which we so deeply long.

And when commitment is experienced as an event that has already happened—an event that brings us reassurance and guarantees—rather than the work of our lives, it is fatal to marriage.

WHY YOU SHOULD TREAT YOUR MARRIAGE LIKE A BUSINESS

Commitment is not a sentiment we vow; it’s a discipline we live. We don’t promise commitment; we practice it.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but maybe we should treat our marriages like a business.

Or approach them the way we would the PTA or the kids’ guitar lessons or our blogs and other social commitments. With focus and intentionality and regularity.

Can you imagine investing your entire life’s savings into a business, opening the doors, and then sitting back and heaving a sigh of relief, as if the hard work is already done? It would spell doom for the business.

And yet, in the most valuable endeavor of our lives, as the moment of the wedding day vow fades into memory, we abandon intentionality in our marriages. The birthday flowers no longer get purchased, the kids get a hug on the way out the door but your spouse doesn’t, your time together is focused on others rather than each other, and your energy is given away to every other priority.

I think this is actually a key secret to the success of marital therapy. As a marital therapist, I’m not doing anything miraculous. I don’t often have a bunch of cards up my sleeve, no magic. But I do provide a dedicated space, an hour of intentionality every week. An hour to face each other and to say in words and action, “You matter, we matter, this is my first priority right now.” An hour a week to slow down, to communicate meticulously, to go deeper into the most important parts of our hearts, and to rediscover the promise of the wedding altar.

This kind of intentionality is hard work, but the muscles of our love are starving for the exercise. They need to be stretched and torn and to become stronger in the healing.

LIVING THE VOW AND RECLAIMING COMMITMENT

We need to withdraw some of the intentionality we are putting into everything else, and we need to reinvest it in our most valuable asset—our marriages. We need to take at least two weekends a year to ourselves, away from kids and phones and dinner dishes. And one date night a month. And one morning per week, waking before the birds (and the kids) to sip coffee in the dark and light the flame of commitment.

If we invested in our marriages with this kind of intentionality, our marriage vows would become powerful again. Because they would be lived again and again, day after day, and year after year.

And they would be accompanied by an entirely different kind of smile. Not one of relief. But a smile of joy. A smile that acknowledges the most grueling work of life has begun. That the commitment will be hard. But it will be good. And it will strengthen our souls, making us people who can live and love and persevere.

For better or worse.

Comments? Do you have creative ideas for investing in your marriage? Ways you’ve been intentional about your commitment? Please feel free to share in the comments below.

DEAR READER, The next Tuesday Tip will go more deeply into the ways we can practice  our marital commitment with intentionality. Share your idea in the comments and it might make it in! And, as always, thank you for reading. It’s a gift. Sincerely, Kelly

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Photo Credit: Photo taken from this website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist, practicing at Alliance Clinical Associates in Wheaton, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Kort

    Dr. Kelly,
    This is one of your best articles yet.
    I think this line is absolutely brilliant,
    “But I do provide a dedicated space, an hour of intentionality every week. An hour to face each other and to say in words and action, “You matter, we matter, this is my first priority right now.””
    It’s easy to get in the rut of everyday living and not make your spouse a priority.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Thanks, Kort!

  • april

    “In a world of exchangeability and transience, our commitment muscles have atrophied.” Well put! But still, we long for commitment from that one special person – that sigh of relief at the altar, as you explained. I got to admit, I would have returned my ex-husband to Amazon if they would have taken him back. (I should have paid closer attention to the reviews from other customers). However, all joking aside I like the spin you put on it…treat marriage like a business; performance based bonuses for those who invest in their marital asset! Marriage might have a chance through that lens…..

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      April, you had me and my wife laughing out loud. Humor is a great way to redeem our difficult past! Thanks for sharing it.

  • janine

    Our date time recipe: 15 minutes a day of conversation (topics cannot include finances, kids, work, household chores), 1 night a week out, 1 day a month, 1 weekend a quarter (2 nights)… we also pay “marriage insurance” along with all the other insurances (auto, car, health etc) into a designated fund to use during date time. Sometimes we are great at implimenting, sometimes we forget with distractions of life and have to recommitt and refocus… post reminder notes etc.

    • Susan Taylor

      Marriage insurance — what a great idea to set funds aside that way.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Janine. Wow. I hope everyone reads this. And I’ll find a way to work some of these into Tuesdays post. What great ideas!

  • Steve

    Dr. Kelly (or Flan is how I know him):
    Great article this week and I believe your thoughts couldn’t be more true in today’s fast paced world. Too many times we make everything else a priority and get caught up in our “daily routine”, while negleting the one thing that helped get us to this point in our lives and thats each other. Well said today my friend!

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Steve, thanks for commenting! Hope you’re enjoying this holiday weekend with the fam. It’s funny you mentioned my nickname from our younger years. I think next week I’ll be posting something about growing up in Dixon. Say hi to Jen for me!

  • Val

    I am getting married tomorrow, and the headline was quite shocking to read. I think you are 100% correct. Everything has fallen by the wayside these last few weeks except wedding planning. Thank you for the heads up and the thought-provoking article.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      As I type this, I’m sure the wedding day preparations are already underway. Blessings to you and your husband as you begin this journey. And remember this, marriage is hard work, but it bears fruit like few other endeavors in life. May you and your groom reap the harvest!

  • Susan Taylor

    My husband travels about 3.5 days out of every 5. One of the ways we are intentional about staying connected is via texting. Because of the traveling, we have plenty of re-entry challenges and lots of opportunities to choose whether or not to be intentional about building into our marriage. Sometimes we do. Sometimes not. But texting has been something that has really enhanced our communication. Many of our private jokes and memories make their way into texts, so we also get that reinforcement of happy times through these little bits of connection.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      I think texting is a great way to stay connected throughout the day. I remember when my wife and I were dating, we’d trade email all day. It’s a tangible sign to the other that you are carrying them with you wherever you go. Thanks for sharing, Susan.

  • theshooz

    Thank you for this post! I’m going to be married coming up on two years, and while it’s been the most joyous two years of my life, I can also see how marriage is a work, something that requires intention. I think with both a lack of commitment in our culture and an incredibly fast-paced culture, it is easy to let the care of your marriage fall by the wayside.

    Two things that I try to remember daily: one, is our wedding crowns. In the Orthodox church we don’t have wedding vows, but rather wedding crowns, where we are united as the “king” and “queen” of our lives together, but also a symbol of our martyrdom to die to one another. The second is rather smaller, but I try to do something for him, everyday. Even if it is something little like making his morning coffee, or leaving a note in his care. These are my favorite “trick”s I’ve found so far for marriage.

    Thanks for always sharing great advice, and for reminding me that there are others out there with same worries and fears…and of course, joys!

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      I did not know about the wedding crowns ritual. Thank you for sharing it! And I would affirm the idea of choosing at least one way to serve your partner on a daily basis. Thanks again!

  • Honestly Catholic

    I do think the 50% divorce rate is an inaccurate statistic that has been tossed around since my childhood. http://www.truthorfiction.com/rumors/d/divorce.htm There are other sources that refute the 50% divorce rate. It also depends on sub-groups. My husband and are are college educated, we married in our late 20’s, our parents were still happily in their first and only marriages, we come from a religious background, and we were both virgins. Calculating the statistics of all the sub-groups, if we went strictly by statistics, our chances of divorce is very slim.

    When we were being prepared for our marriage by our Church, we were asked which was more important: us or our kids. We both answered “our kids” and got lectured that “no, its you.” The interesting thing is, when we both interpreted the question, we weren’t thinking in terms of neglecting our time together to prefer time with the kids. We were thinking in terms that our marriage is not about our own personal self fulfillment. Our marriage is about forming the family. So while it may be hard to love each other, we have to love each other because our marriage is a school of love for our children. That school of love isn’t about being picture perfect all the time, and honestly I don’t believe should be. Kids shouldn’t be disillusioned with how easy it is. Some of the best lessons I learned from my parents was from their perseverance and struggles. Our family grew stronger through the hard times. It wouldn’t feel strong till afterward, but life had its peaks and valleys and that was the nature of love. Marriage isn’t all joys nor is it all sorrows. It goes through seasons.

    Certainly spending time together is important, but its also important to recognize that marriage doesn’t exist to make a couple happy. I would say though that I went into marriage fully believing that marriage would challenge me to love in ways I had never loved before. It wasn’t about keeping the flame alive, but purifying romantic love of its egotism. Our parents’ love for each other I saw as a stable tree, while on our wedding day we were planting a vulnerable seedling. Its our duty to make it grow into a strong tree.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      I like your phrase, “…purifying romantic love of its egotism.” Definitely resonates with me. The 50% number can be deceiving and, as noted on the website linked, it’s probably somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of new marriages ending in divorce, not across history. Also a great point about “subgroups.” According to research, several factors that are predictive of more long-term marital stability include: marrying at an older age, having maritally satisfied parents, beginning the marriage with few mental health complaints, having a longer courtship, and being of higher socioeconomic status. Of course, these are just correlates. If they were always true, my wife and I would be doomed. :) Also interesting to note, even with all those demographic predictors of marital success, good communication skills is a better predictor than all of those combined! Thanks for digging into this deeper with me!

  • Willa Goodfellow

    Yes, intentional is the word for it. As lesbians in Iowa, we had the peculiar joy of taking these vows twice, first before our church family in 1996, and again before the judge in 2009. It astounded me that my wife would do the repeat so eagerly after knowing more about “the worst” — how poorly I had supported her role as the step-mother of a teenager, and particularly because we were just beginning the process of my applying for disability for mental health reasons. We regularly marvel at the blessing of our marriage. I guess she has her own reasons. For my part, I am intentional about doing things for her, asking about her day, giving her attention, precisely at those moments when I DON’T feel like it. Sometimes I DON’T feel like it. But she is there for me at those times when I CAN’T, and I am so grateful.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Willa, Your story reminds me of many of the Mexican immigrants I work with. Coming from Mexico, they were often married in a civil ceremony first and then married in a religious ceremony some time later. I had never thought about the depth of commitment that must be present when you “already know what you’re getting,” and still make it official. :) Thank you for this.

  • jlanewell

    I agree and disagree with your comments above.

    I disagree with “commitment is experienced as an event that has already happened—an event that brings us reassurance and guarantees—rather than the work of our lives, it is fatal to marriage.

    I think when you get married you enter into a commitment with your spouse and God. I believe it does come with reassurances and guarantees. It is not a free pass to be your absolute worst and expect that there will be no consequence. But it a guarantee to be committed in the hard times and to both strive to work it out not because it is for the kids but it is for each other.

    I agree that marriage takes work. Been there done that…and am continuing to do that.

    I understand anger and frustration and the lack of willingness to talk through things when you dont see eye to eye on how to fix the issue. But a few things I have learned is that you need time together to talk about your feelings.

    So how do we do this:
    Coffee dates for only an hour so you can afford to get out of the house with out the kids.

    Walking around the mall holding hands not saying much of anything so you can just feel closeness even if you dont agree on things.

    Going to Church and holding hands during the sermon.

    When I had to travel for work I would send him an email at night after the busy day of working in the office so he would know I was thinking of him and I was grateful for him holding down the fort at home.

    When times were the toughest, I would tell my husband that I wanted to talk to my best friend about my husband that is really pissing me off. Since we promised each other we would always be friends no matter what happened between us, he would listen and care more about my point of view even if he disagreed with every word I said. At times just knowing I was heard was enough to soften my heart and open up to listen to him. My husband would be my best friend and actually hear me. So when all else fails we would be best friends and listen to each other.

    I wake up everyday and I ask myself how can I make my husbands day easier. How can I lighten the load he is carrying. What little things can I do to make him smile?

    Do I have a perfect marriage? Not even close. But I am blessed to have a man to share my journey with that values me enough to be there time and time again in the easy and hard situations in our life together.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      I really like one of the themes here, which is, don’t wait to do big things for each other or to spend large amounts of time together. Take small moments and small gestures and let them add up over time. Thank you!

  • Catharine Phillips

    Great piece! And following commentary… I love marriage insurance! I am on marriage #2. The priest who officiated at wedding #1 suggested that if either one of us identified a problem in the marriage, the other would agree to counseling whether he or she saw a problem or not. Great advice. We didn*t take it until way too late. I will say that the divorce dramatically changed my pre-marital counseling with couples I have worked with. I count it a success that two couples I worked with decided not to get married. I have been married to husband #2 for over seventeen years. We have weathered a number of health storms together, sit and giggle and hold hands in church (I am a priest, but now sit in the pew), and are now in the midst of home renovation, which is not going the way it was planned (enough to try any relationship). Perfect? No. But sitting here with no kitchen ceiling and slightly squishy tile floor, I can*t imagine being in this situation with anyone else.

  • Patty Eveland Diaz

    What an amazing article this was!! So true. I think people too often people expect to just be happy together, but don’t think about the continual effort of really giving of yourself to your beloved, seeking to make that person happy, loving as a decision that is evidenced by behavior, not just an emotion that may wax and wane, or even fade away. In the Orthodox Christian Faith, of which my family and I are members, the husband is called upon to love his wife as much as he loves himself, to nurture her, cherish her, even be willing to die for her, (paraphrased from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians). How different this understanding is from many people’s evaluation of a potential marriage partner today: does this person make ME happy! Your article reminds us that we need to put significant effort into our relationship with our spouse, showing that person that we value him/her and want to spend time and energy show our love in many ways and having many meaningful interactions with that person.