We 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
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.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.