Several years ago, I wrote an article titled “So Did You Mean It When You Said,” asking if you were serious when you vowed, “For better or for worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and health,” and so forth. It remains, to this day, one of my favorite Musings on Marriage.
The wedding vows, those words that create the foundation of our marriage, are so beautiful and heartfelt when we’re in love with a shared vision of an endless future together, but they seem to mock us with awful cruelty when things go terribly wrong. And, sadly, things go terribly wrong far too often.
Marriage Vows Are For The Hard Times
The thing about vows and promises, covenants and pledges is that we make them for the hard times. No one needs to promise fidelity when there is no temptation. There’s no point. One promises fidelity for the day our head is turned, our heart misses a beat, and our interest, in someone who is not our spouse, is piqued. This is the day we were talking about when we said “forsaking all others.” Our vow of fidelity is far less about walking down the aisle, away from our past, than it is about taking a deep breath and walking away from temptation, without looking back. I’d further suggest that it compels us to go straight home and have a heart to heart with our mate to let him or her know there was an incoming threat.
“But she’s going to be jealous and insecure!” you say. Yup, she might.
“He’s going to be angry and accusing.” Mmm hmm, also a possibility.
Your Marriage Vows Are About What You Do
But here’s the thing about vows: they are not about the other person.
The vows we take are about us and how we pledge to behave. We don’t say, “forsaking all others unless you start making eyes at the tennis coach.” We don’t agree to “love, honor, and respect as long as you are nice to me.” We promise to forsake all others and love, honor, and respect – period. Vows are not conditional.
Anyone whose done marriage advocacy work for more than half an hour knows not every marriage can be saved. In a perfect world both partners would get on board, own their own stuff, and do the work. In reality, life is rarely so cut and dried. Happy, healthy marriages have bumpy spots – sometimes huge-pothole-in-the-road bumpy spots. When a marriage is in trouble, it can feel as if you’re being asked to scale Mount Everest. And sometimes not even scaling Everest will fix it.
Is there a time when vows are, and perhaps should be, conditional? It seems to me, after years of working with couples in all stages of marital trauma, it would be good to give thought to the difference between better or worse times – and better or worse treatment.
For Better Or Worse
Better or worse times include things such as job loss, financial difficulty, a spouse’s illness, child’s illness, aging or ill parents, kids in trouble, death of a loved one, stress at work or elsewhere, big life changes (even the good ones create stress), normal marital neglect, and even – a spouse’s affair.
These things try our patience, try our souls, and try our marriages. Even wonderful events like the birth of a baby or a new job can create an enormous amount of stress between spouses. It’s hard to stay connected and romantic when working extra hours or missing huge chunks of sleep. Loss and grief take time to process, and one or both partners may be listless, uncommunicative, or even outright unpleasant while working through it. Illness or injury take time to heal – and I don’t know about you, but I’m not my usual outgoing self during those times. One spouse may be left wondering where all the fun went while the other needs time to work hard at healing. Chronic illness or disability, along with a good many life changes, may very well mean life takes a turn you never anticipated and certainly don’t welcome. Sometimes life, and marriage, are downright unpleasant.
It is for these times we promise our steadfast support, respect, and fidelity when we say, for better or worse. But what about when it’s not a situational problem but a long standing pattern of “worse” treatment? I’m not talking about a bad day, or week, or even couple of years. I’m not even talking about a garden variety affair. These situations demand patience, courage, compassion, creativity, transparency, dignity, integrity – in short, all the qualities we seek to embody in our vows. Instead I’m talking about patterns of abuse: emotional, psychological, physical, spiritual, mental. Refusal to seek help for an addiction. Serial infidelity.
What About Abuse?
How do we reconcile those times with the vows we made and our very real need for safety? This is an exceptionally personal decision and, while professional or other advice may be helpful, I believe no one should ever suggest someone else leave their relationship. If you are in a situation causing you to question your vows, look for an advisor who will help you be brutally honest with yourself about whether you are experiencing a difficult situation or if it is a long term pattern of abusive treatment. Make sure your support system understands you don’t need to be told what to do (and insist they stick to that!) but only help in sorting out exactly what it is you are facing.
We are too ready, as a society, to cut and run at the first sign of difficulty. Friends who remind us to do the hard work of communication, transparency, compassion, boundaries, and honor are worth more than their weight in gold. And in turn, if given the opportunity, we are the best of friends when we encourage others to those same things. Be that friend.
When we remember our integrity is built upon profound respect first, for our Self and then Other, we can create good boundaries and make good decisions about what our vows mean and how best to live them. Almost always, when we remind ourselves of the promises we made, we’ll come to the conclusion – we really did mean it when we said….
© Penny R. Tupy 2016