As a psychologist and a friend, I spend hours each week listening to tales of marriages and divorces. I feel the most pain when I hear about a love story gone awry -- a love story that I thought had all of the necessary ingredients to keep two people happily entangled in that booming and buzzing confusion that is a long-term relationship. Why, I ask myself repeatedly, did these two lovers lose their sure footing? When and why did they begin to stumble, get off track, and begin to live parallel and lonely lives under the same roof? Why, I ask myself are so many married people susceptible to a bit of attention in the office, on a business trip, or maybe even at the gym?
I'll tell you why:
First, let's look at the beginning of these love stories. The traditional vows are a good enough place to start -- so let's begin there.
I believe that our traditional wedding vows may be not serving us well at this point in time when we are all filling multiple sets of shoes and have so many competing demands. To review this premise we need to first look at the traditional vows.
Traditional wedding vows: I, (Bride/Groom), take you (Groom/Bride), to be my (wife/husband), to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do us part.
Really? To have and to hold for better or for worse? Then why are you complaining to me that your husband won't rub your back at night and help you fall into a deep and tender night of sleep? He won't rub your feet the way he did when you were dating even though he knows that that magic touch would earn him many points in your proverbial piggy bank? Hmm. He used to know that if you were relaxed then you'd be game for some passion -- the best kind of passion. The kind that says we are taking care of each other and loving in a way that only we can understand and is unlikely to be replicated elsewhere. After all, the charming guy at the water cooler doesn't have the history to know what makes you rejoice with a quiet humming pleasure, now does he? Your husband, though, should know all of the keys that open the golden gates, correct?
And, why are you complaining to me that your wife touches the kids in a way that you yearn for? Didn't she vow to have and hold you through all sorts of conditions even through the child-rearing years? Or, am I unaware of a clause that says that the vows are on hold for 18 years until the last kid is out of the house? Right -- after 18 years the private parties are going to begin again starting with the summer of love that you should have had when they were away at sleepaway camp during the summers. Your wife tells you to move away from her when you are achey and coming down with something because she doesn't want to get sick? What? She was supposed to be having and holding you. Listen, I'm just writing about what you've all been telling me. Yep, you know who you are -- those of you who have looked into my earnest hazel eyes and begun to spill, not gush. You did gush about your relationships but that was many years ago.
So, about this having and holding, I think that we need a little more clarity here. Does this imply that you will hold each others' deepest secrets and vulnerabilities close to your heart and that these things will remain solely between the two of you? Does it mean that you will lock eyes and both be holding that same nuanced feeling in your heart and gut? Does it imply that you can glance at each other and you know just what the other is feeling? When money is tight are you going to hold on to your wallet or your partner's hand?
Sometimes the vows include forsaking all others. What does that mean? You are going to tune out that sweetheart who makes your heart thump when your wife barely looks at you? You are going to forsake all others when your wife comes to bed three hours after you and snores through the night? This wife being the one who makes you ask yourself where you are and how you got here? Do you really deserve to be sleeping in your basement when you could have been holding on to that same bouncy babe who hummed delightedly in your presence at one point? She was happy just to smell your skin and be right there next to you fully present and aware with all of her senses -- that one -- the one who got away.
What about this until death do us part nonsense? You are 25 and you know that you are going to hang out together until you are in your 80's? Really? Well, then if that's the case then quit complaining and start figuring things out. How could you possibly make such outlandish vows about so many decades ahead? Let's revisit these promises and see what makes more sense.
Okay I've railed on long enough. My point is that perhaps we would all fare better in marriage if our promises and vows to each other were more realistic. Maybe we can promise to pay attention to each other to the best of our ability given our many competing demands such as children and employment. We may even vow to review our vows annually to make sure that our partners feel safe and nurtured. And, we may want to promise that if we are no longer making each other feel alive that we consider parting amicably because most of us go into this union with the best of intentions.