I study romantic relationships. I'm also engaged. So, of course, I've given a tremendous amount of thought as to what it really means for my partner and I to marry one another. Researchers have found that weddings are deeply significant life events, but we don't really know why they're so meaningful. Marriage may simply be about celebrating a milestone: recognizing the relationship that a couple has built together and the love that they share for each other. But weddings are also very future-oriented, as the couple publicly promises to maintain their relationship for life. I suspect that it's really these vows -- the solemn promises that the newlyweds make to each other in front of their closest friends and family -- that are at the crux of why weddings have such an emotional impact.
No pressure. As my partner and I sat down to think about our own vows, clearly we had a lot to consider. If these promises are the essence of what it means to be married, then what exactly do we want to promise each other? We could always go with the traditional marriage vows: for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, for better for worse... but, these seemed a bit too vague for our tastes. We decided that we wanted to make more specific, behavioural promises: things we can strive to do for each other that would help us to not only remain together, but also happy and fulfilled in our marriage.
Conveniently, I had decades of research at my fingertips to help us figure out what it really means to be a good spouse. Why not harness those resources for our wedding? In other words -- and this may sound completely over-the-top nerdy to some -- we decided to write some research-based vows.
Below are the ten promises that we've decided to make to each other. We believe that each of these promises is going to help us to achieve long-term marital bliss. Here's why:
1. "I promise to respect, admire, and appreciate you for who you are, as well as for the person you wish to become."
Research on positive illusions shows that it's helpful to see romantic partners in a positive light -- to appreciate their positive qualities rather than ruminating about their flaws. Not only does this sunny outlook lead to better relationship satisfaction, but positive illusions help partners to feel better about themselves.1 So, in the first part of this vow, we're promising to always see the best in each other.
In the second part of this vow, my partner and I are promising to support each other's attempts to grow and improve ourselves over time. This is called the Michelangelo phenomenon, and research shows that supporting your partner's changes to their self in this way is very beneficial both for the partner and for the relationship.2 Importantly, I'm not promising to help my partner improve in the way I want him to improve, but in the way he wants to improve himself, and vice versa. It's all about supporting the partner's own personal goals.
2. "I promise to support and protect your freedom; because although our lives are intertwined, your choices are still yours alone."
This vow draws from research on autonomy. Although humans are social creatures who both need and enjoy relationships, it's also important for us to maintain our individuality. In particular, we need to feel like the decisions we're making are truly coming from us. When people feel forced or coerced into making choices -- like they didn't have any real choice in the matter -- they're less happy and less fulfilled. And, as you might have guessed, that lack of happiness is problematic for relationships.3 In this vow, my partner and I are promising to avoid pressuring, guilting, or otherwise coercing each other into making decisions, striving instead to always respect each other's right to make choices for ourselves.
3. "I promise to seek a deep understanding of your wishes, your desires, your fears and your dreams."
This vow draws from research on responsiveness, which involves sensitively meeting your partner's needs. Striving to meet each other's needs is a cornerstone of healthy relationships.4 However, you can't meet a partner's needs if you don't know what they are. Understanding one's partner is the first step to being responsive, which is why we each promise to seek a deep understanding of one another.
4. "I promise to always strive to meet your needs; not out of obligation, but because it delights me to see you happy."
Once we figure out what each other's needs are, my partner and I promise that we will try our best to meet those needs. Of course, this can be easier said than done. Sometimes, giving your partner what they need involves difficult sacrifices on your part.
Research on sacrifice shows that it's important not to make sacrifices for avoidance-based reasons, such as feeling as though you "should" be giving something to your partner. Both partners are better off when any sacrifices are made out of approach motives, such as genuinely wanting to make your partner happy.5 So, with this vow, my partner and I are promising each other that when we do sacrifice for each other, we'll do it only with love and care, and not with reluctance or resentment. If and when we can't make sacrifices for the right reasons, it's probably better not to make the sacrifice at all.
5. "I promise to be there for you when you need me, whenever you need me."
This vow is based on what it means to be a good attachment figure: the person in your life who you most strongly rely on for support. With this vow, we're promising to reliably be there for each other when one of us is distressed: to be each other's soft place to fall, or what researchers call a "safe haven".6
6. I promise to nurture your goals and ambitions; to support you through misfortune and celebrate your triumphs.
This vow covers the other side of being a good attachment figure: being there for your partner when they're not distressed. Basically, my partner and I both want to know that we can take risks, make mistakes, and come home to a supportive partner at the end of the day. Letting your partner go out and conquer their goals, knowing that you're there in the background cheering them on, is called being a "secure base".7
7. "I promise to keep our lives exciting, adventurous, and full of passion."
Here, we draw from research on self-expansion theory, showing that couples are happier when they engage in new, interesting things together.8 Basically, we're promising each other not to let our relationship fall into a rut.9 We're going to keep courting each other, keep travelling and exploring together, and keep sharing novel and interesting experiences with each other for the rest of our lives.
8. "I promise to persevere when times get tough, knowing that any challenges we might face, we will conquer them together."
This is the closest that our vows come to representing the traditional vows about being together "for better, for worse"; in other words, to stay committed to each other. Research shows that by having this committed outlook -- where we intend to stay together through thick and thin -- we should be better able to deal with any adversity that might come our way. This is because, when a couple sees themselves as a permanent partnership, their perspective on problems tends to shift from being about "me against you" to being about "us against the issue". Researchers call this "transformation of motivation": commitment helps people to stop treating conflicts as zero-sum, instead keeping the wellbeing of their partner and their relationship in mind.10 So, by acting like a team, we'll be in a better position to face challenges together.
9. "I promise to treat you with compassion over fairness, because we are a team, now and for always."
This vow draws from research on communal orientation. Being communally-oriented means that you contribute to your relationship based on what is needed and based on what you have to give.11 In other words, it's about being a team player. With this vow, we're promising not to "track and trade," keeping careful tabs on each other to ensure that we're each contributing to the relationship fairly and equally ("I did the dishes yesterday, so you should do them today"). Instead, we're promising to always strive to contribute what we can, based on the needs of our partner ("You got home very late and had a stressful day -- I'll do the dishes tonight"). We trust that our respective efforts will more or less balance out in the long run. Communal strength, or this willingness to give to the relationship without much concern for what you're receiving in return, is associated with a whole range of positive relationship outcomes.12
10. "I promise to show you, every day, that I know exactly how lucky I am to have you in my life."
With this last vow, we draw from research on the emotion of gratitude.13 When people feel appreciative of their partners, they're happier and more committed to their relationships. And when people express gratitude to their partners, their partners feel appreciated, that makes those partners feel happier, more committed, and more appreciative themselves. It's all a wonderful cycle of goodness. So in this vow, my partner and I are promising to never take each other for granted, but rather to appreciate what we have and express that appreciation to each other often.
After the wedding, we're planning on getting these engraved and hung up in our hallway, to remind ourselves regularly that we made these promises. Clearly, actually following them is the real challenge. But the effort we put into keeping them will undoubtedly make our relationship stronger.
And by the way, if anyone else likes the idea of having wedding vows that are based on research, feel free to use these. We're happy to share!
This article was originally written for Science of Relationships: a website about the psychology of relationships that is written by active researchers and professors in the field.
Interested in reading more about any of the research described in this article? You can click on the relevant italicized term, which will link you to an article providing a more complete description of that line of research.
1. Murray, S. L., Holmes, J. G., & Griffin, D. W. (1996). The benefits of positive illusions: Idealization and the construction of satisfaction in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 79-98.
2. Drigotas, S. M., Rusbult, C. E., Wieselquist, J., & Whitton, S. W. (1999). Close partner as sculptor of the ideal self: Behavioral affirmation and the Michelangelo phenomenon. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 293-323.
3. Knee, C. R., Lonsbary, C., Canevello, A., & Patrick, H. (2005). Self-determination and conflict in romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 997-1009.
4. Reis, H. T., Clark, M. S., & Holmes, J. G. (2004). Perceived partner responsiveness as an organizing construct in the study of intimacy and closeness. In D. J. Mashek & A. P. Aron (Eds.), Handbook of closeness and intimacy (pp. 201-225). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
5. Impett, E. A., Gable, S. L., & Pepau, L. A. (2005). Giving up and giving in: The costs and benefits of daily sacrifice in romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 327-344.
6. Collins, N. L., & Feeney, B. C. (2001). A safe haven: An attachment theory perspective on support seeking and caregiving in intimate relationship. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 1053-1073.
7. Feeney, B. C., & Thrush, R. L. (2010). Relationship influences on exploration in adulthood: The characteristics and function of a secure base. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98, 51-76.
8. Aron, A., Norman, C. C., Aron, E. N., McKenna, C., & Heyman, R. E. (2000). Couples' shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 273-284.
10. Rusbult, C. E., Olsen, N., Davis, J. L., & Hannon, P. A. (2001). Commitment and relationship maintenance mechanisms. In J. Harvey & A. Wenzel (Eds.), Close romantic relationships: Maintenance and enhancement (pp. 87-113). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
11. Clark, M.S., & Mills, J. (2012). Communal (and exchange) relationships. In P.A.M. Van Lange, A. W. Kruglanski, E.T. Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of theories of social psychology (pp. 232-250). Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage.
12. Kogan, A., Impett, E., Oveis, C. Hui, B., Gordon, A. Keltner, D. (2010). When giving feels good: The intrinsic benefits of sacrifice in romantic relationships for the communally motivated. Psychological Science, 21, 1918-1924.
13. Gordon, A. M., Impett, E. A., Kogan, A., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2012). To have and to hold: Gratitude promotes relationship maintenance in intimate bonds. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103, 257-274.