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What's wrong about marriage vows

This is a typical scene: Two young people are getting married. They are planning the parts of their own ceremony that are the most meaningful and important to them. And they have a conversation, where they decide that they will write their own vows. Partner A goes off and thinks over a few hours or days on what is meaningful to them and comes up with some very nice, and sincere, vows. Partner B does something very similar. They come together, glance over the vows to make sure they sound nice, and move on to the next part of the ceremony. They may even swoon a little when they hear the nice things their partner says they will do.

Fast-forward ten years. The marriage is on the rocks. They are both good people. No cheating, no abuse. They both lived true to their vows. What went wrong?

Probably a lot of things. Of course there are many possible stresses to a marriage, like financial difficulties, having to take care of young children, unexpected differences like parenting philosophies, other changes in life circumstances like a big move far away from one of the partner’s families. Addressing those issues is important, but that is not what I want to address here.

So what happens when you live true to your vows? Chances are, your vows reflect something fundamentally good in you that is good to share with your partner. But what is necessary in relationship is for each partner to be sustained by the things they emotionally need. These are only so negotiable. It’s like if you are a leopard, your digestive system requires eating meat to be healthy, but your spouse is a zebra, and their diet requires lots of plant matter. You each need different things. But you keep trying to feed your spouse (the zebra) meat. What’s going to happen? They will not stay healthy. They just need something else to sustain them, and that’s how they were made. That doesn’t make them a bad person any more than a leopard is fundamentally bad because they eat cute fluffy rabbits (among other things).

We need to come to a point where we accept that our partner is different from us and that’s okay. Part of being a good relationship partner is putting aside what we need, realize it’s not the same as what someone else needs right now, and being able to prioritize them for a while. Good intentions abound, but they do not by themselves sustain a marriage. What works is asking your partner what they need, and accepting feedback when they tell you.

If you want the best chance for your marriage to succeed, discuss your vows with your partner before you say “I do”. You will probably learn something important about them. This will be a chance to set your marriage off on the right foot. If you are already married, you could take out your vows, and have an honest talk about what’s working, and what your partner needs more of. Being able to feel comfortable having this kind of talk both before you tie the knot, and well after the honeymoon is over is an important part of a healthy marriage.

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