Since you were young, you’ve dreamed about finding your life partner. Your cherished soul mate; your better half. The person who would fill you up and make you happy. The person you could trust to be there “till death do you part”.
On your wedding day, you solidified that you would be free of having to ever feel alone again.
After all, you both made a commitment out of love “till death do you part”.
“I, ___, take you, ___, for my lawful wife/husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health, until death do us part”
You’ve taken this vow seriously. You’ve taken it literally. And you’ve taken stock in the idea that you can cling to and hold to this vow as the ultimate safety net in your marriage.
That might have been a mistake, I am sorry to say. The vow was never enough.
Yet, here you’ve been…after all these years believing it was enough. This eternal commitment you made to each other on your wedding day that would hold you together.
You believed, wrongly, that this commitment made out of love, was enough. But it wasn’t. You believed that you could skate by…do as little as possible…neglect the needs of your partner….and that the marriage vows would be enough. You made a error in your calculation, I’m pretty sure.
You said, “till death do us part”. I heard you say it, so, how can you, after all, say you want out? I know I’ve treated you like shit, but you still said it. You said you would stay. You said “till death do us part”.
The limits of the wedding vow
Although your partner committed to you that one day long ago that “till death do us part”, the truth is, they sort of lied. I recently had a couple in my office and the wife had one foot out the door in her marriage. For the past 10 years or so, her husband had been pretty rotten to her. Just…not a kind a person. Of course I could certainly understand he was in a lot of pain and was very scared, but he went about it all wrong. It only took me about 5 minutes in meeting him and I could understand completely her wanting to leave. I was surprised it took her so long.
As he belittled her and yelled at her for not feeling in love anymore, he pulled the marriage vow card. He said yelling at him, “but you made a promise to never leave me in front of our friends, family, and God”. It’s such a desperate attempt in the lowest of times. It borders on spiritual manipulation.
I felt so sad for him in that moment. I could see how much pain he was feeling for fearing losing her.
He was using the wedding vows as a rebuttal against his wife’s complaints when she finally spoke up for herself, which is an argument that rarely holds. He was essentially saying, “Stop your complaining – you agreed to put up with me regardless and forever.” “Till death do us part” is powerful statement that some people seem to mistakenly rest too deeply in.
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Too often, people forget they are actually married to a real-life person that has expectations, wants, and needs to feel satisfied in life. It’s easy to become complacent in marriage; to take for granted that your partner is somebody to consider from time to time. It’s simply easier to rest in the marriage vows. I get it.
But let’s be honest, if vows were as meaningful as we think they are, the divorce rate wouldn’t be where it’s at. The truth is, the vows have limitations.
Of course, I am the biggest advocate for commitment in long-term relationships and I personally take my wedding vows very serious. And I hope the same for you too.
But the moral to the story here is that it’s more than vows.
It’s vows +.
Personally, I am an eternal optimist and hopeless romantic. I love the idea of vows. However, I am not an advocate for people neglecting their partners to the point of emotional detachment; allowing the relationship to erode into an unrecognizable semblance of union, and then having the expectation that their partner will simply never leave because after all, “till death do us part”.
If this is you, I am worried for you that one of these days, your partner may wake up and have a sort of disillusionment experience. They’re going to reevaluate the commitment they made on their wedding day and they are going to wonder if “till death do us part” really means “till death do us part”.
Even the most guilt ridden people will walk away if the pain is great enough.
IF NOT VOWS, THEN WHAT?
So, if we simply can’t rely on “till death do us part”, what can we rely on to be the sustaining elements that keep marriages together? You might be thinking love. It’s not. You might be thinking religion. It’s not.
It’s mutual enhancement.
What really keeps marriages together and what most couples should be thinking about relentlessly is an idea called mutual enhancement. It’s the living organism in your relationship that is constantly being measured unconsciously. We are always assessing this, mostly without knowing it.
Mutual enhancement asks: How can I better enhance my partners life?
When two people are asking themselves that same question, you have the makings of something fantastic.
Some people reading this by now are thinking “but that sounds so self-centered or so selfish”, or “but isn’t marriage about sacrifice?” Yes to both. Marriage is about sacrifice, and marriage is also about meeting our own fundamental needs. We simply cannot resign all of our essential intrinsic emotional needs for the sake of “till death do us part”. That was the marriage two generations ago and it doesn’t work anymore. It’s misery and unsustainable.
This is mutual enhancement (at its basics):
- Providing care and understanding
- Providing repair to disconnections
- Balancing togetherness and separateness
- Being trustworthy and reliable
- Being supportive and encouraging
- Providing security and safety
- Fostering sexual intimacy & affection
- Being collaborative and compromising
This isn’t rock-star-spouse stuff…these are the basics. People that struggle with this kind of mutual enhancement are the ones that rely too heavily on the marriage vow argument.
Please hear this: Believing your marriage will remain intact despite little effort to provide enhancement to your partner is in the erroneous belief that will undoubtedly leave you devastated and alone.
“Till death do us part” were words intended to honor the theme of commitment in marriage, and never intended to give anyone a free pass to treat their partner like a less-than person.
Too many people show up at my office blindsided by their partner’s detachment away from the relationship. And when I discover the rejected partner did so little to enhance the life of his or her spouse, I am always surprised at their sense of being shocked at the partner leaving. Who would stay with you given how poorly you treated that person? You misjudged the courage of your partner.
Are you holding onto your vows too heavily? Vows are great – I personally love the orthodoxy of them, but what’s even better is having two people take full responsibility for their daily choices in the relationship that create mutual enhancement. As mature people we need to be 100% responsible for every decision and action and also be prepared to accept the consequences for all our decisions. Relinquishing responsibility of our decisions to sentimental ideas like “till death do us part” is the stuff for Romeo and Juliet and it will not sustain your marriage.
Instead, let’s ask a more mature question: How is my partner’s life enhanced by being with me? Gut check – how are you doing with the 8 bullet points above that really enhance a relationship? Ask you partner.
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