The Truth About Marriage Vows: Five Promises you Can Keep.
Next month, my partner and I celebrate our 19th wedding anniversary. Nineteen years. How the hell did that happen?! As we get ready to celebrate nearly two decades of wedded bliss (and also of wedded hell, confusion, joy, and mystery), I’ve been thinking about our wedding day and the vows we made to each other. What do these vows mean, all these years later? Did we honor them? Do they bear any resemblance to what we imagined when we gazed into each other’s eyes and said “I do?”
The short answer is yes. Also, definitely no.
When we began to talk about getting married, we covered lots of topics: who would perform the ceremony, who to invite, what to wear, whether or not we could convince our favorite Cajun band to learn “Hava Nagilah.” (We did. Shout out to Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys.)
We spent time reading various liturgies and talking about what we liked and disliked at other people’s weddings. As we read the words thousands and millions of other couples had spoken to each other, I became increasingly uncomfortable. Most of them ended with the words “I do.” I do…what? Marriage is a commitment to love, have sex, and try to stay together with this one person, right?
Well, maybe, but I couldn’t promise any of these things. As a long-time Buddhist practitioner, I knew I couldn’t say “I do” to love. Feelings change and keep changing. I couldn’t say yes to wanting to have sex with him for the rest of my life. Desire is unpredictable. And ask him to commit to me? Which me? I couldn’t commit to remaining the same me.
Let’s just be honest here. There is no way that you can know how your relationship is going to turn out, regardless of how carefully you prepare, how clear you are about your needs and expectations, and how intently you listen to your partner’s wishes. Yet somehow when we commit to another person, we make and require promises. I will always love you. I promise to cherish you. Nothing will ever come between us.
There is no way such promises can be kept. Why? Because we are human beings on planet earth.
Sometimes you will love each other and sometimes you will fume with rage.
Sometimes you will cherish your partner and sometimes you will wish they would, shall we say, disappear.
And something will come between you every single day: work, family, ambitions, depressions, confusions, and different ideas about everything from how much money is enough to the “right” way to load the dishwasher.
On our wedding day, we made beautiful vows to each other: to be generous, patient, kind, and caring. We meant these words and continue our attempts to honor them. However, when I look back, I see that in addition to these beautiful vows, there were vows we were also making, whether we knew it or not.
1. I vow to not know
To enter a relationship for the long-term (whatever that might mean) is to say yes to the unfolding, impenetrable arc of uncertainty.
I had thought that finding love was an end point, that some kind of search was over and I would find home. We would leap over the threshold together into whatever we imagined our ideal cottage to be. But really we have stepped through a crazy looking glass. No matter how hard we try, how crazy in love we are, or how skillfully we plan our life together, there is complete uncertainty about what the connection will feel like from day to day. I can give all the love I have (with great joy) and get back a blank stare. I can wake up as my crankiest, most sullen and narcissistic self, roll over, and greet the face of unconditional acceptance. Or not. It’s like the weather. I can read the signs and guess about atmospheric conditions, but really any type of front could blow through on any given day — and, like listening to a meteorologist explain why it’s going to rain, I think “who cares why? I just want to know what to wear today.”
We can’t actually promise each other anything. The relationship never stabilizes, ever. This is the way it works. I have no idea why.
The real skill is in how you ride the waves.
2. I vow to be happy and sad
It seems that I committed to a lifetime of delight and sadness, inseparable from each other. Every time I look into my dear one’s eyes and feel how deeply we’re connected, that moment disappears and I have to watch it do so. It’s excruciating. It’s much easier to do this with my thoughts on a meditation cushion then with the feeling I get from his breath on my shoulder as I fall asleep. But now I get that I have to repeat this until the end of my life, and that somehow this is love’s road.
Each time my love expands by a molecule, it grows a molecule of sorrow. The more I love, the edgier it all feels, and the more courage is required. Where you get this courage, I really don’t know. Surprisingly, it just seems to be there. And if you’re looking for a crucible in which to heat compassion, this is a really good one. Someone once told me that compassion is the ability to hold love and pain together in the same moment. So at least we’re learning something, which is what I tell myself.
3. I vow to be irritated and irritating
I wish I had known that when you live with someone, there is continuous, mind-blowing irritation, (Actually I did know this, but I had forgotten.)
Weirdly, this irritation serves a purpose. It beckons me time and again out of myself. Often the irritation arises when I decide to replace my actual partner with a projection of a partner. He always figures out a way to tell me how unlike my projection he really is, which gives me yet another opportunity to choose between him and who I sort of hoped he would be. No matter how many times I prompt my husband with the correct lines, he does not get into character. This irritates me. I have to throw away the script and just begin to improvise. You’re playing you and I’m playing me. Go.
4. I vow to build a home where love wants to live
I didn’t really understand that true love, deep love, does not arise, abide, or dissolve in connection with any particular feeling. It has almost nothing to do with feeling. (Nor is it an action, a commitment to stay, the intention to be nice, honest, or whatever else I might have thought I was supposed to do in a relationship.) Love has become the container in which we live. Through time and riding mysterious waves of passion, aggression, and ignorance (and boredom), I think we began to live within love itself. At least I did. Each time I open up, drop the script, extend myself, accept what is being offered to me, step beyond my comfort zone to embrace him, the structure is reinforced.
I no longer have any idea if I love my husband or not. I can’t imagine what the feelings I have for him are called. I’ve even given up trying to give love to him in order to strengthen our relationship. Our relationship is what gives us love, not the other way around.
5. I vow to let go
And finally, of course, we’re saying “I do” to good-bye. This bond will end. “Hello” can only mean “goodbye”, one way or another.
Some relationships are just mistakes. Or people grow and change. Relationships crater and nobody knows why. And if all else fails, we will certainly part at death. Saul Bellow once called this acknowledgment “the black backing on the mirror that allows us to see anything at all,” and isn’t that just the key to the whole thing? The deeper our connection becomes, the more I know the reality of its ending and the more passionately I’m able to feel his touch. I know this even when I hate him (and he can really be an asshole — I’m not kidding) and when I love him so much that it is almost unbearable and I pray for the opportunity to be married for all our lifetimes.
This is how it has gone for me. I could be completely wrong about everything I’ve said. There are no rules. Love is mysterious that way.
Here’s something else I’ve learned about a relationship: Okay, so it’s not what you think it’s going to be, the feelings are always changing, and you’re going to have to say goodbye someday. But when you find your love, there is something inside that simply and inexplicably says hello to him. Yes to him. Of course to him. Certainly. Obviously it’s you. There is no choice. I do.
I am so excited about this topic that I am writing a whole book about it, “The Four Noble Truths of Love.” It is turning out to be the most powerful and intense thing I’ve ever written. Your reflections, questions, and feedback would be most useful. Comment away!
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