You have just met the person of your dreams. You are swept off your feet—completely in love and excited to create a future together. Living on Cloud 9, you believe that you have found your one and only. It is the natural high of falling in love.
You decide to get married. You feel exhilarated. Nothing could break you apart. On your big day you make the following vows to your partner to honor your relationship:
I, take you, to be my lawful wife/husband. To have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish; forsaking all others, until death do us part.
In the spirit of celebrating your love (and writing some of the vows yourself, which is increasingly popular), you add a few romantic phrases:
You are the most beautiful person in the world.
I will always love you.
We will be together forever.
Life seems wonderful. For a moment… until reality sets in. It may take days, weeks, or even years, but as some point you realize that you may have lied. Not intentionally—no, this is not blatant lying to your partner. But to yourself, which resulted in lying to your partner.
How did you lie, you may ask?
The things we say (and want to hear) from our romantic partners often are not true. This includes everything from our flowery compliments to our marriage vows.
In these moments we often say things that we cannot possibly know. Because no one can predict the future. You can’t know that you will love your partner forever. You can’t know that you will be attracted to your partner for the rest of your life. And you don’t know whether you will be together forever. Because you can’t foresee what the future will bring—no one can.
In addition, a large body of research suggests that we struggle to uphold our vows. While just over 2.1 million people were married in 2014, over 800,000 were also divorced[CF1] . Clearly, “until death do us part” doesn’t hold true for many people. Furthermore, many of those who are married do not stay faithful: Although estimates vary, research suggests that about 50-60% of men and 45-55% of women engage in extramarital sex at some time during their marriage[CF2] . And these data do not even begin to describe some of the less overt types of behavior that could be seen as “cheating,” such as having an intense intimate emotional relationship with someone you are attracted to (with or without phone or internet sex!). Nor do they touch on the issue of staying unhappily married to someone you end up disliking—even hating—because you vowed that you would.
What is the point of this? Why does it matter that our vows are more well-intended aspirational dreams than reality? That our exaggerated language reflects a momentary feeling instead of an expected lifelong outcome?
It matters because such language perpetuates the delusion that one can promise to do something one cannot know one will do. Either it is not a genuine vow (you know you are lying when you say it!) or it is a mistaken, delusional one (a "false promise"). In either case, such vows perpetuate lies. And making false promises sets us up to fail because we unintentionally perpetuate unrealistic expectations for ourselves and our partner. We cannot possibly maintain a fantasy—precisely because it is a fantasy. It is based on faulty views about what one can truthfully vow to do.
You may disagree with me. Even want to argue with me fervently. You may tell me that you do know these things are true. You know you love your mate. You know that you are going to be together forever. You know you will always have great chemistry, mutual interests, and a special connection.
I totally understand that desire to believe the dream. Because we all want the ideal! We want to be whisked away to a fantasy-land of passion, love, and belonging. To fall in love, to be swept off our feet. To feel safe and appreciated. Respected. Understood. We all want to love and be loved: it is a basic human need[CF3] . But making false promises that one cannot truthfully make or keep is not the answer to making us feel loved and secure.
Please understand that I do not believe this means that marriage is a sham. Or, that you can’t have a wonderful, fulfilling relationship. You can! And I hope that you do. But if and when you choose to get married or communicate compliments to your romantic partner, be honest with yourself and your partner about what you can actually promise to do. What would a more honest marriage vow look like? Perhaps something like this:
Today, I am deeply in love with you. I am so to grateful build a life with you. There is
no one I know that I would rather have as a partner in life. If that ever begins to
change, I vow to talk to you about it as openly and honestly as I can. I ask that you
do the same for me. We will lovingly and respectfully go from there.
The Naked Truth is This: Romantic love dominates our lives. It occupies our thoughts, experiences, and desires. Yet when we attempt to honor the specialness of the bond, such as when dating or getting married, we often lie. We mistakenly promise to do something that is unknowable because it is in the future. As such, traditional vows often include a kind of lying to oneself or the other, often setting us up for heartache and disappointment.