Here’s the fantasy: You and the love of your life stand, hand-in-hand, staring into each other’s eyes, as each of you in turn showers the other with beautiful words of love and commitment, more eloquent than you could have imagined.
Here’s the reality, as I’ve seen it most often: one partner unfolds a piece of paper, pulled from deep within a pocket or cleavage. They read for a few minutes, and it’s beautiful and poetic, if a little bit longer than it needs to be. The second partner unwraps a sweaty piece of paper from around a bouquet or pulls a napkin from who knows where and nervously reads a few sentences laden with, “I didn’t know what to say,” a few inside jokes, and an eloquently succinct, “I just really love you.”
To be clear, both options are perfect. At the end of the day, you will be married. And it will have been lovely. But here are four reasons I think that you should opt for prepared vows instead of the reality, or even the fantasy, I’ve painted for you…
I want to start with an exception to this rule. When I officiated my cousin’s wedding, I strongly encouraged her and her fiancé not to read their own vows. But I was overruled. And it was lovely. Their vows were beautiful and they were powerful. The sentiments and commitments expressed made me feel deep affection and appreciation for the fiancé I’d been so-so about right up until that moment.
So I know it’s possible. But far more often, here’s what I see: One member of the couple (let’s call them Audrey) is really excited about writing vows. The fiancé (let’s call them Jordan) wants to make Audrey happy, so Jordan goes along with it. Audrey has imagined the vows as a surprise, so Audrey and Jordan don’t have a conversation about how long the vows should be or what they should contain. Jordan desperately wants to make it perfect for Audrey, so Jordan procrastinates until the night before the wedding. Audrey writes something much longer than Jordan imagined or prepared for, and Jordan is overwhelmed, delighted, and totally embarrassed.
If you don’t want to embarrass your fiancé, don’t make them be Jordan. At the very least, have an open and frank conversation about what you’re envisioning — because you are imagining something, and you’re setting your beloved up for failure unless you tell them what you’re expecting.
Which brings me to reason #2…
It shouldn’t be a secret
Somewhere along the line, in our cultural education about romance — whether it was Disney princes kissing sleeping princesses or Darcy announcing his love for Elizabeth or the tearful declaration scene in every rom-com — we learned that surprises are more romantic. And there is a place for surprises: in ceremony or reception details, in unexpected occurrences, or in your first looks. But your vows should not be that place. The wedding ceremony is about making an enduring commitment, an acknowledgment of the ways you have permanently changed one another’s lives, and the responsibility you will take for that.
Those vows shouldn’t be a secret — you should know what you’re agreeing to in advance. Your vows should be the product of a conversation about what you want your marriage to be. And they should be the starting place, and the fallback, for all the future conversations about how your marriage is growing. And that relates to my third point…
It’s probably not vows
Almost always, when people say “write their own vows,” what they mean is, “write about why they like the other person.” It makes sense; every television wedding I’ve seen has a ceremony that consists of three things: the officiant not needing notes (ha!), “Amy I love you so much and I want to spend the rest of my life with you” as “vows,” and the “I dos” as the finale rather than the opening (but that’s a whole other post).
But the purpose of vows is not to explain why you love the other person. You can do that on your wedding website for your guests. Your officiant can do it during the ceremony based on what she has observed about you. Best of all, you can tell the person every day for the rest of your lives together.
Your vows, however, should not be a list of reasons you like the other person up to this point, because those reasons will change. Your vows should be your aspirations and commitments for how you want to love one another into the future. Your vows should be a fallback for when you frankly don’t like the other person, or yourself, very much, and a reminder for how you want to love them, and be loved, anyway. So how do you do that?
There’s a better alternative
If you don’t love the traditional wedding vows, if “to have and to hold” doesn’t mean much to you or make much sense for the marriage you envision together, change them. Work with your officiant or your couples’ counselor or a writer friend to figure out what promises and commitments you want to make to each other, reflecting the substance of your marriage. Write those promises down together. And then work them into five or ten sentences of five or ten words each, because frankly that’s the most you can get out on a nervous breath, repeating after your officiant.
You don’t have to choose between stuffy and formulaic or awkward and romantic. You can put vows together together that reflect who you are and who you hope to be individually and as married people.