David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values offered an observation eighteen years ago which is just as true, and just as important, today.
To understand why the United States has the highest divorce rate in the world, go to some weddings and listen to what the brides and grooms say. In particular, listen to the vows: the words of mutual promise exchanged by couples during the marriage ceremony. To a remarkable degree, marriage in America today is exactly what these newlyweds increasingly say that it is: a loving relationship of undetermined duration created of the couple, by the couple, and for the couple.
Our tendency may be to shrug off the significance of formal marriage vows, viewing them as purely ceremonial, without much impact on the “real” marriage. Yet believing that the vow is only some words is similar to believing that the marriage certificate is only a piece of paper. Both views are technically true, but profoundly false. Either, when believed by the marrying couple, is probably a sign of a marriage off to a bad start.
In fact, the marriage vow is deeply connected to the marriage relationship. The vow helps the couple to name and fashion their marriage’s innermost meaning. The vow is foundational: the couple’s first and most formal effort to define, and therefore understand, exactly what their marriage is.
Blankenhorn identifies two issues with marriage vows. One is the trend toward couples writing their own vows, which has only continued. Though I expect very few people would see this as a problem, it is, as he explains:
The old vows were created by society and presented to the couple, signifying the goal of conforming the couple to marriage. The new vows are created by the couple and presented to society, signifying the goal of conforming marriage to the couple. . . . A reality in which the marriage is larger than the couple is replaced by a reality in which the couple is larger than the marriage.
Much of the reason for this trend, I think, is the other issue Blankenhorn discusses: the refusal to promise “as long as we both shall live.” He offers a revealing quote from a wedding book of the time. The book quotes one bride as saying,
It was important for me not to make promises or to predict the future, but to make intentions and commitments . . . . We avoided using words like “forever,” but focused on what was honest for the moment and nothing more than that.
Two things strike me about this quote. First, what does this woman think the difference is between promises and commitments? How exactly can you make a commitment if you’re not willing to promise anything?
Second, note that phrase “predict the future.” What’s she saying? “I can’t promise to stay married for the rest of my life because I can’t be sure I’ll always want to stay married.” Instead, she wants to keep to what is “honest for the moment”—all she can say is that right now she wants to be married to this man. Her feelings may stay the same, or they may change, in which case she’ll revisit the question.
The underlying assumption is clear: feelings rule. Desire trumps faithfulness. The marriage is created by our mutual desire to be married to each other and it exists only as long as that desire remains mutual. To make a promise and assert that our promise will bind us regardless of our desire—to declare that we can hold to a commitment simply because we made it even when we don’t feel like it—would be dishonest. Marriage doesn’t mean “I do,” it means “I want.”
Everything else wrong with the institution of marriage in America flows from that.