Honest Wedding Vows for Real Marriages

I’ve had the honor of officiating many weddings over the past two decades. They’ve all been beautiful in their way, but more often than not the vows exchanged have been—naive, to say the least. I know mine were. That’s because for most couples these usually aren’t really marriage vows, they’re wedding vows: tidy little phrases designed for a filtered photo album ceremony—not for the messy, meandering, disorienting experience that is sharing life alongside another person.

Based on nearly twenty years of marriage and on my time counseling couples before, during, and far too often following their marriages—these are some honest vows I’d like to hear people share with one another on that day, to prepare them well:

I, ____________, take you, ___________ to be my husband/wife,

to have and to hold from this day forward,
in sickness and in health,
in the scars on our hearts from previous relationships,
in the invisible baggage we’ve carried since childhood,

in the unrealistic expectations we’ll have for one another,
in the wild eccentricities of relatives we’ll inherit,
in the specific neuroses we’ll have to carry for each other,
in the cutting words we’ll speak even knowing how much they’ll hurt,

in the emotional distance that will sneak up on us,
in receding hairlines and expanding waistlines,
in disastrous vacations that we can’t afford to begin with,
in changes to one another that will challenge us,

in unceremonious firings and career disasters,
in unlikely victories and unexpected joy,
in dreams and plans and paths that will diverge,
in times when we’re on top of the world,
in times when we’re hanging by a thread,
in countless treasures we’ll find hiding in the ordinary,
in quiet resentments that we’ll let fester too long,
in the way we’ll memorize the lines on one another’s faces,
in leaving each other the last cookie,
in personal sacrifices we can’t imagine we’ll one day have to make,
in pregnancy or infertility or miscarriage,
in defending one another fiercely,
in middle school projects we’ll hear about the night before,
in late night pipe cleaner runs to the grocery store,
in opportunities we’ll miss for one another,
in bankruptcies and failed businesses and poor investments,
in hands we’ll hold through inconceivable grief,
in the things we’ll do that will one day drive each other nuts,
in the times we’ll do those things on purpose because we know,
in learning how to push each other’s buttons,
in choosing not to push them,
in midlife crises that will appear early and repeatedly,
in impulse buys and odd fashion choices we’ll make as a result,
in hot sex and the times when it isn’t so hot—or existent,
in the billion holy moments that we alone will share,
in frantic, middle-of-the-night rides to the hospital,
in the fitting together of our bodies when we embrace,
in forgiving stuff we’ll never dream we’ll be able to forgive,
in the space we’ll make to let each other’s guard down fully,
in the time we’ll waste staring into phones while we’re together,
in the arguments we’ll have when we’re really angry at someone else,
in the candy we’ll hide from our children,
in the candy we’ll hide from one another,
in the flatulence we’ll each blame on the dog,
in the comparisons we’ll sometimes make to other marriages,
in flirtations with people that we should avoid but won’t,
in the times we’ll pine for the greener grass,

in the times we’ll realize it’s beneath our feet,
in shit hitting the fan,

in cleaning it up together,
in the changes we won’t see coming,
in the diagnosis we won’t see coming,

in the approaching car we won’t see coming,
in a vomiting kid on a road trip,
in a second vomiting kid on a road trip,
in gladly losing the rental car deposit,
in the way we’ll fight with one another,
in the way we’ll fight for one another,
in so many things that would terrify us today if we knew we’d go through them,
in the wild, exhilarating, sacred, painful working out of a marriage that won’t look like another that has ever existed on the planet, and one that we’re going to hold tightly to with everything we have—

Until death do us part.

This is my solemn vow.



47 thoughts on “Honest Wedding Vows for Real Marriages

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  1. John, I’m a wedding photographer. I like you have seen way too many Wedding Vows, and never if ever any marriage vows. I appreciate this that you have posted. It will be passed on to my daughter who is getting married in September. Thank you for the Post

  2. I snickered a few times but I’m left with tears in my eyes. I can’t claim to have any idea of what makes a marriage work, having failed 3 times, but what you posted here is pretty close to how my almost 13-year long-distance relationship has survived and thrived. Even before my last marriage failed, I had my own version of the opening to traditional vows: “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to watch two foolish people jump into water they know is over their heads.” Any long-tern relationship is essentially a “sink or swim” proposition.

  3. Thank you for this, John. This is how my wife and I try to live every day, and pretty much sums up the vows we took for each other when we got married. It’s also why, I think, our relationship has been so strong for nearly 20 years, and why I look forward to growing old with her. 🙂

    • This reminded me of my vows as well, we were older and not first timers. We knew to be practical. Heck, I even thanked him for putting my socks in the basket when I kick them off at night! It’s so funny sometimes how things work out even when we aren’t sure what we’re doing! Many blessings to you and yours!

      • Oh, I know! It was both of our first marriage, but we’ve been together for so long, it pretty much just felt like a technicality when we made it legal (we were “married” long ago, and that’s the anniversary we celebrate, and the day we made it legal, but we’ve only been legal for a few years, since the SCOTUS ruling). Still, neither of us knew what we were getting into, and while it certainly has been hard work, every second of every day I’ve spent with her has been worth it. I’m just as much in love with her as I always have been. 🙂 (Ugh, who has the onions? LOL!)

  4. …in the 10-pound tube of ground beef that leaked all over the refrigerator…

    That’s the latest (minor) irritation in our 20-year marriage. We’ve made it through seminary, a cross-country move, infertility, some pretty terrible losses, lost pets, car accidents, and his retirement…I think we’ll survive this.

  5. Dear John:

    Personally, I’ve never found only revisions of but no improvements on the traditional vows. But this does express what the vows intend. And people know this, even when they pretend they don’t.


  6. Dear John,

    When I was getting ready for my wedding, there was supposed to be pastoral counseling and a series of meetings with the rector to make sure my fiance and I were really ready for marriage and that we were really suited for it with each other.

    Those sessions got blown off because that the rector was looking for another church to be rector at as he evidently felt he had done everything he could at this one.

    I guess my husband and I made wedding vows, not marriage vows, because we really didn’t know what we were getting into. We thought we did. We thought we knew what was required to have a better relationship than our parents’ marriages. But we were much too naive.

    Because even though someone might make a snarky response to your beautiful post because someone can never let anything you say go unchallenged and say “But “in sickness and in health and for better or for worse” really does cover everything.” That really doesn’t cover everything because do we really expect sickness and worse? Don’t we really have the idea that we will magically be exempt from hardship?

    That’s the thing that John P’s word drive home. None of us will ever go through life with problems, suffering or worse. That is something we need to be taught.

    I also sometimes think couples should be required to take classes and prove that their worthiness for marriage. Classes in finances, saving money, thrift, first aid, anger management, maybe learn DBT skills. LOL

    • Interesting question, though it seems to imply something.

      Since most of us made our vows out loud in the company of witnesses, clearly the answer was all three or some combination of. Religious ceremonies certainly make it clear that God is blessing the union and asking the community to support it. Though who are we to know if God blesses the union or not?

      The couple is certainly asking for the blessings of God to be what their mate needs. Why else make a vow and to whom would you make it?

      And all should be making the solemn vows to themselves as well. But clearly for many couples, your trifecta is still not enough.

      Sadly many marriages hobble along and have respect for longevity even as most know it was a bitter, unhappy or disrespectful union. The blessing of marriage is a mystery not all see revealed.

    • Well, if you recall from the New Testament, Jesus was against solemn vows. A set of marriage vows is essentially “swearing” that you will do this, that, or the other until death do us part. Jesus knew that such swears are rarely kept, and circumstances often prevent keeping them even if a person desperately wants to do so. So, why do it in the first place—and inevitably fail.

      That said. I believe in marriage. I have been “happily and unhappily” married for 38 years. Only married people would truly understand what I just said in that last sentence.

      But honestly folks. Can you ever—in your wildest dreams—imagine what it must be like to be married to Joe Catholic?

      This oughta be good for at lest 1100 new comments!!!

      • That’s not really fair to Joe Catholic! As a newbie of 3 days to these posts, I’ve read some of his posts that I didn’t agree with, but I’ve also read some where he’s shown some empathy and a soft side. He strikes me as a very conservative Republican (the opposite of what I am), but he has a lot to say, I think.

        • Thank you Jocelyn. That was kind of you.

          It’s true I do have a “soft side,” but I’m going to go back to the YMCA to fix that.

          What I’m most soft-hearted about though, is animals. There isn’t a dog or cat I’ve lost over the past 30+ years that I can’t cry over if I think about them too much. I would be a vegan (and was one for over a year in the past) because of how much I hate the idea of killing animals for food. But I have trouble with that so made a compromise and no longer eat mammals. It seems too much to me like eating a dog or a cat.

          Anyway, thank you very much for your comment. You made my day.

          • Referring to your “soft side” and the Y, I see you also have a sense of humor😊

            Even though I’m not as passionate about animals as you are, I totally get it that many people get so attached and love them to death. My particular passion and soft side involves children….ALL children, but particularly the sick, dying, abused, unloved, bullied, mistreated children who will never have a chance to develop their full potential and who, I feel, we as a society fail miserably to provide for and protect. That is a tragedy!

  7. I’ve been with the same guy for 38 years. We have been married for the last 33. This is real. This is true. We hope to renew our wedding vows in Rome this fall with our adult children in tow. Perhaps we will use your vows…..
    If possible, stick w/ your mate. If you can make it through the hard times – the times you hate and mistrust each other; the times you don’t know each other; the times of sorry; the times of incredible stress and confusion…. it is more wonderful than you can imagine.

    • Great point, I think many people give up too easily and have unrealistic expectations too. When you get on up there in years and you look back at what you have lived through, supported each other through and thank God for, you have the sweetest of life’s bounty.

  8. Beautiful. I lost my husband of 30 years in December at the age of 54 to an aortic aneurysm. Marriage is tough but worth it. He was the love of my life and my best friend. All of the ups and downs are a part of the memories I am just learning to smile about again when I think about him. He made me laugh everyday since the day I met him. The laughter is what I miss the most.

    To answer the above comment of who the vows are made to? The mate? God. Or Self? In my opinion, all three. All 3 of us were a part of this marriage.

    • So sorry for your loss. It is good you are learning how to smile when you think of him. What better way to treasure him in your heart. Again sorry for your pain.

    • Well said Sharon, I am sorry for your loss but I share your blessing of so many good years together.

      I agree, with you on the “who” answer as well.

  9. I am reminded of a comment once made by Anthony Newley in reference to his good friend and songwriting partner Leslie Bricusse: “Raising children is such an important job. It’s a pity that it’s left to amateurs.”

    Marriage, too. Both are leaps of faith and love that require our utmost to succeed in.

  10. I am reminded of a not so old definition of “marriage” in textbook for a college introductory course in anthropology. It went something like this:

    Marriage: A social contract designed to ensure exclusive sexual access to a mate.

    • Marriage has certainly undergone many changes and manifestations. It was once merely a property transfer. It was for centuries just about progeny and securing a “blood line”. It was often arranged and decided by others. Women we would consider children could be married to old men. Marital rape was not even considered when it happened and abuse was also allowed as “discipline”. There was a time when there were no grounds for a woman to divorce no matter what you suffered. Infidelity by a man was excused and brutally punished if by a woman. Many societies allowed multiple wives. Thankfully marriage is now mostly between consenting and loving couples, even if only at that time. But those who bray about the “sanctity of marriage” seem to forget the history of it so I certainly see your point.

  11. Having just celebrated 37 years of marriage, I laughed out loud at some and shamefully recognized others. I do not think that would work in the way of “vows” for the wedding (as if) but I certainly think that pastors and those who officiate at weddings would do many a great service if they spoke of these things and helped every (especially young) couple know that love is not “it”. A whole lot of living and learning, some of it very painful, goes with the loving promises you make and the efforts to keep them.

    Same thing for baptisms and joining a church. I have always found it odd that outside of the nearly neurotic Catholic Church, most denominations do not even much explain their own “brand” of Christianity to those who attend in more than the most cursory way and yet that church is supposed to be able to nurture and gird you for life in the world as a child of God.

    Sadly many family units are just as lacking in communication, expectations, support and practice for the real world, so maybe it is all just how humanity operates, –fly blind and learn as you go. It works for many, but it also leaves many to struggle and stress without the tools and knowledge of their mission.

    • Congratulations on the longevity of your marriage. You obviously chose well. Your husband must be a very patient and saintly man.

      Yes the Catholic Church does prepare couples for marriage, though I didn’t have that advantage.

  12. Well I shoulda known that would make me laugh- especially- as I’ve spent years doing relationship work with people while choosing to myself- be single. As hilarious as that sounds… In truth- relationship is the only thing going on.

    First it is relationship with the self. If that relationship is not well and whole- no other relationship ever will be. Then it is relationship with parents/family that grows into relationship with partners. And then relationship with the whole world of humans. If you’re religion-invested there’s a “presumed” relationship with god- regardless of which definition of god you hold. And in the end- whether you succeeded in A relationship or not- or had several or bailed on it altogether- it comes back to your relationship to and with the self- and then the Self.

    And if you (obviously) think I’m crazy- know that I don’t care.

  13. Interesting … a few I would avoid out of superstition ~ things you don’t mention out of fear of cursing the newly married couple.

    Likewise, you could add a few happier, or more constructive moments …

    *May we share pride in one another’s accomplishments, joy in our shared successes and always face our misfortunes and sorrows side by side as a couple ought,*

    *Just as we celebrate this is, our Wedding day, let us rejoice with the same heart each day to follow as our Marriage Day,*

    *Together, feed your dreams and starve your rancor,*

    Peace be with you all.

  14. Thank you John, you made me laugh and cry. This is beautiful and very truthful. As someone who on St Patrick’s Day celebrated 55 years of marriage to my hero, I can attest to all of them. Back then I had no idea, just that it was going to be a grand adventure, now it is all that and so much more. I have spent all of my adult life with this man that I was fortunate to find and can’t imagine it any other way. I keep signing up for 25 more, so come 75 yrs of marriage I probably will reup. And it seems like yesterday except when I look in the mirror.

  15. Forwarding to my three children who all married within 15 months of each other! After 38 years of marriage, I KNOW you speak truth.

  16. My fiance and I are getting married in less than a month, and this made me smile. We’re older than most newlyweds (in our mid-30’s), so we have a little more realistic idea of what marriage will entail, but we also know there are going to be plenty of surprises along the way too. Still, I wouldn’t have it any other way. 🙂

  17. A few things:
    1. My husband and I being nerds, we sat down (in 1952) with Dr. Van de Velde’s book (google it) and with a list my denomination made available to determine basic compatibility and did our own discernment process to decide whether to be engaged to marry.

    2. Our engagement was over a year long and mostly separated by thousands of miles, thanks to the US Air Force (Korean War) and we communicated by DAILY letters. We probably knew each other as well when our wedding day arrived as many couples do after a year or two of marriage.

    3. My husband used to say that people should have to take classes and pass tests at least as rigorous as the DMV test, to become parents.

    He died a year after our 50th anniversary, and as a previous responder said, I not only lost the love of my life, but my best friend as well. 13 years later I still grieve, even as I remember the time I nearly opened the car door and abandoned him and the kids, at a traffic signal on a street in San Francisco, after a too-long summer road trip. That was our unhappy 13th year. But even more than sexual intimacy, that tight friendship won the day, and we ‘got our groove back.’ I’m not sure that would have happened without all that prior preparation. That, and the fact that we both believed our vows were sacred.

  18. I have been married 34 years and it has not been easy. My will , her will , give and take on both ends. some times wanting to give up , and other times thanking God for the gift .
    Blessings are not always apparent.
    Denying my selfish actions, my selfish will , My lust for love, acceptance , and more pleasure.
    God , thru Jesus Christ has saved my marriage more time than I can count.
    Bad Advice from friends, aquaintances, and Family can and has taken its toole , You must always protect the one you love, the values of each other , the friendship of each other . This requires constant reassessment of dreams, aspirations, goals, ambitions, views, likes, dislikes and preferences. And the most important Rule , Keep control of Friendships , Family, people who destroy with out knowing, thinking , or want your best. Ego can destroy, Lust Destroys, Selfish ambitions destroy,
    YOU and Her must always have one accord or person to be accountable to . Each other.
    There has to be a constant Denial of ones self. and putting other s before yourself. HER best , His Best, OUR best together . NOT the worldly views, or its false counsel .
    God , Family , JOB, Friendships.
    Protect YOUR family from the worldly views and counsel .
    Bad advice destroys people and relationships

  19. Dear John
    Every time you write something I try to read it as I find you to be both eloquent and inspiring. This piece on Marriage Vows
    is no exception. I eloped with my best friend and soul mate almost 50 years ago and my vows have been solemnly/joyfully kept even as they evolved and were added on to much like amendments to the Constitution.
    Being married can be hard, frustrating work at times but if you have a good one, like I do it is worth every second. Just tell the Newlyweds to expect the worst and hope for the best.

  20. not too feely, right amount of gut punch, all real, well done. (my husband and I hide not candy the pricey paleo goods from each other). big fan of your stuff 🙂

  21. Pingback: Honest Wedding Vows For Real Marriage | Abel Abel

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