Published July 29, 2005
In some weddings, "'til death do us part" is going the way of "to honor and obey" — that is, out the window.
Vows like "For as long as we continue to love each other," "For as long as our love shall last" and "Until our time together is over" are increasingly replacing the traditional to-the-grave vow — a switch that some call realistic and others call a recipe for failure.
"We're hearing that a lot — 'as long as our love shall last.' I personally think it's quite a statement on today's times — people know the odds of divorce," said New Jersey wedding expert Sharon Naylor (search), author of "Your Special Wedding Vows," who adds that the rephrasing is also part of a more general trend toward personalizing vows.
Naylor said killing the "death vow" doesn't mean that people don't take their marriage promises seriously. Quite the contrary.
"People understand that anything can happen in life, and you don't make a promise you can't keep. When people get divorced, they mourn the fact that they said ''til death do us part' — you didn't keep your word in church (if they had a church wedding). Some people are in therapy because they promised ‘til death do us part' — it is the sticking point in the healing of a broken marriage. The wording can give you a stigma of personal failure."
For those who have expressed interest in eliminating "'til death do us part," Naylor has suggested going with "For as long as our marriage shall serve the greatest good."
"You will promise to be loyal as long as love shall last — you don't want to promise 'when you treat me like crap,'" she said.
"I see mine as a total success ... that's five more [years] than I made it with anyone else," he told W magazine.
But for others, nothing less than forever will do.
Newlywed Dana Novak Ranawat — a Virginia native who married in April, also nixed "'til death do us part" — but she went to the other extreme.
"We changed it to 'For all the days of our lives.' I didn't want us to say 'until death do us part.' I believe in heaven and that we will be together after we die. I kind of went the other way," said Ranawat, who is studying for her doctorate in psychology.
As for people who vow to stay married for as long as they love, rather than as long as they live, Ranawat said such a mind frame could be a detriment in the long run.
"People think 'we'll continue as long as it works and then we'll end it' — to me, that's going to make it end when it's unsuccessful. For us, this is the only time we're getting married and we'll make it work."
Dr. William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights (search), said to his knowledge, these new vows have yet to creep into the Catholic Church. And while an "innovative" priest might allow them, he said they "wouldn't get a sanction from Rome."
"It's a change for the worse. The 'death do us part' vow is really unconditional. Once you change it to 'as long as love shall last' or something of that nature, it's conditional. It's almost analogous to a prenuptial agreement — simply saying 'we hope it works out.' It goes against the grain of marriage."
Psychologist Diana Kirschner, author of "Opening Love's Door: The Seven Lessons," agreed with Ranawat and Donohue that promising forever lets the other person know that you're in it for life — good times and bad — and that promising just for a while can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
"Over time your mate brings out the best in you, but also the worst in you. You have to have a contract that you'll work together to help each other grow. A contract that is this kind of thing —as long as we feel good — there's a guarantee that you'll feel bad, hit a rocky point, where you don't love anyone, you don't love yourself — that's where the rubber meets the road. That's where active love comes through."
But Kirschner said she can understand why some people, especially children of divorce, would find it difficult to promise eternal love.
"I think there is an unconscious belief that love can't last if there is a model in one's family. You're probably going to get what you expect if you have very limited expectations."
But given the abundance of broken marriages in the U.S. today, some say limited expectations are simply realistic.
The Rev. Bonnie Nixon, a non-denominational minister in Torrance, Calif., who presides over approximately 1,000 weddings a year, said the specter of divorce is definitely reshaping vows.
"Some people were born in 1970 and they've already been married three or four times. At least half of the couples we marry come from blended families — some say vows to the other person's children. This generation (the one now marrying for the first time) grew up with a lot of divorce in the '70s and '80s. They have two dads, two moms, eight grandparents. They have divorce in mind — they're wary. It's just realism."
Nixon has even heard vows as extreme as "Until our time together is over" a couple of times.
"They don't really want to commit themselves to forever and ever type thing," she said.
In the case of "Until our time together is over," it was the groom's request, and Nixon said he was "leaving himself wide open."
"I think he was trying to be noncommittal in case it didn't work out — they didn't seem too terribly in love."
But why get married at all then? Nixon said it all comes down to tradition.
"The white dress — all of us girls were raised with that. We still want to do that and hope for the best. Men I think are going along for the ride. I think a lot of people feel 'We'll probably get 10 years out of it.'"
That's not to say that Nixon doesn't see the blushing bride of yore.
"There are also a lot of very starry-eyed people who cry tears when they say vows. It's very sweet. And we hope it lasts — there are so many outside forces on people today. I always hope for the best, though."
Indeed, Betsy Goldberg, features editor at Modern Bride magazine, said she's heard about the "as long as our love shall last" trend, but it's not the sentiment she's been seeing among her readers.
"The readers we have [are] still going into weddings saying 'this is forever.' The majority of people still want to go in believing forever and intending forever. I think [the rest] make up a small percentage."
Naylor said some people keep "'til death do us part" and other "scripted" vows because they want to keep tradition alive.
"They want to say the same words their parents spoke. Things the bride has been dreaming of saying since she was putting the pillowcase on her head. Even in the most personalized weddings, people usually have one element that is very traditional."
Naylor added that some people are canning "'til death do us part' simply because they don't want to mention such a bleak subject as death in their vows.
But other couples are taking their wedding vows less seriously than ever. At one recent wedding, officiated by Reverend Run of Run-DMC fame, the marrying couple swapped "for richer or poorer" for "for richer or richer."
And when it came time to exchange rings, Reverend Run said, "where's the bling?"