Esther Perel's Guide for Millennials Writing Their Own Vows

Plus, do our years of casual hookups impact what we promise each other in marriage?

Updated 12/19/17

Melissa Marshall

Now that much of "Generation Me" is saying "I do," it probably surprises no one that many in our age group—one supposedly full of progressive overachievers obsessed with personal branding—are hard passing on the exchanging of traditional wedding vows in favor of writing their own. Thus, BRIDES figured we millennials could use our own special vow-writing guide that captures our signature essence of extra.

For expert advise, I DM'd Esther Perel, world-class psychotherapist, TED talker, and the one person I'd seriously hire to run my love life. (Seriously—check out her "Where Should We Begin?" podcast to address all the relationship problems you didn't even know you had yet!)

Turns out, Perel has started her own vows project, meaning that for a little over a year, she's been stockpiling vows. "I've got between 30 and 40," she says. "I write them down during ceremonies I'm invited to, or request them digitally from friends and friends of friends. At this point, if I meet somebody who just got married, I immediately say, 'Can I get your vows?'"

But instead of being impressed by the promises many millennials were making to one another at the altar, Perel was concerned. "I'm worried that some of these people are going to crash before the end of the honeymoon," she says. "It’s like the wedding industry has become enshrined as an antidote to the hookup culture. How is it that people who, for the last 10 years, have been living in a landscape of sexual nomadism—gallivanting around from one noncommittal relationship to the next—are suddenly completely vacillating to the other side? They've found their one and only, the one who has cured their FOMO and for whom they'll delete the apps. Now they're going to promise the moon? They're going to expect from this person—and give to this person—paradise? They go from making relationships mean the least to now wanting them to mean everything.”

As a self-respecting millennial, I asked for receipts, and Perel had 'em.

Examples of Cray-Cray Vows From Perel's Collection

  • “I honor the divinity of you."
  • "I promise to always be your greatest fan and your toughest adversary."
  • "I’m your partner in crime, your constellation in this appointment, and I promise to always tell you everything and to have no secrets except the ones we share.”
  • "You will never feel alone, or abandoned, or lied to, or misunderstood. You will never have to worry about anything again."

"We are going to create a utopian paradise together. (Note from Perel: "Except paradise is utopian...isn’t that redundant?")

"Our marriage is the salve for the wounds brought on by living, a place in which lust is endlessly safe and our friendship will always be warm and abound."

OK, OK. Maybe she's onto something. But why would millennials as—generally speaking—the self-obsessed generation of NCMOs and ghosting suddenly be game to promise a lifetime of proving how vital another person is to our existence with endless gestures of self-sacrifice? Plus, we're the kids of divorce! We're marrying 10 years later than our parents, in part because we're trying to wed smarter and avoid repeating their mistakes, right? How could our older, more seasoned selves not approach marriage with more reasonable assumptions?

Please welcome to the stage Dr. Helen Fisher—biological anthropologist at Rutgers University, senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, author of Anatomy of Love, and the chief scientific advisor to Match.com. "Everyone is so hysterical about millennials as if they just fell out of Mars," she says. "They didn't. They're ambitious, exceedingly well-educated, dedicated to their careers, and, I think, ushering in some incredibly healthy courtship and marriage perspectives."

For the past eight years, Fisher has conducted a "Singles in America" study for Match.com, and now has data from more than 40,000 singles. The participants are 18 to 34 when polled, so she has plenty of responses from millennials of every ethnicity, socioeconomic status, religious background, geographic location, and sexual orientation. Based on her research, she's coined two terms for the above-mentioned perspectives: "slow love" and "commitment-lite."

The idea is that an overload of romantic choices (thanks, Tinder) has led to more careful vetting before locking someone down—"interviewing" them for an extended period to see if they check off enough emotional, practical, and physical boxes on the application for spousehood we're slowly and secretly tabulating in our heads.

"A huge percentage of millennials have sex before the first 'date,'" says Fisher. "Every year I ask the questions, ‘Have you ever had a one-night stand? Have you ever had a friend with benefits? Have you ever lived with somebody long-term before marrying them?' And every year, over 50 percent say yes to all three, and many more millennials than any other age group. They move in together, live together for years, and some even have babies as committed couples long before they wed. By the time they walk down that aisle, they want to know everything about this person: That they want them and can keep them—that this is going to work. Marriage used to be the beginning of a relationship. Now, it’s the finale."

But has Perel's vows project revealed that we expect too much out of that love once we find it? Does the millennial generation have trouble thinking about we, and are our independent mind-sets tripping us up when marriage demands compromises?

"The beauty of millennials, and it’s a true beauty, is that they’re so transparent," says Fisher. "They love to define everything. The term DTR (defining the relationship) is their creation. They are in the weeds of how you’re supposed to behave, and they’ve been trained to express what they want and say how they feel. In my generation, we just kept our mouths shut. The fact that they’re a 'me' generation may be their savior. This generation is trained to work it out, but I do think people are expecting more of themselves and their partners. "

And why is that, exactly? Fisher reasons that divorce plays a part (67 percent of Americans are "terrified" of divorce), but also the wide dispersement of extended families nowadays. "You're no longer living in the same neighborhood as your parents, so more of your support system is based entirely on our partner, explains Fisher. "So, we really want everything from our partner, and that’s why we want to work out an awful lot of it before we go into marriage. Millennials aren't jumping into a marriage and then insisting their partners promise not to eat peanut butter in bed. They’re going to live with the person for five years and make sure that person doesn’t eat peanut butter in bed."

So maybe we're expecting some unrealistic stuff that could create a problem, but we've also striven to find a more suitable partner with whom to tackle those challenges when they arise. (And if we can’t, we go see Perel.)

"Couples are staying together, so the greater expectations haven’t appeared to be that problematic," says Fisher, who recently did another study of 11,000 married people who'd been married an average of 20 years, and found that 81 percent reported they'd remarry the person to whom they're currently married. "Everyone thinks love's going to hell in a handbasket, but I think we're actually heading toward better marriages."

HA! Hair toss, fellow millennials! Looks like our over-the-top vows are just a byproduct of a dopamine rush to the brain and our wunderkind drive to rise to an occasion. "What you promise somebody as you are walking down the aisle has always been ridiculous," says Fisher. "And promising life-long pair bonding may actually be more heavy-duty than what millennials are promising. They might promise the moon, but they’re probably not promising till death do us part. They might say, 'You’re the light of my life,' but they’re not saying, 'I’ll be with you if you turn into a drug addict or an abusive alcoholic.' Besides, anyone can talk that talk, but the bottom line is you’ve gotta take a look at that walk. Millennials have taken a long walk with this person already, and thankfully, it seems to be in the right direction."

I know you're all about this positive affirmation, but now let's get back to what this article can do for you! Why not get the best of both worlds and write vows that are beautiful and personalized, but also acknowledge that your happily-ever-after will also have moments of sadness, anger, and uncertainty?

With help from two millennial couples who wrote/are writing their own vows that do just that—Kayleigh McCarthy, 26, with Brittini Salmon, 27, and Laurel Amiri, 30, with Ari Amiri, 29,—and, of course, the brilliant Perel, here are five tips for kick-ass vows grounded in romance and realness.

1. Don't lie.

Seems obvious, right? But the earth-shattering, mountain-moving, and reality-defying declarations of love belong in a Mary J. Blige song—not in your vows, and certainly not in your expectations for marriage. "Stop promising perfection," says Perel. "That's a de facto lie. Promise humility, humanness, compassion, empathy or at least the effort at those things. People fear realistic means boring and drab, but that's not the case. You don't have to promise each other heaven rather than good (and less good) ole fun on earth."

Brittini says she tends to be the more romantic one in general, "But I'm not going to make any promises to Kayleigh that I can't keep—that we’re going to have this amazing life and live on a mansion and never fight," she says. "I don't want my vows full of impossibles. They can be romantic by being practical. The idea of being happy and satisfied with the possibles is pretty romantic to me."

2. Anticipate the f-ups.

"How would it sound, if at some point in your vows, someone just said, ‘I’m going to f*ck up'?” Perel asks. "That would get people’s attention. And, there is nothing more hopeful than promising your imperfection. It’s the opposite of what people think, but it’s like, 'We are resilient. We’re not beginners. We’ve already gone through some stuff, and this is the affirmation of our strength.'"

When you marry at 30-something, don’t pretend you’re still an insecure 17-year-old. "Self-esteem is the ability to see yourself as a flawed person but still hold yourself in high regard," says Perel. "A very good homeopathic medicine is to be honest and accountable for your shortcomings, and to actually predict all-out mistakes and flops. Invent your imperfections in your vows. It's like, 'I have no doubt that at some point I’m going to drive you crazy, and I hope when you bring it up, I won’t be defensive and try to justify why I should be able to continue what I do. I hope when I mess up, I own it. I won’t just blame you to hide my failures better.'"

Laurel made that point in her own vows by including a line that promised to try hearing and listening to Ari, not if, but when they fight. "I thought it was important to state what we’re working on as a couple every day," she says. "It’s not like, 'I promise to love you always.' That’s given. It's 'I can’t promise to be a perfect wife, or that it's going to be a picnic every day, but I can promise that because I love you, I'll spend a lifetime figuring stuff out.'"

3. Mention the super specific and even the slightly weird stuff.

Don't air out all your dirty laundry, (no one in the congregation needs to know if you're into butt stuff), but it's so much more interesting to us sitting out there in the pews to hear the friends or family we know so well acknowledging their odd, but lovable, quirks. That’s what makes you special to us, and special as a couple!

"When you're talking to each other about giving each other the rest of your lives, you want it to be as personal as possible," says Brittini, when asked why she and Kayleigh decided to write their own vows. "We also wanted to do something that’s not so traditional, because nothing about our wedding is traditional—except maybe the white dresses."

When Perel is helping couples write their own vows, she asks, how about we make this into something more realistic and more interesting at the same time? "When you break the narrative, and you begin to tell more personal stories, people listen more," she explains, "because it’s so unusual to do vows that are not just puppy-eyed and starry-eyed, and that actually put the couple in the front of the community and say, 'You guys are our friends. You know us. You know damn well what happens between us.'”

Ari and Laurel never entertained the idea of not writing their own vows, but Ari's initial research left him without much inspiration. "I YouTubed some very poetic original vows," Ari says. "I remember one guy saying like, 'I promise to love you with a passion that burns brighter than...' and I think that was when I shut off YouTube. My eyes were rolling. I'd never be able to say that. But I also didn’t break it into a dichotomy of 'romantic' or 'practical.' What I ended up doing is getting into my car and just recording myself saying the very specific things I love about Laurel, and the promises I wanted to make to her. I put those little pieces together to make my vows."

These vows included appreciation for Laurel's Nintendo Mario skills and the way she laughs at her own jokes, but also for teaching him what it means to be selfless.

4. Avoid words like always or never.

This kind of language has already set you up for failure.

As children of divorce, Brittini and Kayleigh understand that "always" doesn't always mean always, and that's highlighted the importance of more honest communication in their relationship and their vows. "Seeing what my parents went through, has made me very open with Brit about what I’m looking for in this marriage," Kayleigh says. "I'm trying to be poetic, but I'm being real about what I want and what I'm looking forward to."

Brittini technically already wrote her vows for their January wedding, but says they still change every day. "We've experienced a lot in our relationship so far, but we're always learning through experience what we need to make it work," she says. "We don't worry that we're going to become different people once we get married. We're pretty much who we are. But what works for us and how we work through our issues, changes all the time, so I want my vows to reflect that."

Perel suggests thinking about it like this. "It's not, 'I'm always going to be great. It's 'I'm going to do my best when I'm usually pretty subpar, because you, the love of my life, make me want to be better.'"

Promise to strive for constant self-improvement, and remember it’s not necessarily your spouse's responsibility to fix your eff-ups.

"They shouldn't have to promise to make up for all the holes of your childhood," says Perel. "There should be no underlying implication of 'you owe me, because we're married. You owe me to never have to worry about being alone. You owe me to never feel stupid. You owe me to never feel ugly.' No, you don’t owe. It’s great if he or she can make you feel that way, but try not to confuse support with responsibility."

5. Go after the laughter.

The ability to laugh at yourself will serve you well in marriage and vow writing. "Humor can show a lot of relational self-awareness," says Perel, "and that you take yourselves seriously, but not too seriously. It's an acknowledgement of the fragility, sensibility, and vulnerability, and can help make your vows real."

Ari and Laurel describe themselves as a "goofy" couple, and thus very intentionally "wanted to put a few laughs" in their vows before ending on a sentimental note. But, when asked about their advice for millennial couples writing their own vows, they both stressed the importance of remembering that your vows are not a stand-up performance at a comedy club. They're for you and your partner—not a studio audience laugh track.

"I think millennials are all about, 'Look at me! Look at me! What can I do to make myself look better on my social media?'" says Laurel. "It's easy to sit down and write vows for everybody else, but this day is about you guys, and not the hundreds of people watching you."

Ari adds, "The most important thing is to just be genuine. I had a real problem writing my vows at first, because I felt like I was writing a speech for a bunch of people. You really need to think about what you want this one person to know about how you plan to be their husband or wife. You’re saying these things to them."

Does Perel have a favorite vow from from her collection—one that's honest and real and specific and funny? "Yes," she says. "I really liked, 'I promise to bring you a small box of your favorite chocolate at ‘that time of the month,’ without asking you 'Is it that time of the month?'”

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