Traditional Wedding Vows Need a MAJOR Update

Liz Susong gives us the back story on the wedding vows

Updated 11/30/17

Photo by Mackenzie Neville

In Catalyst Wedding Co. editor Liz Susong's weekly column devoted to the feminist bride, she dives headfirst into the crazy history behind common wedding traditions we may take for granted. Liz investigates here.

The traditional wedding vows we recite today are nearly identical to those from Medieval England. The bride’s vows went a little something like this: “...for better for wurs, for richere, for porer, in sikenesse and in helthe, to be bonoure and buxum in bed and at bord...” Woah, stop the presses! To be buxum in bed? When I read this, my eyes were the size of pancakes, thinking damn those broads were liberated, until I learned that “bonoure and buxum” translated more directly to being good and obeying one’s husband, rather than getting in touch with your inner sex goddess. Patriarchy can be such a bummer.

So what I’m telling you is that the vows we recite today are basically the same as those from Medieval England, and they are actually word for word from 1549. FIFTEEN FORTY-NINE! Women have been promising to obey their husbands since 1549! Please excuse me while I top up my Bloody Mary.

Our traditional wedding vows were written by — Alice? Margaret? — Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury between 1533 and 1556. Cranmer wrote the Book of Common Prayer, which essentially created the guidelines for worship services, baptism, confirmation, and marriage — all in English! Henry VIII appointed Cranmer and oversaw his work. Given this little fun fact, I’m honestly surprised we womenfolk don’t promise to “love, cherish, and obey, lest we have our heads lopped off like that harlot Anne Boleyn.”

Now, I have sat through many a church service in which a 40-something white minister explains that obeying ain’t all that bad, especially when the man you are submitting to is a benevolent leader who will always put your needs ahead of his own. But no amount of semantic gymnastics could convince me to obey my husband. I mean, he’s a great guy, but what would obeying him even look like? I’d always have to fill up the gas tank once it dropped to half-empty instead of entering a full-on panic when the gas light is flashing at me and I have to be somewhere in five minutes, I’d have to share the sheets rather than burrito-ing myself like a newborn baby, and I would be forced to care about NBA player’s tweets and Instagram accounts — I’m sorry, but that is just impossible!

Apparently, a lot of women started to feel this way in the 1970s, challenging the centuries-old vows and electing for a more personalized and fluid version. Or, as Cheryl of Pennsylvania summarizes, “No-bey.” Margo of Ohio married in 1978, and she wrote her own vows: “When my mother-in-law heard them out loud in rehearsal, she wanted to know if we would really be married since we ‘didn't promise anything,’ in her words.”

But hey, we are promising lots of things. Amber and Marley of New York promised “that if we got divorced, we’d be fair and kind." They also “agreed to maintain an ethical humanist and egalitarian household.” Rachel promised “to go out of her way to recycle” and to “scratch Adam’s head when he’s feeling stressed.” See, 1970s moms? We are making promises.

But still, the vows can be a huge point of contention between couples and their families. The vows represent the values a marriage is built on, and families often want to see themselves reflected in those values. Maika is getting married in January, and when asked about vows, she said, “I am so dreading this part. My family expects traditional.” She wonders if it would be easiest just to appease them and recite the old vows. Then she second-guesses this statement: “Maybe I’ll say mine in Italian so I can say some off-the-wall stuff that no one there will understand. It’ll be a win-win between the fam and me.”

Laura of Portland offers some comfort. While she and Ben worked really hard on their vows, trying to pick the perfect words, “when it came to the moment of saying the vows, which was, of course, the crux of the ceremony and the point of the day, it isn’t the words that I remember.” Rather she recalls the feeling at that moment as she recited them. “They were just a vehicle by which to express something that was understood underneath them.” However, she really enjoyed the process of writing the vows together, which created “a moment of calm to consider what this union means to you in the midst of the wedding planning.”

Amber and Marley also took a unique approach, sharing some vows publicly, and reserving others for a more private moment between just the two of them. Monique recalls that she and her husband wrote their own vows, but they also recited the traditional ones “as extra insurance.” While these are great compromises, I would say that no matter how you approach it, your vows should ring true for you and your partner. You are the ones who are making the commitment to live those vows, after all. And regardless of what your family thinks prior to the wedding, they will likely be able to sense that emotion between you as you make your promises, and that is what will stick with them for years to come.

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