Community First Therapy

What's in a vow? 

10.11.22 08:52 PM By Charell McFarland

Things to know before saying "I do"

A poorly-kept secret I have is that my favorite type of therapy to engage in is couples therapy. I no longer keep this a secret because I have recongized that it's "ok" to have a preference in therapy in the same way that it's ok for an MD to specialize in neurology by choice. For whatever reason, I thoroughly enjoy working with couples. I do enjoy other types of therapy as well, because you can do more individual work in private sessions compared to couples sessions. While I enjoy working with couples in general, I especially like working in the realm of pre-marital couples therapy. 

I have witnessed couples getting married for many reasons. Some with good intentions and other out of hurt. Some common reasons may include getting married because they love each other, are financially dependent on one another, they have children, "it's about time" to get married after having been in the relationship for so long, they don't want to lose their partner who wants to be married, they feel they "should" or "ought" to be married for one or more reasons, they want to have sex and feel rushed because of a belief system about pre-marital sex, they want to get out of a parents home, they are looking to feel more secure and stable in the relationship, or they believe marriage will help fix or "heal" the challenges within relationship. There are many other reasons that would make this blog unreadably long if I listed, so I won't! Truth be told---spoiler alert---these are all potentially harmful to the relationship reasons to get married.

This topic is so complex and I will likely post many blogs on this topic, but for today let's focus on the vows and what they tell us about marriage.
I will give a disclaimer that these vows are often used in western cultures that have historical roots in some form of judeo-christianity. If that is not you, I believe this blog could still be of use as the world and cultures are intersectional in many ways if for no other reason than global access made possible through technology. I will also disclaim, as with any blog, these are my opinions and/or commonly held opinions that were hard for me to trace to any one originating source. This is based on my experience as an independently licensed clinical social worker with 10+ years experience as in the field.

Ok now that that is out of the way, I wanted to evaluate marriage through the initial vows we often take and how they, theoretically, set the tone for the marriage. Let's look at some key features of the vow. While the wording may differ key themes include "for better/for worse", "to have/to hold", "to comfort, honor, and keep", "in sickness/in health", "for richer/for poorer", "forsaking others", "to be faithful and true to", and "to love and cherish". Some vows also include a promise of honesty, forgiveness, trust, to help, to understand, and the dreaded "until death" to which I often joke yours or mine, but hopefully not mine. Disregard my terrible and twisted joke, but these are some serious and heavy vows if you truly look at what married people are promising one another. If we actually read what we are saying, it starts to become clearer why there may be more helpful and less helpful reasons to marry someone. For the purpose of this blog and length, I will focus only a few of these reasons. 

Let's start with for better or for worse. For better or for worse is not just a promise to be present when things are good and when things are bad (or rather not so good). Instead I view it as almost a declaration that bad will come. It's right there in the vows-- we will have good times AND we WILL have bad times. We're here for both. The hope is that, overall, the good times are for more meaningful, impactful, and frequent than the "bad times". If a marriage, or long term partnership, is started off under the premise of "I didn't think it would be this hard" there may have been some misinformation or misunderstanding as to what marriage/commitment is in the very beginning. The expectancy of hardship is one of the first things acknowledged right after stating your name! So expecting a marriage to "fix" what's broken is not realistic or feasible solely based on the first sentence of the vow. The same is true of relationships before marriage. If we don't expect or experience hardship, the relationship may be lacking depth. The art of combining two lives seamlessly with no hiccups along the way is not realistic. With our feet fully planted on earth, "stronger" relationships have been through things "successfully". This means not avoiding or manufacturing conflict, but effectively resolving conflicts as they arise. This is a test of our communication and conflict resolutions skills. If a couple beyond the "honeymoon" phase, has no issues, ever, they would have a hard time convincing me they have an open, real, honest, and healthy relationship. Worse will come. Plain and simple. It's how we handle it and that we handle it that gives our relationship depth, growth, purpose and meaning.

Another, perhaps controversial, part of the vow is "to have and to hold". If we remove the potential legalistic implication of having possession of someone, and shift focus to a promise of availability it takes on a different and much more intimate level of commitment. In this case, the meaning is more close aligned with to keep close to and/or to be available to physically, emotionally, spiritually, etc. This is a much healthier promise to make to someone, but in reality is also a promise many married persons struggle to keep. It's selfless and not based on deservedness. This means that it isn't earned, but is freely given. Tangible, this means when my partner isn't "acting right" (aka doing what I think they should be doing), I don't remove the closeness and forsake my promise "to have and to hold". I will state that this does not endorse ANY form of abuse (and I will not list the types of abuse because I really mean all types of abuse and don't want someone to say that wasn't listed). Barring unhealthy and abusive relationships, this is a hard promise to keep because it's saying when I don't feel like it or when I don't feel my partner is deserving of something, I still will. This also goes directly against manipulative attempts at withdrawing anything (time, affection, communication, resources, etc) as punishment. Punishments are arguably not effective with kids, and given that we are all adults, its incredibly manipulative to punish an adult especially by withdrawing myself from them in hopes that they learn a lesson, seek penance, and only then do I re-give the gift of me to them. That sounds out of this world when phrased that way, but many of us in relationships do this and may have even been taught that this was the "right" thing to do. Have no fear or doubt---it is neither a helpful or healthy behavior. If you do this or experience this, there is no time like the present to make a positive behavioral change for the health and success of your relationship.

Another part of the vow that is sometimes included focuses on loving and cherishing. The Oxford dictionary defines to cherish as to "protect and care for lovingly" or to "hold dear". Putting these two together makes perfect sense, because I do not believe love is a feeling. Love may cause certain feelings, but love, in my opinion, is more accurately described as a verb. So when you think of love it may be more helpful to think the act of loving someone versus the feeling of loving someone. To cherish is also a verb. These two are actions promised in a vow that are not based on feelings, deservedness, or being earned. Unconditional love and unconditional positive regard can not be earned. It's something that is feely given. I think the clearest example of this is with our children. Sometimes they try it! But we don't withdraw love when they behaved in ways we don't like, or at least we shouldn't. Love is not based on how much they love us or how "good" they are. We also don't love them only because we should or are obligated too. In healthy parent-child relationships, that love is unconditional and is based on the relationship built and established from conception, birth, adoption or any other means by which your child came to you, and that love is continuously fostered throughout your time together. This foundational experience of love establishes a potential healthy, or unhealthy, foundation for all future relationships. The same is true for marriages. That love most be fostered and freely given for the marriage to survive and to be healthy.

This does not mean that love is foolish, unwise or requires anyone to be used or misused. It's a two way street of action. Two people make the vow. Two people make the promise to take action or to do something. The challenge comes when hurt or selfishness enters the equation. I can't love you unconditionally because you might hurt me. Or you aren't meeting my needs and so I will not meet yours. Or, and perhaps worse, you aren't meeting my needs so not only will I not meet yours, I will hurt you by acting purely out of my own self-interest and betraying the relationship. Worse still, I expect you to still give your best to be without question even though I have hurt you because it is your role and responsibility. More often than not, these are not actual conversations we have with each other or ourselves, though sometimes it is, but rather these are the subconscious thoughts and/or feelings behind our behaviors. Now if you are reading this and you identify with what is being sad and think "my partner is selfish and not loving me the way I want to be loved". Take a moment to pause. Take a deep breath...and another deep breath. If you feel that way, you are probably right on many levels. However, it's easy identify what someone else is doing wrong. It's a human condition in which we are all born with the skill set of identifying someone else's flaws and how they hurt us. We are are often right. Unfortunately/fortunately, we can't control what someone else does. We only have ourselves to work on. It is sometimes helpful to say I know so and so may not be doing the right thing (in my opinion), but am I doing the right thing, consistently? Would they see it that way? Do I give my best all or most of the time? Is there something different I could be doing despite what they are doing? Unless the answer is a definitive I'm perfect at all times, it's helpful to start with ourselves first, even if fault lies with the other person. And, more importantly, if the answer is a definitive I'm perfect at all times, there maybe work outside of couples therapy that could be helpful and healing to do.

Other parts of the vow re-inforce and expand upon similar concepts--to forgive, to be honest with, to trust, to help, to understand, and so forth. One thing I always do with couples first is explore who the believe is the enemy? What is the source of the problem(s)? Who is the bad gal/guy in the marriage? Couples who can identify "neither of us" tend to have better outcomes. Generally speaking, your partner is not the problem. The problem is the problem. This important question evaluates our commitment to the relationship: Are we willing to come together, in unity, to address this problem or these problems? For example, if you are struggling with communication, the issue is not that you or your partner do not communicate effectively, the problem is better phrased as effective communication is a problem in our relationship. Now this is something we can work towards together without pointing fingers---even if the truth is one person struggles more with this than the other. It's simply not helpful to point out. Poor communication had led us astray AND we can work together to learn healthier skills towards effectively communicating the in future. Unfortunately, this is where pride comes in for a lot of us. There is something in humans that needs to identify the problem and an opponent and rarely does any fault lie internally (or the opposite, someone may inappropriately take on all of the blame). A lot of people say pride goeth before the fall, and while that may be rooted in biblical themes, it's also just plain facts. I have yet to be in any situation, personally or professionally, where pride (in a stubborn sense) entered the equation and actually helped. Pride interrupts forgiveness. Sometimes pride can make us want to take away see-esteem or ego from someone else. And how hurtful is it when our pride is directed in relationship with the person that we have vowed to love and to cherish? to honor? I often visually imagine pride as a person standing in the center of a crowd yelling "Meeeee!!!". Pride doesn't make us right, strong or invincible, it often can make us lonely and isolated. We often don't allow or have room for others when it's all about us.

Lastly, some vows focus on "to honor", but many of us don't truly know what we are agreeing too. Even though the vow says, "I will honor you", when rubber hits the road many of us interpret this to actually be saying "you will (or must) honor me". However, the dictionary describes "to honor" in several ways that are all incredibly relevant and contradictory to the often misinterpreted view of honor. Oxford described the verb "to honor" as to regard with respect, to pay public respect to (this would be instead of honoring yourself or receiving honor, you give honor by showing respect to your partner, and not just privately but publicly), to fulfill an obligation to or keep an agreement with, and to accept or to pay when due (as in honoring or keeping your word or promise). Similar to earlier vows discussed, this also is not earned. It is promised and inherently given. You may notice that I did not state "to honor and obey". This opens a whole door to theology, often misinterpretation, and cultural conditions that I won't get into during this blog. Just know that this was not an oversight and was intentional.

You may have also noticed that I used the phrasing deservedness or earned quite a bit, and that is because in marriage these concepts play limited roles unless the health of the marriage or safety of ongoing participation is called into question, and a serious, and often difficult, decision has to be made about the status of the marriage. In all earnest, the ideal time to evaluate deservedness is BEFORE saying "I do". It's helpful to truly evaluate if you partner is a person you can and will commit to love, honor, cherish, help, trust, understanding, have and hold, and to maintain your vow to when bad comes without them having to continuously earn this from you? And not just are they that person, but are you that person? You may ask yourself, am I able and willing to freely give these actions (or vows) to my partner? Are they able and willing to give these things to me without condition or regard? It takes two. You could be in the healthiest emotional place you have ever been at in your life, but if you partner is not, they may not be able to offer these things in return. You also could be in the healthiest place you have ever been in, AND still not be able to offer these things just yet. That's ok. We are where we are, and you are at a great place to get help. 

These are also great questions to ask yourself before you say "I do":
  • Why am I getting married? What is the purpose?
  • What will change after marriage (and it somethings always change)?
  • Do I have a clear understanding of my partners flaws and do they know mine? Do we accept these things or do we hope they will one day change?
  • What am I vowing and how serious am I about these vows? How serious is my partner?
  • Is pride, distrust, or unforgiveness a potential unhelpful 3rd participant in our relationship?
  • Can I give of myself to my partner without reservation, hesitation, or condition?
  • Can I receive this from my partner in return?
  • Is love demonstrated in our relationship as a verb or as a feeling?
  • What are my beliefs on marriage? What are my beliefs on this marriage?
  • What are my non-negotiables? Barring experiencing one of those, will we entertain divorce as an option or solution to a difficulty problem?
  • Is there equity in both of our commitments to the health and status of our relationship?

Maybe you are already married, and every day you are asking yourself, "what did I do!?!?", with or without explicits! I get it. Many of us have been there. I have found though that if two people are committed they can get through anything. Only one person committed is the same as no persons committed, and unless both people pick up the paddle and row together, the process exhausts one person and the boat sinks, doesn't get far, or spins in circles.

The truth is, marriage counseling works. Not all marriages are saved and that is not inherently a sign of effective counseling. I measure efficacy by the health of maintain the relationship or health of individuals as they navigate ending the relationship. I personally would love all marriages saved, within reason, but it's up to the people within the marriage to do so. The therapist is only a guide to teach skills. The commitment is solely determined by the couple. There is hope to help guide singles, unmarried couples, and married couples toward healthy relationships. Relationships are only two far gone when the people participating in them decide so. 

If you have any questions about anything I have said here, please reach out to the office.

Dr. C

Charell McFarland