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The Vows We Keep


What are we promising when we make up our own vows — and is it changing people’s views on the importance of keeping a promise? A husband and film critic shares his thoughts on life, love and politics.

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

romises, promises; they seemed so simple when we were younger. Back in the day (back before the days I would even refer to something as being “back in the day”), you and your best friend would prick your fingers and mix drops of blood together to
Those three little words held power over us.
become “blood brothers.” Or to prove you were really serious about some claim you made, you would “pinky swear” that you were telling the truth.

Stage 1: The promise of young love, sealed with a kiss
Sometime around the phase when human relations became co-ed and puberty was on the horizon, promises were sealed with kisses (because, once “Tommy” and “Sally” got tired of just sitting in the tree, the k-i-s-s-i-n-g began), which of course led to love and marriage and baby carriages and the “happily ever after” stuff. But it was that kiss — the first kiss — that set everything off; that kiss was the first vow you made to someone.

Stage 2: The power in saying those three little words...
Later on, after kissing lost its power, you realized that officially pledging your love (by saying “I love you” to someone) was the next binding marker that couldn’t be taken lightly. Those three little words held power over us. Unspoken, they grew — pregnant with meaning — between us. For the truly romantic, there was the need to plan the moment perfectly; the first time you said them to your intended really meant something.

Stage 3: Pledging your devotion for a lifetime
But the real super-glue of the relationship — that ultimate profession of two people’s commitment to each other — was sealed in the wedding vows. The standard line (a slight variation of the original vows found in The Book of Common Prayer, which were revised to remove the word “obey” in 1922): I, _____, take you ______, to be my wedded wife/husband. To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness or in health, to love and to cherish ‘till death do us part. And hereto I pledge unto you my faithfulness.

That’s a straightforward secular promise, and it’s the one that kids used to see on television and then make in their backyard playtime dramas. It ranks up there with that earlier ditty about sitting and kissing in the tree, but then comes the reality (along with the stress of paying bills and dealing with screaming kids with ADD/ADHD, and the roving eyes of others). Then, along comes the deal-breaker — the d-i-v-o-r-c-e, which nowadays “does them part” more frequently than death and taxes ever could.

Do modern vows diminish the power behind the promise?
So, someone came up with the bright idea for couples to make up their own wedding vows in order to establish equality in both the marriage and the binding promises between the two partners. But the pledges lost their power to keep us together — much like love, despite what the Captain and Tennille sang back in the 1970s. Love’s in need of some lovin’ of its own today, you got that right… but maybe what it needs is
I wanted a pledge that spoke specifically to the love I share with my wife.
a pledge on par with Grover Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge that has been signed by 95% of Republicans in Congress (and all but one of the 2012 Republican presidential hopefuls), because once a politician signs on the dotted line, there’s apparently no chance for any of them to change their minds. No increases in marginal income tax rates for individuals and businesses, ever.

What kind of mojo does Norquist have, and why hasn’t someone pressed him into service to create the ultimate wedding pledge — the one that would apparently be able to forge matrimonial bonds of mythic proportions?

Well, for one thing, it probably wouldn’t be all that romantic. Is Norquist able to craft a vow that’s impossible to break and sounds anything like Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” which President Obama borrowed a few bars from in recent efforts to woo the hearts and minds of American voters?

Current U.S. marriage rates are on the wane
With marriage rates declining (the Pew Research Center shows current marriage rates in the U.S. dropping to just 51% of all adults — a steep decline over the last 50 years from 72% in 1960), it’s worth a try, because our poetic professions of our romantic ideals don’t seem to be working all that well. I have to admit some personal doubts about my own wedding vows. I wanted a pledge that spoke specifically to the love I share with my wife — something that would combine her passion for singing (she’s a trained jazz vocalist) and mine for writing. So, I promised to write the story of our love, everyday, as long as she would sing its verses.

Six years later, we’re still in tune with each other.

Power comes from a vow’s intent, not the wording
When it comes to finding an example — say, a case study that proves that the perfect vows are out there somewhere — look no further than those of Kim and Krickitt Carpenter, the couple whose lives formed the basis of the film The Vow. It’s the story of a couple of newlyweds (played by Channing Tatum and Rachel McAdams) whose love is severely tested when the wife wakes up with no memory of her husband or their life together after sustaining a massive head injury during a car accident in 1993.

Just two months prior, Kim had taken Krickitt’s hand and promised “to love and respect (you) fully. I promise to provide for and protect you through times of change and need. I promise to be faithful, honest, and open; to devote myself to your every need and desire. Most of all, I promise to be the man you so fell in love with.”

The movie comes across a bit like Adam Sandler’s Fifty First Dates merged with a Nicholas Sparks novel, but if you think about those vows in light of what happened to these two, you couldn’t help but believe that the Carpenters — who, almost 20 years later, are still together — could teach us a few things about keeping promises.


T.T. Stern-Enzi covers film for the Cincinnati CityBeat and Dayton City Paper and also hosts an after-school film and writing club for teens.
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