This story was originally created for The Gottman Institute Blog and has been republished here with permission.
I recently read a statistic that the average couple spends between 200 and 300 hours planning their wedding. A few of those hours likely go into writing wedding vows. How many of us revisit or even think about those vows ever again?
My guess is almost none.
Earlier this year, I made a new friend named Bonnie who shared with me that she and her husband have been renewing their wedding vows every year for more than a decade. The night before their wedding, they stayed up late crafting personal vows, a manifesto for their marriage, and they revisit these words annually on their anniversary.
“Chip and I are very dialed into the power of rituals, so when it came to our vows, we at least had that intention in mind,” says Bonnie, who sees the vow renewals as a way to shepherd her and her husband through the milestones of their life together. “The renewal ceremony is a powerful re-anchoring of each promise we gave to each other.”
These words are not limited to their yearly ritual, but they also find their way onto birthday cards, encouraging texts, and day-to-day conversations. “They put our hearts back in the right place, they reunite us. These lines have ongoing life,” Bonnie says.
I was so inspired by Bonnie’s story that I organized a surprise vow renewal ceremony for my husband and I as part of a trip to Mexico we had planned. Standing hand-in-hand, with our toes in the sand and the waves crashing 20 feet away, the tears poured down my cheeks as I re-promised myself to Marc after nearly 14 years of marriage.
It was such an emotional experience, much more moving than when we first said our vows back in 2004. After further reflection, I realized it was because I really had no idea what I was promising on our wedding day all those years ago. They were just words. That day on the beach, I became painfully and joyfully aware of the weight of the promises we made and the commitment they represented.
Do any of us really know what we’re getting into on our wedding day? Clouded by naivety, bright-eyed optimism, and simple lack of experience, few of us can possibly see what lies ahead in our marriage and guess how we’ll weather both the calm and the storms. The promises we make to each other are mostly untested as we stand in front of our wedding guests. We haven’t had the experiences yet to know what it even means to love someone in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, for richer or for poorer.
Even when we know for sure that we really love the person we’re about to marry, we can’t possibly comprehend what it will be like when that love is tested, how it will feel to be delighted by our partner but also disappointed and disillusioned. Through my own experience, and from my friend Bonnie, this is what I’ve learned about the importance of renewing our wedding vows every year.
We recommit with intention
The vows, repeated each year on our anniversary, bring us back to an intention for staying together and the relationship we’re mindfully creating. These promises refresh us and remind us of what it means to cherish someone for life.
We check in
Assuming our relationship is going to chug along without changing is as naive as assuming we ourselves won’t change over the course of our life together. Goals, priorities, and desires all change as each year passes. Checking in to each share what it’s like to be in this marriage, how it feels to pledge monogamy, and what the confines of commitment really feel like for each us gives us the opportunity to take an inventory of the state of our union. Rather than see the marriage commitment and its related promises as a given we just assume remains solid, we recognize its going to shift and change, and we honor the right for it to do so.
We honestly assess and review
The vow renewal allows us to reflect on the state of our relationship and honestly consider the qualities we are bringing that either enhance our union or detract from it. It’s a chance to look ahead at where we are going and to consider if we’re creating a quality of relationship that can actually take us there. For me, it was a moment of reckoning when I could see that how I was being in certain areas of our marriage was not going to help us stay together. I took a hard and honest look at myself and made some much-needed changes.
As each year passes in our marriage, I am more and more aware of what it really takes to stay the course. As John Gottman suggests in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, we continue to turn towards each other, even in moments of conflict or deep sadness. This is quite an accomplishment, in my opinion, and one that should be celebrated year after year. We don’t always get things right, we often make mistakes, but we lovingly stay in and we never let go. That’s definitely worth popping open a bottle of champagne every year.
I wish I had started the practice of an annual vow renewal years ago, and when I voiced my regret to Bonnie she gently scoffed. “The process is always available, you can start any time,” she told me encouragingly. “Don’t let the timing or the consistency overshadow the power and the meaning of the role these vows can have for you.”
So regardless of how many years we have under our belt, I now see the power of this ritual, done anyway a couple sees fit, but done with consistency. Even if the practice does nothing more than give us the opportunity to honor what we’ve created and cherish what we’ve built, it’s worth the effort.