Would you marry him again?
Renewing your wedding vows can be a powerful ceremony. You’ll remember the happiest times of your marriage. You’ll remember the most painful times, too.
In the beginning, you date someone you can talk to for hours, someone who listens to you for hours, someone who sees the world the same way you do, someone who can finish your sentences, someone who thinks you’re perfect in every way. You think you’ve found your soul mate. With the vision of Happily Ever After, you get married. Time passes. Tension weaves its way into the fairy tale. Ouch! There’s a thorn on that rose! Not everything is unfolding the way you thought it would.
Wake up! Marriage is not one long date. At some point, often in the second year of the marriage, you realize how exquisitely your authentic selves fit together. Or, friction, once an occasional intruder, takes a firm hold.
The average length of a first marriage that ends in divorce is a little over seven years. In that time, you’ve each been evaluating the marriage. You see certain traits in the other person that you couldn’t see — wouldn't see — before. Now, you ask yourself: Can I do more, be more, with this person?
If the answer is yes, you do something that your friends and family recognize as evidence of your commitment to stay together: It could be something obviously connected to your marriage, like an anniversary party. Most often, the evidence focuses on just the two of you. You buy a home or renovate. You have a child. You start a business. In one way or another, you invest something of yourselves in having a future together.
If the answer is no, you cannot do more, be more, with this person, you separate, emotionally at first and then, all too often, legally.
So it says a lot when a couple chooses to renew their wedding vows!
In a previous article and podcast episode, I shared a wedding ritual I created called The Seven Hills of Rome. I talked about how this gifting ritual could be used for birthdays and retirement parties. That same ritual, appropriately tweaked, can also be used in renewing wedding vows, or any vow you make to yourself.
If you’re planning your own vow renewal ceremony, this article (and podcast episode 48) will prompt you to think about the gifts your marriage has already given you and encourage you to think about what you can give to each other going forward.
If you’re a Life-Cycle Celebrant helping a couple plan their vow renewal ceremony, this article will help you shape the ceremony with sensitivity, honoring both the gravitas and the joy of two people still in love.
If you haven’t read the previous article or listened to podcast episode 47, here’s a quick recap. The Seven Hills ritual involved seven pre-determined guests at the wedding. Prior to the start of the ceremony, I gave each of the seven guests a stone on which was a word representing a desirable quality in a marriage — a gift. Think of: Passion, Friendship, Fertility, Abundance.
At a certain point in the ceremony, I talked about how the couple fell in love in Rome and shared their first kiss in the ancient Garden of Oranges. Then I invited the seven guests to come up, one at a time, and present the couple with the stone. To tie the ritual to Rome, I did some research and associated each of the words with some aspect of the one of the seven hills Rome was built on. The associations were subjective. For instance, I said the Aventine, the hill with the Garden of Oranges, represented the gift of love because that’s where my couple shared their first kiss. I could have associated the Aventine with health because of all the vitamin C in the oranges.
You do something similar for a vow renewal. Use the location where the vow renewal takes place, or the location of the wedding. Better yet, use both — especially if there’s contrast between the two. For example:
- An elopement at City Hall and a vow renewal at 5-star resort
The gifts: Expediency and Success
- A formal church wedding and a Las Vegas drive-through vow renewal, complete with an Elvis impersonator
The gifts: Tradition and Unconventionalism
- A hastily planned wedding at the bedside of a dying parent and a vow renewal on the beach
The gifts: Compassion and Nature
- A small backyard wedding and a vow renewal on a television reality show
The gifts: Family and Fame
Expectations vs. Reality
The location of the wedding and/or vow renewal provides the scaffolding for the ritual. The depth comes from who these two people are and the experiences they shared. A wedding celebrates a couple’s future. Sure in their love for each other, they imagine how life will unfold. A vow renewal celebrates a couple’s history. That includes what they expected when they got married and what they actually experienced. Look for the gifts. For instance:
- Maybe the couple expected to put down roots and become part of a community, only to wind up moving every few years. Tie that experience with the gift of Adventure.
- Maybe the couple expected to have one child and wound up with triplets. Tie that experience with the gift of Fertility.
- Maybe the couple expected a modest lifestyle and won a huge lottery. Tie that experience with the gift of Good Fortune.
The Struggles: Infertility, Bankruptcy, Infidelity
Anyone who has been married for any length of time knows that marriage has its struggles. When appropriate, saying something about those struggles in the ceremony can add the gravitas that makes a vow renewal deeply meaningful. Look to classic wedding vows for inspiration. For example:
- “For richer, for poorer” — Maybe the couple anticipated financial security from their disciplined savings only to be bankrupt by a crash in the stock market.
- “In sickness and in health” — Maybe the couple planned to travel the world footloose and fancy free, only to be anchored in place by a serious illness.
- “In good times and in bad” — Maybe the couple assumed marriage meant happily ever after, only to realize that even in fairy tales family members turn on each other, or fall prey to addiction, or lose a child.
- “To forsake all others” — Maybe one or both spouses broke their vows of fidelity. With time, counseling, and forgiveness, they want to recommit. That’s a sensitive situation, especially if children are involved.
Many of the struggles a couple faces are obvious to family and friends. When that’s the case, no mention of the struggle could make the vow renewal feel hollow. Whatever the challenge, if you’re the couple, you decide whether or not to mention it in the ceremony.
If you’re a Life-Cycle Celebrant creating a vow renewal ceremony for your clients and they want to acknowledge a particular struggle, do so with compassion. If that struggle is infidelity, consider using language about their hearts needing to separate in order to grow. Say something about how a broken bone is extra strong in the place where it mends. Be sensitive, especially if children are involved.
The Test of Time
There’s an inherent optimism in wedding vows, whether the couple uses traditional vows or writes their own..Each spouse wants to bring his or her best self to the marriage and rightfully assumes the other spouse feels the same. But at that point in the relationship, the vows have yet to be tested. Time will take care of that.
A vow renewal acknowledges that the couple has faced those tests. Whether they renew their vows after ten years, or twenty-five, or fifty, the ceremony celebrates the growth of both people as individuals and as a couple. While the traditional wedding vows point to the common challenges in all marriages, every couple’s story is unique. That’s why I encourage couples having a vow renewal to write their own vows.
If that’s you, what do you say? Whether or not you’re creating your own vow renewal ceremony, or you’re working with a Life-Cycle Celebrant, dig deep into what challenged you as individuals and as a couple. That’s where you’ll find the inspiration you need.
Sources of Challenge, Friction and Growth
Of the many areas you can explore, here are a few of the big sources of friction. These same items can help build a strong foundation, too. For now, look at the list, think about how these items echo the classic vows of “…for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, in good times and bad…”
- Physical home
- Gender Roles
- Abandoned dreams
- Shattered dreams
Inspired by these areas of possible friction, let what you’ve learned about each other — what you admire and appreciate about each other — inspire your vows. Here are four examples of how you could phrase renewed vows. Note that the examples focus on behavior, not promises to feel a certain way.
- “Standing by your side all these years, I know how hard you work to help our family. With gratitude, I’ll always be mindful of your devotion to our family’s comfort.” Instead of “comfort,” you can substitute health or security, or safety, or whatever is appropriate for you.
- “In the many years we’ve been married, you’ve shown me the true meaning of support. With gratitude, I’ll always show you the same.” Instead of “support,” you can substitute acceptance, respect, generosity, sacrifice, resilience, or whatever is appropriate for you.
- “Over the years we’ve been together, we’ve learned to encourage without reservation, to communicate without illusion, and to love without condition. I’m grateful for the years we’ve had and look forward to many more to come.”
- “The deepest joy of my life comes from raising our children. With pride, I’m eager to support our future grandchildren, knowing we’ll do that together, too.”
If reading this article makes you want to renew your wedding vows, or, if you are, like me, a Life-Cycle Celebrant who creates such ceremonies for your clients, here are two vow renewal rituals to consider.
- Adapt The Seven Hills of Rome Wedding Ritual
Check out the recap of the Seven Hills of Rome ritual I referred to earlier. Decide on the number of special guests you want to participate. I recommend anywhere between three and seven. Fewer than three and you lack the repetition that creates the richness of this ritual. More than seven and you risk the energy dissipating.
In the original wedding ritual, I had the special guests present stones. You don’t have to use stones carved with words. You can use a Sharpie and write the words on an 18-inch piece of grosgrain ribbon. (Satin ribbon will bleed.) Tie the ribbons to a wreath, or to wine glasses or beer steins or coffee mugs. Or, have the presenting guests each place a flower in a vase primed with assorted greens. Or, have each guest present a gourmet cupcake with a word written in frosting.
- The Growing Flame
In the metaphysical world, fire is the element of desire, will power, inspiration, the goal that’s worth serious sweat equity. We often use words related to fire to describe the intensity of a romantic relationship: instant sparks, flames of passion, embers of desire. With those associations in mind, I created a ritual called “The Growing Flame” for couples renewing their vows. The overall theme is that whatever kindled their initial attraction has continued to grow over the years. That makes this ritual particularly effective for couples who have been married at least ten years.
To illustrate the ritual, imagine that the couple has four grown children and that friends and other members of the family are present for the ceremony. Have a table set up with a framed wedding photo of the couple. Make sure the table is large enough to hold other items.
If the couple used a unity candle in their wedding ceremony, have that on the table, too. They can begin the ceremony by relighting that candle.
Before the ceremony begins, designate four friends who knew the couple when they got married, and who, ideally, attended the wedding. One at a time, each of these friends brings up a tealight safely held in a votive glass. The tealights or the votive holders should be four different colors. As the four friends present the votives and place them on the outer edge of the table, they state an admirable quality the couple was known for at the time of the wedding. For example:
Blue tealight: “When you got married, everyone knew you as the couple whose door was always open.”
Red tealight: “When you got married, everyone knew you as the couple with the crazy sense of adventure.”
Green tealight: “When you got married, everyone knew you as the couple with a genuine love of nature.”
Yellow tealight: “When you got married, everyone knew you as the couple who rescued animals.”
At this point, the Life-Cycle Celebrant, or whoever is conducting the ceremony, says a few words about how, over the years, if an admirable trait is nurtured with love, it will not only grow but will also be mirrored by others.
Now the couple’s four grown children come up, each with a blue, red, green, or yellow candle. These candles are big, thick pillars. Each child presents a candle, places it on the table, behind the corresponding tealight, and says something that echoes the earlier sentiment, this time from the perspective of the grown child. For example:
Blue pillar: “Because you got married, we grew up knowing we could always bring friends to our house. You taught us how to create a hospitable home.”
Red pillar: “Because you got married, we grew up unafraid of life and the adventures it offers. You opened our eyes to a wild and wonderful world.”
Green pillar: “Because you got married, we grew up determined to help protect our environment. You helped us help Mother Earth.”
Yellow pillar: “Because you got married, we grew up knowing there’s something we can do to relieve the suffering of the less fortunate. By your example, you showed us how to speak for those who have no voice.”
The Life-Cycle Celebrant says a few words about the beauty and lasting value of the legacy the couple has created, as evidenced by their grown children.
As for timing, it’s right after this ritual, The Growing Flame, or the adaptation of The Seven Hills of Rome, that the couple should renew their vows.
The Vow You Make to Yourself
I hope these ideas have inspired you to look at your own committed relationships, including the relationship you have with yourself.
Do a little ritual with a tealight in a votive when you start that new book, or exercise routine, or graduate program, or cooking class. When you’ve reached your goal, repeat the ritual, this time with a large, pillar candle. Use a toothpick and carve your name into the sides of the pillar candle. Then light the flame and reflect on your journey. Bask in the glow…and let yourself be inspired for your next adventure.