“Till death do us part” is the famous vow in the standard Christian marriage rite. Not only that, the idea of ‘forever’ marriage, to or even beyond death, is the dominant paradigm in culture. I recently married Johanna Turk. As we humanists made wedding plans, we, to the surprise of no one, bucked many traditions. Though we are in love and hope to be forever, the idea of eternal marriage is one that drew our skepticism.
People change. This one fact casts doubt on the idea of eternal marriage. The ideal of growing old after a marriage of 50 years or more to one person is something anyone would be fortunate to experience. Over the course of 10 or 20 or more years, Johanna and I will grow as individuals, and there’s no guarantee we’ll grow together. We should strive for the rewards of building a long-term relationship, through thick and thin, till death do us part. We should all be so lucky, but we also should not be too hard on ourselves if, over decades or even years, two people grow apart.
In putting together our ceremony, we expanded on just the vows. The celebration of our marriage was an opportunity to profess our love in front of our friends and family. We wanted not just to make promises but to celebrate our joys and hopes. Our joys are those qualities of the relationship that brought us closely together. Coming together through joy and love rather than necessity, commerce, or force is what distinguishes modern marriage from “traditional” marriage. We have many hopes for our relationship but there are certain things we cannot promise. We may hope to stay together for a full life, but we should not promise such a thing. The promises we do make should be sincere and achievable.
Our chief hope is to always be as happy as we were on our wedding day. With such happiness we would stay together throughout our life, but we could not promise such a thing. However, we did promise to stay together as long as we were both happy and not longer. Should we separate, there are as yet no laws preventing two people from remarrying each other after a divorce. I promised to let Johanna go if she is no longer happy in the relationship, and she promised the same to me. That one of us does not survive the relationship is not our sole measure of success.
We humanists–we humans, rather—must learn better ways to enter and leave serious relationships in mature and productive ways. Promising to stay with each other at all costs may unnecessarily add a bad end to an otherwise good relationship. Vowing to exit gracefully will help us, if we come to the end of our relationship, to remember the love and respect we held for each other at the beginning of our relationship.