Here's the fantasy: You and the love of your life stand, hand-in-hand, staring into each other's eyes, as each of you in turn showers the other with beautiful words of love and commitment, more eloquent than you could have imagined.
Here's the reality, as I've seen it most often: one partner unfolds a piece of paper, pulled from deep within a pocket or cleavage. They read for a few minutes, and it's beautiful and poetic, if a little bit longer than it needs to be. The second partner unwraps a sweaty piece of paper from around a bouquet or pulls a napkin from who knows where and nervously reads a few sentences laden with, “I didn't know what to say,” a few inside jokes, and an eloquently succinct, “I just really love you.”
To be clear, both options are perfect. At the end of the day, you will be married. And it will have been lovely. But here are four reasons I think that you should opt for prepared vows instead of the reality, or even the fantasy, I've painted for you…
I want to start with an exception to this rule. When I officiated my cousin's wedding, I strongly encouraged her and her fiancé not to read their own vows. But I was overruled. And it was lovely. Their vows were beautiful and they were powerful. The sentiments and commitments expressed made me feel deep affection and appreciation for the fiancé I'd been so-so about right up until that moment.
So I know it's possible. But far more often, here's what I see: One member of the couple (let's call them Audrey) is really excited about writing vows. The fiancé (let's call them Jordan) wants to make Audrey happy, so Jordan goes along with it. Audrey has imagined the vows as a surprise, so Audrey and Jordan don't have a conversation about how long the vows should be or what they should contain. Jordan desperately wants to make it perfect for Audrey, so Jordan procrastinates until the night before the wedding. Audrey writes something much longer than Jordan imagined or prepared for, and Jordan is overwhelmed, delighted, and totally embarrassed.
If you don't want to embarrass your fiancé, don't make them be Jordan. At the very least, have an open and frank conversation about what you're envisioning — because you are imagining something, and you're setting your beloved up for failure unless you tell them what you're expecting.
Which brings me to reason #2…
It shouldn't be a secret
Somewhere along the line, in our cultural education about romance — whether it was Disney princes kissing sleeping princesses or Darcy announcing his love for Elizabeth or the tearful declaration scene in every rom-com — we learned that surprises are more romantic. And there is a place for surprises: in ceremony or reception details, in unexpected occurrences, or in your first looks. But your vows should not be that place. The wedding ceremony is about making an enduring commitment, an acknowledgment of the ways you have permanently changed one another's lives, and the responsibility you will take for that.
Those vows shouldn't be a secret — you should know what you're agreeing to in advance. Your vows should be the product of a conversation about what you want your marriage to be. And they should be the starting place, and the fallback, for all the future conversations about how your marriage is growing. And that relates to my third point…
It's probably not vows
Almost always, when people say “write their own vows,” what they mean is, “write about why they like the other person.” It makes sense; every television wedding I've seen has a ceremony that consists of three things: the officiant not needing notes (ha!), “Amy I love you so much and I want to spend the rest of my life with you” as “vows,” and the “I dos” as the finale rather than the opening (but that's a whole other post).
But the purpose of vows is not to explain why you love the other person. You can do that on your wedding website for your guests. Your officiant can do it during the ceremony based on what she has observed about you. Best of all, you can tell the person every day for the rest of your lives together.
Your vows, however, should not be a list of reasons you like the other person up to this point, because those reasons will change. Your vows should be your aspirations and commitments for how you want to love one another into the future. Your vows should be a fallback for when you frankly don't like the other person, or yourself, very much, and a reminder for how you want to love them, and be loved, anyway. So how do you do that?
There's a better alternative
If you don't love the traditional wedding vows, if “to have and to hold” doesn't mean much to you or make much sense for the marriage you envision together, change them. Work with your officiant or your couples' counselor or a writer friend to figure out what promises and commitments you want to make to each other, reflecting the substance of your marriage. Write those promises down together. And then work them into five or ten sentences of five or ten words each, because frankly that's the most you can get out on a nervous breath, repeating after your officiant.
You don't have to choose between stuffy and formulaic or awkward and romantic. You can put vows together together that reflect who you are and who you hope to be individually and as married people.
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Comments on Unpopular opinion: you shouldn’t write your own vows
A less off-putting way to frame this would be around some things to consider before deciding to write/read your own vows. The people getting married should absolutely have an honest conversation about how comfortable they are with doing it and what each expects from it. You should both be clear on what “vows” means to you…talking about why you love your partner and decided to marry them may not be vows in the traditional sense, but if that’s what you both want to do, do it. Everyone will cry. It will be adorable. It’s also understandable that you’d want to surprise your partner with what you say at the wedding, but there’s no reason you can’t get someone else to listen to you practice or look over them for you.
Thank you for this! Number three is one of my biggest wedding pet peeves – reading a love letter to your beloved is sweet, but not a vow! My husband and I did both. We had a “Why I’m marrying you,” part in the ceremony, where we said all the mushy stuff, and later in the ceremony did actual vows (which were to love, honor, and cherish each other for the rest of our lives). To me at least, the vows are kind of the core of the wedding. It’s a whole ceremony where you are promising very important things to your partner. It was important for us to have actual vows being said, clearly and deliberately, that were agreed upon in advance. What you decide to promise to each other, however, can totally be altered to suit your needs.
Just @ me next time. Thankfully, we had the presence of mind to share beforehand (even though I REALLY wanted them to be a secret), and I’m SO glad we did– because this was EXACTLY our situation. I wrote a series of heartfelt vows that was basically a slam poem, his first draft was a five-paragraph explanation of the ancient greek ideals on Aether as they relate to the notion of love and also the periodic table I guess?
My husband and I did a combination/hodgepodge. We sat down and built a format, but then were free to fill in our own details, so it was still a delightful surprise. We also discussed things that were off-limits to mention in the vows (mostly special moments shared between the two of us).
We ended up each doing three “I Love…” statements followed by three “I vow/promise…”. We went back and forth between each so it wasn’t just one of us reading a short paragraph.
I knew if left to our own devices, B would blow my vows out of the water and I didn’t want to feel like I didn’t do my vows “well enough”.
I think it worked out really well for us!
Agreed! Esp. with “Your vows should be your aspirations and commitments for how you want to love one another into the future…” Sure, every one should do what works for them, but I have always thought that vows should be…well…vows! We went with more traditional vows, but the readings we chose came from several meaningful (to us) sources, and that, plus our music choices for the ceremony, were the more personalized parts.
We had a part of our ceremony where we could express all the mushy love letter type stuff (and we both agreed: no notes, just speak from the heart in the moment), and then we had actual formal vows. It was a perfect way for us to have both.
Huh, is the last suggestion not “write your own vows”? This article is kind of out of place on this great site full of radical acceptance of independent brides. I agree with MCA that it could have been reframed as a much more positive take on advice regarding this subject, as the advice (especially in the final paragraph) has some great points.
You hit the nail on the head, especially in the “It’s probably not vows” section. A vow is a spoken contract, what you are promising. It is not a list of “why I love you.” Thank you for a great post.
I think more importantly than not writing your own vows is agreeing on what’s important to you as a couple. My husband and I wrote our own vows, we agreed to keep it under one minute, to mix serious promises with more lighthearted ones and we had someone check them for us (in our case it was his brother but another option would have been the celebrant). By having an external person checking them we were able to keep surprise each other on the day while making sure the tone and length was similar.
Ultimately it’s your wedding and you should do what makes you happy!
This is exactly what we’re doing! Under two minutes, at least one lighthearted element, the officiant reading them before the ceremony to make sure they’re sort of on the same page. My sister and her now-husband wrote their vows to each other and his vows were honestly the most beautiful vows ever.
A fun alternative — our friends wrote each other’s vows. So he wrote hers, she wrote his, and then the officiant swapped them. His vows ended up being giving her a backscratch and promising to always do so; hers were a joke that he loves that she can never get through without crying from laughter. They were very unusual, but very them, and still on the same level of formality!
I love this post because we didn’t write our own vows and I felt really bad. I always thought people who wrote their own vows were more in love lol and I couldn’t get my husband to write anything!
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