Every other Wednesday in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.

I’ve never been a big fan of couples writing their own vows. I find such portrayals in sitcoms and romantic comedies typically cringe-worthy. My main complaint, though, is how often these professions take one of two tracks: over-promising or promising nothing at all. In the latter, there seems to be a misunderstanding of the purpose of vows (or, at least a very different purpose from the one I understand). It’s not that these couples aren’t sometimes saying really lovely things to each other, but that, rhetorically speaking, they’re expressing feelings instead of making commitments.

To be all things to each other is, ultimately, to make marriage an altar and a spouse a false idol.Take, for instance, the wedding vows from Leonard and Penny’s wedding on season 9 of The Big Bang Theory. He uses a science metaphor to tell her he loves her, and she recites the lyrics from “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” It’s silly and sort of touching, because, after all, these are fictional people on a comedy, but there’s no real vow. Just what are they promising to do when they repeat “I do”? Call me a traditionalist (It’s fair. I’m pretty traditional), but I like the love, honor, cherish. My husband and I also promised to “forsake all others,” an essential component for us of what our marriage covenant means.

In “Is American Culture Asking Too Much of Marriage?” The Atlantic’s Megan Garber discusses the issue of over-promising. She begins by setting this scene:

Think of the last wedding you attended. Did the couple’s vows to each other involve promises to be, for the rest of their lives, friends and family and companions and lovers and allies? Did the two people vow to keep exciting each other and soothing each other and listening to each other and challenging each other, to be co-adventurers and co-Netflixers and co-owners of things and possibly co-parents of things and, all in all, pretty much all things to each other?

Using this premise, Garber describes the work of therapist Esther Perel, who claims that excessive expectations like the ones listed above lead to discontentment and fuel infidelity.

The problem, according to Garber and Perel, comes from channeling all our desires for self-fulfillment into a single person and a single relationship, both of which are likely to buckle under the undue burden. As Garber writes,

It used to be, Perel said, that people outsourced their expectations of happiness to cultural institutions, organized religion chief among them. People found fullness in their lives—all the stuff of the modern-day wedding vow—not just from their spouses, but from community and civic engagement and religious faith. (Or, as Perel put it: “‘Happy’ used to be for the afterlife.”)

It’s easy to see how, even with traditionalist vows like mine, phrasing like “forsaking all others” can easily buy into the contemporary romantic trap of looking only to my spouse to meet all my needs.

It’s not just that marriage as an economic institution has changed over the course of history but that most people’s social networks have altered as well. I can see the ways that my own social circle (as well as my husband’s) have shrunk since we had children. We have less time and less energy to devote to people outside our family, and we combine the work of caring for our children with caring for our coupledom and our selves as individuals too. Sometimes that load seems daunting, and I say this as someone aware of the incredible privilege of having grandparents nearby to offer free babysitting!

As much as I love spending time with my husband, we each used to spend more time with our friends too, and more time volunteering, and more time actually paying attention in church. One solution is to get together as families, but any parent of small children can tell you how difficult it can be to hold a conversation, let alone lead a service project, while also supervising little kids. It’s often easier just to stay home, and the reality is that some days my husband and I don’t feel like all the things promised in those overwhelming vows. Some of them are unachievable for whole seasons of our lives.

To be all things to each other is, ultimately, to make marriage an altar and a spouse a false idol. It’s inherently unfulfilling because it’s never what God intended. We need friends and family and community outside of our marriages because we humans are disappointing creatures. We need Christ at the center of our lives and our marriages because a cord of three strands is not easily broken. Just two unravel easily, no matter how lofty and sincere our ambitions. Some days—lots of days—it’s hard enough to love, honor, and cherish because we so often behave in unlovable, dishonorable, and uncherished ways. The vows hold us to a standard impossible to attain without the grace and forgiveness of Christ and each other. It’s a worthy standard—not to be all things to each other and displace God, but to forsake all others while remaining faithful to God and engaged within a meaningful community.

Image by Kaz via Pixabay.