Your Marriage Vows Do Not Entitle You to Anything
- Marriage vows are a commitment to one’s spouse; not what one is going to get from the relationship.
- Marriage vows are not guides to how to work things out in the day-to-day function of the relationship.
- It helps to follow marriage “rules” that support working collaboratively for the betterment of each partner and the relationship.
I ran across a 2001 article by a divorce lawyer who spelled out why your marriage vows entitle you to nothing.1 Surprised?
Read on. His point is that your marriage vows provide for your spouse, not you. You take a vow “to love, to honor, to cherish, (to obey), to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, for better for worse, until death do us part.”
And, he argues that this vow means no excuses.
For lawyer Forrest Bayard, marriage is an institution comprised of non-negotiable rules called vows.
However, these “rules’ do not tell you how your marriage will work—how to resolve differences, how to decide who is accountable for what in the marriage, how to talk about what is important for you to flourish, and how to listen to and support your partner.
People divorce (the only way to undo your vows) because they are not getting what they want out of the marriage and don’t know how to get it.
When one or both partners seek therapy, there is not much conversation about vows made to the other person; instead, it’s often self-righteous complaints and a sense of entitlement to the things they want that they feel they are not getting.
What Are the Rules of Marriage That Allow You to Get What You Want?
Currently, there are two popular ways in which couples try to work things out in their marriage—to get what they want out of the relationship.
Rule by Gender
Even though gender is becoming less significant in defining relationships in most areas of our lives, it remains a central motif in marriage.
“Doing gender” in marriage is about acting out your current ideas about masculinity and femininity. Husbands and wives demonstrate their masculinity and femininity in the way they interact around everyday household activities, childcare, displays of affection, etc.
The success of the marriage is defined by how well each conforms to their ideas about masculinity and femininity.
Rule by the Business Model
A newer approach to working things out in marriage is the business approach or the self-interest model. As in business, partners do things for each other with the expectation of a return—it’s a quid pro quo arrangement. In this approach, what we want from each other is expressed as “I need.”
Our wants and wishes (for a good life) become “needs.” Applied to marriage, this translates into the idea that we must fulfill our partner’s self-identified individual needs—but we expect our own needs to be fulfilled in return.
The basic idea is “You satisfy my needs, I satisfy yours.” The success of the marriage is defined by how well you feel your needs are satisfied.
A Different Way to Work Things Out in Your Marriage
A better way to work things out in your marriage is to see it in terms of how you interact with each other—what psychologists call the relational or interpersonal processes that occur between the two of you.
The idea is to develop relational processes that foster the physical and mental well-being of both partners as well as the relationship itself.2
Here are a set of “interpersonal rules” to follow so that this can happen.
- You each feel a special concern for the other—”every concern of yours is a concern of mine.”
- The things that are important for you to flourish are viewed as wants that are negotiable—they are never “entitlements.” Your wants are not needs.
- How you sort out getting the things you want is through negotiating collaboratively with each other—you are willing to negotiate in “good faith.”
- Being collaborative in negotiating means sharing authority—neither partner is privileged by gender, how much they make, etc.
- Being collaborative in negotiating means accepting responsibility for negotiated outcomes.
- Being collaborative means that neither of you expects a “return” for what you do for your partner—you give because you are interested in your partner’s well-being.
Self-Reflection—the Fundamental Requirement if You Want a Collaborative Marriage
The basic requirement to establish this kind of collaborative marriage is the capacity for self-reflection. Being self-aware as a habit allows us to keep track of the things that are important to us and remember to be accountable to our partner.