What do Wedding Vows Mean Anyway?

That’s the question, “What do wedding vows mean anyway?”

We are thoroughly in wedding and anniversary season and it’s all over my social media feeds. Wedding preparations, wedding photos, throwback anniversary photos. Everywhere! This, and my impending 10th anniversary has made me think about weddings again.

When we were planning our wedding 10 years ago, I didn’t have a lot of opinions about it. I let my mom pick out the decorations for our reception and my mother-in-law planned the one for my husband’s side. I did choose the dress I wanted, but other than that, I was very hands-off. This was partly because I wanted to demonstrate I was no “bridezilla” and partly because I mostly considered the whole ordeal as a means to an end and the details weren’t important to me. Cake? Having one would be nice. Venue? A cultural hall was good enough. Vows? I didn’t know what was going to be said in the sealing and no one would have told me anyway. I figured it was just a bunch of words that would get me married, so who cares?

Really, marriage vows meant nothing to me. You can write your own vows to say whatever you want, but in the end, the courts aren’t going to uphold them like a contract:
“You promised me you’d raise goats with me, but then took that job in that city that doesn’t allow residents to have them! This marriage is over!”

Of course, there’s no-fault divorce for cases like that. But I knew that whatever was said would give us legal rights to file taxes jointly, authorization to visiting rights in hospitals, communal property, and power of attorney. For good Mormons as we were, it also meant sex and possibly children later. I figured the sealer could have said that we were promising to make french toast for breakfast every day, and it wouldn’t fundamentally change my relationship with my husband or really matter. If we ended up eating cereal from time to time, God would probably forgive us. The words in the sealing didn’t matter, just that it happened. After all, the temple scripts have changed from time to time.

I had this view for a while, that is, until the royal wedding for Kate Middleton and Prince William. When they chose to write their own vows instead of following the traditional vows of the Church of England, my wedding world was rocked. I’m not sure why at that particular time, but I suddenly understoodRoyal Wedding what the rest of the world knew:

A wedding is to declare your love to someone else and commit to them in front of all your friends and family.

Five years into my marriage and I realized I never had a wedding. My friends and family could not all attend my sealing. And I didn’t agree with all the promises in the sealing script. I felt cheated. I had not been told, “When you love someone so much you decide to commit to them, you’ll want to share that with all the people you love and care about. You’ll want to have a party and celebrate.” I had been told, “When you love someone and want to be with them forever, you need to sit through this ordinance and say ‘yes’ at the right time. The party and celebrating isn’t important.”

We have been seriously discussing doing a “vow renewal” for our anniversary this year, or more accurately, an actual wedding with vows that we write ourselves and have personal meaning for us. It depends on some finances and if we can get planning.

How was your sealing? Part of me wonders if I’m a fluke and I missed the boat on really understanding why people have weddings because I was married so young. Have you done a vow renewal? 


TopHat is putting her roots down in the Bay Area with her husband and three children. She loves the earth, yarn, and bicycling.

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19 Responses

  1. Carolyn Nielsen says:

    My personal religious experience begins with my childhood and youth in the Congregational church. My expectations were that I would be married in that church surrounded by friends and family. When the time to be married arrived, I was marrying a Mormon whose ancestors crossed the plains with Brigham Young. What did I do? I had the marriage I had dreamed of, with my dad walking me down the aisle and repreating the traditional marriage vows. During 45 years of marriage, we have encountered every one of the ups and downs that are described in the vows I made. During the down times I remember what I promised and carry forward with hope. In the up times, I rejoice. I’m grateful I made those vows before my friends and family. My wedding day experience has been a source of strength and solace.

    I’m deeply grateful to my very traditional Mormon inlaws and my understanding husband for smiling through what was an unexpected wedding experience. We did follow up our wedding with a temple sealing a year later. I’m glad I have both.

  2. Danna says:

    Oh I could have written this word for word! I remember thinking after, that I must have missed some parts….I didn’t. They are not there. For our 15th we (half) joked about going to a local wedding chapel since we had always wanted to elope. We didn’t. But it is hard to think back to our ceremony and feel disconnected.

  3. IDIAT says:

    Several things. First, had you been married civilly (Justice of the Peace, etc) — most states don’t have “official” vows. There are laws about rights and obligations of spouses, but you do not have to “love” the other person in order to marry him or her. Therefore, if you’re looking for some comfort in state law, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Second, had you wanted to know what was said during the sealing ceremony, all you had to do was receive your endowment and then participate in a sealing session for deceased people. Except for a line or two, you would have heard exactly what would have been said at your live sealing. If you had opted to get married by a priesthood leader, there is a ceremony in the handbook that leaders are instructed to use. You do not write your own vows. Out in the non-member world, couples do all sorts of things. Some people write their own vows, some let the officiant use some form of traditional vows. Virtually all state laws don’t give any effect to vows at all — all the state wants to know is whether you’ve committed to take upon your selves the set of laws dealing with marriage. You weren’t cheated. By being sealed, you declared to your husband that you thought enough of him to want to be with him in this life and for eternity. That’s a whole lot more than a civil ceremony will ever entail.

    • AuntM says:

      I was totally with you until you wrote, ” You weren’t cheated,” and “That’s a whole lot more than a civil ceremony will ever entail.”

      You don’t get to define TopHat’s experience. Nor do you get to disparage all civil marriages, including mine.

      • IDIAT says:

        I’m not defining anyone’s experiences nor disparaging all civil marriages. There are billions of civil marriages that have been performed over the centuries, but they ultimately come to an end at death. And, there are billions of couples who wish their marriages would carry on into the eternities if it were possible. By kneeling at an alter in the temple, one is declaring that hope and wish publicly. That expression doesn’t lessen or disparage the civil marriages of those who can’t otherwise participate in a sealing.

      • AuntM says:

        IDIAT: “There are billions of civil marriages that have been performed over the centuries, but they ultimately come to an end at death.”

        This judgment is above your pay grade. You really don’t have the ability to know what God will do with all those marriages. Stop making sweeping declarations. Try just sharing your own experience.

  4. Tabby says:

    I think your perspective on your sealing/wedding is really interesting.

    Since I left the Church, I am now kind of dreading my wedding. I mean, I’m in my early thirties so while I don’t want a huge wedding, when I finally meet that guy, you bet I want to celebrate publicly! But I feel sad knowing many of my family and friends will think my wedding and marriage are “less-than” because of the lack of the temple stamp of endorsement.

    I do love the idea of writing my own vows and some of the other benefits of a secular wedding. But a part of me will always mourn my “lost” Mormon possibilities even though I no longer believe.

  5. Jess R says:

    The timing of this post is eerie. My nonmember bf/pre-fiance and I are starting to think wedding. Having grown up Mormon and assuming I’d get married in the temple, I hadn’t thought much about vows either. Now all of a sudden. I have a lot more options. I couldn’t be happier about it. I dislike significant parts of the sealing ceremony, and am excited to be able to plan something that reflects both of us. At the same time it’s a lot of pressure! I hope we can do our relationship justice.

  6. Zinnia says:

    I did both–a sealing that I barely remember but which mercifully felt much better to me than the traumatizing endowment (I consider that my wedding day was not shadowed by the terrible anxiety and depression of my endowment a gift). And a ring ceremony that included waking down the aisle and saying our own vows in front of all of our friends and family. I think traditional attitudes about any other ceremony than the temple being a frivolous waste of time are changing. Even the more conservative members of my family very kindly never said anything negative to me and celebrated with me as if everything was perfectly normal. Because my relationship to the temple is so troubled, I’m grateful for my vows and the presence of all my family at the ring ceremony. It was significant to me to have that, and I think I’d the idea of renewing vows appeals to you, people would be happy to celebrate that with you.

  7. LilyTiger says:

    I grew up Mormon and always believed I would be sealed in the temple. Instead, when I was in my early 30s, I married a non-member who I was (and am) very much in love with. It was very difficult for me to plan my wedding ceremony because I always assumed it would be a temple ceremony. I knew my family would be judging me. My fiance and I decided to have a mutual friend marry us and to write our own vows. I put off writing my vows until the morning of the wedding because it was so difficult. In the end, it was an amazing ceremony. The part of the wedding I was dreading the most became my favorite part. It felt like a grace to me. Even my Mormon family couldn’t deny that they were very moved. Of course, I still hope that I will be with my husband forever, and I have faith that those things will fall in place when the time is right, even if it is not in this life time. I am grateful that I got to have this public expression of love and commitment and that my family ultimately supported me in that.

  8. CatherineWO says:

    I was not disappointed in our wedding in the Salt Lake temple 43 years ago. It was everything good that I expected it to be, with lots of family overflowing the sealing room and even more waiting outside. I still honor that day for what it represents, even though I am no longer a believing member. Even so, I would now love to have a vow renewal, one with vows that are just between me and this good man I’ve loved all these years, vows that reflect our years together side by side and that look forward to whatever years are left to us, without the interference of a religious organization. I’m not a public person though, so maybe something private with our children and grandchildren, or maybe just the two of us on a mountain trail. Thanks for the post TopHat. You’ve got me thinking.

  9. Rach says:

    I’m doing a vow renewal this year, on our 7th anniversary. The temple is too entwined with polygamy for me to feel any peace with the ordinances there. I find the sealing devastating, and after years of trying to make it work, have finally accepted that the temple is not for me. I look forward to redefining my marriage in equality and love.

  10. Moss says:

    I wish we’d been able to be married civilly first and then be sealed later that day, like you can just about everywhere that isn’t the USA. I do hope to do a “vow renewal” someplace near the ocean.

  11. Andrew R. says:

    Interesting. My wife loved being sealed. What she didn’t enjoy was the civil wedding service and reception in our chapel before we went to the temple (we live in the UK where you can not be married only in the temple).

    The civil ceremony, reception, her dress, everything was not what she would have really wanted. 30 years later all she wants in a vow renewal so that it can be “perfect”.

    I think being married directly in the temple would have stopped a lot of that. And two of my children feel the same way (though still single). The two that have been married are happy with the wedding and sealing they have had.

  12. Spunky says:

    DH and I wrote our own vows, complete with jokes. I loved that it was our wedding- him and me, and felt like us. It was lovely. We were sealed 12 months later. That felt nice, but it wasn’t for us. We did everything everyone at the temple told us to, and covenanted according to the script. Though I enjoyed the idea of being sealed, the impersonal nature of the sealing didn’t create a strong memory. The Non-temple wedding was much more memorable… And fun!

  13. Kalli says:

    I’ve thought a lot about this as well. At the time I wasn’t bothered that none of my siblings would be a part of the actual ceremony. One brother and his wife didn’t even fly out for my wedding since they couldn’t be in the temple. I didn’t let myself get upset about it because in the end it was about me and my soon to be husband. However, 10 years later I wish it had been a different experience. That we could have had a civil ceremony and then gotten sealed like everywhere else in the world outside of Mormon North America. It does hurt my feelings that a brother felt so disconnected from my choice of a ceremony that he chose not to participate at all. My other brother and his family lived just a few miles away from the temple we married in and didn’t even bother to
    show up on time to see us come out.

    I don’t blame them. We’ve created this disconnect between member/non-member and inactive families. The viewpoint of a non-believing friend or family member’s unworthiness or lack of a temple recommend as a justified exclusion is a false one. We need to do more as a faith to embrace the separation of church and state. Especially in Utah where I live.

    Marriage is a civil matter, legally speaking. Otherwise, the sealing ceremony is almost exactly the same whether it’s performed at the same time as a civil ceremony or as the actual marriage ceremony itself. Let’s include families and important friends in this milestone rather than exclude if the bride and groom so choose.

  14. KMD says:

    We had such a great party for our reception. I refused any sort of receiving line and we just mingled with our guests while dancing, eating and visiting. I have good memories of a fun celebration with family and friends. The only sad spot is my uncle who refused to come to the party because he couldn’t see the ceremony. My grandma was gracious about not being at the ceremony having experienced it before with my parents.

    I love the simplicity of LDS weddings (temple or elsewhere) and think less is more for the ceremony. Spend time on the party! Because I had the party I wanted and a great photographer, I have great memories of my wedding.

  15. KMD says:

    I will add – my brother was married civilly last year and at first my mom told me not to come this yea but wait for the sealing ceremony. I told her I completely disagreed and that the actual MARRIAGE was the part to celebrate and throw a big party. It wasn’t easy to get to his wedding since he gave us 3 weeks notice and lives on the opposite side of the country but I was there because he was getting MARRIED. That was cause for celebration no matter where it happened.

  16. Quimby says:

    I would’ve quite happily been married via proxy but I don’t think those are legal anymore. So, we eloped. I would recommend it to anyone. We didn’t plan anything in advance (other than checking which countries allowed for quickie-marriages) and we didn’t write our own vows. Our vows turned out to be the super-traditional vows where I promised to “love, honour, and obey.” I tell my husband I had my fingers crossed during the “obey” bit. He says that’s okay, he had his fingers crossed for all of his vows.

    From time to time someone will question whether or not we are legally married in Australia, since the ceremony itself was in Fiji, several governments ago. It is legal – I actually called Births, Deaths, and Marriages to confirm it. Before I thought to call up Births, Deaths, and Marriages, I commented to my husband that, if it wasn’t legal, did it really matter at that stage? Surely we wouldn’t go through it all again just for a piece of paper. My husband – who surprises me sometimes with his romantic side – said, “Wouldn’t you? I’d marry you again in a heartbeat.” Awe, sweet. But thankfully we didn’t have to.

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