It's the wedding season and the last of the June vows are being made. Across traditions and religious communities, the language is often the same:
. . . to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.
But what do the words "for better for worse" mean?
"No matter how badly I treat you—no matter how abusive—no matter what I do or say—you are obligated, stuck, and trapped? You have no choice but to stay and endure?"
Years after the flowers have died and the rose petals have been swept away, that's often the way they are used. But that's not what they mean.
The origin of the phrase is fairly obscure, but the context is clear: Whatever the challenges a couple may face arising out of life's passing years and changing fortunes, a man and woman promise to face them together. But those are the challenges that they face from beyond the walls of their home. The language has nothing to do with carte blanche for emotional and physical cruelty.
This doesn't mean, of course, that there is no place for mistakes and forgiveness in a healthy relationship. But it does mean that the promises that we make to one another are not meant are to provide cover for systematic verbal, emotional, and physical abuse. When that kind of behavior dominates a relationship, then there is often nothing to be done to salvage a marriage—barring dramatic intervention.
From a Christian point of view, however, there is much more at stake than navigating the challenges of life together, as profoundly important as that is. Marriage is a sacrament—in Latin, Signum sacro sanctum efficax gratiae, "a sacrosanct sign producing grace." Beautiful words, but what do they mean? They mean that marriage is a relationship that is meant to foster a life of intimacy with God in both people—a relationship that with honesty, freedom, and delight makes it possible for two people to accept the love of God and grow in that love.
Sadly marriage celebrations and even Christian counseling on the subject often fail to address that subject. The celebrations are overshadowed with the arrangements made for photographers, cakes, receptions, and music. And pre-marital counseling often confines itself to a list of important, but limited subjects, including sex, money, and decision-making.
By contrast, one priest I know began pre-marital counseling by saying to mothers and their daughters who were members of his parish, "This is not your little girl's special day." And he had something very similar to say to the young men who came to see him. The words might seem a bit harsh or even cruel, but his intention was to put a hard stop on the distractions that were likely to rob a prospective couple of the clarity about the choice that they were about to make.
From his point of view, they were making a choice that had the potential to not only forge one of life's human bonds, but is intended to foster a deeper sense of connection with God as well. When Christians fail to take that sacramental dimension of marriage seriously or when Christian celebrations become little more than religious permission for sexual intimacy, then the promises made are robbed of their deeper purpose.
Why would facing the "for better or worse" in that fashion make a difference? For couples, as for individuals, our lives are filled with hard challenges and misfortunes: life threatening diagnoses, unanticipated financial challenges, the loss of loved ones . . . the list is endless. It is in those moments that the circumstances of our lives may not change, but we can.
We can allow ourselves to listen, give, and cry with one another. We can be an embodied expression of God's love to one another, a reminder of God's presence, part of "a sacrosanct sign producing grace."