Renewal of Wedding Vows
Renewal of Wedding Vows
Weddings are an ancient cultural practice that has great meaning for its participants. However, couples in the United States have been holding another kind of wedding ceremony for the purpose of renewing their wedding vows. There has been little research on this ritual, prompting researchers to reflect on what occurs when couples renew their wedding vows, and what the various forms of the vow renewal ritual accomplish for the couple and people in their social network.
Renewal of Wedding Vows Ritual
There is a dearth of information on the renewal of wedding vows. The research that is available was done in the United States (Braithwaite and Baxter 1995). Like wedding ceremonies, vow renewals are social events in which personal feelings and commitments between partners are witnessed by friends and family. The ceremonies are held in churches, public secular spaces (e.g., hotel or hall), or residential homes.
Dawn O. Braithwaite and Leslie Baxter (1995) asked participants to describe their vow renewal experiences. Couples described why they decided to hold a vow renewal, the setting, participants, and activities of the event, and the outcome of the event. Many of the interviewees kept and displayed meaningful artifacts from the ritual, such as invitations to the ceremony, copies of the text of renewal vows, pictures and photo albums, videotapes of the ceremony, and objects involved in the vow renewal (including special clothing worn during the ceremony and rings exchanged between spouses).
Although a few couples report renewing their vows alone and informally, the vast majority of these vow renewal rituals are carried out in a public setting with witnesses. The number of witnesses can range from two persons to several hundred. The renewal events typically involve two phases that occur either in the same setting or in different settings: the vow renewal ceremony and the celebratory reception/party. These events typically involve an officiating person who administers the vows of renewal to the couple, usually the couple's pastor, minister, priest, or judge.
Participants in the ceremonies enact a variety of roles in the event: helping with planning and preparations, serving as members of a traditional wedding party (e.g., ushers or bridesmaids), performing as part of the renewal ceremony (e.g., performing a song or reading a poem), serving in a witness role; and, in the case of mass ceremony renewals, coenactor of vows. Many of these vow renewal ceremonies take the form of a traditional wedding; an observer would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between a wedding and vow renewal event. Some couples reunite their original wedding party; other couples have their adult children serve as attendants.
Couples who renew their vows consider the witnessing function of family and friends in attendance important. They are aware that stating their vows in front of others also makes them accountable to the promises and commitments made: "[Having others present] adds verification that in a sense, we're willing to be held accountable for this commitment to each other because we promised [it] in front of the witnesses. We can't say to the witnesses now 'Well, we've broken that promise' without real due cause. It's nothing casual." (Baxter and Braithwaite 1995)
Types of Vow Renewal Ceremonies and Their Purposes
Researchers have identified three different types of vow renewal events: (a) couple or family initiated events, where the couple or members or their families planned and carried out a renewal of vows ceremony; (b) relational repair events, where the couple came together after a separation or severe relational challenges and renewed their vows; and (c) group or mass renewal of vows events, an event usually planned by a church where multiple couples would renewal their vows (Braithwaite and Baxter 1995). Reasons for holding the vow renewal event differ within these three types.
The first type of renewal ritual is initiated by the couple or their family. Although a couple may renew their wedding vows at any time during their marriage, the majority hold this ceremony as a way to commemorate a milestone wedding anniversary, such as their twenty-fifth, fortieth, or even fiftieth anniversary. Several different motivations or goals are reflected within the couple-initiated ritual. Couples use the ceremony as an opportunity to publicly express their love and commitment to one another. Other couples pay homage to their marriage by giving themselves the "real wedding" that they never had. For some, their original wedding ceremonies were often found lacking in emotional and/or material ways. These include couples who had eloped, had limited financial means when they married, or married during wartime, and they opt for a large, formal renewal ceremony with all the traditional wedding trimmings (e.g., formal clothing, flowers, and wedding cake).
Some couples choose to enact the vow renewal event to pay homage to friends and family. These couples recognize that their marriages are embedded in communal webs of family and friends and believe these significant others should be honored through the celebration of the vow renewal event. (Baxter and Braithwaite 2001). Another function performed by the vow renewal ceremony is to pay homage to the institution of marriage. Some couples feel that the public renewal of their marriage testifies to the endurance, strength, and beauty of the institution of marriage. In honoring their own successful marriage, couples feel that they are serving as role models to others, particularly members of the younger generation. Finally, for many of the couples, the renewal demonstrates a reverence for God and testifies to God's presence in their marriage.
A second type of vow renewal ritual is one that reflects relational repair, most often after a separation or severe relational challenge. The couple chooses to renew their vows to mark a turning point in their relationship, such as signifying the successful resolution of a crisis in the relationship (e.g., after an extramarital affair) or marking the transition to another stage in the relationship's history (e.g., after the children have left home).
The third type of vow renewal event is a mass ceremony in which a member of the clergy administers a common set of vows to an assembled group of couples who simultaneously renew their respective marriages. In some instances, a presiding minister or priest simply asks couples to stand up during part of a regular church service. In other instances, couples sign up for a special church service during which the mass ceremony will take place. These mass ceremonies recognize the central role of marriage in the institution of the church. Other mass ceremony renewal events involve marriage enrichment programs such as Marriage Encounter, in which couples participate in a structured program intended to enhance communication skills between spouses, and culminates in a group-enacted renewal of marital vows. Although most couples participating in mass ceremonies report they are glad they participated, some couples report that these mass vow renewals are somewhat impersonal and less meaningful than couple-initiated and repair vow renewal ceremonies.
In short, the marriage vow renewal event is a communication ritual that pays homage to both the unique marital bond between partners as well as the broader institution of marriage. The public nature of the marriage vow renewal event and the function of witnesses stresses the importance of understanding marriage, not as simply a relationship of two people, but as embedded in webs of social relationships including family, friends, and the community.
baxter, l. a., and braithwaite, d. o. (2001). "performing marriage: marriage renewal rituals as cultural performance." southern communication journal 67:94–109
braithwaite, d. o., and baxter, l. a. (1995). "'i do' again: the relational dialectics of renewing marriage vows." journal of social and personal relationships 12:177–198.
dawn o. braithwaite