I recently wrote an article in which I explained that any relationship has a natural duration, after which it ends – unless the people in the relationship hold on to the relationship for dear life.

This raised a question about marriage vows. Divorce statistics prove to us time and again that despite the religious and legal pressure on us, marriages do not last for ever – they do not even last for a lifetime.

And even where a marriage lasts for a lifetime, people often tell me that they have been desperately unhappy in their “long and happy” marriage because they were forced to stay in it for health or financial reasons or because of social pressure. In these situations, even though the marriage certificate is there, the marriage did not last for a lifetime. Who are we trying to fool?

Why do we have marriage vows?

The earliest marriage vows were not between two people. The vows were between a person and the village that this person joined by means of a ceremony. The person undertook to help watch over and protect the tribe and the village, in exchange for their protection.

During the Middle Ages marriage vows became a legal contract between families, and it was meant to protect the interests of the two families that were tied together by the union between a man and a woman. There was not necessarily a religious aspect to this.

Later on the church got involved and insisted on having a public ceremony where a couple made promises to each other “until death do us part”. Sadly there is so much religious pressure on many marriages that those words become the sentence people have to live with – mostly emotional death, sometimes physical death. If you are still trapped in a marriage that has technically ended long ago, you will know what I am talking about.

Someone said to me the other day that even though he is divorced, he still believes that a marriage should last “for ever”. He said that when you get married, you do not decide whether you take the 10-year or the 15-year deal.

Of course you don’t, and even if you could, it would not make sense to choose any duration for the marriage in terms of time. The marriage – that is the relationship, regardless of its legal status - will endure for as long as the couple teach each other what they undertook in their soul contracts which they entered before they were born.

The religious view on marriage vows has caused a lot of heart-ache, violence and emotional damage. People are expected to buy into the fantasy that a relationship will last “for ever”. When reality destroys the fantasy, the church and society heaps guilt onto the “guilty” parties for failing to live up to the fantasy. When the relationship eventually ends – legally – too often the partners walk away with a sense of failure, rather than with a sense of achievement. This sense of failure in fact keeps them in the relationship well past its sell-by date.

Do we achieve anything from a broken relationship? Of course we do. We just do not acknowledge our achievements.

I was married once, and I ended the marriage against much objection and prejudice after I had faced the wrong end of a fire-arm. I had to struggle for years with the guilt, the sense of failure and the programmed prejudice that was targeted at me and making my life one great misery.

Did I gain from the marriage and the divorce?

Of course I did. Even during my marriage I had to rely on my own resources, and that made me realise that I was emotionally much stronger than anybody gave me credit for. I had to find solutions for problems that were not described in any textbook.

After my divorce I was a “sinner” and an outcast. That forced me to reach out to people who otherwise would have been off-limits to me for ridiculous reasons such as a different religion, language or marital status. I made great friends and learnt about unconditional Love.

When my 10-year-old son ran away from home in the night, I could not talk to anyone that I knew – not even my parents - to get help, because that would have provided proof of my failure as a single parent – which was predicted all round as part of the culture I grew up in. It was part of the burden of being a divorced woman in a culture where the institution of marriage was (still is) worshipped.

I found my son within half an hour – and he was quite embarrassed and happy to be home again. That brought us closer and I learned to listen more to what he was saying, and also to what he was not saying – a skill that has been invaluable throughout my life.

And the other day my boy spontaneously told me that he is very happy to have me as “the oracle on parenthood” now that he is becoming a father. That was a humbling experience and it made more than 20 years of being a single parent worth every minute. Without my “failed” marriage I would never have had that experience. And I can write a book about the other wonderful discoveries I have made about myself and other people over the years since I got divorced.

The Celtic hand-fasting ceremony is far more realistic than any religious marriage vows that I have encountered.

I will quote selectively from the vows that go with the hand-fasting ceremony – if you want to know more, contact me and I will provide a link to the full wording.

“Will you cause him/her pain?
I May
Is that your intent?

Will you burden him/her?
I may
Is that your intent?
Will you cause him/her anger?
I may
Is that your intent?
Will you take the heat of anger and use it to temper the strength of this union?
We will.
The knots of this binding are not formed by these cords but instead by your vows. Either of you may drop the cords, for, as always, you hold in your own hands the making of breaking of this union.”

These vows do not create any unrealistic expectations. They consider the fact that we are the masters of our own destinies, and that when things “go wrong”, there is not necessarily malicious intent. Life is about positive and negative experiences, and all these experiences are meant to provide balance.

And above all, the vows are not based on the assumption that “failure” implies guilt. There is no such thing as failure. There is such a thing as being blind to the insights we are meant to gain from the relationship.

The lessons we learn and the wisdom we gain from ending a relationship are forever. The legal and religious paperwork attached to a relationship are not forever. The guilt and sense of failure may be forever, if you choose to hold on to that for the rest of your life.

Author's Bio: 

Elsabe Smit is a professional transition coach, helping individuals and companies to achieve their personal and commercial objectives. What is the one thing which is consuming all your energy at the moment? Visit www.elsabesmit.com for a FREE new start quiz and a FREE Food for Thought subscription.