As Celebrants, we hear a lot of wedding vows from the traditional 'to have and to hold' to the outrageous promises to walk across America together (yes that's been done!).
I spent some time in November quizzing some top Wedding Celebrants, and members of The Celebrant Directory, in the UK on their best and worst experiences with wedding vows and asking them to give us their best advice when it comes to putting pen to paper.
JUSTINE: Yes – all of my wedding and renewal of vows couples include vows. In 5 years of officiating ceremonies I have yet to have a couple that don’t want to say something special to each other.
ROXANNE: Absolutely. It's all about the vows darrhhhling!
SAMANTHA: The majority of my couples do choose to include vows, as many see this as a real central feature or key moment within their wedding ceremony. However, not everyone likes to speak out loud on their day, so some of my couples have chosen to instead write a set of ‘couple promises’ which I have read out on their behalf. This is usually followed by a simple promise of ‘I do’ spoken in response at the end.
YVONNE: Yes, every couple has wanted either traditional or personalised vows…. !
JENNY: Ooh I love this section within a ceremony, but not all couples feel the need to include them. For many, they will already have completed the legal element to their marriage, and so during their wedding ceremony with me they may feel a little like they are repeating things, or perhaps even find is an unnecessary part to their day if they have preceded this with a religious celebration. For others, they are just so nervous that they would rather not speak at all!
There have been a few times where I have suggested that rather than missing out on sharing these precious words with one another verbally, why not write them down in the form of ‘love letters’ and exchange them during the ceremony instead. I provide some narrative that explains what is happening, and how they will read them privately later on.
I am always happy to work with my couples to shape the format to suit their needs, and to make sure they are comfortable with how it will flow on the day.
There are no restrictions with a celebrant, and so it is good to re-enforce this by reassuring the couple that they can have just what they really want.
JUSTINE: Wow. So much to incorporate. When thought through properly, they represent emotion, romance, humour, meaningful and real promises that set the scene for the rest of the journey.
ROXANNE: The basis and foundation of their marriage: the spoken oath, covenant, contract... whatever you want to call it, but these are the most important words they can offer each other - to pledge and promise, and to express and acknowledge.
SAMANTHA: Your wedding vows are often the truest most heartfelt spoken words in your ceremony; they are the words that describe everything that you believe to be important in marriage, and represent the reasons for your togetherness and your chosen commitment to each other.
YVONNE: I ask them to focus on actions and qualities: - what inspires them about their partner, what marriage means to them, what qualities they adore, what they promise to do to keep their love strong, and what they are looking forward to as a couple.
JENNY: (This is too hard to do! I have condensed it into two sentences)
I find that is a time where despite the overall relaxed or indeed extravagant theme of the wedding, things become a little more sentimental, and true emotions begin to emerge! I see this as a wonderful opportunity to share exactly how you feel about your partner and with all of your loved ones there to support you.
JUSTINE: I don’t mind this at all! What if it is a line from their favourite movie? We have to respect that not everyone is a creative writer – and sometimes when you see something online that captures everything you want to say and that expresses your feelings – then why not use them I say?! Most of my couples find it helpful to have something to work from and then personalise to suit their style.
ROXANNE: Hey, not everyone is good at expressing themselves through words, so whilst it's not a preferable choice, if the bill fits then roll with it! The most important thing is that the person resonates with the words... if they're not their own, it shouldn't matter.
SAMANTHA: The most important thing about your chosen wedding vows is that they are ‘right’ for you and represent your true feelings. Whilst I do encourage my couples to try and write these words for themselves, I similarly wouldn’t discourage them from using a ready-made set of words if those words still feel as true and as important as if they were their own. The biggest thing is to follow your heart, wherever your heart may find its inspiration!
YVONNE: I don’t like copied vows but they are a good starting point if a couple are finding it difficult to articulate their own feelings. I can usually point them to the answers they have given me in their couple’s questionnaire which often can be “translated” into vows and promises.
JENNY: Whilst I prefer words that have come from the heart, I am realistic and I also appreciate that some people just aren’t creative or indeed confident. It might be that they are nervous and therefore not comfortable sharing such intimate words in front of everyone. For many couples this is also the first time they have had to speak in front of lots of people, and so I usually suggest something to ensure they feel more relaxed.
We often alter standing positions for this section so that they feel less “on show” and can focus on one another, and as long as they mean the words, I let them know that it doesn’t matter who wrote them.
Famous poets are quoted for exactly that reason - their words resonate with others, and song lyrics evoke all sorts of emotions, so they should go with what works for them.
JUSTINE: I have had to wipe away a tear on more than one occasion – but that adds to the romance and emotion! I also find that it is usually the grooms who come out with the most romantic vows! I keep a pack of tissues on hand and place a tissue on each of the seats of the mothers of the bride and groom – especially as I have read the vows and know what to expect.
ROXANNE: Abso-bloomin-lutely! Lots of tears! But I personally have no preference. If my couples are happy - I'm happy!
SAMANTHA: 100% yes. But being ‘from the heart’ doesn’t necessarily mean being soppy or romantic, it simply means being true to yourself and your relationship.
YVONNE: I bet there are lots of tears when this happens! Yes, and particularly when they keep them a secret until the day itself, around 50% of couples have done this and there are often lots of tears. Irrespective of how long they have been together, this part of the ceremony brings out strong emotions and it can even affect me at times!
JENNY: I do (pardon the pun!), and for those that are happy to write their own, I happily provide guidance as it is actually quite tricky working out where to start and how much to say!
As a guideline, I usually suggest thinking of it as three key (small) paragraphs. Talk about your past (how you felt before you met), your present (how life is now that you are a couple), and your future (your hopes, dreams and promises going forward).
I also offer to receive vows independently so they remain a secret until the day.
I find that whenever they are asked to say their partners name (“I John Smith, take you Sam Jones”) they stumble, and choke up! I would say that it is this that causes the vast majority of emotional tears!
JUSTINE: I sure have – on more than one occasion. And each time I had the bride’s consent and encouragement – in fact they told their groom to ask for my help! I always offer to work with my couples to help them put their thoughts into words.
ROXANNE: But of course! Sworn to a life of secrecy, but so worth it when you can help someone articulate their feelings for another.... and add in a cheeky twist ;)
SAMANTHA: Writing your vows can be pretty daunting! I have written vows for my couples when asked to, but never for one side and not the other. But even when I do help a couple – or an individual – I work with them to find out the sentiments and words that matter to them in their relationship. This ensures that I am writing something that is still true to their personal feelings. That way, the sentiment is still their own, even if they can’t put the sentences together for themselves.
YVONNE: I haven’t done this, but I have helped both couples separately when they have asked for it – usually they want to have the same number of vows each lol!
JENNY: I haven’t yet, but I would definitely offer to help. I would firstly encourage them to give me something to work with and then if the words just aren’t flowing, I would help to construct a format and perhaps show them how to fit their words into this.
I usually glean all of my information from a consultation but this is often followed by a couple sending me additional information, and there are often words in this that are perfect for vows. I point out that as these are so personal, I think they are best coming from them directly, rather than me re-working them to include as part of the ceremony script, and so they are used in their raw form and exchanged as vows.
JUSTINE: To be by each other’s side no matter what.
ROXANNE: Love, honour and cherish. To be faithful.
SAMANTHA: Common themes, of course, are ‘love’ ‘respect’ ‘support’ ‘trust’ and so often… ‘friendship.’ The wedding vows that also recognise an element of ‘friendship’ in a relationship are always my favourite to listen to. There’s something really special about a couple who also identify as being best friends, and truthfully not every couple does.
YVONNE: How lucky they feel, and that their partner has given them confidence and support, and promise to give them too. Most popular is being and always remain each other’s best friend. Loyalty, trust and honesty also come through regularly as does appreciation, deep emotion and a feeling of wonder at meeting a soulmate.
JENNY: I find that vows can vary greatly, as each couple is different and their situations are all incredibly unique, but most will include a promise to support and encourage one another, and of course to love each other.
JUSTINE: Oh yes! And the list is long! I’ve also had a couple play Rock, Paper, Scissors to decide who goes first.
“When you have something to share, share it with me. Particularly if it's Malteasers.”
“You are the reason I smile, and the reason I no longer kill spiders on sight.”
“I promise not to keep score – even when I am totally winning.”
“I promise to love you, even on days when I don’t like you.”
ROXANNE: 'I hope we grow old together like wrinkly prunes'
'I'll love you even when your game-mode is set to difficult'
'I will support you in every endeavour; emotionally, spiritually, financially. I would include physically, but you're just too damn heavy!'
'From this day forward, I vow to share my bag of crisps... what is mine is yours'
SAMANTHA: I had a groom who wrote that he would happily grow old with his wife, but would never be afraid to put her false teeth down the toilet if she annoyed him! That one made me giggle; the look on her face was spectacular! There are quite often references to remote controls and watching ‘Bake Off’ or ‘Game of Thrones’ thrown in… I love that modern vows more often consist of modern ‘compromise’ rather than absolute obedience and honour!
YVONNE: Some cute ones I have heard are that they’ll keep Dominos pizza on speed-dial, they won’t say football is “only a game”, they’ll make sure they do “date nights”, and they won’t mind when she gets “hangry”
JENNY: I have indeed! Sometimes it is not so much the content but the way in which they are delivered. One of my suggestions to those more confident couples, is to share words in a conversational style, with a “he said, she said” format. One starts with a line and the other responds. It can be sincere, funny or a mixture of many things, and is very memorable indeed!
I have heard people offering to wash up, promising not to drop socks on the floor, committing to not watching too much sport on tv (!), and to walk side by side through all adventures (which is perhaps one of my favourites!).
JUSTINE: Only once. And it was my fault! One of my couples wanted to each repeat some simple vows after me and I was concentrating so hard on getting it right, that I asked the groom to say his twice! We realised half way through, started giggling and made light of it saying that it was such a great day that he wanted to do it all over again anyway.
ROXANNE: Actually no. Just a few nervous deliveries... but all got the desired effect
SAMANTHA: I thought we might do after the false teeth comment…. But luckily none as yet!
YVONNE: Not that I can think of offhand now Jennifer!
JENNY: Oh yes! We are all human and there will invariably be something that crops up during a ceremony, but the funniest are often where innuendo is involved (bit that's my sense of humour!).
There have been some couples that have been exchanging personal vows through tears, and gone off-script a little, and ended up losing track of where they are. There have been vows written in such detail, but obviously not read aloud beforehand, and things have sounded a little different to how they were intended!
I have heard all manner of things, but at the end of the day, we get through it and a little welcome humour helps smooth things out again despite a few blushes!
JUSTINE: Absolutely not – but it’s their choice! I always print the vows so that they can read from them. The bride at my very first wedding was insistent on saying them off by heart and she forgot them! Fits of giggles ensued which made her ceremony that much more ‘in the moment’. No matter how much you rehearse, the emotions are so strong on the day that I don’t think you should put that kind of pressure on yourself.
ROXANNE: No. I think they should think really hard about them and become familiar with them - after all, these are the words that their marriage is based on - however I would never expect them to memorise. Too much pressure, and it doesn't allow them to really feel it. If they read off cards they can envelop themselves in the moment.
SAMANTHA: I would never expect a couple to recite their vows from memory; these are real people not performers, and the moment can feel stressful enough! But I do advise that they read them through out loud enough times in advance to feel familiar with the sentences, so that they can read them confidently and even make eye contact with each other in the moment.
YVONNE: No, I want them to feel relaxed and happy and ready to enjoy the moment, so no stress… usually will offer to put vows onto a card which I hand to them each. Although on my recent Chinese wedding the bride said her memorised vows in Mandarin. When I translated them for myself/the ceremony script after the wedding, I cried! It contained the most romantic vows I have ever heard!
JENNY: Not at all. This is a real skill, and on the day you will be navigating your way around those wedding day nerves and even unexpected emotions, which will all try to throw you off balance, so to have something written down is a good idea, even if they are just cue cards.
If you can speak from the heart and shoot from the hip then by all means go for it, but never underestimate how you might feel on the day. I have seen even the most hardened individuals crumble and lack the ability to carry on, so it is better to have something as a back- up that find yourself without a thing to say.
JUSTINE: Be yourself and be realistic – don’t promise the earth when you can’t deliver it! What did you think when you first met? Include a story about when you knew they were ‘The One.’ Did they rescue you from a spider or care for you when sick? How has your life got better? What do you love about them? How have they made you a better person?.
ROXANNE: Think outside of the box! Research! Get familiar with a thesaurus!
SAMANTHA: Simply: speak from the heart and be true to yourself and your relationship. There really is no right or wrong to writing wedding vows, so long as they represent you and your love in a way that feels true.
As for reading – the same as above – read them through enough times before the day to familiarise yourself with your words and find confidence in your speech.
YVONNE: Be sincere, be authentic, and just tell each other what you feel, in the way that’s the most comfortable for you.
JENNY: Be true to who you are. Always.
It is pointless reeling off hundreds of words if you are not normally that expressive. Keep it simple, stick to how you actually feel, and they will sound a whole lot more real to your partner, and your guests too. Be yourself, be relaxed and your truest words will flow.
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