The New York Times


June 27, 2004 

The Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, pastor of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church, was stunned recently when three couples who wanted him to preside at their weddings asked if he would alter the traditional marriage vows.

Forget the till-death-do-us-part injunction, they suggested. Instead, would he mind substituting a more realistic escape clause, say, "as long as our love shall last"?

Dr. Butts did mind. His advice: Find another minister. "I give them a little homily about why we say marriage is greater than love," Dr. Butts said. "No one is forcing you to get married.

We want people, if they make this kind of commitment, to make it for life." Round engagement rings, symbolizing eternity, predate the Roman Empire.

One version of the familiar oath - "til death us departe" - was codified as long ago as 1549 in Edward VI's "Book of Common Prayer." In one form or another, couples have customarily plighted their undying - or is it dying? - troth to each other for ages.

Maybe they meant it. Maybe not. Regardless, historically most marriages - for better or for worse - ended in death. Not any more. Precise figures are hard to come by, but beginning about 20 years ago more marriages appeared likely to end in divorce than in death.

If you've already been married for decades the chances of divorce are relatively slim (although as life spans stretch, compatibility is obviously put to the test longer). But the National Center for Health

Statistics has projected that even with an increase in cohabitation before marriage, about half of those marrying for the first time will wind up divorcing.

Couples whose first marriages end in divorce typically get the itch to separate within about seven years. "It is accurate that at least half end in divorce," says Andrew Cherlin, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University.

Which is one reason many couples are hedging their bets. When Ulcca Joshi and Christopher Hansen married at a friend's farm in New Jersey in 2001, they composed their own vows and deliberately excluded any reference to "until death do us part."

"My parents certainly said that in their vows, but they divorced after 33 years," Mr. Hansen recalled. "You can't promise at 25 that you're never going to change." "We didn't want to make any promises we couldn't keep," the bride said. "The way we phrased it, there's a daily recommitment to the marriage."

Thus far, the couple are still happily married and living in Britain, where both are studying for their doctorates. In law and religion, the degree of required commitment runs the gamut.

In France, even death is not necessarily an obstacle to marriage. Under a 1959 law, it is legally possible to marry a dead person, as Christelle Demichel did earlier this year when, with the president's approval, she wed her fiancÚ, who had been killed by a drunken driver a year earlier while riding his motorcycle.

In San Francisco, typical vows for gay marriages ask the couple whether they will love, comfort and honor each other "as long as you both shall live."

Jewish weddings customarily do not include any such vow, because Jewish law has recognized divorce for thousands of years.

In the Roman Catholic church, couples can pledge to unite "until death do us part" or "all the days of my life." "The permanence of the marriage vows has to be expressed," said Msgr.

Anthony Sherman, associate director of the secretariat for the liturgy of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The bishops affirmed that requirement in 1969, the monsignor said, after too many couples began drafting their own vows.

David Blankenhorn, president of the pro-marriage Institute for American Values, maintains that vows define a marriage. Saying they are just words, he says, is like saying the marriage certificate is just a piece of paper.

"The vow exists on its own, exerting social and sacred authority that is independent of the couple," he has written. And he argues that its symbolic value has been undermined by two trends: leaving the duration of the commitment vague or unstated, and allowing couples to compose their own vows.

"The new vows are created by the couple and presented to society," he writes, "signifying the goal of conforming marriage to the couple."

While composing original vows can be liberating, it can also push law and religion into uncharted territory.

In an installment of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" on HBO, Larry David and his TV wife, Cheryl, celebrate their 10th anniversary by renewing their vows. Cheryl recommits herself to their marriage "not only throughout this lifetime but after death, through all eternity."

"I thought this was over at death," Larry says glumly. "I guess I had a different plan for eternity. I thought I'd be single."