By Nicolle

At the private university I attended, the students and professors have a running joke that speaks to the multitudes of people who get engaged during their senior years. The “ring by spring” mantra, while usually referenced in jest, does seem to represent a certain percentage of young men and women at my alma mater. In the four months prior to my graduation, 10 friends or acquaintances got engaged, three more were just waiting for their diamond rings and an incredible number of wedding magazines somehow found a home on the coffee table that sat in my living room.

Photo by Kelly Cole

I’ll admit that I myself have bought a wedding magazine or two in my life (when you’re on vacation in Florida with your best friend, what else is there to read while lying on the beach?). It’s fun to daydream while soaking up the sun, but I wonder if some of my engaged friends are spending more time thinking about their wedding ceremonies than working to ensure that their future marriages are going to last longer than the dance at the wedding reception.

It’s easy to say you’re going to love someone forever, but that kind of commitment doesn’t fully resonate with some people. According to The State of Our Unions 2005, an annual report issued by the National Marriage Project at New Jersey’s Rutgers University, the divorce rate is 17.7 percent per 1,000 married women. While that doesn’t seem to be as inflated as other statistics floating around, it’s still a significant number.

So what’s the catch? Why do so many couples, couples that have seemingly made the “till death do us part” commitment, break up?

While there isn’t one clear-cut answer, part of the reason could stem from the mindset with which many people enter marriage. Because we live in a fast-paced, instant-gratification-obsessed society, we aren’t always used to the slow, patience-based dedication it takes to build an enduring relationship. Many of us enter marriage with a subconscious contractual mindset:

“To love and to cherish… unless someone better comes along.”

“In sickness and in health… unless you become too much work for me.”

“Till death do us part… unless you do something that makes me unhappy.”

While these may not be thoughts we would or could verbalize, our subconscious is overflowing with contractual guidelines for our relationships. Instead, our mindsets when entering what is meant to be a lifelong commitment should be covenantal.

“Covenant” can sound like a really intense word. It may bring to mind strict, rigid religious imagery, but it doesn’t have to revolve around any kind of church tradition. What it means in the context of marriage is to, in effect, squelch those subconscious guidelines we give our relationships.

In contractual marriage, love is viewed as a feeling, something you can almost touch. It’s that stereotypical gooey, lovey-dovey feeling that chick flicks gush about.

Covenantal marriage says that there might be days when love is a choice – not because you’ve fallen out of love, but because that love and the feeling of love have changed. It’s gone from passionate eros to stable affection. Sometimes people mistake such a change in “feeling” as a reason to get divorced, when they should in fact embrace the change as a new dimension to a relationship.

It’s not about a feeling. It’s about a commitment, and a covenantal commitment is one that means, “I’ll stick with you through thick and thin, even if my ‘feelings’ change.”

There are obvious exceptions to such a statement. In a verbally, emotionally or physically abusive relationship, the commitment has already been broken, and to file for divorce may be the best option. But in struggling through the usual marital issues, the idea of a covenantal commitment gives a relationship a more solid, sturdy foundation, one that can be sustained till death actually parts you. And, if a relationship is built on that kind of foundation, both spouses will be happier in the long run because they won’t be constantly wondering what they might have missed out on.

The stack of glossy wedding magazines on my coffee table was a nice reminder that, while weddings are exciting, sentimental events, what really matters is whether the vows exchanged are more than just words. I know I eventually want an elegant wedding, complete with my family, friends and a killer dress, but what’s more important to me is that the commitment I make that day is one that will indeed last till death parts us.

First printed in Alive Magazine, August/September 2009.