One of the big differences between a Pagan handfasting and either a civil or Christian wedding in the UK, is the vows. Pagans make their own (not legally binding) pledges to each other, defining their relationship in whatever way makes sense to them. So we might well pledge to stay together for as long as love lasts, not until death do us part, which is a lot more realistic, and makes it easier to walk away with honour if the relationship doesn’t work out. We commit based on our own natures, so whether we accept and offer monogamy is a matter of choice. And at the other extreme, Pagans can and do pledge to love each other not only for this lifetime, but for always. I love the flexibility and the scope for honouring the relationships we have rather than trying to shoehorn them into pre-determined shapes.
I was caught up in a debate online somewhere about why women stay with abusers. There are lots of reasons, but it started me thinking about the vows I made, some 9 years ago. “For better or worse.” That’s such an ambiguous thing to promise. You could interpret that as meaning you were signing up to being treated in whatever way it turned out your partner found acceptable. I’m good with ‘For richer or poorer, in sickness and in health’ that’s simply a commitment to stand by your partner in hard times. But ‘for better or worse’ suggests a responsibility to stay even when things are awful. Now, standing by someone through hard times not of your making, is a good and honourable thing to do. But standing by a person who makes life hard for you, is a whole different issue.
Marriage is a contract. The regular vows are a set of commitments to stick with a person, treat them with care and respect. Honour and cherish them. I am increasingly inclined to feel that the contractual nature of this agreement should be made a lot clearer. The whole not committing adultery aspect is made very clear in marriage services, but the importance of honouring, caring and treating with respect are so critical. If a person doesn’t do that, if they are persistently cruel, careless, irresponsible or otherwise not keeping to their side of the deal, no one should feel obliged to stick that out ‘for better or worse.’
Christian and conservative values are all about upholding marriage as the best thing for everyone. Anything that makes it easier to get out isn’t popular. But there are many people who do need out, and many good reasons for enabling it. Making people promise to stay together for life is, I feel, wrong. Fine if a person wants to make that commitment, but that shouldn’t be the only option. I’d much rather, especially in civil services, that people promised to love, cherish and honour, and to stay with that person for as long as they both held that marriage in its proper state – which doesn’t preclude lifelong marriage. In an ideal world, I’d like it even more if everyone could make their own vows and terms, pagan style, and people were, as with handfastings, able to divorce on the simple grounds of not wanting to be married to each other anymore. One day…