The Wedding Vow: The Promise it's Okay to Break

Minimizing MarriageIt’s considered bad form to break a promise. We regard those who don’t keep their promises as untrustworthy. If you make a commitment to someone, you’re expected to keep it.

One of the most serious promises that you can make is a wedding vow. Traditionally, this is a promise to stay with someone, for better or for worse, through good times and bad, until death. Indeed, we call it a “vow”, rather than a mere “promise”, to underscore just what a solemn commitment this is. Few promises are weightier.

It’s ironic, then, that a spouse who unilaterally decides to break it will generally face little condemnation.

Few would criticise the unilateral termination of such a vow in cases of abuse, whether physical or mental. But our society sets the bar much lower. If one partner is unhappy, perhaps for no reason more serious than because she no longer enjoys the same leisure activities as her partner, many people consider that sufficient grounds for termination. Even if the leaver made little effort to save their marriage, even if there are children involved, few will condemn someone who ends a marriage unilaterally. It is enough that they are unhappy. The vow seemingly counts for nothing.

This contradiction is explored by Elizabeth Brake in Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law. She starts by summarising the problem:

“Although many people see marriage as a serious undertaking, divorce—when “irreconcilable differences” threaten one or both spouses’ happiness—is not widely seen as a serious moral wrong. However, breaking a promise is widely seen as a serious moral wrong. This suggests an inconsistent triad:

  1. Wedding vows are promises.
  2. Promise-breaking is morally impermissible in the absence of morally overriding circumstances or release by the promisee.
  3. Unilateral divorce (an unreciprocated decision by one spouse to leave a marriage) is generally morally permissible.

If wedding vows are promises (1), then unilaterally willed divorces are acts of promise-breaking, which, according to (2), are prima facie morally impermissible. But as divorce is generally permissible (3), it cannot be an impermissible act of promise-breaking. How shall we resolve this?”

Brake considers several ways to reconcile these contradictory premises.

The first, what she calls the “hard-line” response, is to reject the third premise, and declare that unilateral divorce is almost always immoral. This view still permits it in some circumstances: where a more stringent moral duty overrides the promise (for example, a duty to protect oneself or one’s children in an abusive marriage); where there has been deception; or where one party has defaulted on an obligation (for example, not to engage in extra-marital sex). However, if none of these conditions apply, the hard-line response does not consider mere unhappiness sufficient reason.

The hard-line response argues that it is morally wrong to break wedding vows, but not that one should be legally compelled to keep them. What is legal and what is moral are not always the same. Moreover, marriage is a contract. Like other contractual arrangements, performance of contracted services cannot be compelled, and where one party no longer wishes to do so, there are typically terms under which the contract can be dissolved.

The second way to resolve the problem is to assert that the “morally overriding circumstances” described in the second premise are almost always present. Brake terms this the “hardship” response because it holds that the hardship of a failed marriage overrides any promise. Essentially, this response boils down to saying that unhappiness, whatever its cause, is sufficient grounds for divorce. However, Brake argues that the moral duty to prevent one’s own unhappiness is no stronger than the moral duty to uphold a promise, except in extreme cases. “Morality requires promise-keeping even at the cost of personal unhappiness,” says Brake.

The third solution is to argue that a promise is not binding if some assumption made by the promisor (in this case, the continuance of love) turns out to be false. Brake dismisses this. Promises based on risky assumptions may be reckless, but they do not excuse the promisor from discharging their obligations. Moreover, those who marry know that love does not last in many marriages, so it’s hard to argue that an assumption that it would continue in theirs is reasonable.

However, Brake contends that there is a fourth option: that wedding vows are not promises at all. She argues that this is because the spouses are promising something (the continuance of loving feelings) that is outside their control, and you can’t promise to do what you can’t do. Brake offers an analogy:

“If you visit me in Calgary, I might say, “I promise to show you Calgary’s historic downtown blues bar, the King Eddy, where some of my colleagues once took Elizabeth Anscombe,” only to find that developers have torn it down; in that case, I never promised you anything. I tried to promise, but didn’t succeed: I didn’t obligate myself to show you the bar because the act is impossible. My failure to perform is not wrong, nor is it promise-breaking.”

You might argue, however, that love is a verb, not a feeling, and that wedding vows are actually a promise to behave lovingly, something that is under our control. Brake disagrees:

“Since the “love revolution,” the Western understanding of marriage involves a crucial emotional component. Spouses may explicitly promise specific acts like sexual fidelity or cohabitation. But surely most do not intend to promise, or be promised, mere behavior… While one can promise to perform love-sustaining acts, this is not a reasonable way to construe the promise people are trying to make when they marry… Conceptually, promising to perform an action requires an intention to promise to perform that action. I have not promised to undertake “love-sustaining acts” if it has never crossed my mind that this is what I am promising, and if I believe I am promising to love someone forever.”

In short, we could promise to behave lovingly, but we don’t. Instead, we recklessly and misleadingly try to promise that our loving feelings will last forever, without realising that this is impossible because we cannot command our feelings.

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had the same opinion. Writing in Café Philosophy, Skye Cleary describes his view:

“If romantic love is ephemeral, promising to love your partner forever is absurd and a lie, according to Nietzsche. Love that lasts a lifetime is the exception, not the rule. Love, like any other feeling, is not within the individual’s power. Nietzsche’s argument is as follows: love is a feeling; feelings are involuntary; and a promise cannot be made based on something that one has no control over.

What one can promise, however, are actions. In a loving relationship, one can promise actions that “are usually the consequences of love”. It would be much more appropriate to recognise this contingency and be honest about it. To avoid deception in wedding vows, Nietzsche recommends saying something along these lines:


Brake’s view is intriguing, essentially arguing that society’s tolerance for unilateral divorce is because it recognises that wedding vows are not promises. But her argument is so technical, that it’s hard to imagine it has ever crossed the mind of the average person. As Brake herself notes, those who marry believe they are promising to love forever, so they are likely to hold the same view of the promise made by someone who leaves their spouse. As such, you would expect them to judge their behaviour on that basis.

Instead, I believe the lack of condemnation for those who walk out of their marriages is explained by Brake’s “hardship” response. Because contemporary Western culture values personal happiness so highly, the unhappiness of a spouse is considered a “morally overriding circumstance”. Even if it might be possible to alleviate their unhappiness through some other means, if the disaffected partner believes that terminating the relationship is the quickest way to be happy again, most people will not judge them for that. Given Brake’s view that morality requires promise-keeping even at the expense of personal happiness, this suggests that, on this point at least, Western culture is immoral.

It seems to me that the fundamental problem is our assumption that marriage should make us happy. However, marriage was not designed to maximise happiness. As Stephanie Coontz notes in Marriage: A History, it came about as a way to extend co-operative relations beyond the immediate family and increase the family labour force. It spoke to the needs of the larger group, not the individual. By insisting that it satisfy our personal need for happiness too, we are asking it to do something for which it was not designed. It’s no wonder that so many marriages end in divorce, that so many that don’t are unhappy, and that marriage is universally considered to be hard work.

In the rest of her fascinating book, Brake goes on to consider how marriage might be reformed to better suit our needs today.