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Posted on Tue. Feb. 19, 2013 - 12:07 am EDT

Testing vows

Relationships strain nuptial promises; ‘to cherish’ hardest to keep, expert says

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At a glance

While even traditional marriage vows can vary from ceremony to ceremony, the following could represent the vows referenced by the Vanity Fair/“60 Minutes” poll and by Sharon Clevenger:

“I, (insert name), take you, (insert name), to be my wedded wife/husband. To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness or in health, to love and to cherish till death do us part. And hereto I pledge you my faithfulness.”

John Maxwell’s marriage vows are words he thinks about all the time.

When he and his wife, Amy, wed 15 years ago, they spoke the traditional vows, saying the sacred words millions before them had spoken. Yet every love, every relationship, has its own trials.

The Maxwells had no idea which vows would become the ones they had to work on most. They had no idea “for better, for worse” would be something that would test their relationship, and they had no idea their relationship would prove stronger than the storm that eventually relocated their family.

This month’s issue of Vanity Fair posted the results of a marriage poll it conducted with “60 Minutes.” Included in the findings were which traditional marriage vows men and women found the hardest to keep. Their choices included “to be faithful,” “for better or for worse,” “in sickness and in health” and “for richer, for poorer.” Thirty-two percent of women answered the hardest to keep was “for better or for worse.” Men answered “to be faithful,” at 27 percent.

The Maxwells say more than one vow was tested in 2005 when their hometown, New Orleans, was hit by Hurricane Katrina. Maxwell’s home and his business, Mother’s Restaurant in the French Quarter, both suffered some damage. The couple stuck it out in Louisiana for two years, but eventually it became too much. They moved to Fort Wayne, where Maxwell’s wife had family.

“For better, for worse” was tested, Maxwell said, because he tried to get away from what he saw all around him.

“Instead of relying on my rock of a marriage, I turned to other things to escape all the horror I was witnessing every day,” he says. “That’s the best word to describe it. Escape. I didn’t want to face what I was seeing every day. I closed myself off from her.”

He started to rely on drinking and gambling – anything to take his mind off what he saw day-to-day. Getting out of New Orleans helped, he says.

When Sharon Clevenger, CEO of Indiana Center for Cognitive Behavior Therapy, looks at traditional marriage vows, the one she says most couples find it most difficult to follow is one the poll didn’t include: to cherish. Today, people tend to have a better understanding of cherishing an object than they do of cherishing a person, she says.

“If you have a problem with one of the four in the poll, it usually has to do with a difference philosophically between the couple: ‘I married you for richer, and now we’re poor, and it’s your fault because you spent us into the ground.’ My thoughts are, if you cherished each other, you wouldn’t have had those thoughts to begin with,” says Clevenger, who has a Ph.D. in sociology. “That’s the one I see disintegrate first. There’s a loss of this idea of cherishing the other person.”

This idea of cherish is something that can be easier with couples who are older when they marry, she says. Younger couples don’t understand the entire implication of what it is to be together for 10, 20 and 30 years. They don’t understand that length of time and its implications concerning compromise, listening to one another and making that other person his or her highest priority.

Clevenger can speak on this from experience; she married her first husband when she was 18, and they divorced when she was 36. Now 57, she recently celebrated her six-month anniversary with her second husband. She knows that a couple who gets married later in life – who might have previous marriages between them – can look back and say, “I don’t want to make the same mistakes again.” They can have a better knowledge of their priorities and feel less entitlement in the relationship.

“Entitlement in society is negatively impacting marriages because it spills over to other person (and causes one to) resent the other person as somehow preventing happiness,” Clevenger says. “That’s a marriage killer. If you start to view the other person as oppositional to you, that they are standing in the way of what you’re entitled to, then that marriage is going to start falling apart.”

And yet, the troubling times can make a couple cherish one another more and can make a relationship stronger – as Hurricane Katrina did for the Maxwells.

Today, when Maxwell has a decision to make, he thinks of his wife first.

“I try and go by a rule: Any time I’m in a situation … would I do it the same way if my wife were standing right next to me? And would she be proud of me?” he says. “And if the answer is ‘no,’ I don’t do it.”

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