We used to promise to love, honour and obey. But these days your vows can be almost anything you want them to be, as humanist celebrant Tim Maguire and some of the people he married explain.

TEN years ago, when Elizabeth and Bengtis Ericsson got married they shunned the traditional vows and made up their own. As well as penning some together they each created a “secret” vow that neither told each other before the ceremony. The result, hilarious and touching in an unplanned way, was that Bengtis chose the line, “I promise never to be as angry as a pancake.” Elizabeth, not knowing her husband’s choice, plumped for, “I promise never, ever to make you as angry as a pancake.”

Bengtis laughs now as they remember those lines. “The pancake dates back to a time I had a huge argument with my ex wife and I came back and said to Elizabeth, because I don’t really swear and if I wanted to swear I would do it in Swedish, ‘I’m angry as a pancake.’.”

There was a time when, if you were getting married what you promised was the same as most other people promised – the regular vows, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, and so on. But, over the past 14 years, since humanist weddings became legal, more and more of us have been saying something different. It might be, as it was for a couple of my friends promising to be “best mates (with benefits)”. It could be as one bride promised, a vow "to give more warning when I am suffering from PMT.” Or even, as one couple vowed, to stick together "until death or zombies do us part."

I was thinking about this when I came across the book, We Do! How To Create A Meaningful Wedding Ceremony In Your Own Words. Written by Tim Maguire, the celebrant who married my husband, Andy and I, in 2009, it declared on its back cover, “I want to let you in on a secret. The most important part of your wedding isn’t the dress, the décor or even the location: it’s the ceremony.”

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Maguire has now married over 1,300 couples, which makes him an ideal person to ask what it is people are promising and why. For him, however, the vows are the last thing a couple should think about. ”You only get to a point,” he says, “where you know what you want to promise when you’ve looked back at your whole history together.” He talks a lot about “homework”, his expression for the talking and writing prep couples need to do.

The humanist campaign to let people make their promises in their own words, says Maguire, “began when they realised that you weren’t going to say, I promise to love, honour and obey”. Traditional vows have been on their way out since 1925 when the Church of England created an alternative marriage ceremony in which a wife didn’t have to obey. Humanists have been strong leaders in this revolution.

“If you look at it,” says Maguire, “marriage has been falling off a cliff for 70 years. But it’s an important institution because it is the protection for family and it is an ultimate symbol of commitment. But people were choosing not to do it, because what you had to say in order to do it, didn’t match the reality of your life.” For him, the humanist marriage is all about that question, “What if you could promise something that you meant?”

But what exactly are we now saying? And how does that impact on our marriages? The number of weddings conducted by humanists has now overtaken those conducted in the Church of Scotland. Earlier this year it was revealed that, according to the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service figures, humanist weddings are three times less likely to end in divorce than other types. “There are a number of reasons for that,” Maguire says. “Couples marry later, often for a second time. But I also think that it might be to do with the fact we don’t tell you what love is, or how to behave as a wife or husband. We ask you to go and think about it.”

What people are generally saying, observes Maguire, is, “That they want to be equal. That they want to trust. There is also no sense in which anyone is pledging to belong to someone else without a mutual promise that matches that. They are very much about equality.”

When I started to think about this issue, I quickly realised, I couldn’t quite remember my own vows. Or at least I could only really remember one of them – and only vaguely. That one was, I thought, something along the lines of “We’ll try to find our way back to each other when we find ourselves far apart.” I asked my husband to see if his memory was any better. He thought for a moment. “Wasn’t there something about trying to find our way back to each other?”

Among the weddings Maguire conducts are many second weddings – people like Elizabeth and Bengtis Ericsson, for instance, who both had religious first weddings, but opted humanist second time around. Elizabeth recalls, “When I first got married, I did promise to obey. That was 1978. I don’t think you had an option. My godmother’s husband was a Church of Scotland minister and he married us and he said it was a sacrament, so you don’t deviate from it.”

Maguire is himself a divorcé on his second marriage, and recalls that, though his first wedding was a humanist one, it didn’t involve the same “homework” process of storytelling and self-examination he now encourages. “The homework was not part of it, and it’s important, because actually the key thing is to have a look at why you’re doing this and if you’re on the same page. My first wife wanted to have children and I didn’t and I ignored the inconvenient truth. Would it have made a difference if I’d done the homework? I don’t know. The most distinctive characteristic of humanity is our capacity for self-delusion.”

Humanists were a strong voice in the campaign for equal marriage in Scotland, and Maguire has conducted many same sex ceremonies. “What I find,” he says, “is that I’m frequently marrying couples who are already civil-partnered, but who want to upgrade to marriage. That is part of the redefinition. It’s about saying your love is as good as anybody else’s love. It’s saying love is love and that’s incredibly important.”

He married, for instance, Eli and Kate Appleby-Donald four years ago in their back garden in Musselburgh. They had a bride-ale party, involving home brew, and encouraged guests not to take a side in the seating. Among the things they say is important to them is to have done it in such a way that brought their families together. “I think having stood up in front of people makes it more real," says Eli. "Looking back I feel that if we hadn’t we would almost have stolen it from our friends and family. They were so happy for us. It was their day as much as ours.”

There are also those who Maguire describe as “reversing into marriage” having lived together and had children. That includes Andy and I – when we married we’d had our first child, I was pregnant with our second. “That is the new normal,” Maguire observes. “Finding themselves with two children and then getting married is now what most people do. But it doesn’t make their wedding day any less powerful or emotional.”

Maguire points out that it’s not just the words we speak that create meaning – it’s how you come in, where you stand and how you involve your guests. “There is a division between an old-fashioned marriage where someone like me does most of the talking and a more inclusive one where the guests themselves help deliver the ceremony.” When he got married for the second time, he and his wife Susan had 32 guests, and got everybody there to contribute to the ceremony by speaking. “At the end nobody moved for the champagne for 30 minutes, because they were high.”

Every single humanist wedding, he says, is “to some degree a redefinition of marriage”. “That’s why I think marriage, although it’s not increasing massively, is not decreasing at the same rate as it was. People are now choosing to do it because they can make it reflect who they are. When you create your ceremony, you own it and get to say what marriage means. That reinvigorates the institution.”

And where humanist weddings have gone, others have followed, and now a lot of this creativity is happening even in a church context. “When humanist weddings began,” Maguire says, “they were very different from church and state weddings, but they aren’t so much now because church and state have adapted. This is what people want. You can take the approach in my book and do it in pretty much every form of marriage there is apart from Roman Catholic.”

But why are people still getting married. What still draws us to it? If any reason is cited more than others – it’s that it’s a great excuse for a gathering of loved ones. As Grant MacDonald puts it, “I really like the public commitment to each other and being able to share that with the people that are closest to you – to make that public declaration. It’s a big deal to do that. To lay yourself bare in front of people like that. That for me was something, I’m not ashamed or scared to express my love for Natasa in front of people who maybe haven’t heard us speak like that before.”

Kate and Eli Appleby Donald

I take you to be my best friend, my faithful partner and one true love. I promise to encourage and inspire you and love you through good times and bad. To take your hand and walk with you wherever this adventure will lead us.

Kate: We do have the joke occasionally, because we can’t remember what we put in our vows. I’ll say, ‘But you promised that you would bring me breakfast in bed every day – it’s in the vows.’

We’re both quite socially anxious and we don’t like a big fuss so you would have thought, well, registry office would be your easy opt out – but it didn’t feel significant enough. The humanist wedding gave you that option of being in control – we didn’t realise how in control. There’s this little bit that has to be done a particular way. But beyond that it was like it’s your day, you make it how you want it to be. It was awesome. Also terrifying. Because then you’re like what do I really want it to be?

Eli: We didn’t want to do daft promises because of it being a wedding. We wanted it to be something we meant and that we felt we could keep. We are each other’s best friends. We spend all our time together. We do almost everything together, and we just took that for granted that that was normal. The thing that was also really quite important to us was the adventure, that we were going on the adventure together. Like the gardening, this is our first garden. Neither of us had ever had a garden. We were learning how to garden.

I do remember that I said I didn’t want us to say, ‘ Till death do us part’. I said I don’t want us making promises we can’t guarantee we’ll keep. It was about at the moment this is how I feel and the promises I want to make to you but I want them to be realistic promises that I can try and keep.

Marriage is an important thing in current society. It’s a recognition that this isn’t just a wee five minute try it out and I’m going to disappear. I’m in my forties. We did live through some really quite crappy times as gay people. So I think there's a craving for that acceptance and that respect for who you were and your relationship.

Elizabeth and Bengtis Ericsson

I promise never to be as angry as a pancake.

Bengtis: Early on in our relationship I did ask Elisabeth if she would like to marry me and at that point she said yes, but maybe not right now. So it was a long wait for me. Then on one of my birthdays, 60th, we were sitting having breakfast and a present came out with this scroll and it was an application for a marriage licence. Tears started streaming.

Elizabeth: We met in 1988 and got married in 2009. When we were deciding what vows we wanted to make what came through was that we didn’t want it to be I’m going to love you for ever and ever and we’ll never have a cross word and I’ll always have my lipstick on. When you get to the age that we were at and the stage that we were at it just feels so much more respectful for the other person to acknowledge each other flaws and all. They were lovely vows and we chose our words very carefully but it wasn’t too much. They were just promises to look after each other and care for each other and respect. The things that I think are really important in a marriage.

In the ten years since we’ve been married we’ve been through a lot of things, but I think probably the biggest stress was that in that last recession Bengtis’s company folded, and we lost a lot. We really really lost a lot. Everything that we had. We don’t live extravagantly and we had saved and we lost it. We were very lucky because we didn’t have a mortgage on the house. We were able to keep our house but the financial impact has changed everything for us. It affected Bengtis very very badly, because he blamed himself – and there was no blame, it was the recession. But we worked through it together.

Grant MacDonald and Natasa Najdovski

Today I promise to love you and your imperfections. I make this promise even though you still wear your maroon Hearts football shirts, the colour of my rugby league nemesis Queensland, and even though you continue to use the bedroom floor as your second wardrobe.

Natasa: We wrote our own vows secretly and we didn’t share it beforehand. So the first time we heard it was when we said them to each other at the ceremony. I think my most memorable line was I’m more stoked than Mick Fanning. Mick Fanning is a famous Australian surfer and he used a line similar to that when he narrowly escaped a shark attack in south Africa a few years ago. He looked so happy and so overjoyed to not be eaten by a shark. He said stoked about 20 times in the television interview.

Grant: I remember Natasa’s being funnier than mine. Which is ironic because I probably see myself as the person who’s sillier and tells stupid jokes. But hers was really, really funny. She was talking about me leaving clothes on the floor.

Natasa: It would be easier to say let’s just go with somebody’s ceremony and vows but I feel that’s too easy a way out. As much as I was joking, I think I had some very meaningful things to say.

We Do! How To Create A Meaningful Wedding Ceremony In Your Own Words is published by Luath Press