promises, promises

`I promise not to shag my secretary or pressure you to start a family before your career's established.' DIY wedding vows are the latest way to give a marriage meaning

"i will always stay in communication. I will always listen to you well and I will always believe in your own inner sense of direction. I will give you abundant space and I will always support you and act in your very best interests. I will never leave you."

These are some of the vows that John Eames, a legal trainer, and Sue Green, now a full-time mother, said to each other at their marriage five years ago. Like a growing number of couples, they chose to supplement the legal oaths with ones they wrote themselves. "The register office was a farce," says Sue Green. "It felt empty and meaningless. The real wedding was when we said our vows later in front of our family and friends. People were moved, some to tears. My grandfather, who is a church member, said it was the best wedding he had ever attended."

DIY weddings can be associated with the airiest-fairiest excesses of New-Ageism, but according to the British Humanist Association (BHA), the trend for non-religious and non-civil ceremonies is on the increase. "There has been an explosion of demand in the last five years," says Robert Ashby, the director of the BHA, which supplies trained celebrants to officiate at funerals, weddings and baby-namings. "Many people feel it is hypocritical to get married in a church or temple but want something more than the bare legalese of a register office. We are now seeing a 50 per cent increase in non-religious marriages each year."

"For many couples, the register office is a means to an end, to obtain the piece of paper," says Michael Evans, a BHA celebrant who meets the betrothed several times beforehand to discuss in detail what they went to say to each other. "When couples write their vows, they are more concerned with the relationship than its legal status."

"We wanted to say something which was personal," says Claire Harrison, "which felt real and comfortable. We intended at first to write the vows from scratch, but decided that we didn't want to stray too far from tradition - we wanted something down-to-earth and recognisable." Claire, a yoga teacher, and Duncan Johnson, a trainee GP, were married last summer, surrounded by family and friends, in an outdoor ceremony officiated by Giles David, an ex-Franciscan friar.

"I promise to love, honour and cherish you," Claire and Duncan said to each other. "I will be faithful to you, and honest with you. I will respect you, trust you, help you, listen to you, and care for you. All this I promise as long as we both shall live."

"After we'd worked out what we wanted to say, we almost felt we didn't need to get married any more," says Duncan. "It was the most important part of planning for the wedding."

Drawing up your nuptial pledges must concentrate the mind wonderfully on future commitment. As divorce rates peak at an all-time high, this can only be a good thing, believes Denise Knowles, spokeswoman for Relate, the counselling charity.

"When couples compose their own vows, they are putting that extra bit of effort into thinking what will make their marriage work. It's a vital part of marriage preparation. By discussing their promises rather then just repeating set words, they are opening up lines of communication. Many couples can make mental assumptions like `I expect her to stay at home with the children,' or `I expect him to be in work continually,' but it's far better to thrash out your expectations beforehand than wait until they all come crashing down around you. Creating your own promises mirrors how marrying is changing. It's still about commitment, but based on sharing negotiation and flexibility."

So in this brave new world, does our stance on commitment for ever remain the same? There is no legal requirement to utter "till death us do part" but the deal is the same, as the Church marriage is for life. The traditional vows derive from the King James prayerbook - when average life expectancy was 35 years. "It's a different ball-game now," says Malcolm Stern, NHS psychotherapist and relationships expert. "The old vows don't chime with the times. We need to find another way to encompass the changing shape of relationships."

It's not that commitment has gone out of fashion; couples are as keen as ever to stay together - but the terms have undergone a subtle change.

"We've promised each other a lifelong partnership, but not in a naive sense that it will automatically happen," says Duncan. "Our vows were more about expressing our hopes and intentions than being legally binding."

The distinction between a iron-cast vow and a heart-held intention could alter the moral shame and stigma surrounding divorce. In the BHA guide to non-religious weddings it states: "We are realistic and honest enough to recognise that these aspirations may not in fact be realised in the long term as people and circumstance change."

"There is a tendency to think that once you've made a vow of monogamy you are safe," reckons Malcolm Stern. When he got married nine years ago at St, James, Piccadilly, neither he nor his wife Amanda swore undying devotion. "Injunctions don't make marriage secure and stable. If you want your marriage to be a going concern, you can't tie it up in `should'. The `happy-ever-after' scenario is a Hollywood dream - in reality you have to work hard at it."

Perhaps the traditional vows put an unfair burden on modern marriage, while conversely, lessening the load makes commitment easier. Arabella and Julian Marshall were married 20 years ago. They had a register office ceremony for legal purposes ("Pure officialdom, like getting a driving licence," says Julian) followed by the "real" event where they pronounced their pledges in front of family and friends.

"The register office ceremony has bothered me ever since," says Arabella. "The registrar reminded us that our contract was for life and `to the exclusion of all others', which at the age of 21 made me feel like I was signing my life away. But I could say our own vows with a feeling of integrity because I really meant them. They were about friendship, honouring, honesty and trust - we didn't try to pin each other down. It wasn't that I wanted an open marriage but the only way to commit myself was not to bind myself too tightly."

The things we promise each other are so important that renewal of vows has a place even when you are already married, as Arabella has found. "I'd like to make a ceremony, maybe here in our sitting room to say `I'm really committed to you Julian'. Over the years, I've come to feel that this is my place of learning. Going off with someone else might change the outside, but I'll still be stuck with the same old me. I want to say to Julian: `I know things can get yucky but I'm totally committed to working through any difficulties, and I want to do that with you.' "

Renewal of vows could be an alternative to the traditional marriage scenario. Hello! magazine recently featured a celebrity wedding based on the ancient Celtic custom of "hand-fasting" where actress Joanne Ridley and health practitioner Guy Barrington were joined together "for a year and a day", with an option to renew vows when the time was up.

"It's a much more natural and healthy way of making a commitment," says Annie Wildwood, the pagan priestess who conducted the outdoor ceremony. Wildwood herself has this arrangement with her partner of six years.

"I was worried before for seven years and felt very trapped. Hand-fasting gives the maturity of commitment but also keeps you on your toes - you don't take each other for granted if one of you has doubts about renewing your vows. You have to ask why," she says.

Some people use the hand-fasting ceremony together with a civic ceremony, but Wildwood is noticing an increase in couples who are dispensing with the legalities - a trend which also has implications for same-sex couples who want to publicly declare commitment. "It could be seen as a political statement - it's saying that the church or state does not have a monopoly on marriage and that ritual belongs where it started out, with the people."

Being able to agree on your wedding vows bodes well for your marriage, agree the experts, but it's no guarantee of success. One friend recalls a wedding he attended when the couples stared long and deep into each other's eyes and swore to cold shoulder anyone who came between them. "It sent a shiver up my spine because it all seemed so controlling under the guise of being New Age and liberal. Two years later they had separated."

For Sue Green, whose vows featured at the beginning of this piece, they form a vital backdrop to the everyday reality of living together. "At times of difficulty I've remembered what we said to each other and I go: `I must listen more' or `I must take what John says more seriously.' When we wrote out our vows we wanted to think what is important, what makes a relationship work. And they've been very useful reminders."

8 British Humanist Association 0171-430 0908; Annie Wildwood 0117- 941 1557; Giles David 0131-332 6138.

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