The most common Western wedding ceremony originated with the Romans: Together, the bride and groom pledged their lives to each other in a stark verbal ceremony. Today, a legal marriage in most states requires a license, officiant, witness, and verbal contract. But that doesn't have to mean the traditional "I dos."
Many couples, like Yvetta and Scott, want to personalize their ceremony by writing their own vows or at least modifying the familiar phrases. Cantor Helene Reps of White Plains, New York, who performs Jewish ceremonies, believes that couples should not only be able to express personal vows but that they should be encouraged to do so. "They should think about why they are marrying each other, what they love about one another, and how they envision their marriage," Reps says. She believes that for the couple, the exchange of vows is the most important moment in the ceremony. Martha Stewart Weddings Editor Darcy Miller agrees; she and her husband, Andrew Nussbaum, wrote their vows for their May 2001 wedding in New York City. "You spend all this time planning the details of the wedding," she says. "But the vows are really what it's all about. The true meaning of the whole celebration is in the two minutes when you commit yourselves to each other."
Meet with your officiant early in your planning process to go over the wording he or she uses -- vows vary according to religion and custom -- and to discuss any guidelines or restrictions concerning writing your own. The law only requires that the intention to marry is acknowledged. "The bride could say, 'I'll take you,' and the groom could say, 'Me too,' " says Judge Richard Husted, who married Yvetta and Scott. But religious ceremonies may have less flexibility. Give the officiant a copy of your finished vows well before the ceremony to review for appropriateness and to be sure they fill any necessary requirements. If you're planning to surprise each other with the vows, your officiant can also tell you if the two sets of pledges are complementary or very different in style and length.
You might want to just update the most old-fashioned phrases, changing "love, honor, and obey" to "love, honor, and cherish," for example, as many couples do. If you want to incorporate more individual touches or even start fresh, the first step is to talk to each other. Reminisce about your courtship, relationship, and falling in love. Talk about shared adventures and common hobbies. Discuss what marriage means to you, what the future might hold, what you look forward to as a couple, and as a family. Read poetry books and love stories for inspiration. When you sit down to write, keep the vows fairly brief and remember that you will have an audience when speaking these words, so don't include references that no one but the two of you will understand.
Practice reciting the vows, but don't pressure yourself to memorize them for the ceremony. No matter how well you perform the night before, nerves may take over on your big day. It's best to write your vows on a card that you can tuck somewhere or have your officiant hold so you can read from it when making your pledge. Or have the officiant read the vows to you preceded by a straightforward, "Repeat after me."
Whether you write the words together or each on your own is up to you. "We wrote separate drafts," says Jim Rosenfeld, who married Cathryn Galanter in July 2001 in New York City. "We wrote stream-of-consciousness style about the things that we valued in each other, about what being married meant to us. Then we shared these drafts with each other and edited them, shaping them into what they became, meaningful and succinct." Try not to worry about the writing itself. What's most important is the sentiment. "I was so nervous about doing it," says Cathryn. "The traditional vows would have been fine for me, but Jim felt it was important to write our own to make a more personal statement. I'm not much of a writer, but I tried my best." Jim was thrilled with the results. "It was such a great part of the ceremony," he says. Cantor Reps, their officiant, agrees. "The vows were a beautiful expression of their unique relationship," she says. "It means so much to the couple marrying and the friends and family gathered to hear what it is the couple means to each other." After all, these days, brides and grooms have a lot more to say than just "I do."