Recently, I attended the wedding of an old friend. The bride, having already smiled through the toasts and speeches of friends and family for two days, was finally in white — in front of her guests and across from her husband to be. She began her vows with an impromptu statement: “of everything at the wedding, this has been the moment I’ve looked forward to most.”
A wedding — no matter how many days, how many guests, how many parties — is essentially just this. A person looking into the eyes of another and making a promise before an audience of the very closest friends and family bearing witness. It’s so simple, and yet exceedingly difficult: to capture, in the course of minutes, one’s love for another, how it came to be and the ways in which you plan to nurture it for the duration of your partnership.
Still, with shifting norms in contemporary wedding culture, more couples are ditching the “to have and to hold” script, which has remained largely unchanged since its inception in the Book of Common Prayer in 1549. Instead, they are opting to craft personal vows that feel truer to their union.
These few minutes during which the couple recites words they’ve written for one another can be the most intimate and meaningful of the entire ceremony: a time to outline what this contract, this promise, really means and a crucial moment of pathos for the guests (because who doesn’t want to cry a bit at a wedding).
Beyond that, vows are the moment for you to articulate what you love about your partner. A tall order. But if you’re stuck, we’re here for you. Having seen dozens of these, we’ve observed that the best personal vows tend to incorporate a few crucial elements while maintaining that sense of individual style and tone that makes the practice such a poignant form of self-expression.
How Long Should My Vows Be?
The long answer? This is your moment, the main event. As such, these should take as long as you feel you need to adequately capture intent.
The short answer? Between 30 seconds and 3 minutes.
Regardless, you and your spouse should agree upon a rough time estimate and communicate throughout the writing and rehearsal how long you each plan to take — as it can be, well, a bit of a bummer if one partner speaks mellifluously for seven minutes, then the other for only twenty seconds. Symbolically, this is a moment of parity and union: an exchange. So it should feel that way. Aligning together on a rough word count range can be a helpful guide to each of you.
You should also consider the flow of the ceremony and the attention spans of your guests. Unless the wedding really is just you two (no guests, perhaps just an officiant), a wedding is inevitably something of a performance. A production. Personal vows are a moment to give voice to an authentic feeling. But they should still honor the larger framework and flow of the ceremony.
Our rough recommendation for structure below:
- 4-5 sentences of appreciation and story telling (1 minute)
- 4-5 sentences of tangible promises aimed at the partner (1 minute)
- 1-2 sentences acknowledging community (30 seconds)
- 1 concluding declaration (30 seconds)
Total: 10 - 13 sentences (<3 minutes).
Where to Begin
Incorporating, Rejecting, and Acknowledging Traditional Vows
As the title of this article suggests, these vows are meant to be personal. But that doesn’t mean they have to be agnostic of the traditional rulebook and template. You should feel free to use vows from your cultural tradition as a jumping off point — a place from which to pull the elements you relate to and to reject those that feel regressive or ill-suited to your partnership.
Or, throwing out the rulebook entirely, you should feel free to pull inspiration from pieces of art, culture, personal learning and advice that have helped define for you what it means to love another, and to nurture that love.
Free-Write it Out
If you’re still feeling unsure of where to begin, we recommend you start with a series of free-writes to get the juices flowing and vanquish the empty page. Read over the questions below, then, with each, commit to writing an answer non-stop for five minutes — no judgment, no self-editing, no attention to grammar. The idea is to get your raw, unfiltered feelings out on the page.
- What was your first impression of your spouse-to-be? Try to record everything, from their appearance, to their voice, to the topics you discussed. How did they make you feel?
- What was the first moment you realized this was more than a casual relationship?
- How has your partner challenged and transformed you?
- What has your partner taught you about love and relationships? About yourself?
- What are your partners biggest insecurities and fears about relationships? What are yours?
- Finish the following statement: I will know that we’ve succeeded as a couple, if...
- What does marriage mean to you?
What Should Personal Vows Include?
We’ve observed that the most affecting personal vows tend to incorporate several key elements: they tell the story, make promises, acknowledge the community, and conclude with a declaration of love.
Tell the Story
approx. 4-5 sentences (1 minute)
While the toasts and speeches of family, friends, and the officiant will help offer context on the shape of your love story, the vows are an excellent time to touch on its high points in your own words. Loved ones can note things you said, things you did, and their own reflections, but no one can speak to the emotions you felt more accurately.
Of course, there’s no way to speak about every date, every kiss, every joy and heartache you’ve felt across the whole of a relationship — while remaining within the agreed-upon time. So we reiterate: focus on the high points, the narrative turns. If your story were a romcom, what would make it into the IMDB summary?
Two stories that nearlyweds often focus on (and for good reason) are the meet and the moment.
When we say the meet, we mean both the instant you first encountered one another — did it happen by chance? Was it orchestrated by friends or co-workers? — and your first impression — was there a sense of kismet that indicated for you that this person might become significant? The meet, and its attendant impressions, can extend for some weeks. Think back to those early days: what were the indicators that your spouse-to-be would remain in your life for good?
And when we say the moment, we mean the moment you “knew” or “decided” on your partner. For some, this is surprisingly early: a groom who, three dates in, calls his sister to tell her he’s met his person. For others, it comes after many months or years, a personal realization that you’re ready for this: a life built in total partnership with another, a life of parity and compromise.
Both of these instances are rife, narratively and emotively, with opportunities to highlight what is distinct about this partnership — what higher version of yourself your spouse-to-be calls to. While there is a certain popcorn-popping pleasure in hearing stories about people who “just knew,” these vows should be true to you and your feelings: they should be frank in their assessment of the real work a lasting relationship demands, and the personal growth you may have had to undertake to achieve this realization. All of that context adds weight to the promise you are about to make.
approx. 4-5 sentences (1 minute)
Lest you forget, these are vows — promises about how you intend to treat your partner and nurture your relationship. And the benefit of going with personal vows, rather than those state or church-provided, is that these can be both ultra-specific and tonally distinct. They can feel like you.
Personal vows are a great time to introduce or highlight some of the idiosyncrasies of your partner: their needs and desires. Take a moment to think about these — how do they receive love, and what are the myriad ways you show it to them? These could be as simple and specific as always letting them DJ on long car rides or as vast as being their fiercest defender. Meditate on those acts of service, those (often silent) articulations of your love, then try to put them into language.
Many couples strive for a tonal balance in their vows that feels distinct to their personalities, the general feel of the ceremony, and to the specificity of their partnership. Personal vows can be incredibly emotional (not a dry hankie in the place), so interweaving lighter-hearted, more humorous vows amid the deeper proclamations of love can help to keep your own tears at bay. Or to offer your guests moments of respite. A mix of laughter and tears, those visceral bursts of emotion, can better reflect the full range of your love.
Acknowledge your Community
approx. 1 - 2 sentences (30 seconds)
While your vows are ultimately spoken directly to your partner, there’s no avoiding the fact that there will be dozens, if not hundreds, of friends and family members watching you.
Reflect on their role in your relationship, both in its development (were there any crucial bits of best friend advice, or lessons from your parents’ relationship?) and in its future. The best vows recognize that great love and partnership cannot survive in isolation, but depend upon the lessons and support of a wider community. How do you intend to lean on these people you’ve invited to witness your promise throughout the course of your marriage? How do you intend to integrate your partner’s community of friends and family into your own?
Making explicit these declarations are not only essential in illustrating your understanding of the full scope of this step (you are not only entering a partnership with your spouse, but their community) but allow your guests to feel included, and therein more deeply invested in your partnership.
I promise to be generous and welcoming to those dearest to you, joining them for beautiful meals and providing genuine hospitality — starting with the reception right after this ceremony.
I vow to be a part of your family, and share with them as I would my own.
Conclude with a Declaration
approx. 1 sentence (30 seconds. TAKE YOUR TIME)
This should be the last thing you write, just as it will be the last thing you say. Here, the goal is to encapsulate the essence of your individual vows in an overarching declaration. Answer this: what will your love look like?
To get inspiration, look back at the last three answers from your free-write. In essence, what you want to identify and address with this concluding declaration is what your partner, with all of their fears and hopes about intimacy, most needs to hear from you now. What insecurities have they developed through relationships past? What pain? And how can your promise help them heal? This emphasis, in the final moments, on mutual growth and healing will tie your vows together like a ribboned bow, reassuring your spouse that they are entering a partnership that will help them be whole.
An example (for a partner who has felt unsupported in the past):
From this day forward, I give you my whole heart. I commit to a life as your unwavering partner, your fiercest advocate and defender, your always love.
How to Practice Your Vows
This part’s tricky. Ideally, you want to be practiced enough with these vows by the big day that nothing — no amount of tears or distraction — can throw you off, while also allowing them to feel heartfelt and authentic.
The first thing you need to decide is whether or not you intend to memorize them. While committing vows to memory can be an excellent show of your devotion, and may allow you to connect more fully with your partner in the moment, it can be counterproductive if you’re likely to get a bit flustered (and who could blame you). Even if you do plan to memorize them, we’d recommend having a cheat sheet or notecard with you, just in case you blank.
But before the big day, be sure to read through the vows a handful of times, paying careful attention to (and perhaps marking in a physical copy) any pauses you plan to take. This is not a campaign speech, nor a debate. You want every line to be heard in its fullness and splendor. So speak slowly and with intention. Try to maintain eye contact.
Remember to be in communication with your partner and officiant on how long you intend to take with your vows, and perhaps practice in front of your officiant, a close friend, or a family member. But do not, by any means, allow your partner to read or hear them before the big day. While every other part of the ceremony may benefit from run-throughs and practice, there’s an undeniable and fragile magic in a partner hearing that set of promises, for the first time, in front of everyone. A glimmer of shock and heartfelt wonder that’s impossible to fake.