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If I ruled the world: Alain de Botton

Make marriage vows more realistic
June 15, 2016

Modern societies have evolved highly-detailed collective ideas about what a proper wedding is supposed to be like, right down to the specialised floral arrangements, seat covers, presents for bridesmaids and the correct order of the speeches. They are nonsense and do nothing to fulfil the true mission of a wedding: to contribute to the success of a marriage.

For a start, we need new vows. Vows are promises we make on behalf of people who don’t yet exist about circumstances that we can’t yet fully imagine. Still, they serve an important function in at least attempting to guide our responses to the tensions of the future. The problem with current vows is their optimism, which should be radically tempered so as to avoid rage and resentment. Vows should accurately anticipate what will make us want to get divorced—and confirm to us that our subsequent sadness will not be an unusual or personal curse. Here is a selection of vows that would be made by a couple in my utopia:

- I accept that I am—in countless ways I don’t yet know—very hard to live with. - We accept not to panic when, some years from now, what we are doing today will seem like the worst decision of our lives. - When you are mean, when you call me a fucking bastard, I will strive to remember that at heart, it is because you are hurt—not that you are fundamentally nasty. - Everyone has some very significant things wrong with them. We promise not to look around. There isn’t anyone better out there really. Once you get to know them, everyone is impossible.

In a utopian wedding, the guests would offer the couple different sorts of presents. Primarily, they would arrive with accounts of why their own marriages were difficult and why they were themselves awkward people to live with.

Nothing makes us happier than news of the troubles of others, as these presents would implicitly recognise. At dark moments in the marriage, one would turn to these gifts and flip through descriptions of the marital troubles of one’s friends and relatives—and would come away feeling that one was cursed certainly, but—importantly—in no way alone.

In my utopia, you would get married by a philosopher or psychoanalyst (rather than the two useless current figures, a priest or a local government official). The wedding ceremony would be a passing out celebration for a couple who had been through a substantial course (no less than 12 months) of self-knowledge and mutual education in the psychology of relationships.

Romantic culture suggests that relationships are essentially founded on emotional states: like tenderness, the feeling of missing the other person and sexual passion. This is evidently reckless and in my utopia there would be a new, more logical, classical approach which would recommend strenuous conscious attempts to achieve a mature understanding of love. Many of the skills of marriage would overlap with those of a bomb disposal expert.

In the utopia, the wedding day would be like a graduation ceremony, a culmination of a year of intense study of one of the trickiest and most academic subjects in the world.

I’d also rejig the approach to wedding photographs. The aim of photographs is to bottle the essence of the wedding and make it available to us when we need it later. But a wedding album should not only or even primarily be a visual record of a particular day, and evidence of who was in attendance. The task of the photographer is to create a series of works of art, made on many days, and perhaps not at all on the day of the wedding itself, that would remind the couple of answers to some key questions. Why did we get together? What virtues did we see in one another when we got married? What impact does each person’s family have on the relationship? How normal are marital problems in society at large?

Looking back at one’s “wedding photos” in subsequent years would then take its place within the overall purpose of the wedding: it would help, in a small way, to persuade us to stay married.

The idea of a wedding—and the elaborate rituals that surround it—do not at present have our real needs in focus. But that doesn’t mean to say that we’d be better off jettisoning the whole ceremony. We still need ceremony and institutions, just better ones. We should take very seriously—and be collectively ambitious about—what wedding days could and should be.

Utopian thinking sounds like dreamy stuff. But in truth, one of the uses of utopian thinking is to move us away from silly fantasy. Instead of seeing the “dream wedding” in terms of palm trees and infinity pools, we should be asking what a wedding would be like if it properly helped marriages to go better. That should give us inspiration as we set about reforming the mediocre marriage practices we currently have. Alain de Botton’s “The Course of Love” is published by Hamish Hamilton