ERP 098: How are your Marriage Vows helping you? [Transcript]

ERP 098: How Are Your Marriage Vows Helping You?

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Welcome to The Empowered Relationship Podcast, helping you turn relationship challenges into opportunities and setting you up for relationship success. Your host, Dr. Jessica Higgins, is a licensed psychologist and relationship coach who shares valuable tips, tools and resources for you to dramatically improve your relationship.

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Hi, thank you for joining today’s podcast episode. Today’s episode is 98, titled How Are Your Marriage Vows Helping You? If you’re not married and not in a long-term partnership, I think this episode is still extremely relevant. I think most of my developing myself around what was most important to me happened before entering into relationship with my husband, and really when I was single, and started from a real grieving process. It was probably about a year and a half of a real extreme deep dive for me personally.

One of the gifts that I got out of this time was that I was able to connect with a deeper purpose and yearning for what I wanted in relationship. That was informed by my study, my reflection, my research and just my personal work. It also spawned my study in my PhD program. I was in a PhD program when I met my husband, and really ultimately has formed our relationship together. I just wanna state that if you’re not in a relationship, that your getting in touch with the tenets, the pillars, the principles of what’s most important to you will really help bring clarity that you can enter into a dialogue with a potential partner to then be able to co-create your relationship intentionally. That’s my deepest desire for you all – for there to be an awareness that relationship doesn’t just happen to you; it happens through you and through your partnership.

I’ve been telling you about a couples program that I’m gonna be sharing with you in the next couple of weeks. I have a free webinar on 15th March. If you want access to that, please visit the show notes of this episode you can find on my website, which is, click on Podcast. You can find this episode (episode 98), How Are Your Marriage Vows Helping You? Scroll down to this section that says “Mentioned” and you’ll see the webinar link and an opportunity to register. So with this webinar, as well as the connected couple program I’ll be also telling you about on the webinar, as well as this show – there’s different levels of engagement. This show is like a high-level “Let’s look at a topic and explore some of the things that are involved.”

A webinar will give you more information… A little bit deeper, to get some more nuggets and be able to have some understanding. A program is gonna give you the support, the opportunity to go deeper with the practice and the principles to be able to integrate them into your life, so it’s not just insight, but it’s something that you’re having experience with, that’s beginning to shape and mold your life and your relationship. So it’s giving you the container and the practice ground.

My biggest intention for the couples course, for this show, for any presentation – I think it really comes down to wanting you to experience profound fulfillment, joy and connection in your partnership, and that you also know how to navigate the sensitive aspects that come up, or the challenges, or the upset, or the trigger, the activation – all the stuff that we might deem as challenging or hard, and that you know how to approach that with some level of confidence.

It’s still gonna be difficult, I’m not gonna take that away, but that you have some sense of how to approach these topics, approach this area knowing how to be more skillful, effective and harmonious, so that you can glean the wisdom that’s emerging there.

In my mind, that material, that area of your relationship has great gifts, if we let it; if we pay attention, if we work it, if we participate and we show up. I’m really wanting you to feel a sense of deep fulfillment and pride – not boastful pride, but a sense of like, “Wow, our relationship is a real true reflection of us”, and feeling proud, almost like it’s a child. If you’re a parent and you see your child granted their own unique being, that you’ve contributed to their growth; you’ve really helped care and nurture and guide and lead, and all the beautiful things that you’ve offered, and you can feel some connection to that creation.

I think a relationship is a reflection of two individuals that have invested their time and energy and intention, so it’s a creative process. I’m wanting you to feel supported in that, and feeling like you have the skill and the tools, the resources to do that.

So if you’re interested in engaging in this material more deeply, I encourage you to jump on and schedule for the webinar on 15th March. I would love to have you included. I will be scheduling time to answer questions, and I’m just excited to connect with you, so please check that out. Again, you can find that on my website, which is, click on Podcast, find this episode – this is episode 98 – and you can find the webinar link on the show notes.

Today’s topic, “How Are Your Marriage Vows Helping You?” Now, if you’re in partnership, you would change this to, “How are your partnership vows of commitments helping you?”

Today we’re gonna be looking at how wedding vows can be challenging. We’re also gonna look at what it would be like to supplement vows with operational commitments. I’m also gonna give you some examples for you to contemplate around what this would be like. I have been excited about this podcast topic for quite some time now. There are many reasons or that, and I’ll explain in a moment.

The first that I’m really feeling connected to most at the moment is that wedding vows encapsulate the opportunity to express profound love, as well as a proclamation of commitment. I’ll tell you personally, I think on the spectrum of people, I rank pretty high in appreciating romance and the feel-good expressions of love. I love that just as much as anyone, yet I notice that when I work with couples, when I work with clients, we sometimes talk about their vows, especially if they’re newlyweds or a few years into their marriage.

Because what’s typically happening is most couples encounter a feeling of — I don’t know if “lost” is too strong, but a sense of disillusionment, or “This isn’t what I expected”, “This isn’t what I thought”, “This isn’t what I signed up for”, and the vows are this pinnacle experience of expressing one’s love for one another, the partners’ love for each other. Yet, it doesn’t always give us practical guidance.

In my mind, I think vows are largely aspirational. They move us, they help us feel that sense of how powerful love is. We’re inspired and we’re moved by this power, whether or not it’s true one’s own writing of their own vows, or if it’s a reading – some people use the Scripture, a poem, or some combination. It exemplifies this sense of love, this endearing, lasting feeling of love. So love in its essence is pure. The experience of love is powerful, it is unconditional, yet we, as human beings, are fallible. We make mistakes, we fumble, we falter. We work through and have to work through our weaknesses, our blind spots, our shadow.

In my mind, life is often a part of this process of becoming – becoming more whole, becoming more integrated, becoming more fully expressed. And when we enter into relationship, that close partnership, that close bond will be a mirror to us in no other way. It almost shines the shadow apart, or the parts that we want to overlook or not think about right in our face. Or be that little thorn in our side that won’t really give up, let’ go. That part of saying yes to partnership is awakening to things that we might individually ignore.

Late last year my husband and I went to a friend’s wedding. They’re both of our friends, actually. They got married on a yacht, it was a small ceremony, a lot of our friends were there, and the groom was someone that I had taken volleyball lessons from. He’s an amazing teacher and coach. Many of his teaching philosophy comes from coach John Wooden, who had had a profound influence on his and his philosophy, so it was fitting that he would incorporate a quote from Wooden.

“I promise to be too large for worry; too noble for anger; too strong for fear, and too happy to permit trouble to press upon you.”

I was moved by this quote, partly because of obviously my relationship to both of them and just getting a chance to witness their expression and sentiment to one another and their commitment to one another. As I’d mentioned earlier, I enjoy and appreciate and value this type of ceremony and ritual probably just as much as anyone else, or if not more…

Today we’re talking about how these sentiments are largely aspirational. When it comes down to it, we don’t actually know how to practice those sentiments. It’s very hard to commit to in an everyday moment. For this quote, what do I do when I’m worried? Or if I’m genuinely angry, do I continue to just bypass that? What do I do with my human emotion of fear and trouble?

I love the encouragement to expand one’s strength and one’s happiness and one’s nobility – that’s beautiful. And what do we do with that human part of ourselves? So I think that’s partly why I’m really encouraging this conversation today… What would it be like to incorporate operational commitments? Now, that’s a really heady term perhaps, and I think that comes from just my background in psychology, which often times looks at constructs.

In psychology, we call something that’s very hard to define a construct. Like love, or happiness. If you ask a thousand people to define happiness or love, you’ll probably get a thousand different definitions. So for the purpose of research and study, psychologists will “operationalize”, which means “try to make the definition observable.” “Can we all agree that happiness would mean their mood ranks 6 or higher on a scale from 1 to 10? Or that they would self-rapport, or how many times they smile any given hour?” I’m just making this up, but those are the types of things that how it’s expressed through behavior and the ways that it can be observed and concretized/defined.

I like the idea of operational commitments, because it gives us a sense of how to operate. It’s not just aspiration, it’s the practical support for the inspirational/aspirational desire. Just because we’re moved for something doesn’t always give us a sense of, “Okay, how do we show up in that?”, and I think that’s what I’m really calling some attention to today – what are these commitments? What are we really saying yes to?

One of the other things that you might be able to relate to here is if you’ve ever looked at setting goals or accomplishing a goal in your life, you may have come across the idea of a SMART goal. SMART is an acronym where each of the letters stands for something. The S might stand for Specific. “I will love you forever” – that’s very broad and very vast, not very specific.

The M in SMART stands for Measurable. It could be looked at, like “Did I exercise three times in a week” rather than “I exercised a lot.”

The A in SMART stands for Actionable, which again, similar to “three times in a week”, lets me know “Did I do it or did I not do it?” It gives me steps to follow also.

The R stands for Realistic. Is it something that’s actually attainable, something that I can actually accomplish? Me being an astronaut or traveling to the moon next week is probably not realistic if I have no background or training in becoming an astronaut.

The last one in the SMART acronym – that T stands for Timebound. Similar to the example of exercising three times in a week, at the end of the week there’s some time reference. I can look back and say, “Did I accomplish that or did I not?”

For the record, let me just say I am not suggesting that our vows be goals, or SMART goals… I’m just comparing the aspirational sentiment to something that’s more actionable or something that’s more operational, that is more understood around what it looks like, how it’s practiced.

One, we make SMART goals because we want to be able to follow them, we want to be able to do them, where if we say “I wanna exercise all the time”, it might be so vast and vague that it might not have any bearing on us.

Again, to be clear, I am wanting to uphold the space of the beautifully expressed vows, where family, friends and the couple get to celebrate their love. I want to continue to honor that and support that. What I’m suggesting here is a supplement. There are commitments that are conscious that can support the practice of that love.

Back in 2006 my now- husband (at the time boyfriend), we were in a car on a short road trip in California and we were just leisurely having conversation and enjoying our time together, and I remember him asking me what he thought about commitment. At this time, I had actually done a fair amount of studying, researching, reflecting, and I remember telling him that I thought commitments were most powerful when seen as self-commitments and guiding principles. I was talking to him about my sense of if I’m saying yes to something, there are commitments that I hold in my mind that I’m saying yes to and that I work to maintain. It’s MY goal to honor my word or to keep my integrity. Or if there’s desire that I have in the commitment, that I honor that and that I’m motivated by that, rather than an obligation my partner is hovering over me or my partner’s threatening me, or an ultimatum, or I somehow am doing it out of just obligation.

Sometimes we do that, where we say we’re gonna do something and we actually don’t really wanna do it, but we do it because we said we were gonna do it. I’m suggesting that these commitments come from a real authentic yes and a desire, and that when we say yes, the commitment there to execute it might be challenging at times, but the motivation comes from our integrity and our desire to see that through, rather than “Because my partner’s gonna get mad at me” or “I might disappoint my partner”, those types of things.

Because I think the obligation route gets us into a really inauthentic, stuck place where we lose our vitality, we lose our essence. That’s probably for another podcast episode, but I just wanna kind of frame… When I talk about commitments, I really appreciated that connection of where I was speaking from in that moment, and it stayed with me and I very much continue to operate from that place.

It’s so funny, years ago I read this article… It’s published 3rd December 2014, and I kept it because I loved it. I thought it was a great expression of what vows could look like. This might be way more scientific than people would generally adopt, but it’s an example. It’s Melanie and Justin, and I guess they’re both psychologists and they really are coming from a place of wisdom in that they know that one of the most challenging tasks in a person’s life is navigating romantic relationship successfully. Given their careers, they had been acquainted with scientifically supported behaviors that promote happy, healthy relationships.
As they were discussing their vows, they were saying “I don’t wanna leave our relationship up to chance. We want to treat each other and really have an operationally-defined way of loving each other. It’s not just this thing that seems so vague, and we have no sense of actually how to do that. We want to reference and use commitments that have been proven to help relationships flourish.”

I’ll read you a portion of their vows. This is from her article, so if you’re interested in the article, you can find it on the show notes of this episode. Again, this is episode 98. I believe the [unintelligible 00:23:58.17] is reading this:

“On a daily basis, think about what your spouse does that you value, and verbally express your gratitude. No one is perfect, and focusing on your partner’s shortcomings while overlooking their desirable qualities doesn’t enhance anyone’s enjoyment of the relationship – not your partner’s, and not your own. So Melanie, when Justin is ready to go to bed a solid three hours before you, let him know that you appreciate how conscientious he’s being. And Justin, when Melanie frenetically dances around the house to Tropi-Pop tunes at 11 PM on Tuesday, let her know you appreciate her spirit and vim.

However, everyone fights occasionally, and what determines whether couples stay together isn’t whether they fight, but how they fight. When disagreements arise, listen to your partner, acknowledge the role you had in the conflict, focus on specific behaviors rather than criticizing your partner’s personality, and share concerns in a polite, empathetic manner. Respect each other in good times and bad.

It’s also important to create shared positive experiences. Hobbies are a great way to do this, and some are better than others for promoting good relationships. Activities that let you face challenges together as a team are an ideal way to build a stronger bond. As a bonus, exciting activities that increase your heart rate will let you benefit from misattribution of arousal. So, for the sake of your relationship, continue traveling, exploring, mud-running, moving cross-country, and taking risks as a team.

Although it’s good to do things together, it’s also important to support each other’s personal freedom and autonomy. People enter into relationships because they admire the other individual. Help your partner continue to be that individual by respecting their personal goals and interests. Sometimes that’s as simple as asking questions to show your support. So don’t worry, Justin, there’s no need to sign up for Zumba yourself, but do continue to ask Melanie how it went whenever she comes home from teaching a class.”

They go on and they cite their sources for incorporating some of these principles into their vows. I loved this example. They wove practice, proven scientific research into their vows, that were relatable and really allowed them to feel the importance of how to love each other. That makes it a little more doable, and gives some real practical understanding of what that looks like.
Again, this doesn’t just come automatically, this took some attention. Obviously, with their background, they have a lot of insight, but this is one of the things that I’m wanting to support you in – to gain a shared philosophy, the way you look at your relationship, your paradigm together, your language together, your tools, your practices together. I wanna help you build that, so that you can support your relationship flourishing, as well as build the resilience to deal with upset and disagreement when it happens.

Sadly, most of us are aware of the reality of couples “drifting apart”, and I think this happens because we expect love to happen to us. We enter into marriage and partnership with this connection of love; we’re connected to the profound feeling of love, yet we don’t always know how to love, or what that looks like to nurture and support love, so that’s why I think this is so important to discuss.

It’s heartbreaking to think about love existing and then not being nurtured or supported, and then the couples really experiencing tragedy together. I’ve been enjoying that show “This is us” – I don’t watch a lot of TV, but some shows I watch, and this is one of them. I loved that it deals with family, relationship and some of the heartache and some of the challenges that life can bring. If you’re familiar with this show – again, this is an NBC show titled “This is us” – this is I believe Jack and Miguel… They’re at work, and Jack is asking Miguel, “What’s going on with your marriage? Are you having an affair?” He’s basically confronting Miguel, like “What’s the deal?” Those of you that are not familiar with the show, all you really need to know is that they’re two good friends, two male friends, and they’re both married, and Miguel, the guy that’s gonna do most of the talking here is getting a divorce; his best friend is like, “What’s going on?” Because he seems friendly with this woman at work, and he is suspicious that there’s an affair going on.

Jack says, “Are you having an affair with her?” and Miguel says, “Are you crazy?” Jack says something to the effect of like, “Don’t just give me this line that you drifted apart”, and Miguel says:

“You want to know why my marriage ended, Jack? For as long as I can remember, I have woken up at 6:30 every day to make Shelly coffee – a splash of milk, two sugars. I would make it and bring it to her in bed. She said that her day didn’t even start until she had caffeine in her veins. And then one day I woke up , 6:30, like always, and made myself one. I just didn’t feel like making Shelly one. And the worst part is she didn’t even notice. We stopped noticing each other, Jack. We stopped trying to make each other happy.

When we realized that, we knew it was over. Now, I think that every single couple has a handful of these moments when you reach a crossroads. Just sometimes it happens early on, first fight, sometimes it happens ten years in, when you’ve had the same fight about taking out the trash every night for a week. They’re make or break, these moments, and you either roll up your sleeves and you fight for what you’ve got, or you decide that you’re tired and you give up. And I had one of these moments when I didn’t make Shelly her coffee.”

I wanted to read this exchange… I mean, it’s heartbreaking, but it really describes something that many of us encounter, where we don’t always entirely know how it happens, but we’re experiencing this vast disconnect, and that we are strangers almost and we’re not feeling that connection, and we’ve maybe taken each other for granted or we’ve stopped noticing, we’ve stopped investing and stopped trying. It happens, so I think this is something that is important to bring attention to, and the choice of investing, of looking, of doing the deeper dive…

If you’re interested in watching this clip, I will include the link for the show notes. Again, you can find that on my website, which is

Dr. Keith Witt, who has been a guest on this show – I’m quoting him here. He says:

“How to intentionally maintain your marital love affair? Cultivate “I’ll do what it takes” commitments to nurture the love affair throughout life cycles. We begin relationships with “I’ll stay as long as” commitments, as in “I’ll stay as long as we love each other, or as long as my needs are fulfilled.” And I think he’s saying that we do this unconsciously. This isn’t something that we would say in vows, but it’s really the sentiment underneath these vows, because we just don’t know. We’re kind of unconscious to it.

“If we are successful at taking care of our love for each other, these shift into “I’ll do what it takes” commitments where we both resolve to face problems and work through them when issues arise. “I’ll do what it takes” couples tend to stay together and be more fulfilled.

“I’ll do what it takes” couples are more willing to keep focusing on the marital love affair, to keep it satisfying and alive through all the life stages.”

This is something that you’ll hear me talk about over and over again. It’s, again, the concept of “How can we be intentional about what we’re creating in relationship?” So how do we do these operational commitments? How can we be intentional about our commitments, about what we’re gonna do, instead of just this sense of “I’m gonna love your forever”? What will I do when I feel challenged, when I feel distant, resentful, hurt?

These commitments – again, I wanna encourage – come from you. If you don’t know what your operational commitments are, I wanna encourage you to schedule time to reflect on them, to think about them. Perhaps some of what we’ve talked about today or in other episodes will help inform and support that reflection process. Perhaps on your next anniversary, scheduling some time to look at your vows together and evolve them, incorporate, supplement by some of these intentional operational commitments around how you can choose love over judgment.

Or perhaps you’re feeling like you really want some support here. If so, I would encourage you to sign up for the free webinar that I’m offering on March 15th. Again, you can find the link on today’s show notes. This is episode 98, which can be found on my website,, and click on Podcast to find today’s episode, and you’ll find the links there on the show notes.

Before we close, I wanna give you one other resource that I have found very helpful. This comes from Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks. Katie Hendricks has been on the show as well, I’ll put the link to her episode. Her and her husband talk about conscious commitments, and I love their work because it invites people to come into ownership around ways that they’re behaving that perhaps support an unconscious commitment.

By looking at that, and also by consciously committing to what you do wanna create… So if you’re experiencing turmoil or conflict, if you and your partner are going back and forth power-struggling and you’re not enjoying it, they will ask you to look at how are you playing a part of that, how are you committing to that dynamic? Some part of you is saying yes to that.
I talk a lot about this as well; I talk about it differently, but it’s the same philosophy. How are you contributing to keeping that going, until unconsciously you’re playing a part, and you have to take ownership of that. And if you wanna commit to a different way of relating – and this comes from that self-ownership that I was talking about earlier, which turns commitments into explicit, conscious commitments that then can be a source of guidance and direction for your practice.

One of the things – I’ll put a link to an article – they talk about six general relationship commitments that they find very helpful. I’ll offer them to you to contemplate as you think about your relationship and perhaps some of your operational commitments.

Commitment 1: I commit myself to full closeness, and to clearing up anything within me that stands in the way.

Do you see the different here? This really gives somebody a sense of what they’re going to do, rather than “I will love you forever.” And again, I’m not dismissing the beauty of “I will love you forever”, but this gives a sense of “What do I do? How do I support our love?”

Commitment 2: I commit myself to my own complete development as an individual.

This is that sense of “I’m not gonna just collapse and go away in relationship. I’m not gonna lose myself, I’m not gonna lose my life essence and development.”

Commitment 3: I commit to revealing myself fully in the relationship, not to concealing myself.

This is a challenging process when emotions are high. Most of us – again, we’ve talked about the protective mechanism or the sense of feeling shame or hiding around the parts that we’re not proud of, or feeling scared and deeply vulnerable about… To reveal that, to be transparent about that with our love one. When the stakes feel so high, it’s incredibly difficult.

In my Connected Couple program you will learn how to do this. This is important, important work.

Commitment 4: I commit myself to the full empowerment of people around me.

This is that sense of being a person of increase. “I’m gonna have a positive vibration. I’m gonna come from the place of abundance and recognizing the flow of life that you being in your brilliance, me supporting you to help you shine as bright as possible, doesn’t take away from me. I get to also feel that same support for my vibrancy. It’s a win/win.”

Commitment 5: I commit myself to acting from the awareness that I am a hundred percent the source of my reality.

This is a difficult one for people to get sometimes, especially when their circumstance is extremely difficult. Yet, this is incredibly empowering, to recognize you do have choice. You do have power over your circumstance, your reality.

Commitment 6: I commit myself to having a good time in my close relationships.

I love this about Gay and Katie Hendricks… They are huge proponents of creativity, of joy, of being in the body and breathing… These are all things I’ve studied and support couples in, and really for myself personally subscribe to.

So again, these are commitments for you to consider when you think about your life, your relationship. Would these be helpful as far as creating something that you can feel supported in in your practice of loving?

Lastly, I wanna know that operational commitments or intentional commitments are ever-evolving. That’s one of the things that I think sometimes people get tripped up on, this sense of like “It’s set in stone and it can never be renegotiated” and it feels really constricting.

I wanna encourage that commitments are alive; they’re breathing, they’re dynamic and they will change. As we grow, our commitments will grow. You can look at this as an ever-evolving process, as you continue to explore and deepen in yourself and in your intimacy with your partner.

I would love to know what you think about today’s episode. I would love to hear from you via e-mail or on the show notes, if you’d like to comment. Again, I have talked about how you can find the show notes. You can also, I believe, just tap, if you’re listening from your iPhone or mobile device… You can just click on the Empowered Relationship logo, and I believe the show notes pop up there.

I’m curious, I don’t know if you’re able to actually comment in the comments section… You might need to go to my website to do that.

I hope that we can evolve that feature, because I would love for there to be a little bit of an easier way for you guys to dialog together and continue to round this conversation out.

You can also e-mail me, as I said, and that e-mail is

I wanna encourage you again to sign up for the webinar, 15th March; I would love to have you included in that. Until next time, I hope you take great care.

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