Those of you who are married most likely said those words, or some modern equivalent of them, during your wedding ceremony. You probably also meant them. But the truth is, in spite of our best intentions, marriages in America today only last an average of eleven years. So an objective observer would probably recommend changing the words to “‘Til death or divorce do us part.”
We are familiar with the strong warnings against divorce in the Bible and throughout church history. The traditional mores and cultural patterns of Christian Europe were carried over into the American Colonies, and this was the primary influence on views regarding marriage and divorce in our society. But the ideal of the “Separation of Church and State” was taken farther here than in most European countries, and this led to a distinction between marriage as a civil ceremony and marriage as a sacrament of the church.
So when a marriage fails, which entity can declare it ended? The civil marriage contract can be legally ended by divorce. Many religious groups also recognize the validity of divorce, but the Roman Catholic Church recognizes only annulment, a formal church declaration that the marriage never happened. These distinctions have led to a great deal of confusion, tension and mutual blame for people who respect their religious faith background.
Until the twentieth century, even civil divorce could only be granted if some fault could be shown, some way in which one or the other partner had broken the marriage vows. But the reality of the increasing divorce rate led to important social changes in attitudes toward both divorce and remarriage. In 1969 California became the first state to pass no-fault divorce legislation, and during the next forty years, all the other states followed suit. Essentially, as a civil matter, if one partner says “I want out,” with no reason given, a divorce will be granted.
I recently became aware that in the days of slavery, when an owner could sell a slave husband or wife but keep the other, marriages of slave couples included the phrase in amended form: “‘Til death or distance do us part.”* This was a profound acknowledgement of the helplessness of a person in bondage. Even their promise to be faithful to one another had to be conditional on the whims of the master. If one partner was sold to a slaveholder in another location, the marriage was effectively ended by distance. That was usually just as final as death.
This actually sheds some light on our modern situation. Divorce can be seen as just an admission that distance has killed the marriage relationship. So, promising “‘Til death or divorce do us part” is virtually the same as promising “‘Til death or distance do us part.” Distance, whether geographical or emotional, can mean the death of a marriage.
Once the reality of distance sets into a marriage, it becomes like bondage. There seems to be no escaping it. So, it’s important for all of us who are beyond the honeymoon phase of marriage to keep talking, to keep sharing, to keep tearing down the walls that are always building up between us. This is very hard, and the romantic view of marriage tells us it shouldn’t be hard. So we constantly get our hopes up — and find our hopes dashed again. Most of us have lots of scar tissue in our marriage relationships.
For those of you who still hear “”Til death do us part” when you think of marriage, let’s talk! Pastor Connie or I, whichever one you find more approachable, would be glad to spend some time with you. Maybe you’re worried because you can sense increasing distance and you don’t know what to do about it. Maybe there are more and more things you don’t feel free to share with your partner. Maybe you’re dealing with some wounds left over from a previous marriage. Let’s talk!
— Pastor George Van Alstine
*’Til Death Or Distance Do Us Part is the title of a 2010 book by Francis Smith Foster. The subtitle is Love and Marriage in African America. The author uses letters and other archival materials to prove that marriages of slaves could withstand great stresses and last throughout life in spite of distance.