The cost of the average wedding in America now exceeds $30,000, with prices soaring 16 percent between 2011 and 2015. With all the glitz and glamour surrounding a couple’s special day, it’s easy to focus on the decorations and dresses, while overlooking the most valuable moment of the day—the costliest words spoken between a husband and wife.

“Till death do us part.”

We’re so familiar with the phrase that we forget how strange it sounds. What the man and woman are saying is: One of us will stand at the grave of the other. In other words: I’m with you until your last breath or you’re with me until mine, whichever comes first.

In the middle of this picturesque celebration of two becoming one, death suddenly crowds into the frame. Rightly understood, marriage is about both life and death. The wedding day is inextricably tied to the funeral service.

But those five weighty words—until death do us part—are losing their gravity these days.

Losing Gravity

In This Is Our Time, I devote a chapter to marriage and why it’s important for us to take note of how society’s views have shifted. Andrew Sullivan, one of the leading voices in the gay marriage cause, claims that people are more likely to see marriage as something temporary. “From being a contract for life,” Sullivan writes, “[marriage] has developed into a bond that is celebrated twice in many an American’s lifetime.” I think he’s right.

For many, marriage has become a means to serial monogamy rather than a lifelong partnership. The expectations and responsibilities of marriage have shifted too, which is why people no longer invest the vow “till death do us part” with the same significance and meaning it once had. Neither do people expect their families, friends, churches, or governmental institutions to hold them accountable to such a vow.

No surprise, then, that divorce is more common, prenuptial agreements shield people from financial losses, and “wed-leases” codify the idea that marriage is something to opt in or out of—a temporary arrangement.

Year Off From Marriage?

I recently saw an interview with Robin Rinaldi, a woman who agreed with her husband to “take a year off” from her marriage and sleep with other people. She called it the “Wild Oats Project.” The ground rules were “no serious relationships, no sex with mutual friends, and no sex without condoms.” She and her husband broke the rules multiple times, not surprisingly, since it is hard to be faithful to new promises about the ways you will break your oldest and weightiest one.

Reading through her discussion of the “year off marriage,” I kept hearing the voice of Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride in my head: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Take away permanence and exclusivity, and you have a parody of marriage, not the real thing.

Is Love Free?

Our society chafes against the “vow unto death” because we believe it constrains our freedom and keeps us from sexual happiness. Free love is all the rage. As long as there is consent, why not have an “open marriage”? Why not try out a “temporary marriage arrangement”? Why not be free?

Because love drives us to the vow.

It is impossible to have true marital love without exclusivity and constancy. Divorce is a tragic loss, not a liberating gain. The Wild Oats project settles for sexual exploration in exchange for the greater adventure of self-giving. To give up the vow is to give up on the possibility for deeper and truer love.

Nature of Love

A century ago, G. K. Chesterton described the condition of the person who believes love must always be “free” and without the costliness of the vow:

To be everlastingly passing through dangers which we know cannot scare us, to be taking oaths which we know cannot bind us, to defying enemies who we know cannot conquer us—this is the grinning tyranny of decadence which is called freedom.

“Free love” is nonsensical, according to Chesterton. Lovers are never free.

It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word.

The weightiest words of love—the vow unto death—strike against the idea that we can “offer ourselves without the peril of committing ourselves.” The true offering of oneself is exclusive, and this is what makes marriage so costly, so adventurous, so glorious and hard.

Yes, there are temporary thrills for those who try to have love without commitment, but “there is one thrill that is known only to the soldier who fights for his own flag, to the aesthetic who starves himself for his own illumination, to the lover who makes finally his own choice. And it is this transfiguring self-discipline that makes the vow a truly sane thing.”

Till Death Do Us Part

The weightiest words of love link the wedding altar to the coffin. They focus our attention not on a fleeting feeling of love, but on the vow of commitment—to be an unbreakable source of faithfulness no matter what may come, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do we part. It’s the promise unto death that makes marriage come alive.