You stand in front of witnesses together. You recite mirror-image vows. Sometimes they even wrap your hands together to make the point. In marriage, two become one.
The reality of marriage, as every married person knows, is a lot more complicated. And sometimes it unravels.
Al and Tipper Gore announced Tuesday that they're separating after 40 years. There's an obvious cultural punch line in there — the Gores didn't last, but somehow the Clintons have. (For now.)
Go a little deeper, though, and you run into a more troubling thought: How does a bond of 40 years get broken?
One of my favorite bloggers, Nancy Nall, summed it up Wednesday morning in two sentences:
1) Because no one knows what goes on in a marriage except for the people in it;
2) Because there is no mystery in the world as deep and unfathomable as the human heart.
On a wedding day it's easy to tune out the vows, especially if they're the ones we've heard a thousand times. But the words are there because they're true. There is sickness as well as health, poorer days and richer ones, worse times as well as better.
One of the benefits of marriage is balance — one partner can lift the other up. But if it goes the other way, and one drags the other down, the force is doubled.
I wonder how much the Gores suffered from being gone from each other so much. The accounts I've read describe them often traveling in opposite directions to one event or another, and rarely being home at the same time. After a while, maybe being apart feels more natural than being together.
But that's just a guess. Inside every marriage are secrets within secrets, even between the partners. Forget about truly understanding it if you're on the outside.
The essence of marriage is love, but the bricks are made of knowledge. We laugh when we say it — my wife knows all about me, but she loves me anyway. It's a throwaway line, but there's deep truth behind it.
Your spouse knows how you like your eggs, where you'd live if you could live anywhere, exactly the right words to whisper in your ear. But your spouse also knows the childhood slight you can't get over, the warped vision you see when you look in the mirror, the content of your nightmares.
The real mystery of the human heart is that we barely understand ourselves. Your spouse might know you better than you do. That knowledge, crossed in both directions, can build a marriage that's sturdy and beautiful.
But if things shift just a little, even after 40 years, it can be a hell of a thing to hold up.
Over the years I've met lots of couples who've been married 40, 50, 60 years or more. We like to think of those marriages as soft and comfortable, like a pair of old slippers.
But sometimes I've met couples who can hardly tolerate each other - or worse, are bored to death with each other.
It's as if their vows were shackles, and they were too afraid or too embarrassed to break free.
The couples that work best, from what I've seen, treat that human mystery as a challenge. They see their spouses as a never-ending source of surprise. They think of 40 years as not nearly enough time to fully grasp another human being.
I will never stop learning about you. That's a wedding vow worth thinking about.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Tommy Tomlinson is a columnist for the Charlotte Observer. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org; facebook.com/tommytomlinson; Twitter @tommytomlinson; blogging at ttomlinson.blogspot.com