Renewing Vows to Save a Marriage

Madonna and Guy Ritchie recommit to rescuing their strained relationship.

Aug. 26, 2008— -- In an era when celebrity weddings have an almost unrivaled potential to catch the public eye, another kind of nuptial ceremony -- the renewal of vows -- seems just as noteworthy.

Most recently, the celebrity power couple of Madonna and Guy Ritchie reportedly opted to tie the double knot at a private Kabbalah ceremony in Los Angeles, using the occasion to announce their pledge to try and rebuild their shaky seven-year marriage.

It's a strategy that just might work. Relationship experts say that pledging to recommit to a spouse is, for many couples, an essential part in healing a broken marriage.

Dawn O. Braithwaite, professor of communication studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has researched couples who opt to renew their vows. And she says that while there are a number of reasons why couples might renew their vows -- from indulging in a fantasy wedding they could never afford, to satisfying a desire to have their families involved in their recommitment -- some of those who seek a renewal do it to salvage a faltering marriage.

"They want to fix something," Braithwaite said. "It's what we call relationship repair; they want to repair infidelity, or having grown apart, or a relationship that was not very close."

David Popenoe, professor of sociology at Rutgers University and co-director of the National Marriage Project, agrees. "It's kind of a promising concept, though I suppose only a very small percentage of married couples are doing it," he said. "But I think that it is something that I would personally encourage."

But some experts say that while the idea of a ceremony to celebrate a matrimonial recommitment may be as commendable as it is romantic, both Madonna and Ritchie will likely need to change the way they act toward one another for it to do any good.

For some celebrity personalities, this may be easier said than done.

"Celebrities, in particular, are at risk for 'special person syndrome,'" said Susan Heitler, a Denver-based clinical psychologist and author of "The Power of Two."

"If somebody grows up with special talents -- if they are taller, smarter or more athletic than others -- they can see themselves as being in a special category and that makes the rules not apply to them," she said. "They have never really learned how to be a teammate. They have always been in the limelight alone. But marriage is a two-person game."

And renewing vows alone may not be enough to heal all of the damage that has been done within a relationship. Former Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards renewed his vows in a ceremony on July 30 of last year, just months before an infidelity scandal rocked his personal and political life.

When It's Time to Recommit

The task of rebuilding a marriage, for celebrities and non-celebs alike, is not a simple proposal.

"Often when people first pick someone to marry, their heart knows what they are doing," Heitler said. "At the same time, perhaps at least one of the partners does not have the skill set to maintain a successful marriage. Over time, the irritation grows and the affection fades."

Heitler, who says she specializes in "last-ditch couples" who are often referred to her by a divorce lawyer, says that recommitting to a marriage involves learning new ways of interacting with one another -- and a commitment to compromise.

"When I see many of them interact in my office, I often say that I 100 percent agree that they need to divorce themselves from that old marriage," she said. "But that's a separate issue from whether they want to remain life partners."

"They can stay married, but they need new ways of addressing the complications and situations that come up between two people trying to live life as a duo."

But if these couples can truly achieve a fresh start, Braithwaite says, a renewal ceremony can be an important component in mending the relationship. She says that in the course of her research, she remembers one couple in particular who used a vow renewal ceremony to celebrate their recommitment to each other.

"She felt as if they had drifted apart," Braithwaite said. "But when they were in church, they heard something in a sermon that made them realize they wanted to be together after all."

"She said, 'You know, I don't think we would have made it if it were not for that ceremony.'"

Aside from the symbolism of the ceremony, Braithwaite says, a renewal of vows is also a public recommitment, and those in attendance may be able to offer further support for the newly mended couple.

Can You Retie the Knot?

But is it really possible to mend a broken marriage? Heitler says it is -- and she adds that a renewal of vows can be a fresh start for those who are still very much in love, but who cannot seem to get the hang of married life.

"It's a chance to rebuild," she said. "Usually, the flame is renewed just by being together again."

Heitler says that in terms of the success rate she has seen for mended marriages, "80 percent end up with a wonderful marriage." But she notes that in order to succeed, those who recommit to each other need to develop three crucial skill sets: the ability to make shared decisions, the ability to consistently talk in tactful ways and listen to their partner's response and stay in control of their emotions so they can avoid letting their anger take control in their relationship.

"If you just remarry on the basis of rekindled affection, people who do not have these important skills who go for a second round are more patient with their partners," she said. "That can get them through, but they are still better off if they learn these skills."

Braithwaite agrees that in many cases, it takes more than love to make a mended marriage work.

"I would not advise anyone to do this out of desperation and say, 'I'm going to save my marriage,'" she said. "This is like the icing on the cake."

And if the vow renewal between Madonna and Ritchey works, Popenoe says, we may be able to expect a trend.

"All it may take is for a few celebrities to renew their vows, and if it works over a long term it may become pretty prominent within the public," he said. "We all know how much influence they have over the public."