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When couples renew their wedding vows, they're looking back and forward. The first time around, their relationship was brand new; now they have a history that provides a context for this emotional turning point. They're commemorating their past, even as they figure out how to ensure their "happily ever after" future.
"A vow renewal is a time for a couple to celebrate what works in their relationship and what they want to keep," says Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Chicago-based Council on Contemporary Families. "It can also be a time of renegotiating as they adjust to a new stage of life by making positive changes." Alterations in the very nature of wedlock make this possible, says Coontz. "Marriage used to have rigid roles and rules," she says, adding that now there's more flexibility.
Practically speaking, today's worrisome divorce rate probably means that couples don't want to take their marriages for granted. "Saying vows again is a way of strengthening the original commitment, meant to last for the rest of your lives," says David Popenoe, PhD, codirector of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, in Piscataway, New Jersey.
And what do the couples say? Studies completed in 1995 and 2002 found that husbands and wives offered several reasons for repeating their vows. "Some wanted the dream wedding they missed out on the first time," says researcher Dawn O. Braithwaite, PhD, a professor of communication at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who studies families. "Others expressed a desire to recommit, make amends, or set a good example for their children." Read on to see how these motivations played out in the heartwarming stories of four couples who decided it was time to recommit. They renewed their vows in October 2005 during Ladies' Home Journal's first annual "Celebrate Your Love" getaway in the Caribbean.
Married July 30, 2005
Renewed at three months
Shannon and Marvin weren't close to even their first anniversary when they arrived in Jamaica to pledge themselves to each other yet again. "It was my mother's idea," explains Shannon. Her parents, Linda and Alfred Holmes, who were married on Valentine's Day in 1981, had planned all along to go to the renewal event and invited Shannon and Marvin to join them. Linda, a self-confessed "vow renewal nut," says that she and her husband do so every four or five years "to remind us that we're committed and a team." She wanted Shannon and Marvin to have the experience right away. "It was their wedding present to us," says Shannon, 36, a school psychologist.
And it was a wonderful one. "The second time we made our promises, in front of married couples of all ages, I finally understood the commitment," recalls Shannon. "Tears of joy were running down my cheeks. I was happier than I'd ever been in my life."
The Gilliards met in 1998 when they sat next to each other at a four-day training session for new employees of their school system. Shannon noticed her neighbor, though Marvin was less observant. "On the last day, I said, 'When are you going to ask me for my phone number?'" recalls Shannon.
Marvin, now 42, took the hint, and they dated for a few weeks before deciding they were just friends. "I just wasn't ready," he admits. In the fall of 2004, he had second thoughts about their separation. "I figured out which building she was working in and left a note on her desk. She called me, and I got a second chance!"
Marvin proposed the following February -- on Valentine's Day -- and the pair were married in her parents' living room with just a few family members present. "We were so busy with our jobs that we barely had time to plan the wedding," says Shannon. "After school let out in June, we crammed all the preparations into one month, during which Marvin landed a new job as the assistant principal at a middle school, we bought a house, and we adopted a calico kitten we named Cassie. I was so rushed that when we were saying our vows I didn't even get teary-eyed. That's why the renewal, although it was a short time later, was so powerful. My mother knew what she was doing!"
"The ceremony was lovely and calm," Marvin says. "It was exactly the bonding we needed. I was totally focused on Shannon, who looked so beautiful." She had brought her wedding gown with her, but she says it was too hot to wear it, so she decided on white cotton pants and top.
The peaceful pace of island life stayed with the couple even after they returned home. "In Jamaica we learned to focus on each other," Shannon says, "and not be in a hurry." She and Marvin wanted to attend Ladies' Home Journal's second vow renewal event, this time on Nassau, in the Bahamas, but they have a good reason to stay home instead. They're expecting their first child in December.
"I hope we can be the kind of parents mine are," says Shannon. "They are hopelessly romantic after 25 years of marriage. I can't thank them enough for the gift of that trip. It made our marriage the true union we wanted."
Concord, North Carolina
Married November 17, 2001
Renewed at four years
While the sun set over the Caribbean Sea, Tammy and Jeff repeated the vows that had joined them in matrimony after a saga that rivals any soap opera. As children they both lived for a time on an aptly named street in Nashville, Tennessee: Hart Lane. "I've loved Tammy since first grade," says Jeff, 42. "She could already read that year, so the teacher had her lead the story time. I'd sit at her feet and stare at her and think about how pretty and smart she was."
Tammy, also 42, says the childhood attraction was mutual. "He had big puppy dog eyes," she remembers. "Little kids can fall in love. We were inseparable until third grade, during which I switched to another school about half an hour away."
Jeff says their farewell was traumatic for him. "I chased her around the playground until she let me kiss her goodbye," he recalls. It wasn't the end of their relationship, though. Throughout their elementary and high school years, they ran into one another at the bowling alley and roller-skating rink. The intensity of Jeff's feelings for Tammy never lessened. "Every time I saw her, it was like we'd never been apart," he says. "Eventually I dated a girl from my school, but I always thought about Tammy." She dated, too, but never got too serious about anyone in particular.
Right after her high school graduation, Tammy called Jeff on impulse. Thrilled, he invited her to his graduation and a party the following week. Then he took care of a little problem. "After I hung up, I broke up with my current girlfriend," Jeff says. "I knew I wanted Tammy."
They started dating and by the end of the summer were engaged. Yet right before they started college on local campuses about a half hour apart, Tammy got cold feet. "I wanted to sow my wild oats and find out what the bad boys were like," she jokes, adding more seriously, "we were so young, and Jeff was so, well, so nice. I wanted to see who else was out there."
Jeff was heartbroken. "I had almost fulfilled my dream of marrying Tammy, and she was gone," he says.
In 1987, Tammy joined the Air Force. She was stationed in Northern California, where she worked in a communications unit and married a serviceman. Jeff also married and became the father of a son, Jeffrey, in 1986; he and his family then moved to North Carolina, where he worked as a NASCAR fabricator and mechanic.
In 1991, just before Tammy gave birth to her daughter, Chelsea (she already had a son, Jordan), she learned from Jeff's mother that he would be working at a NASCAR race in Sonoma, near Tammy's home. "I couldn't wait to see him," Tammy says. "I called to invite him to dinner so he could meet my husband."
"I heard that voice on the phone and knew that it was Tammy after just one syllable," Jeff says. "Emotionally, we picked up right where we left off. My wife had had our second son, Austin, and Tammy was expecting. We talked about that, and about our jobs and old times."
After that the two stayed in better touch and, when problems arose, they talked by phone and supported each other. Tammy divorced and remarried. After having another son, Riley, with her second husband, she divorced again. By that time, Jeff had broken up with his wife.
Then, in 2000, Tammy's beloved grandfather died unexpectedly, and Jeff drove to Tennessee to pay his respects. At that point, he and Tammy hadn't seen each other for more than five years. "I sat in my car outside the funeral home for a half hour before I went in," he says. "Would this be it? I decided I'd know when I saw her." Inside, Tammy was having the same internal conversation. She walked into the foyer just as Jeff came through the door.
Hugging tightly, they knew. "It was as though we'd never been apart," Tammy says. "Looking back, I realized that I just hadn't been ready for a relationship with Jeff when I was younger. But at last I knew that I wanted to be with him always."
They married the next year at a courthouse in North Carolina and continued the process of blending their families -- at that point their children ranged in age from 3 to 15. Tammy found work as a loan officer in a bank.
Just shy of four years later, she spotted an announcement in Ladies' Home Journal about the renewal event in Jamaica. "It was a sign. We had always wanted to have a honeymoon in Jamaica!" she says. So the couple who'd shared their first kiss in a schoolyard renewed their long-awaited wedding vows, then dined and danced with the other participants.
"The ceremony felt very personal to us, as though we were the only ones present," says Tammy. "But I also loved being with so many others who'd gone there for the same reason we had." Jeff adds softly: "We like to watch the DVD of the event over and over. Finally, my lifelong dream has come true."
Married June 28, 1980
Renewed at 25 years
"I'll never forget being in the back of the church in my wedding gown 25 years ago and wanting to turn and run away," says Mary, 52. "My first marriage, at 22, lasted just a year and a half. I did love Brent, but being on the verge of marrying again brought back everything that had gone wrong. I just wasn't ready to trust a man again."
Mary's sister, her matron of honor, saw the look in Mary's eyes. "She said to my father, 'Grab her arm and get her down that aisle. She'll never find a better man than Brent,'" Mary recalls. The reluctant bride stoically got through the vows.
Mary realized almost immediately that her sister had been absolutely right: "What I love most about Brent is his sense of humor. He can be goofy, which keeps our marriage young. And we have lots of interests in common."
"She's right about the goofy stuff," Brent, now 50, agrees. "I'm not embarrassed to act silly. Laughing is important. Being active together is another secret of our long marriage. After a friend introduced us, and I found out Mary could drive a water-ski boat and play tennis, I knew she was the woman for me!" On their renewal trip, they augmented the festivities, in fact, with a visit to a nearby rain forest, where they swung through the trees on ropes and vines.
When the Greenwoods met they were living and working in Minnesota, Mary in advertising sales and Brent as a consultant for an actuarial firm. In 1994 they moved to Georgia, where Brent found work in his field and Mary started an at-home gift basket business and coached tennis.
Mary loved their life with their daughters, Vanessa, now 22, and Stephanie, now 19, but harbored a sadness that she hadn't been sure she meant it when she said "I do" the first time.
"Then I read about the Ladies' Home Journal trip, which was just a few months after our 25th anniversary," she says. "I realized I'd have the chance to say my vows and have my heart in them." As she pledged herself to Brent again, she thought, "Wow! We are committing to another 25 years -- and this time I mean it." Adds Brent, "All I could think was, I'm still in love with her after all this time."
Married October 29, 1955
Renewed at 50 years
"We fell in love through the mail," says Shelby, now 70. "I was 17 and still in high school when we met at my cousin's house in 1953. Roy was 20 and had just been drafted for a two-year hitch. We had one date and the next day he was gone." But the pair didn't want to leave it at that and promised to write.
Roy, now 73, says Shelby's letters were wonderful. He found one not long ago and showed it to her: "I told her, 'Look -- this is when you used to love me.' We are always kidding around, in fact, and that's one reason we've lasted 50 years."
Roy's years in the Army were spent stationed around the United States. Once when he was on leave, he went home to Chicago, reunited with Shelby and proposed to her. "I didn't give her a chance to change her mind," he says. Once Roy was out of the Army, he landed a job as the manager of a liquor store. The pair, who had a traditional church wedding, planned to start a family and wanted Shelby to be able to stay home with the children, so he also started his own flooring business on the side. "I had to keep her off the streets," he quips.
Over the next decade, they had three children: Wendy, who's now 48, Lecia, 46, and Brian, 40. The family had fun together, traveling around the country each year during school vacations. Now that both Ray and Shelby are retired (she worked for an insurance company after the children were grown), they travel on their own. "We enjoy that," says Shelby. "That's why a vow-renewal trip sounded like more fun than a big party to celebrate our 50th anniversary."
Roy says the ceremony in Jamaica brought tears to his eyes. "It was even better than the first time," Shelby agrees. "Everything was done for us, including the bouquet I carried. And we were in paradise!"
After the reception, they went back to their room. "The bed was turned down and there were rose petals," Roy says and pauses. Finally he clears his throat and says, "She made love to me like she didn't even know me."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2006.