Weddings—like marriages—just aren’t the same anymore (because WE are not the same anymore).
My ex-wife and I got married back in 2003. We didn’t have a big ceremony. I wore a cheap, mismatched suit that I used mostly for job interviews, and she wore a green dress she had originally purchased for her senior prom. We didn’t have a band, or even music. Our first meal together as husband and wife was cold-cut sandwiches pilfered from a local D’Angelo’s where my brother-in-law worked as a manager. Instead of wedding cake, we had chocolate-chip cookies. My ex-wife’s two nephews barely looked up from their Game Boys long enough to watch us place the cheap rings on each other’s fingers. There were no tables, chairs, or elaborate centerpieces. My mother-in-law served as our photographer, snapping pictures with a disposable camera, her blurry fingers intruding on most of the shots.
We did, however, say our vows surrounded by the vivid red and orange leaves of autumn at a historic mill in central Massachusetts. It was a balmy seventy degrees, even in early November. We meant everything we said to one another on that sunny Saturday morning, and we were young, happy, and in love—
—or so we thought.
During the next several years, during which our financial situation gradually went from bad to worse, my ex-wife never gave up on planning a “real” wedding. She prepared no fewer than five hypothetical ceremonies, each more expensive than the last. Nothing was left to the imagination, and every conceivable detail was carefully and methodically researched, catalogued, and budgeted. The Wedding Folder—an almost-talismanic object that many grooms will be familiar with—grew with each passing year. While my ex-wife’s diligence and meticulousness rivaled the skills of even the most seasoned wedding planner, it also demonstrated either the optimism of youth or a purposeful naïvete that could only lead to crushing disappointment.
As the years went by, my ex-wife grew increasingly bitter. She felt cheated that she had missed her chance to be the center of attention during a lavish ceremony, surrounded by adoring family and friends. Hers was a silent resentment; the kind that breeds cold silences at the dinner table and masquerades as petty grievances.
Make no mistake. I, too, would have liked a more traditional ceremony, complete with bridesmaids and groomsmen, champagne toasts, and mildly embarrassing speeches. However, I did not see our modest outdoor wedding as a portent that we were somehow doomed to fail, as my ex-wife did. As time went on, the folder and its pages of extravagant gowns, sumptuous banquet halls, and color-coordinated floral centerpieces became something of a comfort to her. She withdrew from our actual marriage, retreating to the imagined happiness of potential weddings, all the while growing increasingly resentful as the realities of our financial situation and the pressure of married life conspired to thwart her plans. It was as if she thought that finally having the fairy tale wedding she had always dreamed of would solve all the problems that were evident in our marriage.
Besides the fact she was preoccupied with wedding planning after we had already exchanged vows, my ex-wife is far from unusual in this regard. Society and the multibillion dollar wedding industry condition girls from a very young age to dream of the perfect wedding. To some women, the ceremony itself even takes precedence over finding a partner.
But are women alone in this fantasy, and is it necessary for a happy, lasting union?
Outdated notions of gender identity plague the wedding industry, and these ideas are continually reinforced by the media. Brides-to-be are often portrayed as frenzied, irrational control freaks, while grooms are typically shown as incapable at best, and apathetic at worst. Terms such as “bridezilla” have become common, and women are often unfairly and inaccurately painted as the only ones who care about the finer details of the ceremony.
While this is no doubt true for many people planning to tie the knot, to say it represents most couples would be woefully inaccurate. Many grooms are just as excited, if not more so, when it comes to planning their special day as their partner—so why are men still cast in the role of the disinterested observer when there is so much evidence to the contrary?
“A real man is a man who’s not afraid of cooking, washing the dishes, [and] helping his wife,” Carlos Reyes, proprietor of Verdant Floral in Manhattan, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” last year. Reyes took this attitude a step further when he and his wife were planning their beachfront ceremony in 2010 by handling tasks that many men would see as the responsibility of the bride, such as ordering chairs that matched the table linen they had chosen.
While Reyes serves as a prime example of how many men are tackling outdated gender roles head-on in the 21st century, the growing trend of supportive and actively involved grooms does not address the financial and social pressure that many couples face when planning their big day. Earlier this year, Reuters reported that the average American couple spends around $27,000 on their wedding. This already sizeable figure skyrockets to more than $65,000 in New York.
To my partner Nicky and I, these figures seem exorbitant to the point of obscenity. We see eye-to-eye on most things, including our desire for a quiet, intimate (the accepted industry term for “small”), and affordable ceremony. While some might see this as skimping, we see it as an investment in our future.
We don’t want to begin our life together as husband and wife saddled with thousands of dollars of debt, nor would we feel comfortable being the center of attention at an ostentatious wedding. We don’t need to serve imported Champagne in crystal Wedgwood flutes to know that we love each other. We don’t need to spend six months trekking around Southeast Asia on our honeymoon to feel validated (although neither of us would complain were such an opportunity to present itself). We don’t need a guest list numbering in the hundreds to feel loved and appreciated by our families and friends. And, chances are, neither do many of the millions of couples who are postponing marriage due to financial pressure.
To some people, including my ex-wife, the fairytale wedding is an absolute necessity; a grand and opulent gesture that is intricately linked with the idea of matrimonial harmony. To Nicky and I, it is an outdated and largely unnecessary display of indulgence. Of course, not all couples share our outlook, and to them, I wish the best of luck. However, the unrealistic notion of the perfect fairytale wedding is far from a prerequisite for a happy marriage.
Before they book that jazz quartet or order the hand-sewn table linen from Belgium, prospective brides and grooms should think about what really matters – their partner, how to declare their love in a way that is consistent with their values, and honoring the lifelong commitment that marriage represents.