Men, Women, and the Enduring Fallacy of Fairy Tale Weddings

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.

—Photo *m5/Flickr

About Dan Shewan

Dan Shewan is a fiction writer and essayist currently residing in New England. His nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Vol.1 Brooklyn , Sundog Lit, and Hippocampus Magazine, and he is a regular contributor to The Rumpus, Full Stop and LitReactor. He is currently working on a series of short stories and personal essays, in addition to a longer work of fiction. You can follow him on Twitter @danshewan.


  1. Okay. I will post this though. I think SOME dudes get into weddings…

  2. I come to this as a gay man who has been with my partner for 27 years. I’m also a church organist, and I have seen mostly women, hundreds of them, in the throes of wedding planning. Very rarely has the groom taken much interest in the proceedings. There have been women, a very great many, who have been completely sane and reasonable. They’re not the ones I remember. The ones I remember are the women totally out of control, unwilling and apparently incapable of respecting limits placed upon them by churches. At times they enlisted their equally out-of-control mothers. I’m glad I rarely have to play weddings now!

    For our twentieth anniversary we had a commitment ceremony at our Episcopal church. Our rector had been after us for quite a while to have a ceremony, and we decided that was the time. We found a service of commitment that we liked, and tweaked it together with our priest. We invited friends, family, and the whole congregation. We wore dress slacks, sport coats, and shirts and ties of matching styles but dissimilar colors. My in-laws made sure we had boutonnieres. Our choir director prepared a musical offering, with a quartet of friends from the choir. The organist offered a spectacular French toccata as her special offering. We sang hymns. We shared in the Eucharist. We exchanged vows, kissed in front of everybody, and beamed. Our reception was a simple stand-up affair in the parish hall, with wine and cheese and finger food and cake from the supermarket bakery. It was wonderful beyond our wildest imaginings, and it was because we shared it with family and friends, and allowed them to share with us.

    We went into it with few preconceptions about how we wanted it to go, and our only regret is that we didn’t think to arrange for video recording–I know the volunteer who does that at our church would have been glad to do it.

    That was seven years ago, and even though we live in a state where our marriage has no legal status, we know we are joined, and we know it’s for the long haul.

    Not, perhaps, a comment anyone was looking for, but I wanted to offer a different perspective.

  3. I have been to two weddings that were perfect. One was my sister’s in which she didn’t make us bridesmaids wear dresses , and it was in a small chapel with about 20 people total with a reception at a nice casino. Amazing! On the other end was a full-blown, traditional (but without mass) wedding of my best friend of 17 years. Unfortunately, I was in a dress (I hadn’t worn one since I was baptized!), full hair and make up, and according to everyone, I looked “stunning,” which still makes me laugh. This wedding was also truly amazing and yes, it all boiled down to the couples who were and still are absolutely in love with each other. Although I watched “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Snow White,” etc. as a child I didn’t pick up on the whole “prince charming will save you and award you with an over-the-top wedding” idea. I never wanted to get married as a child, teen, or young adult. Recently, I decided that someday I probably will get married, when the right man came along, but that man would have to deal with my idea of a “perfect wedding”: courthouse in jeans and t-shirts…and, if he really wanted to, dinner/drinks with close family/friends, and maybe a two day trip somewhere close, like a winery. As a female, I have what I’ll call “associates” who have every single detail of their wedding planned, and some of them aren’t even dating anyone! They so desperately long for a wedding it’s sickening. And I have seen women marry the first guy who asks JUST FOR THE WEDDING! It’s crazy!! I can understand the desire for the attention (not my thing but I get it) but shouldn’t the desire for the perfect partner be stronger, as in, worth the wait? Honestly, I don’t understand women most of the time. Ha ha.

  4. Why don’t men take more interest in the planning of their own wedding?

    Well, I for one think that if every contribution you try to make gets voted down, right to the point where you discover that one of the meals for the wedding dinner is something you actually don’t like, and repeatedly telling so, but it keep popping back up because it’s a significant local dish in the area of your bride-to-be’s origin. Then I guess you just know that you don’t have much of a place to fulfill or contribution to make neither in the planning process nor in the marriage itself…

  5. I had a similar take in an earlier essay you can read here:

  6. Jennifer J. says:

    Your ex-wife’s experience of post-wedding wedding planning isn’t unique. My husband and I got married in 1993, in what was probably an averagely expensive celebration for our demographic at the time. We had a nice candlelit ceremony at a church with a country-club reception for 125 guests, and we were pretty happy with the way things went.

    Still, after we’d been married a few years, I started having some regrets about some of our choices. I wished I’d chosen a less trendy dress. I wished we’d had a longer cocktail hour, and chosen a better photographer. I thought of a few key people we accidentally left of the guest list.

    I never got to the point of actually planning a second wedding, and after a while I stopped worrying about what I would do differently. I had chosen the right groom, and I decided that that was the important thing. I think my retroactive dissatisfaction with the wedding was based on a sense that my youth was slipping away, and on some minor frustrations in the marriage. Fantasizing about a second, better event was a way to escape from the reality of daily life.

    My husband and I have now been married almost nineteen years, and we’ve decided to renew our vows at our 25th wedding anniversary. It won’t be a huge blowout, but it will be a chance to gather those we love, including our two daughters, for a celebration of something wonderful that we’ve created together. A wedding is all about hope and potential, but there is something to be said for recognizing an enduring marriage that continues to provide joy, friendship, and pleasure.

  7. Great article. So true. My husband and I also had a very small wedding in my mom and dad’s living room. We had 8 guests, a home-cooked meal, cheap dress and suit, 3 simple flower bouquets, no professional photographer, no reception, no honeymoon, and no big, diamond engagement ring, just a simple gold band for each of us. It was a wonderful day, and our marriage and love are strong.

  8. Massive weddings are such a turnoff to marriage…

  9. Cory Huff says:

    As a Mormon, our temple weddings are by definition small and intimate. They take place in temples with small sealing rooms, and only active members of the church attend the actual wedding. We often have more elaborate receptions afterward.

    I like it this way because it puts the focus of the wedding on the wedding, and not on the spectacle.

  10. Interesting article. The whole time I was reading it, I could hear my grandfather in my ear complaining about fairytale weddings. I made the mistake of watching “Jumping the Broom” with him and he complained through the entire film. He and my grandmother got married at a local courthouse, grabbed White Castle burgers and saw a movie. They stayed married for 49 years. He thinks big weddings are pointless. I understand where he’s coming from due to his experience. But my brother and his wife had a huge wedding with eight groomsmen and bridesmaids, gold letters on their limousine, big cake, blah blah blah, and have been married for 13 years (high school sweethearts, too). My parents’ wedding was somewhere in the middle. My mother sewed her own wedding dress with the help of an aunt. They got married at their church and it wasn’t super fancy but very nice. Parents married 32 years. But the thing about all of these weddings was all of the couples were prepared for the after-wedding results. The fancy wedding is cool for showing off the couple but being able to keep the marriage going is where it all matters. I’ve seen the simple wedding with a bride’s dress from the closet, a homemade cake and the wedding in the backyard and the couple was divorced before the month was out. Whether simple or spectacular, it’s the couple that makes the wedding last.


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