Wednesday, February 15, 2012

This Relationship Corner: What Makes a Good Wedding

Another Valentine's Day has come and gone, and for many couples that means one thing: they've transitioned from a normal dating couple to that annoying engaged couple who won't shut up about the wedding. Yes, every single pair of you are annoying. I should know, I was once part of that proud, obnoxious tradition.

I understand why you can't shut up about it. This is going to be the biggest day of your life, a day that forever defines you, a day that will begin a lifelong journey with your partner, your spouse, your better half. The one person Spousal Privilege says can't testify against you. This will be a day you and everyone else will remember for the rest of your lives. It's kind of a big deal.

You may recall that the last time I wrote about weddings I seemed to dismiss them. Given that the article was titled "The Wedding Isn't Important" and I referred to the wedding as "the least important day in your marriage," you might assume that I'm anti-wedding. I'm not. True, I stand by every word I wrote (even the typos) because it wasn't anti-wedding. It was against wrong priorities with the wedding, putting all your effort into that one day and not realizing that you need to but that much effort and more into planning all the days after. It was against poor priorities.

Truth is, I love weddings. I like going to weddings and seeing people I love get married. I especially love seeing people who have put the time and energy into their relationship get married, because I know that a year, ten years, fifty years down the road they will still be a strong couple. I love seeing the first step in what I know will be a long and healthy journey. We are all gathered to watch history in the making, two people begin something that they may never live to see the full fruits of.

My grandparents were married for 65 years. They had four children, six grandchildren, and fifteen great-grandchildren and counting. Little did anyone attending that wedding know the impact those two young people would have on the world, still are having in fact. Not just through their children, but for over six decades the two of them were blessings in the world around them, in ways none of us may never know. They did so much good, and it all began with two simple words: "I do."

They had their priorities straight, and that's the first key to a solid wedding. Once you know you're headed into a strong relationship, then you have some choices to make about that very special day. Every wedding is different, and there's no one right way to get married. My wife and I broke plenty of wedding traditions when we got married (more on that in a moment) while my brother's wedding was very traditional. As both weddings produced solid marriages, we both did them right because we knew what weddings were really about.

I polled some of my married friends about their weddings, and what they told me emphasized several important factors of what makes a good wedding. It isn't the flowers or the music or whether it's a cash or open bar. It runs deeper than that.

First, a good wedding is a declaration of who you are as a couple. While many call it the "bride's day," the truth is that it's about both of you. You can tell a lot about a married couple by their wedding, from their priorities to their principles. It's a preview of how they plan to run their marriage. This is why both of you need to care about this day.

When you announce your engagement, you'll suddenly face pressure from all sides on what you HAVE to do. Your family. Your soon to be in-laws. Friends. Even strangers. All will tell you what you need to do and might be incensed that have your own opinions. This can be a test, whether the two of you will stick to your guns or let others dictate your relationship. Because the precedent you set here may very well carry over into your marriage, and it is your marriage, or theirs?

The cliche is that the groom merely has to show up in a suit or a tux, say "I do," and not pass out. Everything else is up to the bride. Again, is this how your marriage will go, one of you taking charge while the other either has no say or refuses to do any heavy lifting? How you plan and execute your wedding can say a lot about your marriage. This is why your wedding matters, because it's practice for the even bigger tasks ahead.

One decision you'll have to make is how traditional you wish to be. Several friends told me that they saw each other before the ceremony, breaking with the tradition of the bride and groom not seeing each other before the wedding. This act was a stern declaration that they were beholden to each other, not the traditions and expectations of others.

My friend Aimee put it best when she said "One person said I robbed her of her favorite part of the wedding - seeing the grooms face when he first sees his bride. I reminded her that his reaction was for me and I'm kind of glad I didn't have to share it." While the guests were invited to share this day, Aimee made it clear that this day, and marriage, was about the two of them making each other the number one priority.

Another friend, Anya, had a similar experience. "My groom and I also went together on the morning of the wedding to pick up the cakes in the convertible we had rented for the honeymoon and enjoyed being together and getting ready for our special day." Again, this was their day, their relationship, their marriage, their life. They loved sharing it with friends and family, but ultimately they made sure that they started their marriage together.

The day my wife and I got married, she was the first face I saw as I got up that morning. Since hers was also the last face I saw when we went to bed a married couple, I think it was a neat bookend for that day. Our priority was each other, starting a new life together, and tradition would have to get in line.

For many, practical realities controlled their wedding. Rather than a big, lavish event with tons of family and friends, they were small, quiet ceremonies. Or, like my friend Brett, they simply went to the courthouse. He and his wife had a choice to make, spend money they didn't have on a wedding, or make their marriage a priority. They chose the latter but still made the day special. They eloped on Valentine's Day and had a few family and friends attend. As he says, "It didn’t have to go perfect, it didn’t have to be big, it just had to be."

My wife and I were in a similar situation, having just graduated from college. We had some money, but we realized that we might need that to live on. Like Brett, our ceremony was small and to the point. Eight people total attended. We got married on a Monday morning in a ceremony lasting seven-and-a-half minutes. I'd proposed to her in the student center at our college, the same location we decided to start dating, so that was the exact spot we got married. It was small, special, and nearly ten years later, an amazing start to a wonderful life together.

Many of my friends made their shared faith a priority as well. As a couple, they shared Communion, a Christian sacrament. Sharing such a sacrament publicly affirmed their Christian faith and announced to everyone present the guiding principles of their marriage. Since Communion is all about remembering Jesus, His body and blood, it reminds the couple that the wedding isn't about the trappings, it's about joining together before man and God.

My wife and I included a few of our favorite Bible passages into the ceremony, ones chosen to emphasize what our marriage would stand for. We weren't the only ones. My friend Kimberly said she "focused on 'A cord of 3 strands is not easily broken' (Eccl. 4:12) and 1 John 4:7-16. We really wanted God to be the center of everything from the get-go."

Whatever your religious faith, if this is something the both of you share (and really, you should) then it makes sense to incorporate it into your wedding. For some weddings, such as a big Catholic or Jewish ceremony, it's a pretty foregone conclusion. However, even if you aren't going traditional, it's still important.

The wedding is about the two of you, but there's another factor at play as well: your friends and family. Your union also affects them, blending two worlds into one. You don't get married in a vacuum (how would you breathe?) but instead your marriage is the culmination of a lifetime of relationships. Your family raised you and helped you become the person you are. Your friends were always there for you and may have played a part in bringing the two of you together. The wedding is a chance to celebrate these relationships and allow them to be there to see you start this new chapter, to see you take your new steps in life.

The reason that friends and family is so important is that a wedding is a rite of passage. It is a definitive transition in your life, from one stage to the next. More than a declaration or celebration, it is an event you look back on as the beginning of the next chapter. It is also a time when everyone you know will have to acknowledge that you are growing up, moving on, and becoming the adult that some never thought you'd be.

My friend Cassie definitely saw her wedding as a rite of passage. She recalls her father walking her down the aisle and getting all choked up. It was a moment that crystallized the idea that her life was changing, and she was grateful that he could be there for this new beginning. In fact, she was grateful for everyone. She says, "[Having] all of the adults who had helped me reach adulthood there to say - 'yes, and we know recognize you as one of us' in their fashion was cool." 

This isn't to say you can't, or won't, have a strong marriage if you have the bare minimum of people at the ceremony. (You need four: the two of you, the officiant, and a witness.) As I have said before and will keep saying, the priority is your marriage; the ceremony is meant to transition you from two individuals to a married couple. The kind of ceremony, big or small, religious or secular, traditional or not, is not an indicator of future marital success. How you go about the ceremony, however, can be a big indicator.

I'll close by returning to my friend Brett, who also had this to say about his very small, eloped-at-the-courthouse wedding. "(We) had one of the shortest weddings and honeymoons you could have. But it was definitely a preparation in making sacrifices. We have gone through some lean, tough years." It's been six years and they are still going strong because in the end, they used this day to look forward, not dwell on the present. That kind of thinking got them though some hard times, and it's a lesson for us all.

Your wedding is the first day of your married life, and it's not always an easy life. With the right priorities, you can survive those tough times and draw inspiration from that first day. It will guide you on a course to find your joy, find your strength, and find a path to a great future together.

 What are relationships like in a fantasy universe? Find out in the book I wrote.

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