It’s summertime, and that means weddings. Who doesn’t love a wedding? In a fractious and polarized time, people of all convictions can at least join together to celebrate young love. Right?
Ha! Obviously that’s completely wrong. Few things can tear a family apart so effectively as a wedding!
Here’s my go-to advice for wedding guests. Cut people some slack. We all have our opinions about good and bad wedding customs, but nothing ruins a joyful occasion like a frowning, harsh wedding critic. Try smiling instead, even if you have to fake it.
Everyone’s A Critic
Weddings are tough in our pluralistic world, because they stir up a yearning for tradition and continuity, while demanding that disparate groups of friends and family come together for a single event. Weddings have potential to stir up pretty much every controversial question of our time: sexual morality, gender roles, family structures, religion. Some weddings bring up issues of class or political differences. For extra fun, weddings tend to be expensive, so decisions must be made about how much to spend, and from whose bank account it should be drawn. What could go wrong, right?
The upshot is that planning a wedding nowadays is incredibly stressful. Everyone’s a critic, and people are amazingly anxious to translate their disgruntlement into personal criticisms of the bridal couple (and especially the bride).
Given all the explosive issues, people may sometimes decide that they just can’t attend a particular wedding. This can be a legitimate choice, and I would encourage bridal couples to be generally forgiving of people who choose not to attend their wedding for reasons of conscience. I realize that this can be easier said than done. But there has to be some room for loving family and friends without celebrating all their choices. Skipping your wedding does not imply that a friend or relative doesn’t love you.
I was raised in the Mormon faith, and married in the Catholic Church. My Catholic conversion pre-dated my engagement, so I didn’t leave the Latter Day Saints for a man. Still, I understood that Mormon friends and relatives might be uncomfortable celebrating an event that so obviously demonstrated my abandonment of the Mormon faith.
So I tried to make clear, informally with various family members, that I wouldn’t harbor hard feelings against anyone who didn’t attend. Most invitees still came, and the ones who didn’t never clarified if they were conscientious objectors or just busy. But my conscience was clearer when I knew that I hadn’t twisted any arms.
If you do attend a wedding, however, you’re obliged to treat it as a celebratory occasion. No boos from the pews, please.
Take It To The Bank
It isn’t always easy to be a smiling guest, but be assured that the bridal couple has it much harder. Consider just the money conundrum. Unless you and your family are obviously destitute, you can’t have a low-budget wedding without someone thinking that you’re cheap and inhospitable. On the other hand, if you have a more elegant wedding, it’s likely somebody else will think you snobby, shallow, or extravagant. Are you getting the impression that you can’t win here? You’re starting to catch on.
Realistically, bridal couples should know that some among their acquaintance will judge them if their reception food is bad or their décor tacky. (How much did you spend on your honeymoon? Your car? Your education? Your weekly grocery bill? Is this really the best you could do?) It’s kind of snobby, though in fairness, people who have traveled long distances find it hard not to grumble if they’re served food and wine of a quality that they wouldn’t normally consume at home. It’s especially hard not to grumble if your hosts seem to have poured a small fortune into limos, fancy clothes, and high-end photographers, then ask you to toast their nuptials with two-dollar-a-bottle swill.
Again, though, it’s hard to get everything right when you’re trapped in the bridal hurricane. Even if you can afford to host a fancy, luxuriant wedding, there’s no guarantee that guests will be pleased or impressed. People might see this as vain or materialistic, and some might be inclined to wonder why, given the style of your wedding, you don’t seem to have money for other things. I always wonder how many pastors attend wedding receptions, and find themselves wondering why the family has been so stingy over the years with their parish contributions.
The Big, Cheap Wedding
There’s also a class of person who loves to engage in cheap-wedding virtue-signaling, to demonstrate that they value love more than money. Two years ago, CNN wrote up a study on how big, cheap weddings correspond to lower divorce rates. That study was shared by at least a dozen religious-conservative friends, inspiring retroactive competition to see who could boast of the biggest and shabbiest wedding.
On some level I can certainly understand. Marriage rates are falling (which is not good for children or the nation as a whole), and the cost of weddings is painfully high. It’s reasonable, therefore, to spread the word that cheap weddings are okay, and that you needn’t break the bank just to solemnize your commitment to your life-long partner.
Still, the big-cheap-wedding bragging can be snobby in a different way. If you were able to have a large and cheap wedding, you were probably blessed with a sizable, supportive community of some kind. That’s a blessing some don’t have. Also, depending on how you pulled it off, you might just be a cheapskate for asking people to travel long distances then treating them to bad food and tacky décor.
Instead of agonizing over questions of rich and poor, let’s settle on the broadly applicable principle that bridal couples should try to please their guests, and guests should make a real effort to be pleased. If you really can’t manage it, throw on a fake smile, and complain later to someone you can trust to be discreet.
Take Off the Bridezilla Glasses
The “Bridezilla” trope is a powerful one in our society. For instance, we have a long-standing tradition of imagining that brides deliberately uglify their bridesmaids so that they can appear to best advantage. It’s hard for me to believe that anyone really does this. Why would you want to remember a happy occasion with lots of pictures of your friends and loved ones looking their worst? Still, the myth speaks to a broader assumption that brides in particular are selfish, micro-managing prima donnas.
Some of them surely are, and some wedding practices are hard to excuse. Charging your wedding guests for reception meals or drinks is tacky. Charging some guests and not others for their meals or drinks is heinous. It’s also very hard to keep eyes from rolling as gooey-eyed brides promise their grooms “I won’t nag you about picking up your socks” while the men proudly declare, “I promise never to objectify you, and always to support your hopes and dreams.” Oh, brother. I beg bridal couples to consider this one excellent argument for traditional vows: most men aren’t poets.
None of these irritants change the fact that brides can find themselves in a difficult spot, trying to negotiate the expectations and demands of their own and another person’s families. It would be a tough job even without the extra burden of the “bridezilla” stereotype. As it is, brides are constantly contending with the unreasonable assumption that every displeasing detail of a wedding testifies to their self-centered mismanagement. I remember telling my now-husband in the midst of wedding planning that I felt like I was preparing a legal defense, not a joyous celebration.
Can we just give brides a break? If you think well of marriage, it doesn’t make sense to be so harsh with the women who enter into it.
Making Marriage Joyful
Debates about bridal fashions and raised-print invitations will surely rage until the end of time. I’m not planning to persuade people that these things don’t matter. Could we just keep the bickering to a reasonable volume? It’s a real shame to let these disagreements overshadow the far-more-significant fact that people are getting married. In general, that’s a good thing, and it doesn’t happen enough nowadays.
You can support marriage in general, and the bridal couple in particular, by doing your part to make the wedding a joyous occasion. Eat your cake, throw your rice, and don’t gripe about the unfortunate birds or the poor music selection. After all, the bridal couple has taken a “better or worse” vow to endure one another for a lifetime. As a guest, you only have to soldier through a single day.