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May 01, 2005

Cohabitation and the bridal-industrial complex

Ann Althouse asks:

Am I the only one who thinks a big wedding is inappropriate for two people who have been living together? I think it would be tasteful to have the wedding performed privately, down at City Hall some day, and then announce the news in an invitation to a big party that occurs on another day and that specifies no gifts. There is no new household being set up, and you should be glad people want to take the time and make the effort to attend a party celebrating an existing relationship.

It seems to me that the idea of a big wedding ought to be about the beginning of the couple's life together. In fact, the really cool thing about a wedding back in the old days or for traditionalists these days is that the couple has not yet consummated the relationship. When that is the situation, there is an excitement and the reception takes on a wonderful glow: look, they're finally able to have sex and yet they are hanging out, dancing here with us! If this is not the case, how can the couple imagine they're putting on a show that justifies everyone watching and celebrating them for hours? [Emphasis added.]

So, when cohabitators tie the knot, they should slink off discreetly so as not to burden the larger community with tiresome celebrations of their debased pact? Please.

I didn't realize that attending parties was so onerous. If we're talking about family obligations, the duty is the same whether the wedding is large or small. That is, unless you want to argue that you are more "obliged" to go to your cousin's wedding if it's big and expensive.

Frankly, it's pretty tacky to imply that the price of the gift is rightly proportional to the expense of the wedding.

The old rationale for wedding gifts was literally to set the barely post-pubescent couple up in their first home. These days, even the most traditional couples are full-fledged adults by the time they get married. If objective need had anything to do with gift-giving standards, we'd expect the non-cohabiting couple to need fewer gifts because they already had two households full of stuff to integrate.

These days, the standards for weddings and wedding gifts are more about class consciousness than anything else. Like Amanda, I'm deeply suspicious of the bridal-industrial complex. But the fact remains that the size of the wedding should be the couple's choice, the sort of individual choice that Ann usually endorses. If an invited guest doesn't feel like celebrating or doesn't want to buy a gift, she shouldn't feel obliged to do so. But etiquette surely requires that the refusenik abstain without slagging on the couple who invited her.

Ann seems to think that a wedding doesn't really count for a couple who's already fucking in their own bed (as opposed to their respective dorm rooms, the back seats of their parents' cars, or other more "traditional" venues).

Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I believe that promises matter. As far as I'm concerned, the day you promise to spend the rest of your life with someone is a significant occasion, regardless of how much time you've already spent together. Not everyone wants to mark that milestone with a public ceremony or a party, but it's churlish to demean other people's celebrations.

Also, maybe it's a generational thing, but Ann's ideal of the wedding as vicarious Tantric sexplay strikes me as weird.


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Before my wife and I were married, we considered the quickie private ceremony thing (we had been living together for four years), but we chose to have a more or less proper more or less traditional wedding which most people I guess would think of as small -- forty people -- but which seemed quite large to us. One thing that surprised both of us was in retrospect how much it mattered to say vows in front of a bunch of people who care about you.

In 2005, I take it for granted that any people whose wedding I'm attending have already had a large quantity of sex (with each other), and probably also that they've been living together a little while (maybe they've kept separate apartments, maybe not; but i have seen plenty of couples with separate apts who are simply living more or less together in two places instead of one). This makes the wedding more meaningful, not less. Because the people already know each other. I don't think I've ever been to one of those 20 year-old/virtual-stranger/two-virgins weddings that was the ideal of somebody else's generation, not mine.

"These days, even the most traditional couples are full-fledged adults by the time they get married. " -- not really. When I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I might have thought that... but then I moved back to southern New Mexico. People marry here *young*; if not marrying right after high school, they frequently marry right after college (so they're no more than fledglings at best).

Wedding gifts as household items makes perfect sense to me, and is what I plan on doing unless I am sure the couple has already provided for.

re gifts:

in my experience, almost every gift you get will suck and will go into a drawer somewhere, unless it's something you asked for. I actually love the idea of registering -- which I know a lot of people think is tacky -- and I think if a couple has registered it's a good idea to get them something they registered for, and not to go off the reservation and get them something not on the list. people often feel like they are not being good friends (or family) by not getting the couple something that shows how well you the giftgiver know them; but the chances are you know one of them better than the other one, and it's very easy to get into trouble by assuming you know what "they" want or need. and as far as i'm concerned, there's no rule about how much you have to spend (I'm sure Emily Post or some other idiot has a rule of thumb). These days, people have friends and family of all sorts of different economic backgrounds. People do what they can or want to do. That should be good enough. (not that we all don't reserve the right to complain about it later.)

"Mad About You" covered the wedding gift issue pretty well, I think. Paul and Jamie are going to a wedding. They've pulled out all their unused crappy wedding gifts from their own wedding to pick something to give the new couple. After picking through the crap, they find one item that's perfect to regift. Unfortunately, the item in question was given to Paul and Jamie by the very same couple.

One thing that surprised both of us was in retrospect how much it mattered to say vows in front of a bunch of people who care about you.

I understand. Promises are incredibly powerful. I remember the day I promised my SO that I'd spend the rest of my life with him. It was ultra-small. Just the two of us in our apartment. The conversation only arose accidentally in the course of some larger, abstract discussion.

At this point, we'd been together for four years. We also had one cross-country move, one international relocation, and one interstate migration under our belts.

Somehow I ended up asking him whether he would promise to be my partner life. He knew I was serious. He said yes. I repeated my promise to him. That was it.

Maybe someday we'll repeat the ceremony in front of the people we care about. I hope we will. We've got some symbolic political issues to resolve first. But I don't think our public ceremony will be any less meaningful or joyous for the fact that a private understanding preceded it.

No disrespect intended, but why on earth would you ask someone to make such a promise, or make one yourself? The same goes for anyone who gets married.

Nobody knows how they're going to feel twenty years down the road (or even one year, for that matter). Surely you wouldn't want your partner to stay with you even if he ends up feeling like he would be happier elsewhere?

Wouldn't a better promise be to stay with each other until you don't want to anymore? (Especially since that is what is likely to happen anyway.)

Because wanting is complicated.

Because wanting is complicated.


Same goes for official marriage vows. I'm not saying they're good for everyone. On the contrary. But for me, it's like Odysseus lashing himself to the mast. Odysseus knew that he was going to be subject to the temptations ahead. He knew that any given moment he might change his mind and regret his resolve to stay the course. But at the same time, he judged that his long term goals would be better served by lashing lashing himself than not.

For me, it's basically a case of making your ultimate intentions clear to the person closest to you. It's saying "I intend to build a life with you." This serves two purposes. a) It makes everyone's long term agenda clear, b) It gives rational agents the assurance they need to embark on such a major undertaking.

Obviously, I'm much more lenient than Ratz. I don't literally believe that this promise binds anyone beyond their sincere considered judgments. This is not a pact between me, my beloved, and a vengeful god. This is a solemn agreement between free and loving adults. The goal is not to force someone to stay in a relationship beyond what they actually, ultimately want. But as Quisp says, wanting is complicated.

Yes, marriage or life commitment is as serious a promise as one person can make to another. But obviously I would rather release someone I love from that promise, or humbly ask their release if there were some really good reason (like irreconcilable differences, unforgivable betrayals, etc., etc.).

I wonder just what good old days she's thinking of? The Greek villages where it was expected that a couple would have proven their fertility, and brides with obvious tummies were the norm, that Gerald Durrell witnessed in the 1930s?

Or the even older folkloric tradition in the Danish legend "The White Bear" which ends with the king allowing the hero to marry his daughter right away, so that "the wedding shouldn't be too close to the christening," because they'd already been enjoying each other by night before he goes on his quest...

I think Althouse is probably right for once. All of the notions of sex and status implicit in any mega-wedding are completely retarded, but a mega-wedding involving people already cohabitating just makes the contradictions more glaring.

Of course I also think it is really bizarre that men get married wearing rented livery. But most everyone who gets married in a church does so wearing a rent-a-tux, so admittedly my views on the marriage ritual aren't widely shared.

Do most people at weddings really think about how exciting it is that the bride and groom are about to have sex for the first time? If so, that's kind of creepy.

I still don't understand how you can promise to know what you are going to want. There's simply no way you can guarantee that you will always want to be with someone. I'm not just talking about minor, 'Wouldn't it be nice to fuck someone else for a change' type of 'wanting' something different. I mean: you're just not in love with this person anymore, you don't want to continue the relationship. This, it seems to me, is a live possibility for anyone in a relationship. It might feel right now that that would be impossible, but that doesn't mean anything.

I could understand a promise like this: "I am serious about this relationship, and I am not going to bail at the first sign of trouble." But to say you are never going to want to split up ... how could you possibly make that promise? How can you promise to want something?

I understand there's sometimes a way in which you both want something and don't--e.g., you want to have an affair with someone you find attractive, but you don't want to be unfaithful; you want to eat the tasty junk food, but you don't want to eat things that are bad for you. But I'm talking about scenarios where there are no contradictions like this.

When Jack and Jill get married, they promise to stay together forever. This is a perfectly coherent promise, as it is a pledge regarding what they will do. But if they were to abstract a little, and promise to always WANT to stay together forever, they would be making a more or less meaningless promise, because they have basically no control over that. I don't mean they'll find out about some kind of 'irreconciliable differences' or something. But in 20 years time, Jack or Jill might just decide: I don't want this life anymore.

Now, if all they promised was to stay together, they could still fulfil their promise. But if they promised to always WANT to, they've already broken it.

It's like promising to always be healthy or happy or something like that.

This disanalogy with Odysseus is:

a. What O. knew he would want to do is also something that is objectively not in his interests.

b. This is demonstrated (in part) by the fact that after the fact, O. would have been glad that he hadn't been in a position to follow his desires.

But what if the scenario were different: what if going to the sirens wouldn't have been a bad thing? What if he would in fact have been HAPPIER if he had? What if it were such that even after the fact, he still wishes he would have been able to go to them? Then, to me, it would make very little sense for O. to have lashed himself to the mast, and it would also make little sense for someone else who was concerned with his happiness to do so themselves.

Knowing whether or not the person you're making a life with plans to bolt any minute is useful information. Believe you and me, avoiding making promises or even making your intentions clear because you might change your mind later does not help things. People believe what they want, unless they are disabused of the notion.

I think big weddings are un-sexy, but for much different reasons than Althouse. I think they are un-sexy because the groom often gets lost in the shuffle. It's hard to be inspired by young love when you blinked and missed it.

I agree that most big weddings are un-sexy. But mostly that's because of the frivolity and/or the disproportionate burden that these gigantic spectacles exact on a woman and her friends.

I've known people who've dropped tens of thousands of dollars on their own weddings, and I can't help but wonder whether they're making a sound decision. IMO, a lot of what people spend money on in order to ensure the rank of "fancy" wedding is crappy kitsch.

(Of course, that's literally none of my business. In 26 years, nobody has ever asked and I have never volunteered an opinion on anyone else's party, nuptial or otherwise. I'm from the deep south of Canada. Believe me, the idea of second-guessing someone who was kind enough to invite me to their party goes against any principle of manners I've ever been taught.)

You're not promising what you are going to want; you're promising what you're going to do. The reason to do this is so that the two of you can build something that's bigger than the inevitable (and ultimately trivial) wanting. As I think Annie Dillard said (and she may have been quoting), "a life of sensation is a life of greed." I quote it because I take it to mean, a life of sensation at the expense of all else.

Of course, I often think of the people (in South America, somewhere, I think; what do you want, it's a memory from college social anthropology) which, knowing that couples sometimes get cold feet, have the families of the groom and the families of the bride comingle their cows, so that, no matter what, there is just no getting out of it.

"Bridal-industrial complex". Heh. That's a good one. I'll have to remember it.

If you watch CNN you would've heard of that woman who faked her own kidnapping rather than 'fess up to the fact that she got cold feet and did not want to go through the 600 guest megawedding that is all planned. Not that she isn't unbelievably foolish and selfish, but on some level we have to recognize the unbelievable amount of social pressure and financial burden those increasingly lavish wedding become.

I actually think they're probably a reaction to the increasing instability of marriages. "This is how much we love each other" a megawedding screams. "THHHHHHIS MUCH!"

I paid every penny for my own wedding, but not to ensure any "fancy" anything. I did it so that we could do what we wanted, invite who we wanted, say what we wanted, sit people next to who we wanted, eat what we wanted, where we wanted, when we wanted, etc.. We wanted our wedding to be ours. There was a comment on the original Althouse post to the effect of "I can't believe how narcissistic these brides and grooms can be." In fact, I find exactly the opposite is true. It's the narcissism of the guests that gets in the way. It's the bride and groom's wedding. They should be self-absorbed.

Somewhere I read there were going to be 16 bridesmaids. 16!

I mean, it sounds more like a parade than a wedding. Maybe they should have had floats.

I hate weddings to begin with (I've been around way too many bridezilla's who focus on the wedding, not the marriage), but I have to say I'm more comfortable going to (or being part of) a wedding of a couple who's cohabitated than a second (or third) wedding. I'm absoultely mortified that people throw the big shin-dig, complete will registering for china and flatware, after the first wedding. Maybe if folks put more emphasis on the marriage than the engagement ring and wedding, we'd have a lower divorce rate.

16 bridesmaids and eight muthahumping showers.


That is greedy. If they've been living together and are able to hold such an elaborate wedding, what on earth could they want for?

The whole wedding sounded ridiculous. It's silly to argue what it was meant to celebrate when it stands as such a monument to status symbology.

No, Ann, you're the only one. If we all had grownup values, marriages wouldn't fail at the rate they do.

Perhaps the bizarre fundamentalist concept that joining for life is pretty much the only way to get laid and get swag from the relatives is why red state marriages do so badly in comparison with blue state marriages statistically. There are many, many things that sex doesn't solve, doesn't fix and, for that matter, many that it doesn't (if you're smart) affect a bit.

You've got a much better shot at staying married (or pairbonded in any way, shape or form) if you know that before you start.

The bridal industry, like any industry, wants business. That is why the industry promotes big, formal weddings for everyone, including couples that would not have had that sort of wedding a generation or two ago: couples that have been living together; people on their second or third or fourth wedding; people who can't afford a big wedding; gay and lesbian couples, etc.

Frankly, I don't understand why people let themselves get sucked into the industry's idea of what's expected. Family expectations, sure: my mom talked me into inviting some family friends to the wedding that I hadn't originally intended to invite. But the industry says you have to spend so much on a ring, and so much on a dress, and you have to have a certain kind of meal, and music, etc. Why do people let themselves get sold on this? My husband and I spent money on the things that mattered to us: our wedding rings (I didn't have an engagement ring), and the food and party for our friends. We made the invitations, and we got a good friend to perform the ceremony (in California any adult can be empowered to officiate at a wedding). I wore a blue dress I bought off the rack, and I didn't carry a bouquet because I was afraid that if I did, there would be pressure to throw it. The most traditional thing about the wedding was the vows (you know, "to love, honor, and cherish"), and these days that's kind of radical because the fashion is to write your own vows.

Oh, and the best wedding gift we got was a beautiful handmade book with quotations on love and marriage, given to us by the folks in the book group we'd been members of for several years.

I can say that when my SO and I recently got "engaged" much to everyone's suprise the only question that everyone we know who cares about us asked was "when's the party?" Now, partly this is because we throw ridiculous, fun parties with great food and better booze...but also because they want to share in something special.

To try to define who shouldn't have a "big wedding" is simply an attempt to try define one's self as someone who ought to have such a wedding and imply that the latter such people are somehow better than the former.

Which is all crap, really.

If I get married, I'm wearing a scarlet dress. Partly because I grew up in Vancouver, where a red wedding dress is considered lucky. But mostly because I like it better than white--which would be rather a stretch at this point, if I were interested in home-culture symbolism.

Almost forgot my main point: this is another example of a case where cultural conservatives blame "liberal elites," but what's really driving the trend is pure capitalism.

I wore blue because a) I look good in blue and awful in white, and I wanted to be pretty at my wedding, and b) I don't like the symbolism of white.

Does the Vancouver tradition come from the Chinese tradition?

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