You have recently gotten engaged to a wonderful human who you love expansively and profoundly, and you are now beginning to plan a wedding — theoretically, anyway. Gosh, there are a lot of decisions to make. Expensive decisions. Do you:
- Put it off!
You choose “put it off!” Which leads to panic. You feel like you should not be this anxious about something supposedly so happy.
Hoping to distract yourself with celebration, and perhaps find some inspiration, you go to a dear friend’s wedding a few weeks after you get engaged. Do you:
- Celebrate the happy couple! Mazel tov, you two!
- Observe and take mental notes. Deflatingly feel like you will never have access to this level of celebration and happiness, because there is no way either of your families are congregating in the same area, let alone writing a song in four-part harmony to wish you and your beloved well, as these families have. Become certain your own wedding will never measure up. Mope.
You, confusingly, do both. And return to putting off planning.
This was, at least, the adventure my partner, Mike, and I inadvertently chose when we got engaged last year. Although clearly not ideal for any number of reasons, our discomfort gave us a chance to think through what we really wanted for our wedding. Which it turns out, was not a wedding at all.
Mike and I have spent the majority of our seven years together trying to find jobs in the same place — and, until recently, we've been quite unsuccessful at it. He needs to be near ponderosa pine forests for his work, and I split my time between a cattle ranch and college town for my Ph.D. research, which means we’ve made the four-to-eight hour drive to visit each other so many times, we've mapped out nearly every speed trap in eastern Oregon. And though our respective careers afford us access to some truly excellent lunch spots, traveling to visit friends and family can also mean choosing between taking a week off to drive or spending half a month’s paycheck to fly. As a result, there were many people we loved whom we hadn’t spent real time with in years.
Our apprehension, we realized, had been in wanting to see everyone and celebrate, but not wanting to do it all at the same time, in the same place, and in the same way.
This brought up our first big concern: If all of these people we love but have lost close contact with take their own time and money to come see us, we’d like to spend at least a couple hours with each guest. Based on that math, we’d have to find a venue okay with a 200-plus hour reception. Strike one.
Related to this was a second, more uncomfortable feeling: a fear that no one would actually want to show up to our wedding. During my last few years of school, I’ve found myself putting off making new friends or reestablishing contact with old ones until, as I’ve told Mike, “I’m a person worth knowing again.” As my doctoral research got increasingly specific, and I tried to deal with my own feelings of inadequacy, uncertainty, and failure related to it, I retreated into a dissertation-shaped cave, and let a lot of friendships atrophy in the process. I was worried a traditional wedding — where invites, seating arrangements, and wedding parties can feel like a public ranking of your friendships’ importance — would reinforce and ossify any growing distances, rather than work to undo them.
They said that if we felt like a wedding would strain all our most important relationships, rather than celebrate them, we shouldn’t have one.
And with friends and family who live everywhere from Manhattan high-rises to small towns tucked between mountains in Northern Idaho, we were also conscious that any combination of location, accommodations, and reception logistics would be convenient for a few and inaccessible to the rest. Since “awkward and alienating” wasn’t a wedding theme we were aiming for, this was a solid strike three.
The final strike against a traditional wedding was that there are a lot of complicated and strained relationships in both our families. These would make bringing everyone together a difficult, tense experience. Mike was especially concerned there wouldn’t be space amidst the congregation and celebration to acknowledge his late father’s absence, and process his feeling simultaneously elated and devastated. Even though we’d known this would come up long before getting engaged, facing it down in real time made it all the more poignant and painful.
After a long talk with my aunt and uncle about all these insecurities and concerns, an alternate plans came together. Their advice had surprised us: they loved each other and were happy to be married, but their wedding day wasn’t nearly as emotionally significant as any of the thousands of other, less formal moments in their 30 years together. They said that if we felt like a wedding would strain all our most important relationships, rather than celebrate them, we shouldn’t have one.
I can’t remember which of us suggested a road trip first, but it felt like we thought it together. Our apprehension, we realized, had been in wanting to see everyone and celebrate, but not wanting to do it all at the same time, in the same place, and in the same way. So, rather than have everyone come to us for one huge party, we realized we could visit and celebrate with each of our loved ones at a string of smaller gatherings. I’d be finishing school, Mike could save the time off, and we could finally put our long-distance driving skills to use, together. As we talked through the logistics, our anxiety dissipated into the first real excitement we’d felt since getting engaged.
So, this October, we’ll say our vows, sign our marriage license, drink Champagne, and walk home. We’ll host a small send-off party for local friends and family, and a few days later, we’ll head out on a month-long road trip in a ridiculous white car to visit loved ones in 20 states and provinces. Ideally, this will not only give us more time with each “guest” but will also be a chance to reconnect and celebrate in a way that fits each unique relationship. We want to coo at friends’ babies, walk through cousins’ new cities, ride bikes with grandparents, cook dinner with everyone, and finally meet my sister’s very adorable cat. We’ll keep you posted.