National Marriage Week begins today in the United States, where the average wedding typically costs about $35,000. Even though many engaged couples, especially Millennials, are spending more money on their weddings—the amount has nearly doubled over the past decade—they are increasingly inviting fewer guests to celebrate with them.
"It is very expensive, but people are still spending on this part of their lives," Maxwell Cooper, editor-in-chief of The Knot, told CNN Money. "But the guest count has dropped. They want to create a one-of-a-kind experience.”
But when we examine the research on wedding size and marriage outcomes, the trend toward smaller but more expensive weddings may not bode well for the quality of these marriages.
When it comes to weddings, two important indicators of size are the amount of money spent and the number of guests who attend. Here, we consider findings from two reports about how the size and costs of weddings might impact marital quality (neither has been peer-reviewed, but the findings make sense and reinforce each other).
Wedding Guests: Does the Number Matter?
In our National Marriage Project report, Before “I Do”: What do Premarital Experiences have to do with Marital Quality Among Today’s Young Adults?, we focused on how relationship history before marriage relates to marital quality. We also presented an analysis that was, to our knowledge, totally new in this field at that time. In our national, longitudinal sample, we asked those who got married: how many people attended the wedding. We didn’t ask this on a lark. We asked because of a strong theory for why those having more attendees at their weddings might have an edge in marriage.
Those who reported having more guests at their wedding reported, on average, higher levels of marital quality—even when we controlled for factors such as education, religiosity, race, and income. While we controlled for individual income, we didn’t have measures of other possibly important variables to control for, such as the cost of the weddings, parental wealth, and contributions to the wedding, nor did we have a straightforward indicator of the size of the couples’ social network. So, caveat emptor. (If you want to read more on the technical issue of included and unmeasured variables, see one of the follow-up pieces we wrote that was posted here.)
Here’s some of what we said about this finding in our report. This section describes the strong theory that may explain, at least in part, the association between wedding attendance and marital quality.
There is some reason to believe that having more witnesses at a wedding may actually strengthen marital quality. According to the work of psychologist Charles Kiesler, commitment is strengthened when it is publicly declared because individuals strive to maintain consistency between what they say and what they do. We try to keep our present attitudes and behaviors in line with our past conduct. The desire for consistency is likely enhanced by public expressions of intention. Social scientist Paul Rosenblatt applied this idea specifically to marriage. He theorized that, early in a marriage, marital stability and commitment would be positively associated with the ceremonial effort and public nature of a couple’s wedding. Rosenblatt specifically suggested that holding a big wedding with many witnesses would lead to a stronger desire—or even need—to follow through on the commitment.
Our findings suggest that he may have been right. Nevertheless, it is also important to keep in mind that because these questions about weddings have received so little attention in prior studies and because only a small percentage of respondents reported not having a wedding, these findings should be tested in other samples.
This is why we asked the question in the first place. Despite the strength of this idea (and its overlap with clear findings in the study of cognitive dissonance), one of the best alternative explanations was that the cost of a wedding might better explain marital outcomes than the number of guests. After all, couples with more economic resources tend to have many advantages in life and marriage. But we did not have the cost of the wedding in our national data set, so we could not analyze it.
Wedding Guests and Wedding Costs
Thanks to a tweet by Samantha Joel (@datingdecisions), who is, like us, quite interested in relationship decision making, we came across a study that looks at the number of guests people had at their wedding but also other variables, including wedding costs. Economists Andrew Francis and Hugo Mialon of Emory University examined how expenses related to getting married (the cost of weddings and engagement rings) and a host of other variables—including the number of guests—were associated with the likelihood of divorce. They examined a different outcome than we did—divorce not marital quality—but you can see the overlap.
Some of what Francis and Mialon found is complex. Overall, while controlling for a host of variables, they found that spending more money on rings and weddings was not associated with more stable marriages. In fact, those who spent the most on their weddings ($20,000 or more) were, on average, at greater risk for divorce. The economists speculate about why this could be, and they further examine factors such as the stress a large debt from an expensive wedding might place on a marriage. That’s not a great way to start off a life together in marriage—in a hole.
Here’s the part we zeroed in on. In a variety of analyses (some without controls and some with a large number of control variables—including wedding costs), Francis and Mialon found that higher wedding attendance was associated with lower odds of divorce. Although the findings related to costs of weddings and rings revealed complicated patterns, the pattern related to number of guests was always in the same direction and always clear.
We think this one line from Francis and Mialon’s paper best exemplifies their overall findings: "Thus, the evidence suggests that the types of weddings associated with lower likelihood of divorce are those that are relatively inexpensive but are high in attendance."
There are surely many possible explanations, including some we hope to investigate further in the future, but this second study seems to rule out one explanation we were most concerned about when interpreting our own finding—the cost of the wedding.
Can I get a Witness?
Some couples planning a life together do not want a wedding or may want one that is very modest with just close friends and family attending. Personal preferences matter a lot in all of this. Surely, what we are talking about here is just one small part of the overall puzzle of how a couple might build a life together. Many other things matter more, but let’s say you are open to some tips on the size and scope of your wedding. Here are some thoughts.
- First, don’t break the bank when getting married. Many young adults have debts already and may do more harm by taking on further debt with an expensive wedding. It is unfortunate that the image so many now have is of lavish, costly weddings. This wild expectation puts weddings out of reach for those with fewer means and adds greater burdens to parents, brides, and grooms for those with more. As Amber Lapp recently wrote on this blog, for some working-class couples, “the norm of extravagant weddings can be a stumbling block to marriage.” The rampant social comparison fostered by social media could not possibly be helping on this score, either. If you are looking for some practical tips on how to create an affordable wedding, the National Marriage Week website has some valuable resources.
- Second, it may be worth finding ways to prioritize the network of friends and family you have and invite them to be guests at your wedding. The benefits of having more witnesses at your wedding may come from both the psychological consequences of making a very public declaration of commitment (which should increase follow through), and from having more friends and family who see your relationship as something to rally around, root for, and support.
- Third, for couples who do not have a strong network of friends or family, think about how you might build one. We don’t mean trying to do this just in time for your wedding. We mean doing this over time for your marriage. When it’s possible (and we know it is not always realistic), building a friendship with another couple or getting involved in some community group together might be just the thing to start building a network of support and connection around your marriage.
If you like the idea of a big, expensive wedding, can well afford it, and it won’t cause a lot of additional stress, go ahead, knock yourself out. But the power of the wedding vow is far more likely to lie in the connections and the commitment than in the lavishness of the spectacle. Building social capital trumps burning economic capital. Prioritize your social network, not the duck canapés.
Scott M. Stanley is a research professor at the University of Denver and a fellow of the Institute for Family Studies (@DecideOrSlide). Galena K. Rhoades is a research associate professor at the University of Denver.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this essay appeared on the IFS blog in October 2014 and has been updated.