A number of articles have popped up in popular press outlets over the past couple of years pointing to the increasing number of couples opting for weddings that do not follow traditional expectations. Couples are planning destination weddings with the entire cast and crew of their wedding going to the Bahamas, Europe, or into the mountains somewhere. Other couples are being wed while the bride, groom, officiant, and wedding party engage in a favorite pastime such as skydiving, scuba diving, or rock climbing. The majority of weddings are still officiated by a minister, priest, or rabbi, but couples are frequently turning to family members and best friends to perform their marriage ceremony. Increasingly friends and relatives of the happy couple are becoming ordained expressly to officiate at the couple’s wedding. Being “bound for the altar” is becoming increasingly metaphorical; “bound for the alternative” is the emerging trend.
Precise statistics that give a reliable picture of this trend away from traditional wedding ceremonies are difficult to come by. There are multiple issues at play: what are the defining elements of a “traditional” wedding ceremony? If all the trappings of a traditional wedding—minister, bride, groom, wedding party, a couple hundred guests—are all moved out of the church and into a back yard, has the wedding become nontraditional? If the same wedding had stayed in the church but had a wedding procession that was choreographed to Chris Brown’s Forever, would it be a nontraditional wedding?
The manner in which a couple weds may matter, and it may matter in ways we don’t fully understand yet. With weddings becoming more and more idiosyncratic, those of us who try to understand relationships and marriage might want to look into this phenomenon more systematically. To begin this, we have to take a step back and remind ourselves what are the functions of the wedding ceremony.
At minimum the wedding ceremony performs two functions.
First, the wedding ceremony culminates in a legal change to the status of wedded partners. It changes how the State will treat the couple. It changes the couple’s rights and privileges with respect to each other. It changes their legal responsibilities toward each other. It affects their legal status, rights, and responsibilities toward any children they might have together. All of these changes are more or less constant and fixed in the eyes of the State, regardless of the nature of the wedding ceremony. Being married while falling through the sky or dancing to Chris Brown has no effect on these matters in the eyes of the State.
But the wedding ceremony also performs a very powerful social and cultural function as well. A wedding ceremony is a multi-faceted social contract. When a couple invites their family and friends to their wedding, they are inviting them to serve as witnesses to their expression of commitment to each other. The couple is asking their friends and family—their tribe—to bless and accept their union. The couple is publicly changing their own world and asking friends and family to welcome and accept this change into their worlds as well. And the friends and family—by their presence—agree to this social contract with the new couple.
And here is where the nature of the wedding ceremony might make a difference.
While the State cares very little about the nature of a wedding ceremony, friends and family who attend and witness a wedding, on the other hand, are social creatures, cultural creatures. They are subject to the social and cultural constraints that influence any human’s values, beliefs, attitudes, and behavior. One of the overriding constraints that influences us in myriad ways is perceived homophily, the tendency to feel a greater connection to that which we perceive to be similar to us. Homophily effects can be found across a variety of human dimensions including sex, gender, age, religion, socio-economic status. Across our social networks, those we feel the greatest similarity with are found near the center of our networks; those we perceive as less similar are further from the center, on the fringes.
How might homophily affect our marriages? A scant one or two generations ago the wedding ceremony was a pretty rigidly syntactic affair. In the overwhelming number of cases there was a religious official, a bride in white, a groom dressed formally, a wedding party, a crowd of family and friends, thrown rice, a reception, and cans clinking off the wedding car. If you were invited to a wedding, you pretty much knew what to expect. Marriage was an institution and the wedding ceremony was the entrée into that institution.
To the extent that a wedding event followed that syntax and was an archetypal example of the American wedding, it might be assumed the marriage that resulted from that wedding was also archetypal, representative of the institution as a whole. Conversely, the couple who eloped to Las Vegas, who were married by Marryin’ Sam with the chapel organist doubling as witness, would not be an archetypal representative of the institution of marriage. The former is “one of us;” the latter, no so much. The former folds into a network of similar others, based at least partially on the evidence for similarity that was their wedding. The latter is still folded into a social network, but might their idiosyncratic wedding hinder their full integration into the social network? What we know of our responses to perceived homophily suggests that might be the case.
So if either of these marriages runs into a rocky spell and seems headed toward dissolution, which would be more likely to garner support from their social network? All other things being equal, the state of the marriage that resulted from a more traditional ceremony is more relevant to the larger social network. A threat to that marriage’s health is a threat to the institution that all other similarly-wedded couples have bought into. The social network is obligated to intervene. Save the marriage to save the institution. The troubled Vegas marriage on the other hand? Well that’s sad but it’s not a direct threat to our marriage or marriage in general.
But perceived homophily isn’t the only factor that might be relevant when studying our increasingly idiosyncratic wedding ceremonies. Data we collected recently showed that fully one third of the wedding ceremonies reported on by our respondents (from weddings conducted within the past three years) were officiated by a friend or family member. While this is probably even less of a homophilous development for parents and grandparents’ generations, this might be balanced out by other factors: in group behavior and social identity.
When a family member or best friend officiates a wedding, the sanctioning of the couple as a new social unit, a married couple, shifts subtly from an empowered and authoritative other—the minister—to the social network itself. The friend or family member who officiates the wedding serves as a representative of all the attendees at the wedding. In a very real sense the attendees are no longer simply witnessing and blessing the union; they are—through the officiant—sanctioning the union. So while it is very likely the case that most of the attendees were not married in a similar fashion, they may nevertheless feel an even greater obligation to protect the couple’s new union. There may be a heightened level of personal responsibility for their union. Protecting the couple’s marriage is not simply a matter of protecting the institution that we have all bought into; it is now about protecting a marriage that we brought about. We are personally vested in their success.
The wedding is still among the most important transitional events undertaken by most of us at some point in our lives. It changes the world in a very literal way for us and for our extended networks. The move toward more idiosyncratic weddings, creating a ceremony, an event that balances tradition with a couple’s desire for a unique and personal experience, begs investigation from those of us who wish to better understand relationships and marriage. For those who enjoy studying evolving social structures and their long-term implications, these are interesting times indeed.
R. Kelly Aune is a professor and chair of the Department of Communicology at the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa. He teaches and does research on natural language processing, conversation, deception, and interpersonal communication.
Krystyna S. Aune is a professor and Dean of Graduate Education at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa. She teaches interpersonal and relational communication as well as family communication. Her research examines emotion expression in relationships.