Modern societies are deeply invested in the idea of big, glamorous weddings. We have evolved highly-detailed collective ideas about what a proper wedding is supposed to be like, down to the specialised floral arrangements, seat covers, presents for bridesmaids and the correct order of the speeches.
These belong to our culture’s current way of expressing the notion that a wedding is an important event in terms of the success of a marriage.
But the results don’t seem very encouraging: the link between the quality of the wedding and that of the subsequent relationship is tenuous at best. However grand the ceremony might be, marriages break down at an alarming – yet predictable – rate.
What we know as the wedding day emerged historically out of a variety of motives: it was an event designed to show off one’s status, to embed one in the community, to invite God to witness one’s union… These ambitions don’t now feel particularly relevant. Therefore, it’s sometimes argued that we don’t need wedding ceremonies at all. Let’s junk the whole idea. We don’t need to waste so much money and go to so much trouble. A piece of paper at the registry office would be enough.
But this seems to overlook the benefit of rituals. In theory, rituals serve a hugely important function, for they orchestrate and give public expression to a sequence of emotions and actions that it would be too tricky for any one set of individuals to arrive at on their own. They give structure to interior life – and best reveal their advantages in religious rituals like the Jewish Day of Atonement or the period of mourning known as ‘iddah’ following a Muslim funeral.
The problem is that the wedding day is – in its current form – an appallingly badly designed ritual. It needs a thorough overhaul, guided by a mature, modern understanding of the underlying purpose of the occasion, which is simply to help a marriage go better.
Of course, redesigning wedding days sounds odd. We fully accept redesigns and novelty when it comes to technology. No one would think it was a good idea to keep driving a hundred-year-old car. Yet when we’re dealing with social practices, we strangely cling to the ancient with deluded fervour.
We do so out of fear: because marriage is such an uncertain business, we quell our anxieties by following what people have always done, attempting to insure ourselves against some new follies we might commit, but thereby ignoring that marriages have been rather catastrophic throughout history and therefore that sticking stubbornly to precedent has all the wisdom of adhering to the methods of medieval plumbing or brain surgery.
In redesigning the wedding day, we should wipe the slate clean and ask simply: what kind of ceremony would help a marriage to survive? How could one design a day that would make a proper contribution to the maintenance of a union?
One: The need for new vows
Vows are promises we make on behalf of people who don’t yet exist about circumstances that we can’t yet fully imagine. Still, they serve an important function in at least attempting to guide our responses to the tensions of the future.
The problem with current vows is their optimism, which should be radically tempered, so as to avoid rage and resentment. Vows should accurately anticipate what will make us want to get divorced – and confirm to us that our subsequent sadness will not be an unusual or personal curse. Here is a selection of vows that would be made by a couple in the utopia:
I accept that I am – in countless ways I don’t yet know – very hard to live with.
We accept not to panic when, some years from now, what we are doing today will seem like the worst decision of our lives.
When you are mean, when you call me a c*** and a fucking bastard, I will strive to remember that at heart, it is because you are hurt – not that you are fundamentally nasty.
Everyone has some very significant things wrong with them. We promise not to look around. There isn’t anyone better out there really. Once you get to know them, everyone is impossible.
Being allowed never to insert one’s penis into a new person, or have someone else new insert their penis into oneself, is one of the tragedies of existence. I apologise that my jealousy and your jealousy have made this peculiar, but entirely necessary self-immolation necessary.
[Silence from the audience, followed by a melancholy rendition of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, during which an asparagus and a lemon, symbols of free sexuality are buried in a three-metre-deep hole in the ground covered with marble or concrete.]
The couple then repeats: We accept to witness the slow death of our sexuality. We realise we won’t be doing it that often from now on.
I won’t have affairs, not because you’re so perfect, but because I’ve decided to be disappointed by you, and you alone, and you’ll be disappointed by me, and me alone, rather than both of us foisting our troubled selves on innocent members of the community, who would be deeply annoying too once one got to know them.
[In unison with the audience] Many days we’ll be unhappy; many days, we’ll suffer, many days we’ll regret we ever did this crazy thing. It’s not congratulations we need, it’s commiserations.
Two: Lots of guests
There’s a growing trend, often driven by financial concerns, towards slightly smaller weddings but a big crowd is, in fact, supremely important (even if the budget only stretches to a sandwich for them later).
One needs a maximum number of people there for a simple reason: so as to cause maximum embarrassment in years to come at the idea of having to call them all up and announce news of divorce. The larger the crowd, the slower one will be to pick up the phone.
This gives due recognition to an important fact about marriage: it’s a social institution, in which we often stay for reasons that go way beyond our own emotional desires. It involves us, but it’s not just about us. It’s about the dog, the children, the grandparents, the friends who got married in imitation of us and whose own relationships would suffer if we split… This sense it isn’t just about us should come as a huge source of relief. There’s nothing harder than to be required to be happy in and for ourselves. What relief to know we will, with time, also be living for others and that our own frame of mind won’t always be such a big deal.
Three: Different sorts of presents
In a Utopian Wedding, the guests would offer the couple different sorts of presents. Primarily, they would arrive with accounts of why their own marriages were difficult and why they were themselves awkward people to live with.
Nothing makes us happier than news of the troubles of others, as these presents would implicitly recognise. At dark moments in the marriage, one would turn to these gifts and flip through descriptions of the marital troubles of one’s friends and relatives – and would come away feeling that one was cursed certainly, but – importantly – in no way alone.
If single guests were unable to produce such things, they would arrive with vouchers for couples’ therapy, to contribute to the enormous sum that will have to be spent on therapy over the lifetime of any decent marriage.
A typical marriage recognises the key role of parents and gives them a platform. The father of the bride often makes an elaborate speech telling the world how great his daughter is. This is sweet, but in no way protects the daughter he claims to love.
Parents are in command of some vital information that can help a marriage. They know how disturbed they themselves are and the particular family patterns of emotional neuroses which they have witnessed and then unleashed on their own children.
The wedding day offers a stellar opportunity for the parents of both the bride and the groom to stand up and address their children and their friends on the subject of: ‘The particular ways in which we have messed up the children.’ There would be an added speech on the topic of: ‘How we think our children will be hard to live with, given what we know of them.’
This will be crucial information, far surpassing childhood photos and home movies in utility.
Five: A certificate of marriage worthiness
In the Utopia, you would get married by a philosopher/psychoanalyst (rather than the two useless current figures, a priest or a local government official). The wedding ceremony would be a passing out celebration for a couple who had been through a substantial course (no less than 12 months) of self-knowledge and mutual education in the psychology of relationships.
Romantic culture suggests that relationships are essentially founded on emotional states: like tenderness, the feeling of missing the other person and sexual passion. This is evidently reckless and in the utopia, there would be a new more logical, classical approach which would recommend strenuous conscious attempts to achieve a mature understanding of love. Many of the skills of marriage would overlap with those of a bomb disposal expert.
In the Utopia, the wedding day would be like a graduation ceremony, a culmination of a year of intense study of one of the trickiest and most academic subjects in the world.
The symbols currently associated with marriage (silver horseshoes, bells, white dresses, confetti) can seem to fall somewhere between the merely charming and the obviously superstitious. Few people feel a bridal veil offers robust protection against evil spirits. It’s tempting to think we should jettison symbolism entirely.
But the point of a symbol is to make an idea stick in your mind. In the Utopia, the couple would accept small sealed boxes from each other. The box would represent the idea that there will be parts of the other person one will not understand – or perhaps even know – and yet one will have to accept.
The box would be accompanied by a ‘Tolstoy’ – a brief, but very honest, confession of one’s failings and weaknesses. The Russian novelist gave his wife a written account of his earlier sexual life and an ample description of the flaws of his character, so she would know what she was letting herself in for. The content would be prepared and discussed in the lead up to the marriage; the book would stand for the willingness to listen to – and bear with – one’s partner’s troubles. The exchange of Tolstoys would symbolise a shared ability to cope with the other person’s confusion and distress.
Six: Wedding photos
The aim of photos is to bottle the essence of the wedding and make it available to us when we need it later.
But a wedding album should not only or even primarily be a visual record of a particular day, and evidence of who was in attendance. The task of the photographer is to create a series of works of art, made on many days, and perhaps not at all on the day of the wedding itself, that would remind the couple of answers to some key questions:
(i) Why did we get together?
(ii) What virtues did we see in one another when we got married?
(iii) What impact does each person’s family have on the relationship?
(iv) How normal are marital problems in society at large?
Looking back at one’s ‘wedding photos’ in subsequent years would then take its place within the overall purpose of the wedding: it would help, in a small way, to persuade us to stay married.
The idea of a wedding – and the elaborate rituals that surround it – do not at present have our real needs in focus. But that doesn’t mean to say that we’d be better off jettisoning the whole ceremony. We still need ceremony and institutions, just better ones. We should take very seriously – and be collectively ambitious about – what wedding days could and should be.
Utopian thinking sounds like dreamy stuff. But in truth, one of the uses of Utopian thinking is to move us away from silly fantasy. Instead of seeing the ‘dream wedding’ in terms of palm trees and infinity pools, we should be asking what a wedding would be like if it properly helped marriages to go better. That should give us inspiration as we set about reforming the mediocre marriage practices we currently have.