Why the best wedding day won’t be the best day of your life

Whenever bridal magazines or wedding dress ads proclaim my wedding day will be the most wonderful day of my life, I hope they’re lying.

Think about it. You find the love of your life, decide to get hitched, throw a big party to celebrate the beginning of your marital bliss, and—what? It’s all supposed to be downhill from there?

Lies, damned lies…and some statistics

Putting all the emphasis on the big day may well start a marriage off at a disadvantage. According to a study conducted by economists Andrew Francis and Hugh Mialon of Emory University, there is a negative correlation between lavish, high-cost weddings and how long a marriage lasts. “’A Diamond is Forever’ and Other Fairy Tales: The Relationship Between Wedding Expenses and Marriage Duration” made a big media splash in fall 2014.The authors surveyed over 3000 adults, all of whom had been or were still married. They discovered that “relatively high” spending on an engagement ring increased the odds of the marriage ending early by 1.3, and those adults who reported spending more than $20000 on their wedding were 3.5 times more likely to get divorced than those who spent between $5000 and $10000.

Overall, those who spent less on the wedding tended to stay married longer. The researchers speculated that marital stress caused by debt was a contributing factor. Couples do fight about money, but in many cases, parents pay the wedding bills. Still, the considerable gap between the world of extravagant weddings and everyday life creates unrealistic expectations, and too often, the nuptials command more devotion than the actual relationship.

The problem is that we still believe in fairy tales. We plan a wedding but act as if a marriage just happens.

“Downhill” is relative

A wedding is not representative of married life. Yes, it’s a wildly exciting day, filled with the love and affection of visiting family, hours of talking and dancing with friends, beautiful flowers, fancy cake. It’s a day full of meaning and ritual, public declarations of deep feelings (and, not incidentally, a significant outlay of cash). Every moment matters, every detail is documented.

So there is an inevitable post-wedding lull, maybe even a bit of a letdown.

Thank god.

Supposing I could survive an entire married life so physically, emotionally, and financially intense, if nuptials actually modeled marriage, I would still implode under the pressure of wearing white every day.

Planning a wedding together, on the other hand, is excellent practice for marriage, and, I suspect, much more representative of daily married life. Planning together requires teamwork, communication, negotiation. My fiancé Steve and I have volleyed ideas back and forth, discussed preferences, revealed our individual likes and dislikes. We’re learning, together, how to balance desire against budget, what to prioritize, where to save and when to splurge. We’re making mutual decisions and sharing burdens, discovering more about ourselves and our partnership. We’re growing our love for one another as we look forward to the future, together.

Maybe that sounds less than romantic, but love that lasts is built and sustained through the daily choice to stay present and engaged. Love is something you do as much as feel. According to Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins, a philosopher who studies romantic love at the University of British Columbia, instead of buying into pre-determined ideas about romantic love as a “package deal” complete with “hearts and flowers” and “eternity,” we need to ask “what is love?” and define and shape it for ourselves. We need to do the same for marriage. Crafting a marriage that lasts requires deliberation and conscious reflection; it takes, as Arthur C. Brooks urged in a recent NY Times column, courage and mindfulness. A loving, committed marriage doesn’t just happen; even more so than a wedding, it demands thought, time, investment.

Parents of brides (and grooms) to be, take note. Traditionally, when parents foot the bill for the wedding, they maintain control of the budget and command a greater say in the decision-making. You might have paid for your child’s college, too, but did you dictate every class taken, every club joined, the chosen major, minor, and concentration? (If you did, you might consider paying for your kid’s therapy before taking on a wedding—just sayin’.) Giving your child a fairy tale wedding and worrying over every last detail of it yourself deprives your child and his or her partner the opportunity to learn to work as a team, the chance to begin learning how to budget, prioritize, negotiate. It robs them of the opportunity to reflect on what they value as a couple, to learn more about what makes their future spouse tick (or tic). Given the stats, less fairy tale and more participation from the bride and groom might be a better option.

Besides, having the support of family and friends matters more than their readiness to pay for an extravagant event; Francis and Mialon’s study showed positive correlations between marriage duration and higher numbers of people attending the wedding. Couples who went on a honeymoon were also more likely to create a lasting marriage, perhaps buoyed by their willingness to invest dedicated time in new experiences and one another.

Don’t forget the map

The wedding is the exotic island getaway: a weekend of high upon high, a romantic and sensual blitz. Marriage is a cross-country road-trip. There will be days of high adventure and exquisite beauty, days that rise above others in their pleasure and joy: watching a child walk confidently across the swinging bridge he once feared, standing sweaty and spent with your spouse atop a mountain you’d long dreamed of climbing together, dancing in the light of a fading sunset on the beach where you first fell in love. There will be days, should the fates allow, even more wonderful and wondrous than the day you walked down the aisle.

But there will be steep descents, too, and wide, flat plains of calm. With any luck, you’ll mostly travel through rolling hills and gently scenic vistas, the occasional dramatic peak rising up and surprising you, the stunning, startling beauty of a tree pushing through rock. Some days you’ll pass through valleys drizzled in rain or buried in snow; others you’ll walk the windswept dunes of sun-warmed beaches, the ocean lapping at your feet. There will be exhilaration, exhaustion, exertion, and rest.

Always, the horizon will stretch before you to a future beyond imagination. May the map of your love be your guide.


Invitation: Traditional-Fairy-Tale-Takedown Challenge

As Valentine’s Day approaches, it’s almost impossible to escape the standard romantic narrative that presumes we all aspire to march two-by-two into happy (and usually heterosexual) committed couple-dom. But so many of us whose feet don’t fit the standard glass slipper are living amazing lives we love, and those stories need to be told, too!

Your challenge: write your own alternative fairy tale, one that describes your current awesome life or hints at the fairy tale life to which you aspire.


  • Your fairy tale should open with (what else?) “Once upon a time” and be 6 to 7 lines long, loosely following the models of the “world’s shortest fairy tale” and other examples, below. Unconventional tales most welcome, but more conventional ones are too, if that’s your happy place. No need to include a proposal, unless it’s part of your story.
  • The challenge remains open from February 10th-20th; post and link or submit within that window.
  • To participate, post your fairy tale on your own blog and link it back to this post, post it in a comment below, or send it directly to me at
  •  All entries PG, please. 🙂
  • Tag #fairytaletakedown if you wish (I’m still kinda figuring the hashtag thing out.)

In early March, I’ll feature some of my and my readers’ favorite fairy tales in a follow-up post. Please visit the blogs of those who submit, and like and comment on your faves! Any non-bloggers, indicate how you’d like to be identified in the post should your fairy tale be included in the March feature.

The inspiration for the challenge

Back in October, I questioned the privileging of a single model for happily ever after, and its counterpart as featured in the following meme:


You can read the original full post here, but here’s what I had to say (with a few updates) that’s relevant to this challenge:

“The meme made me laugh—and think. It works specifically because we’re familiar with its counterpart, the fairy tale wherein the girl says “yes,” they marry, and presumably live happily ever after. In the male version, the “happily ever after” is spelled out in detail, though in traditional fairy tales it’s not. The conventional version, if it were spelled out, might look like this:

Once upon a time, a man asked a woman, “Will you marry me?”
The woman said, YES! And they lived happily ever after
and settled into a lovely house with a big yard
and had one boy and one girl and a well-trained dog
and the man made lots of money while she cooked perfect dinners
and they held hands every day until the day they died.

Of course, even for women who desire marriage or partnership, not everyone’s happily ever after includes 2.5 kids and a mortgage. The assumption that marriage per se is every woman’s dream—the assumption the original meme’s humor depends upon—is, if not sexist, at least shortsighted. A good marriage built on true companionship is something I want (even though it scares me in some ways). But I resist the easy equation of single male = happy and married female = happy as a default setting; it seems especially problematic in a world where not everyone has the legal right to marry even when they wish to. There are alternatives to both of the above tales. My  own life, prior to Steve’s presence in it, looked a bit like this (yes, I was proposed to once before, but that’s a story for another day):

Once upon a time, a man asked a woman, “Will you marry me?”
The woman said, NO!  And she lived happily ever after
and moved to Virginia and traveled at every opportunity
read incredible books and drank good wine and tea
and spent money on journals, artwork, and clothes
had a raspberry-pink sofa and loved her four cats
and farted whenever she wanted.

The last line is not a typo. You think women who live alone don’t enjoy the freedom to fart with abandon (or put off shaving, or let the dishes pile up in the sink…)? Now, there’s a fairy tale.

Here’s another, a composite fairy tale based on some awesome women I know:

Once upon a time, a man asked a woman, “Will you marry me?”
The woman said, NO! And she lived happily ever after
and traveled to Africa and met fascinating people
took up running and drank cosmos and craft beer
and spent money on marathons and beautiful shoes
bought a sewing machine and fostered rescue dogs
and (just guessing here, friends) farted whenever she wanted.

The upshot? One person’s sweetened-up Disney fairy tale is another person’s gloomy Brothers Grimm version. And (this is not news): there is no “happily ever after,” at least none that applies universally—nor, I would hazard, only one that is possible in any one person’s life. I wrote about the “infinite variety of paths” we might travel as we wind our way through the world, and, for each of us, I believe, there is more than one route to happiness. Mine is starting to look a little something like this:

Once upon a time, a man asked a woman, “Will you marry me?”
The woman said, YES! And they lived happily ever after
and traveled together to oceans and mountains
and talked and read books and gave each other plenty of space
and spent money on wedding stuff and shopped for a house
and wondered when to introduce her cats to his dog
who farted whenever he wanted.”

Submit your alternative fairy tales!

Marry? Scary! On Fairy Tales and Fears, 2

Some days the thought of getting married terrifies me. And I’m not talking about the fear of making bad decisions, like inadvertently hiring a DJ who insists on doing the chicken dance in full costume, or the inevitable wacky wedding day mishaps: a dropped bouquet, forgotten socks, a delayed bagpiper (ask my brother about that last one). I’m talking about the actual marriage part, specifically the 24/7 commitment to sharing not only my heart (which I give gladly) but also my bathroom and my brain-space.

I love Steve and always enjoy his company—as well as the company of his two smart and funny grown sons—and it will be nice to have someone else around to take care of scary spiders. But it does make me anxious to think about bringing not one but three people onto my permanent radar, into the closest circles of my heart and head. After all, aside from felines, I haven’t had a long-term roommate since 1995. At times I’ve been lonely, even profoundly so, but on the whole, I enjoy solitude, and as an introvert and a writer, I require a fair amount of it to function. I spend a lot of time in my head, reading, thinking, processing and, well, writing, and I’ve grown used to devoting much of the brain-space and energy not claimed by work to creative endeavors.

I’m also what’s known as an HSP, a Highly Sensitive Person. There are lots of great articles that describe what it’s like to live as an HSP, as well as an online diagnostic tool for the curious. In brief, HSPs are extremely sensitive to and deeply affected by sensory stimuli, which has both advantages and disadvantages. For example, HSPs tend to startle easily and often cannot tolerate loud or constant noise, and they may feel overwhelmed by visual excess. For example, when I’ve visited my brother and sister-in-law’s very full house (2 parents, 5 kids, 3 friends, 2 dogs, and 3 cats, plus grandparents at its peak), the sheer number of people and sources of sensory input—conversation, computer games, clinking dishes, cat meowing,  television, piano music, a Facebook video on another computer—make for an intense experience. There is also much love and warm laughter—a truly beautiful sound and something I feel privileged to share. Still, after a while, Aunt Sandee needs to fold up in a quiet corner to recover and re-boot!

On the positive side, HSP’s heightened sensitivity also increases our awareness of subtleties. We tend to pick up immediately on the emotional tenor of a group of people when entering a room, and we often experience art, literature, foods, and the environments we encounter more deeply. My keen color sense is no doubt attributable to being an HSP. And there’s a somewhat counter-intuitive flip-side characteristic: HSPs may crave and seek out new and intense sensory stimuli that is pleasurable, because it is a powerful natural high. I have an almost physical response to a pleasing color combination or a beautiful line of poetry. I even love wandering down a big city street, absorbing the cacophony of crowds and cars and shops and signs—but only for short periods of time. A little goes a long way.

Thankfully, one reason Steve and I work so well together is because he understands how much I need to be alone. In fact, long before he ever proposed marriage, he proposed something else that told me he was a keeper. “If we had a house together,” he said, “maybe you could keep a studio or an apartment that you could go to when you needed some alone time.” You would do that for me? I thought. You would be willing to invest in something like that so I could have us AND solo time and space? Of course, he would get solo time and space in the bargain, too, which–an introvert himself–he also enjoys and requires. But that’s when I knew he really understood me. Continue reading

The “Anti-Bride” and Me

Within two days of arriving home after our Virginia Beach engagement, I found myself standing in Barnes and Noble, staring at shelf upon shelf of books for brides-to-be.

There were planners and checklists, do-it-yourself decorating tips, weddings-on-a-budget books; thick binders and skinny hardbacks and sleek spiral-bound volumes of all shapes and sizes (weirdly, a bit uniformly pink in bookshelf1hue–really, are we twelve?). All claimed they’d help me plan the wedding of my dreams. And I hadn’t even gotten to the magazine section, where a row of strangely serious, sculpted women, all angled elbows and white lace, brooded out at me from the covers of at least ten different glossy tomes.

I was mesmerized. And a little horrified. Continue reading