The morning of their engagement party, Adam Verheyen handed his fiancée, Carly Butler, a hand-written letter. Carly had recently returned from a six-month solo trip learning about her family history and writing a book, and she and Adam had gotten engaged while she was away. Now she read the sweet, romantic letter out loud with him. The letter announced, “Today is not our engagement party. It is our wedding.”
Adam had planned a “surprise wedding.” According to Jezebel, it’s now a trend to plan your entire wedding in secret and spring it on your fiancé(e) like a surprise birthday party. Last year, one such wedding even happened live on Good Morning America.
It’s incredibly ironic that an event meant to celebrate the joining of two people in marriage would be so one-sided, and that consent would be deemed so irrelevant. Relationships aren’t—or shouldn’t be—about one person deciding and creating things for another. They should be about two people building a life together.
In case my reference to “consent” doesn’t make sense, consider this: expressing a desire to have sex with someone doesn’t mean they get to decide unilaterally when and where and how the sex will happen. Agreeing to marry someone doesn’t mean they get to decide unilaterally when and where and how you’ll get married and who the guests will be and what music you’ll have and what types of hors d’oeuvres will be served. Unless, of course, you tell your partner that you don’t really care about these details and they’re free to do whatever they want with the wedding planning.
Weddings, like the marriages they are meant to celebrate, should be collaborative. That collaboration can mean “We make all the decisions together,” or it can mean “I don’t care, it’s all up to you!”, or it can mean anything in between. Personally, if someone sprung a wedding on me like that, I’d have to have a serious conversation with them about why they don’t think my own wedding preferences matter enough to be taken into account.
From the sound of it, the surprised fiancées were happy with the weddings they got. That’s great. I’m not here to tell them not to be happy.
However, a news article with the headline “Local bride disappointed at groom’s surprise wedding, wishes her desires had actually been taken into account” isn’t going to get published anywhere anytime soon. Why? Because it doesn’t fit our narrative of what weddings are and what they mean—and because many women in this situation would probably keep their discomfort to themselves. From childhood, we’re taught that when a guy does something so special for us, especially when it involves spending lots of money, we should be grateful and appreciative.
Why are surprise weddings even a thing? I think there are several contributing factors. One is that this fits into the general trend of ever-bigger, more expensive, more ostentatious, more memorable weddings. In a culture that focuses much more on the celebration of a marriage than on that marriage itself, it makes sense that people want their weddings to be something they (and the guests) will talk about for years, maybe decades. If you get some media attention in the process, that doesn’t hurt. Furthermore, celebrity weddings and the relentless dissection of them both in print media and online gives people something to aspire to.
Another factor is gender. Although I’m sure there have been cases of men surprising male partners with weddings, or women surprising partners of any gender with weddings, all the examples I’ve seen so far have been of men surprising fiancées. Men are socialized to be in control and to provide for their girlfriends and wives. Although wedding planning has traditionally been the role of the woman, it’s not surprising that men, feeling pressure to give their partners everything, decide to plan a big surprise wedding their partners never asked for.
Moreover, the idea of men making decisions for their female partners is much more commonplace and accepted than the reverse. Think of men ordering for dates at restaurants, expecting wives to stay home with the children, choosing where to live based on their own jobs and preferences, not those of their wives. I’ve been blissfully sheltered from these things, but I still remember my irritation when a guy I was seeing insisted on taking me on a “surprise date” and refusing to tell me what restaurant it was, what kind of food it served, how much it would cost (not that paying for my own meal would’ve been an option), or when I could expect to get home afterward.
Much more commonplace are weddings that are a surprise to the guests, but not to either half of the couple getting married. That’s a much less creepy way to include an element of surprise in the celebration. However, it’s worth considering the fact that weddings aren’t just about the two people getting married, or else everyone would just do it by themselves at City Hall. They’re about celebrating a marriage together with your friends and family. Those friends and family might appreciate knowing what type of party it is they’re invited to, whether it’s to make sure they don’t wear jeans or so that they don’t accidentally skip your wedding to watch the new season of House of Cards.
Miri Mogilevsky is a social work student who loves feminism, politics, New York City, and asking people about their feelings. She has a B.A. in psychology but will not let that stop her from getting a job someday. She writes a blog called Brute Reason, tweets @sondosia, and rants on Tumblr. If you would like to be Miri’s best friend, send her cool psychology studies.
Photo via IanShangxian/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)