As it happens, by coincidence, a number of my patients have just been married or are planning to be married. Among these weddings, for the first time in my experience, are marriages between two women. And there have been a number of them. They do not seem to me to be different than the usual run of marriages except for the fact that they are (in the few cases I know about personally) less elaborate than most weddings. The reason, probably, is that the couples have been together for years. I think they are following the usual rule: the longer a couple has lived together before getting married, the less important it becomes to have a grand wedding ceremony (that is, an expensive wedding.) There are exceptions, of course.
Among the weddings I am currently watching from the sidelines include at one extreme a couple who married in the judge’s chambers and at the other extreme three weddings that are scheduled for some time next year but which are taking up a lot of time by a lot of people right now to get everything just right. One bride-to-be has been looking for the right dress for the last three or four months, the other for the last six months. One wedding cost a few hundred dollars; another will cost about sixty thousand dollars. I have been at a wedding that cost over a half-million dollars.
Like most things that loom large enough in life to occupy one’s attention, weddings come up in discussion in psychotherapy. I listen to patients; but most of the time I have no particular advice to give. Besides, I think this is one of those situations where, as a therapist, I have to be particularly careful not to interject my personal experience and prejudices into the discussion. My general feeling though, for what it is worth, is that people spend too much on weddings. I know that is presumptuous. After all, things take on all kinds of symbolic meanings that are hard to value in dollars and cents. How important is an engagement ring, for instance? How much money should be spent on the ring? One patient just bought a ring that costs approximately twenty-five per cent of his yearly salary. Is that too much? I don’t really know. The answer depends on how important the ring is to his fiancée and how important it is to him to give an expensive ring.
I think someone seeing a friend’s very large diamond ring can have any of a number of different feelings:
- Maybe a warm feeling to think that the friend has captured a successful man.
- Maybe an envious feeling.
- Maybe a vaguely disapproving feeling, thinking that the bride-to-be is ostentatious
- Maybe a wondering feeling about how much the ring cost, and would it have been better for that particular bride to have paid off her student loans with that money.
- Maybe concern that someone will hit her friend over the head in order to take away that ring.
- Maybe some combination of all those feelings.
But what does the custom of the engagement ring really mean?
All the way up and down the animal kingdom, the male of a species can be seen to try to entice the female into a mating relationship by bearing gifts. Birds do it, Insects do it. Certain spiders present appetizing gifts wrapped up carefully—flies and stuff like that—to the female and is still likely, if she is not pleased, to suffer her biting his head off. Literally.
Which brings up the subject of gifts in general. I remember when I was a kid reading a short story by O’Henry, “The Gift of the Magi.” It is a touching story about a young, destitute couple who are very much in love. They have no money to buy each other gifts for Christmas. She would like to give him a fob for his watch, which is the only valuable possession he has. He would like to give her a brush for her golden hair. So, he sells his watch to give her a hair brush, and she sells her hair to buy him a watch fob. It was an affecting story. All about the spirit of Christmas. “Wait a second,” I remember thinking as a kid, “this is not good. Before she had nice hair and he had a watch. Now she has a hair brush, but no hair and he has a fob with no watch. Wouldn’t it have been better if they talked to each other first and found some other way of celebrating Christmas?”
So this is where I’m coming from:
When my wife and I were married 55 years ago, neither of us had any money. Our families had very little, and they were not inclined to spend what they had on a wedding. Nevertheless, my mother called me up to say that if we eloped, she would never forgive me. At that point I had not been thinking one way or the other about a wedding. But we had a wedding.
I don’t remember much about our wedding (after all, it was a long time ago) except that the rabbi who married us said the future of the state of Israel depended on our union. Also, I had to sign a document promising to give my wife a goat if I divorced her. That gave me pause. I didn’t know where in Manhattan I was going to find a live goat.
It was a small wedding. No friends, only a few family. No engagement ring. I bought my wife a pair of cameo ear rings, which she wears every once in a while, she tells me. No money for a honeymoon, although we did hitch a ride with some friends a few months later to Nantucket, where it rained the whole week.
My wife has never talked about the missing engagement ring. She never complained about the lack of a honeymoon, although she does complain about my disinclination to go on vacations for longer than a week at a time. And our marriage has lasted nevertheless.
I take no credit for a long marriage. I think you have to be lucky. And a long marriage is not necessarily a success. I know of plenty of long-lasting marriages where everyone would have been better off if the couple had been divorced. But our relationship was not affected adversely by not being able to afford the usual accoutrements of an elaborate wedding.
But I try to keep those thoughts to myself. Nevertheless, on some basic level, I do not really understand some things:
Aren’t all wedding dresses pretty much the same thing? They are all white. Everyone notices the bride, anyway, and only the women who have been through this adventure themselves focus on the dress. (I am speaking from the point of view of a man. Even if women were interested in the dress, men are so disinterested, that on average people are not interested.) I always thought the sensible thing to do was to get a dress that could be dyed later on and used as a cocktail dress. As it is, people save their wedding dresses in a closet to look at every ten years or so. (Wedding dresses are not the only things that last a long time. One of the best cakes I ever had was a frozen wedding cake. The bride offered it to me and some friends about four years after her divorce.)
What difference does it make if the flowers on each table are two feet high, or two and a half feet high?
Why spend thousands of dollars on a movie of the wedding that no one watches until the couple has been married ten years? And then they watch it every ten years or so. (I have been at a few of these unveilings. The conversation is always the same: “There’s Uncle Charlie. He’s dead. Remember Junior, he’s dead, I think. There’s that guy who was a neighbor. I think he’s dead too.”)
Another thing I don’t understand is the feelings of the bride-to-be and the groom-to-be. If they enjoyed shopping for a hall for the wedding or for dresses for the bridesmaids, or auditioning different bands, or D.J.s or whatever, I would understand all the time and attention put into these matters; but often they do not enjoy it. Or at least they say they do not. It’s just a party, I think to myself. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s more than a party.(c) Fredric Neuman Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog