People love oohing and aahing over a bride—almost as much as they enjoy tsk-tsking about her wedding plans. And there are enough over-the-top, outlandish or just plain quirky weddings in modern America to provide plenty of opportunities for griping. During a talk show focusing on the bizarre wedding of TV personality Star Jones—who had a 49-person bridal party and wore a dress with a 27-foot crystal-studded train—scores of listeners called in to complain about wedding travesties that they had themselves endured. The callers recounted tedious vows, painfully off-key songs warbled by bride and groom, the inclusion of the groom's dog in the ceremony. They exchanged horror stories about controlling brides-to-be who obsessed over the trim on bridesmaids' dresses and got into screaming fights about appetizers.
There's a reason why weddings bring out the worst in some young couples: A profound social shift has transformed marriage, and today's wedding ceremonies reflect this change. Marriage is now based on the love of two partners who have an equal say in determining how their commitment will work. As a result, constructing a marriage is now a more personal undertaking—but it is also more precarious.
The contemporary romanticization of marriage would be unrecognizable to the majority of people in the past. Through most of human history, marriage has been a practical economic and political institution over which the betrothed had little control. From the early Middle Ages to the 18th century, marriages for upper-class Europeans were the way that families raised funds, sealed political alliances and made sure that no former lovers or illegitimate children could make claims on their wealth. Elite weddings were extravagant affairs that involved expensive negotiations and festivities, often carried out over a period of months. But these elaborate weddings were not about the personal relationship between bride and groom, who might have never met—and might actually have been in love with someone else.
In the middle classes, marriage was predominantly a business proposition. It was one of the main ways that men raised capital, and the only way that women established economic security. Right up through the 1700s, the dowry a wife brought to marriage was often the biggest infusion of cash and property a man would ever acquire—and endowing a daughter placed a much heavier strain on a woman's family than any modern wedding.
Even in the lower classes, marriage had more to do with practical needs than individual love. Most farms and businesses required both a man and a woman to run them, so partners were chosen with an eye toward their value as workers. Because neighbors depended on each other for loans, labor and joint village activities such as building fences, these matches were matters of intense public interest.
Throughout medieval Europe, whole villages actively took part in courting rituals and wedding festivities, to an extent that would shock us today. Suitors who were frowned upon might be pelted with rotten food and stones, and the hapless couple who went ahead with an unpopular match might be treated to catcalls as they left the church or greeted by young men wearing horns to suggest that the wife would be unfaithful. When a community approved the match, the couple got even less privacy. After the wedding festivities, neighbors would escort the couple to bed, to the accompaniment of loud music and ribald jokes. Early the next morning, they returned to awaken the couple with more music and revelry.
By the second half of the 18th century, leading sectors of European society were beginning to toy with the radical idea that marriage should be based on the love and free choice of both partners. Marriage was more often seen as the union of soul mates in the 19th century, but wedding rituals remained highly formulaic. Fathers walked their daughters down the aisle to represent a woman's transfer from her father's to her husband's protection. Brides wore white to symbolize their purity. Wedding vows emphasized the man's duty to provide and protect, and usually included the wife's promise to obey.
Fast-forward a century, and ritualized ceremonies have become ubiquitous. In the 1950s, the growing emphasis on romance merged with the postwar consumer economy to create a major wedding industry. This was the golden age of what most people now think of as the "traditional" marriage, although in truth the emphasis on love was fairly new. Many modern Americans now contrast today's ostentatious celebrations with the supposedly more modest weddings of that era. But this is a misconception: An average wedding now costs roughly $22,000, but that represents a smaller proportion of household income than in 1960, when the typical formal wedding cost two-thirds of the median family's yearly income!
What is really new about weddings today is not the price tag but the preoccupation with creating a personalized ceremony. In the 1950s and 1960s, marriage came off the rack, so to speak. Nearly everyone married, almost always at an early age. Idealization of love notwithstanding, marriage was as much a union of two gender roles as of two individuals. The "rules" were clear-cut: Wives were to be homemakers. Husbands must be breadwinners. As a result, most 1950s weddings were as conventional as the unions they initiated. From the vows to the music to the cake decorations, weddings were variations on the same theme, depending on how much money was available.
Today, each partner brings independent habits, tastes, resources and skills that must be consciously adapted to the new relationship. Men and women now expect to negotiate a marriage that meets the individual needs of both partners. For most people, these changes are extremely liberating, and marriages that succeed can be much more rewarding and fulfilling than those of the past.
But marriage is also less stable. Couples are no longer held together by pressures from in-laws or society; women can support themselves, and men are no longer ostracized if they do not marry or are divorced. Few couples before in history have had to make so many conscious choices about the kind of relationship they will have. And these decisions can be very stressful.
So perhaps we should cut anxious brides and grooms some slack. Tasteful or garish, simple or ostentatious, weddings today are the first chance a couple gets to announce to the world their chosen joint identity. Couples are preoccupied with getting each detail right because they are struggling to reflect the uniqueness of their relationship—and the hope that it will be strengthened, rather than undermined, by their individual identities and ambitions. The hope is powerful, but so is the fear that they might not get it right. Still, with plenty of time to work out the specifics, the bride and groom might want to let go of all the worrying. After all, marital bliss can't be found in the color of a bridesmaid's taffeta dress.