When magic masks life's uncertainties.
Posted Jul 23, 2017
Spring has given way to summer, and it has been that happy time—full of light, gardens, love, splendor in the grass. And of course, it has also been a time for weddings!
About falling in love, Sigmund Freud offered his usual light combination of wit and insight by referring to it as an intoxication brought about through potions which arouse love and desire in those who drink them. The late 19th century journalist and writer Ambrose Bierce went that much further by referring to it as a "temporary insanity."
Freud and Bierce were likely referring to a certain unreality, a mutual idealizing which we've all seen happening in a newly-in-love couple, something that seems to pump up their egos and fill them with a delicious belief that the world glows primarily for, and because of them.
The poets have written volumes about it, movies and literature abound about the longing for and essence of being in love. And no wonder, it seems that all human beings want it, and especially wish that it could last forever.
Having practiced as a psychologist and psychoanalyst now for many years, I have listened closely to numerous brides and grooms in therapy, and particularly in the last decade or so, I've wondered if we might extend the drunken insanity idea to what often goes on quite irrationally around wedding planning and celebrations as well.
In the 60's and 70's things were often kept simple. Brides donned caftans as wedding attire and met their grooms barefoot to take their vows on sandy beaches. But under the influence of more recent popular television shows like "Say yes to the dress," "Platinum Wedding" and others, many couples have returned to the traditional formal event. During these, economics and dynamics meld to create a magic cornucopia spiced with many flavors that have come to really intrigue me.
I've wondered what it means when a smart, beautiful and fashionable bride can neither be comforted nor be self reflective around her dogged certainty that she won't be able to pick the "RIGHT dress" or the “RIGHT hairdo” for herself for her wedding day? And I've puzzled about how to make sense out of an otherwise very intelligent groom lying awake at night for months before his wedding, sure that his day will go from wonderful to catastrophic if it rains?
I have seen many examples of rigid, unreal thinking during wedding planning, enormous, stressful preoccupation with technical details, driven activity, dread of judgment, criticism and dire consequences. All this at a happy time of life? And the intensity often seems contagious filtering through the wedding couple, their families, the bridal party and even good friends. Bridesmaids and maids of honor compete for the position of "the chosen best friend." Older and newer friends of the couple act chilly with one another even though bride and groom wish only for them to be the loving intact community to send them off into married life.
I’d like to pass on a recent paradoxical tale which captures both wedding insanity, and a moving human understanding of this time of truth and reality, the moment when one promises oneself to another for life. It is the story of Kareem and Chanan and the wedding couple they helped. The sometimes exploitative wedding industry plays a part. Months before the wedding, a tent company asked a nervous bride and groom for a $2,000 non refundable deposit to reserve a tent to cover the ceremony area so that wedding party and guests would not get drenched. Then three days before the wedding, it asked for another few thousand dollars to actually put the tent up. There began the problem, who could know for sure if it would actually rain?
Weather predictions about rain varied, first they were a 20 percent chance, then seven percent, then two. Nobody wanted to waste so much money and the odds were good enough to abandon plans for a tent. But even then the anxiety about rain was so palpable that the bride's mother suggested buying 80 clear plastic umbrellas—just in case—and all agreed this was a Solomonic solution.
Kareem, the kindly hotel concierge where the bride was staying (his name means “generous giving” in Arabic), was asked to help, but sweetly told the bride’s family "you know it's not going to rain." The bride's family agreed that the sun was bright and skies were indeed flawless blue, however. Sensing their uncertainty, the tolerant, attuned Kareem understood that wedding madness was in the air. He fully realized in a wordless way that nervous jitters needed to be calmed and he got busy.
Arabs and Jews may have had trouble settling matters in the Middle East but Kareem beautifully collaborated with Chanan, an Orthodox Jew. He explained to Chanan that they were dealing with a nervous bride and groom—not reality--and Chanan simply felt the problem in his bones, and a delivery of umbrellas quickly occurred before the eve of Sabbath when Chanan needed to close his store.
As predicted, it did not rain, the umbrellas were given out as party favors, certainty was secured, and the problems of doubt amid the need for a perfect event was squarely overcome.
A magical fix is always wonderful, and that is likely a part of what goes on during wedding preparation time. Perhaps, and precisely because life and people are not actually perfect, magical thinking serves as a contagious defense in all the preparations beforehand. David Shapiro, in his book “Neurotic Styles,” describes an obsessive compulsive style of insisting that the world be in order, something that often emerges not only in bridezillas, but in many otherwise non-neurotic people closely involved in the planning of weddings. Families and friends may display traits of the defense: a certain rigidity of thinking, lack of flexibility, dogma, hyper and effortful concentration and a preoccupation with technical detail. At worst, this over concentrating single mindedness, if unchecked, can wipe out the joy of the event itself. It may replace human responses to actual people and curtail the bride and groom’s abilities to appreciate the nuances and subtleties of all that is happening at this watershed moment in their lives.
Shapiro writes of dogma as a defense against doubt and an attempt to overcome ambivalence. So no wonder it often emerges center stage as a wedding is in busy preparation. It fixates on details like flowers, photos, bands, linens, guest lists. Certainly there is plenty of detail that does indeed require careful and vigilant attention. But it is also true that there is probably no other occasion in life as loaded as a wedding when it comes to questions of doubt and ambivalence.
Who after all, can be one hundred percent sure that a commitment made early in life will last forever? Who can easily and without a sense of ambivalence and loss welcome a new bride wife who now shares your brother or son, or a groom husband with whom you will have to compete for the attention of your sister or daughter? Who does not doubt or worry about how the new families will blend, whether the grandchildren will be living closer to the interloper parents or to you, the parents of either bride or groom? And what real loss is felt by the bridesmaids or groomsmen around the new couple, who smile (and weep) as they watch their BFF’s joining somebody else who will steal that special position they have treasured for so long? There is attachment and separation going on, all at once and feelings all around run deep.
We need our defenses in life, and when emotions are heightened and conflicted, regressions of all kinds tend to occur and we scramble psychically to manage a lot.
The wedding event itself may well become a picture of something that contains this struggle. We might think of it as a transitional space along the lines described by psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott who coined the term "transitional object." A teddy bear or blankie becomes such an object for the toddler child, one closely tucked and carried with it out into the big world. It is something of, and not of itself - it holds a bit of mother in it, and magically staves off vulnerability. Winnicott brilliantly made clear that adults need transitional spaces as well - like the ability to merge with music and nature and art - to seek comfort around one's separateness by also joining with something much bigger than oneself.
In the perfect wedding, loving family and friends gather to gaze at and pamper her majesty the bride and his majesty the groom. Like a blankie they are called upon to wrap an excited, but also a very nervous couple as they pledge a new union which certainly means gain, but also marks a step into a new world. This of course means some loss, of all those who shaped and held them before.
The pomp and ceremony in which attendants and guests engage perhaps provides ego assistance at a vulnerable moment - a kind of ceremonial granting of temporary permission to feel omnipotent. And the event itself, like the blankie, is a magic thing - a blend of both parents (who often pay the vendors) and the new couple, who frequently need the wedding to be fully "theirs"- a reflection, in all it's detail, of their wishes, their ways and everything they dream of becoming.
If I had to place a single word on each of the four corners of a wedding altar or chupah or even photo in a frame, I would choose these: magic, perfect, certain, constant.
And I think this is what Kareem understood about the rain that could not be allowed to disturb that day. And maybe those four words explain why many brides when they dance with their dads as princesses, or with grooms as their lovely queens, the music they pick to dance to is the splendid, understandably romanticized song by Jerome Kern.
Yes, you’re lovely. Never, never change,
Keep that breathless charm.
Won’t you please arrange it darling ‘cause I love you.
Just the way you look tonight.