This piece was written by me and my colleague, Galena K. Rhoades, also of the University of Denver.
In our recent report for the National Marriage Project ("Before I Do: What Do Premarital Experiences Have to Do with Marital Quality Among Today’s Young Adults?"), we focused on how relationship history before marriage relates to marital quality. We examined the history of relationships that came before the relationship with one's eventual spouse and premarital experiences with the eventual spouse.
For example, having more sexual partners, having cohabited with partners other than the spouse, or having children from prior relationships were all associated, on average, with lower marital quality later on. Furthermore, those who had a child with their eventual spouse before marriage, who reported that their relationship began by "hooking up," or who said they slid into living with their eventual spouse (if they cohabited premaritally at all) also reported lower marital quality.
While there is no end to the controversy about the implications of such findings, the findings themselves were really not controversial: There is a history of similar findings, as well as strong reasons why such variables will be related to marital outcomes—including selection but also the consequential impacts of the actual behaviors.[i]
Wedding Guests: Does the Number Matter?
In the Before I Do report, we presented an analysis that was, to our knowledge, totally new in this field. In our national, longitudinal sample, we had asked those who got married how many people attended their wedding. We didn’t ask this on a lark; we asked because of a strong theory for why those having more attendees at their weddings might have an edge in marriage.
Those who reported having more guests at their wedding also reported, on average, higher levels of marital quality—even when we controlled for factors such as education, religiosity, race, and income. While we also controlled for individual income, we didn’t have measures of other possibly important variables to control for, such as the cost of the weddings, parental wealth and contributions to the wedding, or a straightforward indicator of the size of the couples’ social network. So, caveat emptor. (If you want to read more on the technical issue of included and unmeasured variables, see one of the follow-up pieces we wrote that was posted at the Institute for Family Studies.)
Here’s some of what we said about this finding in our report. This section describes the strong theory that may explain, at least in part, the association between wedding attendance and marital quality:
There is some reason to believe that having more witnesses at a wedding may actually strengthen marital quality. According to the work of psychologist Charles Kiesler (1971), commitment is strengthened when it is publicly declared because individuals strive to maintain consistency between what they say and what they do.
We try to keep our present attitudes and behaviors in line with our past conduct. The desire for consistency is likely enhanced by public expressions of intention. Social scientist Paul Rosenblatt applied this idea specifically to marriage (Rosenblatt, 1977). He theorized that, early in a marriage, marital stability and commitment would be positively associated with the ceremonial effort and public nature of a couple’s wedding. Rosenblatt specifically suggested that holding a big wedding with many witnesses would lead to a stronger desire—or even need—to follow through on the commitment.
Our findings suggest that he may have been right. Nevertheless, it is also important to keep in mind that because these questions about weddings have received so little attention in prior studies and because only a small percentage of respondents reported not having a wedding, these findings should be tested in other samples.
This is why we asked the question in the first place. Despite the strength of this idea (and its overlap with clear findings in the study of cognitive dissonance), one of the best alternative explanations was that the cost of a wedding might better explain marital outcomes than the number of guests. After all, couples with more economic resources tend to have many advantages in life and in marriage. But we did not have the cost of the wedding in our national data set, so we could not analyze it.
Wedding Guests and Wedding Costs
Thanks to social psychologist Samantha Joel, who is, like us, interested in relationship decision-making, we came across a study that looks at the number of guests people had at their wedding and other variables, such as the cost of the events. Economists Andrew Francis and Hugo Mialon of Emory University examined how the expenses related to getting married (the cost of weddings and engagement rings) and a host of other variables—including the number of guests—were associated with the likelihood of divorce. They examined a different outcome than we did—divorce, not marital quality—but you can see the overlap.
Some of what Francis and Mialon found is complex. Overall, while controlling for a host of variables, they found that spending more money on rings and weddings was not associated with more stable marriages. In fact, those who spent the most on their weddings—$20,000 or more—were, on average, at greater risk for divorce. The economists speculate about why this could be, and further examine factors such as the stress that debt from an expensive wedding might place on a marriage.
Here’s the part we zeroed in on. In a variety of analyses (some without controls and some with a large number of control variables, including wedding costs), Francis and Mialon found that higher wedding attendance was associated with lower odds of divorce. Although the findings related to the costs of weddings and rings had shown complicated patterns, the pattern related to the number of guests was always in the same direction and always clear.
We think this one line from Francis and Mialon’s paper best exemplifies their overall findings:
“Thus, the evidence suggests that the types of weddings associated with a lower likelihood of divorce are those that are relatively inexpensive but are high in attendance.”
Within a few months’ time, the field has gone from no findings (that we know of) related to the wedding attendance to two reports showing consistent results. There are surely many possible explanations, including some we will try to investigate further in the future, but this second study seems to rule out one explanation we were most concerned about when interpreting our own finding—the cost of the wedding.
Can I Get a Witness?
Some couples planning a life together do not want a wedding, or only want one that is very modest with just close friends and family attending. Personal preferences matter a lot in all of this. Surely, what we are talking about here is just one small part of the overall puzzle of how a couple might build a life together. Many other things matter—and matter more—but here are some thoughts for those planning weddings:
1. Don’t break the bank. Many young adults have debts already and may do more harm by taking on further debt with an expensive wedding. It is unfortunate that the primary image so many now have is of lavish, costly weddings. This wild expectation puts weddings out of reach for those with limited means and adds greater burdens even to parents, brides, and grooms with more.
2. It may be worth prioritizing the network of friends of family you have and inviting them to be guests at your wedding. The benefits of having more witnesses at your wedding may come from both the psychological consequences of making a very public declaration of commitment (which should increase follow-through) and from having more friends and family who see your relationship as something to rally around, root for, and support.
3. For couples that do not have a strong network of friends or family, think about how you might build one. We don’t mean trying to do this just in time for your wedding. We mean doing this over time for your marriage. When it’s possible (and we know it is not always realistic), building a friendship with another couple or getting involved in some community group together might be just the thing to start building a larger network of support and connection around your marriage.
If you like the idea of a big, expensive wedding, can well afford it, and it won’t cause a lot of additional stress, knock yourself out. But the power of the thing is far more likely to lie in the connections and the commitment than in the spectacle. Building social capital trumps burning economic capital. Prioritize your social network, not the duck canapés.
For a brief video of Galena Rhoades speaking about the Before "I Do" report findings, click here.
For a brief video of Scott Stanley speaking about the Before "I Do" report findings, click here.
[i] We wrote a couple of follow-up pieces on those subjects for those interested more in what social scientists argue about, here and here. The latter piece discussed particularly challenging issues about how social scientists approach and interpret their analyses.