The Wedding that Never Happened
I got engaged to my boyfriend of two and a half years on November 12th 2013. I had just graduated from college 6 months earlier, and life was in that cool but scary in-between stage where everything is still an option and nothing is stable. Like all marrying couples, our decision to become husband and wife was a romantic leap of faith, but I loved him with all of my heart and I wanted to build the life we dreamed of together. We decided on May of 2015, four years from our first date. That wedding never happened.
My story is a cautionary tale with a happy ending, and I’m finally ready to talk about it. I have managed to learn a lot about weddings and celebrations in the six years since I married my guy, and I think my story gives me an interesting perspective while planning weddings today. I want to take a raw and honest look at what we’re doing and why we’re doing it when we celebrate our marriages, and offer a couple of new perspectives to our current approach. I hope it helps a few more people have a better time while they're in the industry I've come to love. Here’s how I went from canceling my wedding in frustration to planning intimate weddings for the offbeat and gloriously in love. Buckle up, it’s one hell of a ride!
A Cautionary Tale
I met Brandon when I was 20 years old and studying theatre in college. I was the wide-eyed dreamer from California that asked too many personal questions. He was my slightly more established Iowa guy with one hell of a work ethic and a heart of gold. I provided his adventure; he gave me a home.
I wasn’t exactly the type of girl to dream about my wedding day since I was a kid, but I was excited to be a bride. Even though my new fiancé wasn’t much of a planner, I looked forward to a year and a half of venue tours, dress appointments, and preparing for such a happy occasion. I loved the idea of getting the whole family together for one big celebration, and getting to pick the colors, music, and overall feel was a delight. We wanted our day to feel fun and magical, complete with a sunset handfasting and board games in place of dancing. We dreamed of an elegant woodland romantic wedding with lots of candlelight. As a natural planner who loves crafts, I thought it would be exciting to plan. In many ways, it was. I'm still a fan of pretty organization and spreadsheets!
The beginning of wedding planning seemed to go smoothly enough. I gathered inspiration online, especially message boards and social media groups. According to everything I read, the first steps to planning a wedding were to decide on a budget and guest list, then choose a venue and photographer… but how?
The average cost of a wedding in 2014 was around $28,000 and I thought that number seemed absurd. That had to be for luxury weddings, right? Our budget of $7,000 seemed like a reasonable amount of money to spend on a single day, especially since we were paying for it ourselves, but all the numbers for a wedding seemed pretty arbitrary. I kept a huge spreadsheet of anticipated expenses; always on the hunt for a deal. I felt insecure while working through the numbers. Maybe we weren’t established enough in life to have a wedding? I pushed those feelings down, focusing my energy on the fun parts again. I was loving venue tours, for example. They were like special dates with my guy, and our dream wedding was a little more tangible.
Moving onto the next step, I wrote down a list of everyone we could think to invite. I came up with 75 people, hoping to get it closer to 100-125 by the time we sent out invitations. Another little pang of insecurity set in: we wished we had more people to celebrate with. Even venue tours were starting to get less than fun, since every time we toured a huge space, I had to imagine it set up with a third of the chairs. So far,
a lot of the “bridal” experience felt… broke and lonely.
Eventually, the reality of gathering very different families set in, as did a budget that never seemed big enough, and wedding planning was officially more stressful than I expected. I felt like I needed to be anyone but me in order to host this event, or at least the most perfect version of myself: thinner, prettier, more popular, more established in my life. I remember feeling like I got cast in the wrong role.
The idea of being a bride was becoming less and less appealing. Being the center of attention, having to constantly be “on” and smiling, surrounding myself with a bunch of people all day and then saying intimate things on a microphone- yikes! I’m just going to say it: I think we plan most weddings for extroverts. My introverted soul wanted to run away (or at least just show up for the reception).
After a few months my mental health hit an all-time low. When my mental health crashes, I struggle to make up my mind, and that combined with decision fatigue was making many important decisions, like settling on the venue, impossible.
Even when I thought a venue was perfect during the tour, my insecurities would flare up and I would inevitably find something egregiously wrong with it. This one was way too big, that one was slightly over budget, that one was in the wrong location. Before I knew it, we had looked at about 3 dozen venues in 5 different states and still hadn’t put any deposits down after eight… months… of planning. I was stuck.
Raise your hand if you had an awkward phase.
After a long and hard conversation, my soon-to-be-husband gave me an… *ahem* …ultimatum. We were going on one more series of venue tours, and I needed to choose from everything we had seen. He needed to know that my priorities were in the marriage and not the wedding, and he was more interested in being my husband than being my groom. I still remember sitting in bed, crying, feeling sick over it all, but when we talked about canceling, it was… cathartic. Wife was starting to sound a lot better than bride.
We had a long conversation. Instead of trying to reconcile our wedding fantasies with the reality of our personalities and circumstances, what could it look like if we got married without all the pomp and circumstance? What if this were as simple and stress-free as possible? It sounded… blissful. The decision was made. We were getting married no matter what, but… we canceled our wedding.
Planning Weddings Now
photo: Chelsea Dawn Weddings
When I was planning my wedding, I never thought about why we were doing it, I just thought weddings were fun and now it was my turn to experience it. The theme, vibe, and colors dominated my decision making, but the practical things like budget and guest list kept getting in the way. Does any of that sound familiar? If so, hopefully this next section helps.
Planning a wedding requires making hundreds of interconnected choices, many of which carry significant emotional weight. It's not just a guest list, there are complicated family politics and expectations at play, with heavy implications of love, duty, and support. It's not always just a budget, sometimes it's making your values public or it's a display of status and accomplishment. I want to lean into that deeper meaning when we plan weddings and celebrations.
Now that marriage is about love more than it is about trade and property rights, a lot of the reason we do certain things has been replaced with aesthetic, but a wedding is a ritual just as much as it is a fun and joyous party. Partaking in age-old traditions, wearing special outfits and eating special meals, preparing readings and speeches, the exchanging of gifts and public displays of affection- what we are doing here is a ritual, a sacred way that we display to all the world that this person, this commitment, this day is like no other. We use celebrations to mark these beautiful differentiations, and the energy and purpose we bring to our rituals determine how much of an opportunity it has to change lives and perspectives. When was the last time a wedding, graduation ceremony, or even funeral changed your life? I'd love to say more of them did.
photo: Emily Jo Etringer
In order to prevent decision fatigue and plan a more impactful event, I begin planning weddings with a foundation of intention built on values and purpose. There’s some deep desire for connection when a couple chooses to have a wedding, which is why vision work is so important, it lays the foundation for all future decisions like guest list and budget. We’ve got to figure out what is truly special and worthwhile about this experience and the impact you want it to have in order to make sure we do that purpose justice. An example of a wedding purpose can be to encourage more love and joy in your families, to strengthen community relationships, to give your partner the world in a private display of abundant love. Different purposes lead to different decisions, different events, different impacts.
Sometimes after deciding on a wedding purpose a couple decides they don’t actually want a wedding at all, or they want to keep it much smaller, or they want to raise their budget. All options are great! Embrace what you really want and move forward with that decision with clarity. Plan the celebration that matters to you and the world around you.
I encourage my couples to make a guest list based on who they can’t wait to celebrate with, and do their best to stop there. There is a responsibility associated of inviting and spending the day with each person on your guest list, a responsibility that can dictate many aspects of your day (remember, interconnected decisions). If you would prefer not to take on that responsibility, that's okay! Let's leave them off the guest list. You can always have different types of gatherings with different purposes and different people.
Weddings quickly become about everyone else when the guest list swells, and you get less time with your spouse and VIP’s (parents, siblings, best friends) on your wedding day the more people you invite. Most couples (even micro wedding couples!) say the whole day is a blur, and more people just heightens that sensation.
How do you choose who to invite and who not to? It depends on the purpose of your celebration, who you want this experience to be for and how you want it to impact them. I'm just saying, if you can consider going as small as possible, see to for the blessing it is. Huge weddings are so much fun, and small weddings have their own magic. Whatever your circumstances are, appreciate it.
Budgets are tricky. Each couples’ personal finances and values are so unique, and it can be difficult to balance wanting to spend the money on one of the most important days
of your lives with wanting to be responsible about all the future days as well.
I also understand how difficult it is to wrap your mind around the costs of a wedding when you first start planning, so I help couples get an idea by considering the costs of things they are familiar with: the cost to travel, to have a really nice dinner, to get a drink at a bar. This helps the numbers for these services feel more concrete instead of arbitrary, then you can decide what you are excited to splurge on and what’s maybe not so important. Want an open bar? If you went to a bar and 100 people were there and you picked up everyone’s tab after 3 or 4 hours, how much do you think it would cost? Love flowers? Check out arrangements at a local shop or even the grocery store. How much would it cost to get 10 of your favorites? It takes some work to make these numbers seem real, but it will help for all future gatherings and large purchases to come.
I believe it’s possible to have a beautiful celebration for little money at all depending on what you value and how thoughtful you are about little details, but that’s not to say you can DIY your way into a $30k wedding with a $10k budget. For my smaller budget crowd, vision work will help determine which details are most important, then what can be altered or omitted. It's important to know what's most important on your day and accept that everything else is filler.
I also believe money is meant to be spent, and a wedding is a beautiful experience to spend your money on if that's what matters to you. For my large budget folks, you aren't exempt from vision work because it's easier to splurge! Your money is a blessing, and getting to spend it in this joyous way is an opportunity. Take it seriously, determine the larger impact your dollars will have on the world around you. Learning how to give and be generous is a part of everyone's life purpose, and practicing during your wedding is a valuable skill that you get to bring into your marriage.
It’s common to feel like you got cast in the wrong role while planning your wedding. Some of us aren’t very showy, we don’t like hosting parties, or we don’t look anything like the couple who might grace the cover of a bridal magazine. Some of us plan weddings while we aren’t getting along with our parents, or this is our second marriage, or we don’t even like most wedding traditions. Unfortunately, a lot of us with offbeat souls and circumstances try to go on planning a traditional wedding anyhow, and sometimes it gets overwhelming.
I thought I needed to be someone else, someone better than me, in order to have a proper wedding and be a proper bride, but I eventually had to choose to get married as I was. That girl who loved cinnamon rolls, the one who dressed awkwardly and had no idea what I was doing with my life yet, the shy girl who had a few close friendships instead of many- that was who my fiancé had chosen, flaws and all. I wish I had chosen her, too. Nowadays, I make it a point to truly see and embrace whoever it is in front of me. All sorts of people fall in love, they can get married and celebrate it just like anyone else.
Instead of powering through the insecurities, I try to make accommodations for them. They’ll try to show up on the wedding day, so we may as well do our best to keep them out but prepare for their arrival in a worst-case scenario. Drama with your brother, but you couldn’t bear not to invite him? Let’s think hard about what the groomsmen thing means to you, and we’ll keep a packed itinerary on the day so we’re doing too much to sit and stew over hurt feelings. Feel weird about having such a formal event in your own honor? Let’s just skip the sit-down dinner and do food trucks, or think about what experiences you’ll treat the guests to so our approach to planning is more generous. There’s almost always a creative solution.
You, whoever you are, right here and right now, are good enough. You deserve to be celebrated in a way that honors the real you. My goal is to plan a celebration that truly fits the couple in front of me instead of trying to squeeze them into the traditional wedding expectations. It’s more fun that way.
5 Year Anniversary. We clean up a little better these days
I canceled my wedding in 2014 because I struggled to fit into the bridal mold I thought I was supposed to in order to have the wedding I thought I wanted. My foundation of generic checklists prevented me from developing a budget and guest list that made sense for me, which spiraled into a series of other non-decisions. Eventually, husband and wife started to sound a lot better than bride and groom, and that experience lead to the way that I plan weddings now. Now, I plan weddings with a foundation of intention that allow us to parse through all the noise and expectations to discover what a couple truly values about this experience.
So, what did we do after we canceled the wedding? We still got married, but on an accelerated timeline and with way less shits to give about most of the pomp and circumstance of our original plans. Our wedding was in many ways... a bit of a disaster, but it was still one of the best day of my life. That experience was the inspiration for my own unique take on what I think is the coolest way to plan a wedding now, and I’ll tell you all about it in part two. Stay tuned!