Saying 'I don't' to expensive weddings

Nik and I met in college on a foggy New York night seven years ago. Today we ride the subway side by side, sharing the headphones to his iPod. We like to brainstorm names for our future babies and titles for our future movies; we make video documentaries together.

Sounds like the perfect 21st-century romance, right? Except we can't stomach the idea of getting married.

It's not that we are afraid of commitment. That cut-and-run instinct was drained from us long ago. It's not that we don't have our families' support. My mom has a folder in her desk titled "wedding???" filled with articles she's torn out of a collection of women's magazines – "just in case." Nor do we particularly feel that the traditional institution of marriage has outgrown modern practices.

Truth be told, we avoid the topic of walking down the aisle because it is so inextricably tied up with gross, conspicuous consumption. We have watched friends get sucked into the tidal wave that is the emotionally manipulative wedding industry – now totaling $50 billion in sales a year. Their weddings were beautiful. But, and forgive me for sounding so crass, just not beautiful enough.

This ritual – one of the last that our übermodern, telecommuting civilization still performs – has turned into a circus of decadence. The cost of the average wedding has been rising steadily since Nik and I were born. In 1980, most couples shelled out a modest $4,376. In 1990, presumably pressured by the ethos of the bigger-more-now 80s, that number shot up to $15,208. Today, simply saying "I do" puts the average couple back $22,360 – enough to pay for the expected private college tuition of their future child if they invested it at 10 percent annual return rate.

Not only is the egregious spending offensive in a world where too many have too little, but the meaning of the ritual is all but lost amid the designer dresses and lobster dinners. Weddings are supposed to be about love, commitment, and family – not Vera Wang. Young couples hardly interested in their vows leave that task up to ministers they hardly know, while they obsess over every last knife and breadmaker in the registry.

How did we get so far from the original idea of a sacred promise in the presence of a cherished community? Our obsession with opulent weddings, in fact, can be seen as a reflection of our society's growing preoccupation with keeping up appearances.

Little girls are taught that their image is their currency; as such, a woman's wedding day becomes the moment when she is most powerful. I have heard an old high school acquaintance's admission, after a long, sad sigh, that she had come to terms with the fact that her wedding day would be the best day of her life. It was over. She was all of 23 years old.

The insta-fame, reality television culture only supports this notion of the wedding event as an excuse to play at being one of Robin Leach's rich and famous. Both women and men get lured into this debt-inducing trap. The groom strikes a daunting pose with a dozen tuxedoed tough guys with expensive shades, looking like a chart-topping boy band, before climbing in their Hummer limos. Bridesmaids spend thousands of dollars on dresses they will never wear again, professional manicures, pedicures, and haircuts, uncomfortable shoes, and destination bachelorette parties.

It is not enough anymore to just find someone you want to spend the rest of your life with and have the courage to make your promise in front of your nearest and dearest. Now this promise must be recorded by professional videographers, engraved on napkins, candles, and immortalized by personalized cake toppers. Weddings are a chance to be seen, finally, in a society that mostly makes us feel overlooked.

Sure, you might be thinking, but you don't have to fall into this trap. Unfortunately, it seems that almost half of newlyweds do. Forty-three percent of couples say they spent more on their wedding than they planned. Eerily, 43 percent of first marriages end within 15 years of their bank-breaking beginnings.

A wedding has become a symbol of status, not an expression of love. It has become the center of family feuds, debt accumulation, hair-pulling, and tears. At a time when we need healthy and life-affirming rituals more than ever before, we pervert one of our last chances into an expensively cheapened performance.

Nik and I were lying in the park the other sunny Saturday, playing Scrabble, when we saw a just-married couple looking overheated while posing for pictures. The bride couldn't keep the veil out of her face. The groom's smile had hardened into a grimace. I looked at Nik and sassily said, "I don't." "I don't either," he said, grinning back, and then kissed his un-bride.

Courtney E. Martin is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her book "Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters" is forthcoming in March 2007.

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