Why Having a Wedding Makes Sense

Why Having a Wedding Makes Sense

On August 12, 2018, I married my beautiful wife in Vancouver, British Columbia. That sentence sounds carefree, wonderful, and full of flowery imagery, but there were a lot of intense things happening before, on, and after that date.

Here’s a summary of what was going on before:

Then came the flurry of the day itself:

Which led to some interesting insights:

Then, two weeks later:

And fast-forward six months to today:

So… uh… what happened here?

My perspective on having a wedding shifted from, “Why the hell are we doing this irrational thing; no one should do this” to, “Wow, that was absolutely an important thing for us to do; everyone should do it.”

This kind of super-flip rarely happens. It’s akin to a Trump supporter deciding to vote for Hillary Clinton because he went to one of her rallies and was moved by the energy of the space. It’s as if a lifelong climate change denier watched An Inconvenient Truth and became a fervent believer by the end credits.

You see, prior to August 12, 2018, I was a lifelong wedding denier. Sure, I loved going to friends’ weddings to celebrate their union and witness their special day (while enjoying delicious food and, ahem, plentiful beverages). But when it came to having my own wedding, I just didn’t see the utility in it.

Weddings seemed like an antiquated rite of passage, implanted into the mainstream consciousness by greedy corporate interests. Through our need for social approval, this man-made ritual became the ultimate status symbol, conducted by couples across the world to satisfy the expectations of parents, friends, and society in general.

But here I am today, writing about why having a wedding makes sense. Actually, not only does it make sense, I think it’s one of the most valuable and illuminating experiences you can possibly have with your partner.

Yes, it’s safe to say that I am now a wedding believer, which is something I never thought I’d hear myself say.

Whenever I experience a dramatic shift in my own views, I like to reflect on why it happened. This gives me a better understanding of the architecture of my cognitive blind spots. In this case, there was clearly something missing from my pre-wedding worldview. Where else might these blind spots exist in my thinking, and what if I never have a personal experience that reveals them? (This question is something to store in the back of your mind as we go through my shift from wedding denier to wedding believer.)

To start, let’s diagram my before-and-after views on weddings, then delve into each one to get a sense of how the transition took place:

Hmm, that was simpler than I thought. Okay, let’s look at the first box.

This was the default setting my mind operated on for most of my life. Here are the three main reasons why I believed having a wedding was an irrational thing to do.

The average wedding in the United States costs over $30,000. Given that the median salary in the United States is a little under $45,000, that sounded completely fucking nuts to me.

I once knew someone who was hell-bent on quitting his miserable job, but had to work at least one more year to pay off his astronomical wedding expenses. Another friend watched in horror as his wedding costs ballooned in the final month of planning, surpassing his initial budget by about 350%.

If someone told you that their budget to buy a car was $30,000, and then they pulled up in a $100,000 vehicle, you would probably have some questions.

Yet when people remark on how ridiculously expensive and over-budget their weddings were, we accept that it’s “just the way these things work.”

These illogical norms have resulted in today’s wedding industrial complex, a staggering $76 billion industry of event planners, DJs, caterers, photographers, etc., that can be hired to build the infrastructure of your dream day. Greedy corporations have gamed our desire for social status, successfully disguising weddings as rational justifications for irrational expenditures of money. I believed that having a wedding of my own would just be me contributing to the fat pockets of this enterprise, thus reinforcing its hypnotic hold over society.

I used to joke that weddings were our way of becoming A-list celebrities for a day. If you want dozens of eyes on you and endless pictures taken of you while you do nothing but exist, the best way to accomplish that is by having a wedding. In fact, being the central character of a wedding is one of the best ways to receive constant attention while putting in the least amount of effort on the day of.

I mean, you literally get a standing ovation for walking in a straight line down an aisle — the last time that happened was probably when you first learned how to walk.

I never understood why you would invite 100-plus people to your wedding, only to find yourself in a whirlwind of rushed greetings and pleasantries. What’s the point of bringing all of your closest loved ones to one location, only to have them congeal into one massive blob that strips away the unique dynamics you share with each person?

The more logical solution would be to take a small number of guests out to nice dinners to celebrate your marriage, so you could actually enjoy their company. Not only would you be able to celebrate your marriage in a way that only this particular set of loved ones can offer, but you’d probably save a lot of money.

At this point, you may be asking, “Dude, if you had such an anti-wedding sentiment going into this whole thing, then how the hell did you and your wife even decide to have a wedding to begin with?”

Good question.

Even though I did feel strongly about the general qualities of weddings, I understood why our families and loved ones would find such a day important and valuable. I didn’t want to deny them the opportunity to be a part of something special. It also helped that our parents are not overbearing and controlling people, and they didn’t try to make us do anything that we didn’t want to do.

With that said, I still largely saw the wedding as something that just needed to get done so everyone could get together and have a good time. In order to do this properly, my wife and I had to send invites, book things, and plan stuff, which involved some undercurrents of stress and urgency as June became July, and July rapidly became August.

Next thing I knew, it was the morning of August 12, the day of the wedding.

Since I’d run out of things to tell myself, I settled upon the clichéd mantra “Be present” and went out to experience the day:

Wow. It was 14 hours of fun, happy tears, and good vibes. It’s tough to describe the experience without using an array of clichés, but it was indeed something special.

After a sustained outpouring of emotion like that, it’s natural to walk away thinking the whole thing was fucking amazing. All the good music, the dancing, the congratulatory messages, the repeated “I love you”s that are usually pushed down to the depths of the soul… This all leads to a dopamine rush that can color your experience of the entire day.

Even though I intuitively felt like the wedding was great, I wanted to take some time to reflect on it because sadly, our memories aren’t as reliable as we’d like them to be. You see, when you experience a blend of events all at once, the mind has a tricky tendency to pick a few emotionally charged moments, and those moments define your memory of the experience as a whole.

For every photograph of my wife and I laughing wildly at our wedding, there was an uncaptured moment from months prior where we were back home, stressfully planning logistics. For every loved one throwing their limbs out on the dance floor, those very limbs had been stuck on a crowded airplane a day earlier, flying out to Vancouver to spend the day with us.

Like all notable experiences, the process of having the wedding was a landscape of peaks and valleys, and I needed to take a step back to see if the whole thing ultimately made sense. Is a wedding the greatest example of industry profiting off a loophole in our psychology? Is it an outdated cultural artifact, kept in place by our need for social approval? Or is there something truly special about weddings? Is there a unique kind of wisdom a couple can glean through having a wedding?

After much reflection, it’s clear to me that the latter is true. Here are three reasons why.

As I grow older, one thing becomes increasingly clear: The most valuable resource we have is our time.

Some may argue that money is more important, but what more is money than a crude surrogate for our time? We give money to restaurants because we don’t want to spend the time required to make that delicious food ourselves. We hire someone to build a website so we don’t have to spend time learning how to do it. And we ourselves are hired to spend a number of hours each day at work, trading our time to do things that someone else would rather not.

Time isn’t money. Time is attention, and how we spend it dictates the direction of our lives. Often, we are simply trading time for things we want: spending an hour at a restaurant for lunch, searching online for a new pair of shoes, working somewhere solely for the paycheck. I call these sorts of exchanges “time expenditures,” where each unit of time is spent for an immediate, expected return.

But not all time is spent equally. There are certain areas of our lives where the preciousness of time is heightened, and this awareness allows you to approach the concept of time more mindfully. Not only are you more aware of how you’re spending it, but you are more grateful when others give it to you as well.

I like to call these moments “time investments.” This is when you dedicate sustained periods of time to people or endeavors that bring you long-term satisfaction. The return you get from this investment does not come immediately, but more as a consistent, ever-morphing route toward happiness. When we spend time doing challenging yet meaningful work, or seeing the friends we truly love, we are investing our precious resource to cultivate trust within these spaces.

These investments collectively fall into what I call the “Happiness Portfolio.”

All of us have a Happiness Portfolio — a mixed bag of loved ones, work endeavors, and interests that we invest time in. This is akin to investing in individual companies to build a stock portfolio, but I’d argue that the Happiness Portfolio is more consequential. Successful stock investments yield wealth, but successful time investments yield meaning.

As a couple, the best way to build your collective Happiness Portfolio is to spend time with the people you love. Maybe you host a family dinner for someone’s birthday or go to a friend’s place to play board games. Not only are you investing your own time, but you are receiving an investment from the people you care about. Your bond with your partner is reinforced by people who truly want the best for you, as the success of your partnership directly contributes to the success of their own Happiness Portfolios.

While you can see glimmers of this dynamic on a day-to-day basis, nowhere is it more apparent than on your wedding day. If occasional meals with friends are like small investments in your Happiness Portfolio, your wedding day is like going public on the stock market. You receive a massive investment of time and love, all in one day.

Your wedding gathers your friends and family in one space, bringing together people who would have no reason to interact if it weren’t for you and your partner. They could be anywhere else in the world at that moment, but they have chosen to invest their most precious resource — their time — into celebrating a union that they hope will endure.

This point was particularly poignant for my wife and I because 95% of our guests had to fly in for our wedding in Canada. We were unable to have our wedding in our country of residence (the United States) for logistical reasons, which meant that most guests had to book flights, find accommodations, and adjust work schedules.

Knowing the effort our guests put in to attend our wedding, I felt a wave of gratitude sweep over me when I saw all the faces gathered together on that Sunday afternoon. To know that each face represented an effortful intention to be there; that they had to go through that daunting machine in the airport where you throw up the Jay-Z ROC sign, that they coordinated with other friends to find an Airbnb, that many even flew in early to help us with last-minute preparations… All these things made me feel like we were receiving a piece of everyone’s time and love in a truly visceral way.

It struck me then that a wedding is not about you or your partner — it’s about everyone else. It’s to celebrate the impact your loved ones have had on your ability to grow together, and to reaffirm the investments in one another’s Happiness Portfolios. Sure, you might only get to spend two minutes with each guest, but each loved one gets to spend a whole day understanding the foundation of who you are through your precious relationships.

A wedding is not about the egos of you and your partner; it’s about sincerely thanking everyone for shaping you into the people you are today.

Despite our ability to think our way through problems, humans are pretty bad at abstraction; we usually like something concrete to ground our ideas and beliefs. Our day-to-day experiences are too varied and vast for our minds to retain everything in a concrete way, so we tend to store symbolic memories that represent those experiences.

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist, formalizes this concept as the “experiencing self” versus the “remembering self.” The experiencing self knows only the present moment, while the remembering self represents the story that is told about that event afterward.

We tend to prioritize the importance of the present moment (the experiencing self) over our recollection of it (the remembering self), an approach Kahneman himself agreed with for a long time. However, in a recent conversation, he said he now believes that how we remember things is actually more important to life satisfaction than how we experience them in the moment:

Whether or not you agree with Kahneman here, I think his point is especially poignant when explaining the value of having a wedding. The real-time experience of the wedding is a blur; you can be grounded in the present throughout the entire day, but still miss 80% of what’s going on around you. The importance of a wedding is more about the memories, and what they symbolize for you and your partner moving forward.

The day also serves as an experiment that helps to answer some key questions for the road ahead:

A wedding is probably the only event where all three of those big questions can be answered in a way that you can truly feel. You’ll receive the answers piece by piece as the day progresses. And the more concrete the yeses are, the more empowering the wedding becomes as an enduring symbol of support for your marriage.

This powerful symbolism of the wedding is what makes it so important long after the day has passed. It marks a moment in time when the net of support has been cast, with each of your loved ones acting as a node in this net. It’s something you can reference as you move forward with your partner and start making big life changes, like leaving a job, moving to a new city, and having children.

When I look at the photos from my own wedding, I see them as little totems that remind me of the net of support I’m so fortunate to have.

I used to believe that the spectrum of wedding budgets looked like this:

However, it really looks more like this:

It can range anywhere from throwing a small backyard barbecue to having a ceremony in a castle overlooking the shores of Spain. What ultimately matters is what you and your partner want, and planning a wedding brings your individual priorities to the forefront. It also serves as a litmus test for some of the most important questions you will address throughout your relationship:

It’s funny how weddings are something we do to signify the start of a marriage, instead of something we do to celebrate one that has already proven successful. Usually we work up to the difficult questions in life, gathering the answers through years of experience. However, marriages start by tossing the couple into the deep end of the pool, forcing them to work through challenging situations right away.

This is probably why so many couples use the word “stressful” to describe their experience of planning a wedding. Not only is there a lot to coordinate, but you also have to navigate uncharted territory when it comes to understanding your partner’s needs, priorities, and values. The challenge of being someone’s boyfriend may have been about putting the toilet seat down after taking a piss; the challenge of being someone’s husband is about fostering a healthy relationship with the in-laws. Some next level shit right there.

As the expectations of yourself and others mount, it will become apparent that you and your partner are aligned on certain things and not on others. It’s best to pinpoint these asymmetries as they arise, since they are likely to have implications beyond your wedding day. One way I like to think of this is to take the spectrum above, apply it to some of the questions I listed earlier, and map where you’re both at. For example:

How do you communicate your frustrations to each other?

What if your parents don’t agree with the direction of the wedding?

How well do you budget your funds?

These are important questions that will steer the course of your marriage. They will drive decisions from which restaurants you frequent, to the cars you buy, to how you raise your children. And sometimes, it may surprise you to realize how unaligned your views are on some really important things.

Of course, you don’t need to have a wedding to illuminate the answers to these hard questions. A lot of them can be unearthed as you simply go about life together. However, if you’ve decided to have a wedding anyway, this is an opportunity to face these questions head-on. Going through life on opposite sides of important issues is probably a shitty experience, so having a comprehensive understanding of where you both stand is a good thing to do sooner rather than later.

The choices you make for your wedding can ripple outward to future life decisions, as well. For example, my wife and I made an effort to put our families (specifically our parents) at the forefront of our wedding banquet. Fast-forward to today — we have left California to spend a prolonged period of time in Korea with family. We also made it a point to stay within the budget we set, but we weren’t a stickler for every dollar; this perspective has translated into how we manage our collective finances today.

I learned a lot from our asymmetries as well. I once flipped out on my wife because she told me the pants I’d ordered for the wedding weren’t the greatest fit. Once I took a step back, I realized that I had just flipped out over some fucking pants. It helped me recognize that when it came to stress, I still had some work to do, and this point has stuck with me.

The process of planning and having a wedding will reveal many things about yourself and your partner — some will be good, some will be bad, but most will be worthwhile to explore. As someone who used to be adamantly against having a wedding, it turns out that the main reasons I thought weddings were dumb don’t hold much weight after all. Weddings are only super expensive if that’s what you and your partner want (we didn’t), they’re ultimately about your loved ones (not your ego), you get to reaffirm your net of support through an abundant Happiness Portfolio, and you answer some difficult but necessary questions about yourselves through the process.

The hardest part about having a wedding is not the wedding itself, but having the right person there beside you on that day. Choosing to spend your life with someone can be daunting, but if done mindfully, it can be empowering and awesome. If you’ve chosen your partner correctly, it doesn’t matter where you have the wedding or how you put it together.

Just be prepared to have a great time.

Why Having a Wedding Makes Sense

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