It's supposed to be the perfect day. Everyone says so.
For women, the indoctrination begins early: first with Disney movies - pre-woke-princess era of Elsa and Moana - then romantic comedies, watched at sleepovers with a dozen other swooning teenage girls. As women approach peak bridal age, targeted Facebook ads step in with the same message: At your wedding, you should be the happiest you've ever been.
Except maybe you're not.
Weddings consistently rank as one of the most stressful events in a person's life - right up there with divorce and major injury or death. But while most brides feel free to grumble about all the hard work that goes into planning a wedding, any negative post-game discussion is generally considered taboo, said Maddie Eisenhart, the chief revenue officer for the wedding website a Practical Wedding.
"When people ask, 'How was your wedding?,' we don't know how to say anything other than 'amazing.' We don't have that language," Eisenhart said. On their wedding day, brides often feel an intense pressure to achieve "emotional perfection," Eisenhart said. "If you have any kind of mixed emotions about the event, it's like, well, I personally failed at my one job - which was to be joyful all day long."
But even for brides who are head-over-heels in love, a wedding is not always five hours of pure giddy happiness. First, there is the basic logistical stress of orchestrating an event for, on average - on average! - 167 guests. Most brides (and it is still almost always the bride who plans the wedding) have never planned a formal event. Unless the bride can afford to hire a professional, she'll probably be the one coordinating with the caterer, the florist, the photographer, the officiant - telling everyone where to go and what to do, and figuring out a plan B when something inevitably goes wrong.
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"It just sucked," said Laine Barnes, who got married in 2018 in rural Georgia, handling most of the logistics on her own. Many of her guests had to cancel because of a hurricane that hit a few days before the wedding. Then the caterer changed his recipes without telling her. "I remember how disgusting the food was. I loved the coconut rice at the tasting, but at the wedding it was like, 'Oh my god, what is this?'" Barnes fixated on the rice - and exactly how much she'd paid for it - all day.
There is also the inevitable stress that comes with bringing all of the couple's friends and family members together in one room. In the weeks leading up to her wedding, Eisenhart said, several of her closest family members threatened not to come. Two days before, she got into a big fight with her mum. On the day of her wedding, she said, "it still stung."
"We think weddings exist in a bubble," Eisenhart said. "We think we'll get engaged and everyone will be on their best behaviour because it's our wedding, and why wouldn't they be?" But difficult family dynamics don't just disappear. The bride's parents might be fighting in the corner. If someone close to the couple has passed away, that person's absence will still colour the day. "I think that expectation mixed with that reality makes it hard for a lot of people," Eisenhart said.
The pressure to be completely, incandescently happy on your wedding day can make even the best wedding hard to enjoy. When Julia Carter, a senior lecturer at the University of West England, was writing her dissertation on bridal magazines, the word "perfect" cropped up in every issue. For decades, Carter said, women - and only very rarely men - have been urged to aspire to the perfect wedding: the perfect dress, the perfect hair, the perfect cake, the perfect venue. This language, she said, is fueled by the multibillion-dollar wedding industry.
"This idea of trying to attain 'perfect' is just craziness," said Gwen Helbush, a wedding planner based in Newark, California. "Why would you set yourself up for failure in that way?" Still, Helbush uses the term on her website. ("But I say your perfect wedding," she clarifies, "never just 'perfect' all by itself.")
The average cost of a wedding in the United States is a whopping $34,000, according to a 2018 survey from the wedding platform the Knot. Many couples go into debt to pay for the day. It's consistently seen as something that's just "worth it," Carter said - more important even than saving up for a house or paying off student loans.
Among brides, Carter said, "there is this commonly repeated myth that you have to have a good wedding to have a good marriage." If the wedding is full of joy and laughter, the thinking goes, so, too, will the marriage. Even if brides recognise that it's absolutely ridiculous to think one good night could actually make or break a lifelong relationship, Carter said, the myth - and the suspicion that various guests might buy into it - ratchets up the pressure.
And then, on top of everything, there is the expectation that a bride should be "chill." As women are frantically trying to craft - and enjoy - the perfect wedding, they're also expected to appear nonchalant about the whole thing, lest they be deemed a "bridezilla." Particularly since the term bridezilla entered the American lexicon, via the We TV series in the early 2000s, brides have been shamed for caring too much about their weddings, Eisenhart said.
These kinds of expectations don't exist for grooms, she said, presenting a glaring "double standard."
"there is this commonly repeated myth that you have to have a good wedding to have a good marriage."
"We pretend that women are just putting on a fun show. You have to care enough to do it right, but you can't care enough to have any kind of emotional attachment to it." If things don't go well, a bride can't cry or get mad - because even though it's supposed to be her perfect day, it's also just a party. Grooms, on the other hand, are generally free to care as little or as much as they'd like.
"If you're not happy as a bride, it's just one of those things you just keep to yourself," said Lauren Jones. A few months after she got married in the fall of 2016, she had a panic attack outside of a friend's wedding, triggered by an impulse to compare her friend's wedding to her own. She couldn't stop focusing on all the things she wished she'd done differently. "You spend all this money, all these people came to see you, so if you're not happy, you feel like it's all your fault. It's embarrassing."
A wedding is life's only major milestone with just one socially acceptable emotional response, Eisenhart said. When you graduate from high school or college, have a baby, or buy a house, she says, you're allowed to dwell on the bad stuff, along with the good: losing friends, losing sleep, losing money. But a wedding is still understood to be emotionally one-dimensional.
After her own wedding, which she describes as "less than perfect," Eisenhart said, she was depressed for months, thinking about everything that went wrong. The hardest part, she said, was having to pretend like she'd had a great time. "When you can't acknowledge the experience you had, I think it makes it a lot worse. It feeds a level of anxiety."
Carter has spent years interviewing couples about their relationships. No bride has ever confessed to not enjoying her wedding. She suspects many of them had less than perfect experiences but will never admit it, even to themselves. "Even if you have a bad day, there is so much pressure to be positive that you sort of retell the story in your head," Carter said.
Eisenhart, for one, is a big proponent of "naming the thing": She has no problem admitting that her wedding day wasn't all that great. She's been happily married for 10 years. She has a house and a son. In the end, she said, other things turn out to be a whole lot more important.