Ask Team Practical: Private Wedding Ceremonies

It’s Ask Team Practical Friday with Alyssa! Hooray! Today we’re discussing private ceremonies, and how it’s ok to say your vows at city hall… and not re-stage them for the merriment of your guests later on, if it’s not meaningful to you. We’re also talking about learning to stand firm on what matters to your new baby family, all while taking your families’ feelings into account. So, how do you tell your mother that you’re having a private ceremony, and family won’t be attending? Read on, dear reader, read on…

As I dive into the APW archives, I notice that so many of the wedding graduates make a big deal out of the actual wedding ceremony, with at most half of the attention on the reception.  Is it kosher to not have the ceremony?  My fiance and I are planning on having a courthouse ceremony with two people as witnesses (with neither of them being family), and then having a big party for everyone. Of course, I haven’t actually mentioned this to said family yet, as we’re in planning stages. One of our reasons for doing this is that we want no religion involved whatsoever.  My guy is atheist, I’m polytheist, his mom’s Orthodox Christian, my grandmother’s Catholic, etc. We don’t want to try to please  that crowd! So can I get advice on How To Tell Your Mother She’s Not Going To Your Wedding Ceremony?

~Confused and Tormented

Welcome, CAT!  Since we here at APW are huge fans of elopements and city hall weddings, you’re in the right place.

Before we dive in, I want to make a quick point. Don’t feel that marriage and religion are so hopelessly intertwined that you can’t have one without the other.  You most definitely can have a secular ceremony and craft vows and procedure that remove that which you do not believe from the equation. And telling your mom that you’re having a secular ceremony might prove to be easier than telling her she’s not coming to your ceremony. But that’s something you can do if you want to. Which you don’t. So, we’re moving on…

Now. On to what you’re actually asking. The best thing you can do is make your decision and stick with it.  You’re going to have people who will exclaim and gasp over your private courthouse ceremony, but let them. People do a separate ceremony and reception all the time. The hard part will be getting your immediate family to understand that they won’t be there for the ceremony. For most families, ceremony is an important part of a ritual that they expect to witness. Telling them that they won’t be witnessing it can be a blow. Be understanding of that, even as you hold firm.  Remember that, for your parents, society and their heart have told them what their role  in your wedding will be, and any deviation from that can make them a little nutty (and may be really emotionally hard for them). So, make sure your parents understand why you decided on this. Be very clear that it’s not a decision to exclude them, it’s a decision made in the best interests of you and your partner. This isn’t the first time you’re going to make a decision as a baby family that your family of origin might not agree with.

And be respectful. You have every right to have the ceremony that you decide on, but they also have every right to be sad about that decision. Not keeping their feelings in mind is the quickest way to turn this into a standoff – complete with yelling, hurt feelings and Aunt Mabel calling you “on your mother’s behalf.”  Remind them that you still want to have a party and celebrate the marriage. And make sure that you point out this is something that the TWO of you want. If a family member even gets a whiff of hesitation in one of you, they might assume that one of you is pressuring the other to go to city hall. Stay united and firm in your choice. It’s excellent practice for… well, the rest of your life, actually.

And it might not be an issue. Once they have time to think it over, your families might be happy with the fact they get to just have a big ol’ party in celebration of your marriage.

Before we’re done, a few tips:

  • Do not let anyone talk you into doing a replay of the ceremony at the party so they can see you do your vows (unless that’s something that’s meaningful to you). Yes, your mom might want to actually see you say the words, “I do,” but  like I’m sure she taught you, life is full of disappointments. Re-enacting your wedding won’t give her the experience she thinks she’ll be missing. Just tell them that you respect your vows, and saying them again just for the pleasure of an audience would lessen the experience for you.
  • On that same note, don’t let anyone talk you into having a traditional reception that you don’t want, because you “didn’t give them the ceremony.”  Yes, make concessions on less-important things when necessary to keep people happy and make your guests feel welcome, but don’t feel compelled to compromise on the whole reception. Letting your grandmother turn your imagined buffet barbeque dance party into a formal sit-down dinner because she doesn’t get to see you say “I do” could possibly make you more miserable than just having the damn church ceremony she’d been gunning for.
  • Think about having your ceremony and then having a lunch or dinner with close friends and family afterward.  Being with you shortly after your vows might make them feel closer to the actual event and lessen impact of not being there.  They don’t get the vows, but they do get to see you two with the glow of love still on your faces and hear all about the long lines at city hall and how the Justice of the Peace had horrid breath.
  • Remember, when times get tough, and your partner’s sister has rudely said for the fifth time how she could NEVER have a courthouse wedding, that this is a decision you made with the best of intentions.  You would not be able to make everyone happy with your choices, even if you had a typical wedding in a church.  (For evidence of that, see pretty much every dang wedding grad post.)  Make yourselves as happy as possible, as long as it’s not at the expense of others, and you will be fine.
  • Take pictures.  I don’t care if you think you don’t care, make sure you have at least one off-kilter, blurry, blissful shot of the two of you on your wedding day. Even if you never share it with anyone else, you’ll want a picture to remember those two crazy kids in love.

And remember Lindsey‘s friend Bea’s lovely wise words: “My first wedding was arranged in four days and we were very happy until he was taken from me. My second wedding only had five people and that was extremely happy also. So you see you do not need all the fuss to be happy.”

So, Team Practical, who here has had an unattended ceremony?  Raise your hands.  Now put them down and start typing comments and helping CAT.  How did you deal with telling family and friends?  Any logistical tips for the couple?

If you would like to ask Team Practical a question please don’t be shy! You can email Alyssa at: askteampractical [at] apracticalwedding [dot] com.  If you would prefer to not be named, anonymous questions are also accepted.  Though we prefer if you make up a totally ridiculous sign-off like conflicted and rageful but deeply in love in Detroit (CARBDILID, duh).  We’re not kidding.  It brings us joy.  What, you don’t want to bring your editors JOY?!?

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  • Amy March

    I think one thing to consider is just how important this is to you, and how important it is to your mother. I know for my mother (whose own mother died when she was a girl) to not see me get married would break her heart. I also know that it would change our relationship permanently. I think sometimes we can get wrapped up in the idea of not owing anyone a wedding, which I fully support, and lose sight of the fact that when we take actions in our lives knowing they will hurt the people we love deep in their souls, we lose a piece of them.

    Now, maybe your families don’t share this view of weddings at all, and will be mildly miffed instead of deeply wounded- I just think its important to really focus on how you will feel if 10 years down the road, you just don’t have the same closeness with your families you had wanted. And maybe consider a courthouse wedding with your immediate families there? Or having a non-religious person marry you somewhere neutral (one of my friends is a judge, and she loves officiating at secular weddings in part because they can happen really cool places- like underneath an amazing bridge).

    I agree with Alyssa’s advice that once you’ve made your decision to stick to it, but it just doesn’t sound to me (from your brief message- maybe you’ve totally already done this) like you’ve really considered every option and outcome, and I think doing that work will make it easier for you to tell your families- no, this is the only way for us, we hope you understand.

    • I think it is good to consider the family reaction at least a little. One of my closest friends always said she wanted a very small wedding, and knew she could never have it if she tried to plan it with her mother. (Her mom is very outgoing and loves big parties.) She and her husband eloped, which was a great decision for them–it was a very intimate, lovely day–but it’s caused some problems with her family. Tensions are subsiding, but it’s taken years. I’m not sure what I would have done in her position, but I think it’s something you need to take into account.

      • I just want to caution everyone on assuming the reader hasn’t thought through her decision. These comments are great for those on the fence, but CAT really isn’t and to suggest she needs to think it through more is unfair and I know that’s not y’all’s intent.

        • Oh definitely! I was thinking more of people who are generally thinking of having a very private ceremony or eloping. I’m sure CAT will still run into tensions as well (what wedding experience doesn’t?) but hopefully if she’s open and honest, her family will understand.

    • anonymous

      I agree. I basically agree with this post, but even if I had said “this is not to exclude you, it is a decision for us” (I didn’t, because we wanted a very well-attended public ceremony, but just hypothetically), well, I might feel that way but nothing I could say would make my family understand that, believe it, agree with it or accept it. It just would not happen. Ever.

      And that’s OK – I mean they don’t understand how I am so profoundly not religious and never will – but I would also have to accept that it WOULD permanently change our relationship. I don’t think they would have disowned me but it would have turned the relationship a little permanently sour. They would never truly forgive me, and we never would be as close. It would be something of a partial and permanent emotional estrangement.

      And no way I could have phrased it or other things I could have done would have changed that one jot (this I know in my soul)…

      …which is fine, seeing as that’s not how we roll anyway. My point is that if I had wanted to follow this advice, which, again, I do agree with, it wouldn’t have worked out fine in the end. It would have ended with me somewhat permanently distanced, against my will, from my family.

    • carrie

      I very much agree. The only thing I wanted to add that I haven’t seen yet is the issue of saying very private vows to your partner in front of a few or a ton of people. We chose are vows based on our officiant’s options, and found some that were incredibly meaningful (need to start practicing so we can’t get some crying out of the way!) but they aren’t personal in that there is no, “I love the way you .” I don’t want to say some of those things in front of everyone b/c they are for me and David, and I have said them to him and will say them again and often, in private. Our semi-generic vows are personal for us and the crowd and helped me feel like there were still some things that were just for us.

      I don’t feel like this is worded very well, but I hope the message comes across. In any case, good luck and congrats!

    • liz

      i’m sorta with you, amy. i always feel mildly uncomfortable when i read these kinds of apw posts because half of me is all, “YESSS. go with your gut. rock that private ceremony.” and the other half of me is nervously tugging my collar, all, “yeesh, that would never fly in my house.”

      i would think that it’s the kind thing where you need to look just a bit further down the road. which is going to have the most impact in 10 years? the fact that you had your meaningful and personal ceremony, or the fact that your parents weren’t there? the answer to that question is going to be different for everyone.

      but dear cat didn’t ask us if she SHOULD. she asked us what to do when she DOES. and alyssa’s advice is (as always) dead on.

      • meg

        Correct. Trust me, that wouldn’t fly in my house either. And part of me wants to be like, “consider your mama!” But. She didn’t ask if it would fly in my house, she didn’t ask us to weigh in on her family life, she asked how to make it work for her. So that’s the advice we’re giving.

        Also, so y’all know, we do edit letters to fit this format. So just because you’re reading a short note, that doesn’t mean that a long heartfelt letter wasn’t written, or it wasn’t thought through.

  • I don’t have any practical advice, as I’m not married yet, but I just wanted to say yay! My partner and I have been slowly talking over the idea of marriage for (freaking ever) ahem, a while, and we’ve decided that we will probably go this route, potentially including skipping out on the party. He’s super-uncomfortable with the idea of making such a deeply personal and private commitment in front of everyone we know and love, and honestly the more I thought about it, the more I realised that I felt the same way – how on earth would I ever be able to say the word “lover” in front of my grandma?

    Anyways, even though this is all conjecture, I had been stressing over what my mom would think – I’m an only child, and I’ve heard a lot about moms getting, well, rather loopy about weddings. But the topic came up recently, and when I told her, she broke out into a huge grin and said, “I alway figured that if you ever got married, you’d do exactly that! I would’ve been shocked if you had wanted a stereotypical wedding.” so your family might surprise you – my family has certainly known me long enough to know that I’m allergic to doing what other people do, and yours is probably already suspecting that you’re the type to do what’s best for you, instead of going with tradition.

    Good luck, and I can’t wait to see your wedding grad at city hall post!

    • Ha, my mom and I had a very similar discussion. The Fella and I have been easing more and more into marriage talk over the past few years, and I know that the very idea of a big church wedding with rows of people staring at us would make him pee his pants (he’s very uncomfortable in big social situations, even more so if he’s the center of attention). However, I know that religion is paramount to my mom. So, we were discussing imaginary wedding plans one day and I said something about how I didn’t think we’d even get married in a church because he would spaz out, and she says “Oh, totally. You should just have a small backyard thing and then have a reception.” And I was AMAZED because I never thought that would even be in the realm of possibility of something she would be cool with.

      Of course, from there it devolved into how if there isn’t a pastor there to officiate, she won’t be helping to pay for whatever ceremony/reception combo we come up with, so it wasn’t COMPLETELY a win. But I guess we’ll cross that bridge whenever we come to it, whether it’s next year or six years from now.

      Anyway! I totally agree–your momma might surprise you after all and be totally cool with how you want to do things. :)

    • meg

      Yay moms. Is all. Yay your mom.

    • Mel

      “my family has certainly known me long enough to know that I’m allergic to doing what other people do”

      This is awesome, and I am exactly the same way!

  • Amanda

    Well, I am not sure if our experience can be of any help, but here it goes. First of all, my family lives in a different country (across the ocean) than that in which hubs and I are living. Because of logistic reasons, it was not possible to have the civil wedding on the same date or around the dates that we were planning to have the rest of the wedding (church and small reception). Also, hubs is very shy and for him, going to city hall and just get married on a random week day would have been perfect (we did not even know that “elopement” was the term for it). So turns out that if we did not want to wait for months and months, the next available date was in May, while the rest of it, where family and friends were invited, was to take place in September. So we took the date in May, and planned to go there, us 2, plus our witnesses, 4 people in all. Well… when I told my mom that the legal wedding was to take place in May, she was like , OK, we are coming. And she made sure to be here. In the end we had a small civil wedding (of course bigger than we originally planned, 16 people in all, with both parents, grandma, an uncle and witnesses). It is not like our wedding was a secret, and we were not determined to be all by ourselves, so I guess what I am saying is, let things happen, perhaps it is not such a huge big deal if your close ones come (I mean immediate family) and for them it could mean the world. Thinking back, it was a day full of joy and I was extremely happy to be able to be there with my parents and close ones. After city hall we went for cake at our favorite cafe, and that was it, simple and happy.

    • Steph

      That sounds kind of like my college friend’s city hall wedding. About 16 of us, watching them get married at city hall and then a small family dinner afterwards. It was beautiful…
      To CAT I wish I had words of advice, but this is completely out of my realm of experience. But I am holding good thoughts for you that everything works out the way you and hubby want in the end. HUGS

    • Hoppy Bunny

      I agree with this sentiment. I think a nice option would be to let your immediate family know that you are having a completely secular, no ifs-ands-or-buts marriage ceremony. And that they are welcome to attend if they want to, but that you will in no way involve God because you want your ceremony to be a meaningful start to the union you will have. And that if they are not cool with attending a secular ceremony without tossing in a small Amen then they can skip it without hurting your feelings.

      Telling them that not attending a ceremony they may not agree with won’t hurt your feelings makes it seem like it’s something you all agree on, and shows them that you’ve taken their beliefs and emotions into consideration while asking them to return the favor.

  • We had to have a ceremony separate from the celebration because our reception was in CA, which does not currently allow same sex couples to marry. We reside in NY so we had a town hall wedding in CT. My wife’s family all wanted to come to the ceremony but we were firm (but nice) from the beginning that it was only going to be the two of us. If you waiver at all or just inform people that this is what you are thinking of doing then they will jump all over it. If you are definitive in your decision then they may complain a bit but probably won’t try to change your mind.

    Our decision was to have our own private ceremony exchanging our vows (no witnesses at all – just us and the Justice of the Peace) and then we did a second ceremony at a later date just as we wanted it in front of our guests. This one didn’t require an officiant as we were already married. If circumstances were different and we could have been legally married at our wedding I don’t know that I would have done it any differently. It was so wonderful having that private experience and again wonderful expressing our commitment in from of our family and friends.

    • I think being firm is so important. Like you said, if you waiver, people will try to change your mind in some way. And then the people who respect your wishes will feel hurt as well! It sounds like it worked out really well for you guys.

    • meg

      Love this. And thanks for de-stigmatizing the private ceremony.

  • Claire

    This situation really resonates with me as I was the one hell bent on an elopement and convinced that fundamentalist Christian missionary family would never understand our need for a completely non-religious ceremony. Besides wanting to avoid the inevitable religious showdown, I was also slightly terrified of standing up in front of a crowd of people watching me make the most intimate declarations of love and devotion. Yep, a private ceremony was definitely my plan. BUT. Then my husband sat me down and explained how very much he wanted our loved ones witness our commitment and how deeply important and meaningful it would be for his grandparents, parents and step-parents to be present and included. So I agreed to try to get over my fear of public speaking, and we both agreed to co-write a ceremony that felt like an honest reflection of our (secular humanist) values and stand strongly together against the pressure to include religious elements that did not ring true for us. Well, guess what? That pressure never came! My family blew me away by graciously embracing our secular plans and never even mentioned our godlessness. Not once. Instead of fighting us, they happily pinned on their white ribbons (shocking my socks off, if I had been wearing socks), cried happily through our short ceremony, and enveloped us with the most amazing love and support I could have imagined. My husband was right about how important and meaningful it was to be surrounded by our community as we opened that next chapter in our story. Being a generally snarky, cynical person, I was also shocked by how huge it felt for me. I am so grateful I didn’t miss out on that experience due to my expectations for family strife. Might not be the case for you, so definitely go with what is right for the both of you. best of luck!

    • MissT

      My (now) husband and I cringed at every church wedding that we attended when we thought about having god in our ceremony (and also the inevitable anti-feminist language or assumptions of either the religion or the officiant). But one of the coolest things about the (secular humanist) ceremony that we eventually made up from scratch was just that we got to stand up in front of everyone we love and be as ridiculously, fabulously in love and loud about that love as possible. It’s really the one day where you can go on and on about your life partner and how awesome everything is between the two of you and everyone else not only doesn’t get grossed out or politely change the subject to something more interesting to them, but they actually join in the love talk. We had our friend who knew both of us and introduced us officiate and talk about how great we are, we had friends reading and singing, and our own made up vows, and never ever heard the annoying g-word and never had anything that didn’t assume that we are not fundamentally equals in our ability to love and provide for each other. We did get a lot of space from family when we said “we are going to plan our own ceremony,” and they really let us take it and run with it although I suspect in secret motherly hearts there were some church weddings a la Sound of Music that silently were put to rest. But in the end, even with everyone’s participation, the ceremony was really only about the two of us and if you want to do it your way and your way is no ceremony – you should do it! Because whatever you and your partner plan, it is sure to be wonderful if it is what you want.

  • We had a legal, private ceremony in the District of Columbia and then our actual wedding in Maryland (stupid most of America lacking in gay rights). We wanted the legal ceremony to be very small and quick. I think it took 5 minutes before we went to our rehearsal and the witnesses were two members of the bridal brigade who needed a ride to the venue. My main regret is not actually telling my family that we were doing it but we didn’t want families there because we wanted our actual wedding the next day to be the focus, not the “injustice ceremony” (as the wife likes to call it). Our officiant declared us “legally married in a private ceremony in DC” and my stomach dropped a little. No one’s noticed or cared enough to say anything about it, but I would have felt better had I just mentioned to my mother ‘oh yeah, we’re walking to the DC state line and doing paperwork on the other side.’ (My wife told all of her family this beforehand, so it was just my side)

    Also I’m Pagan, the wife is non-practicing Christian, her parents are Presbyterian, mine are hippie Catholic and we crafted a lovely, non-denominational ceremony that talked about divinity without specifically naming it (the UUs are great for things like that if you want to look it up). Granted, when a couple of chicks get married, I think a lot of religious expectations are thrown out the window, but just to keep in mind that if you did want to try to put together a ceremony that family could accept (if not be enthusiastic about). Anyway, that’s just a thought, not a suggestion. Best of luck!.

    • meg

      We went to a family wedding where the civil ceremony was like this (similar reason… everyone in our family seems to get married by lesbian rabbi’s and this rabbi wouldn’t perform civil ceremonies for gay rights issues). We went, and WHOA. They kept saying “This isn’t the real thing, who cares, you don’t have to come, whatever.” Yeah. It was by FAR the most moving part of the whole wedding weekend for me. It was pretty real stuff. I was crying all over the place… and the big party ceremony wasn’t like that for me at all.

      So! Moral of the story! If you’re doing a civil service, even if it’s not your choice, you might want to allow for the chance that it might be really meaningful.

  • Christy

    My fiance and I got engaged a year ago and we’re just now nailing down the wedding details (next May). Our lives are busy and complex and have included a major job change, two relocations and much work-related insanity between now and then. At first I just wanted to get married, quickly and privately and have a reception later. My mom and sister were so disappointed at the idea that I thought, “well, maybe a small group of people and then a reception later,” and then I thought, “oh gee, well, then where do I make the cut-off? Do I not invite my best friend of 35 years because I wanted it to be small? Do I ask the people I do want there to travel twice to two different places?” It all got very complicated and I started to feel bone-tired every time I thought of it, so I kept putting any kind of planning at all on hold even though I am dying to be married to my fiance. I couldn’t find any way to split the reception and the ceremony that felt right.

    He and I finally decided to have the ceremony that we wanted and let our guests be part of it. We aren’t religious, and I don’t like being the center of attention. We aren’t having attendants, and people aren’t even sitting down. Our guests may not get the show that they want, but it feels right to me. My mother doesn’t have permission to find fault with my decision and so she hasn’t.

    Anyway, this is just a long way of saying that there really isn’t any right or wrong way to do all of this, and it’s OK to let your initial “wants” to morph while you think and plan. If you have a very strong preference or conviction, just tell people that’s the way it’s going to be and go for it. If you don’t invite them to provide input, they probably won’t (or at least they’ll provide less). But don’t feel like you have to stay with your initial vision just because it was your initial vision.

    • “But don’t feel like you have to stay with your initial vision just because it was your initial vision.”


      And changing your mind, or going down a different path isn’t a sign of weakness or even caving in. The first choice is not always the one that’s meant to be and that’s ok

  • Rhiannon

    My litmus test for being ready to get married was the city hall wedding with no witnesses. I can easily get wrapped up in planning and love big parties so I feared getting swept-up only to realize that i had made the wrong choice. I knew that, for me, being 100 % OK with a small private ceremony was the true indicator of being ready for this commitment. In the end the Boy wanted the big public wedding, that was his indicator, so we went with that. I think my family would have felt left out but would have understood had we gone small.

    Ultimately, its your choice to make this lifetime commitment to each other and you need to do what feels right to you both. It is your life, your promise and you and your partner who will be making this thing work.

    Also, “family of origin”, love it! it is my new favorite phrase.

    • Molly

      I am coming out of APW lurker-dom to say that I completely agree with the litmus test thing. I am pre-engaged (I guess? Weird to say out loud.) and I LOVE parties, weddings, stationery, pretty dresses, flowers, planning events, and wedding blogs (I found APW by following links from total WIC porn sites.). Even though I can’t ever imagine doing a courthouse wedding, I ask myself if I would want to marry my boyfriend if it were just the two of us in jeans with no flowers or even pictures (gasp!) in front of a judge. Once I can unequivocally say I wouldn’t mind getting married with nothing but a judge, a hair tie ring, and a signature on a document, that’s when I’ll know I don’t just want a white dress and a party but a marriage.

  • I agree: if you make a decision, do not waiver in it. When people see a smidgen of hope only have to have it again crushed, that’s when feelings REALLY get hurt.

    I also firmly believe family can surprise you – especially families of the loving variety. It doesn’t mean always, it isn’t a certain, but they absolutely can.

    My gay uncle walked me down the aisle. He & his partner were involved in our religious ceremony. I was worried they would feel uncomfortable, politely pass, but instead they jumped all over it with open arms because we are all family. My ceremony may have not fit their beliefs or life, but I fit their life, and they were honored to be involved.

    Every family is different. And yes, maybe they were more willing to be involved because they are more liberal than a conservative family. BUT! My uncle’s partner of a bazillion years has refused to come to South Texas for every other holiday and family function because he steadfastly believed “we all hated gay people…. except Melissa and her mom.”

    But he still came. And he was showered with love and showered us with plenty in return and had the mother loving time of his life at our wedding.

    SO. I wish for you, dear CAT, the happiest wedding and for a family who will shower you with love, no matter how your ceremony reads. At the end of the day, you are still marrying the one you want to be with forever.

  • Erin

    I would just like to weigh in on the option of having a secular ceremony. My husband and I are atheist/agnostic, and most of his family is Catholic. We wanted a ceremony, but we didn’t want something really generic, and we wanted no mention of religion. With the help of the internet and a book called The Wedding Ceremony Planner (which is basically a list of the important parts of a ceremony, with tons of options for each section), I crafted a beautiful, personal, secular ceremony. It meant a lot more to us than a courthouse wedding, which we also considered. We had my husband’s uncle, who is a Catholic Deacon in another state, perform the actual ceremony, and we had a friend who was ordained online sign our paperwork. It was perfect, and tons of people have asked us for copies of the ceremony.

    So, if you do secretly want a ceremony, but just can’t figure out how to do it, take heart. It can totally be done. On the other hand, if you really don’t want to deal with it, go for the courthouse wedding, and just try to be patient and kind when explaining it to your family.

    • Anonymous

      My (now) husband and I used the The Wedding Ceremony Planner book as well – I was completely overwhelmed with the thought of planning/writing our ceremony, and the book was super helpful!

  • I’ve been to a couple of weddings where the ceremony was private and I was invited to the reception right after or a party at a later date.

    It is totally valid and I don’t think any of your guests will have a problem with it (apart from your immediate family who expect to be there). My disappointment came with the fact that it felt like a run of the mill party rather than a wedding reception. Maybe that is what you are looking for, but to me it seemed to lack the monumental feeling of a wedding. Which I personally love. And maybe if there were toasts and dancing and other trappings of a wedding reception it would have felt more special.

    But again, maybe you want the more casual vibe and that is fine too. If you do want it to have more of a wedding feeling, consider doing some of the toasts/speeches/first dances/dancing/ etc.

  • My best friend from high school did this. In her faith, only those of the same faith can be present at their wedding. Her husband’s family is, hers is not. So, to make it all feel fair, they were married with two non-family witnesses to their vows …. and that was it.

    The families wer e, of course, a bit miffed at the entire thing. (Especially her family, who felt like she was excluding them no matter what.) But they tried to be on board with it, even with the hurt feelings.

    Like Alyssa suggests, they got together with their immediate families and close friends to lunch directly after their ceremony. We have photos of them grinning their heads off … with as much emotion as if we were watching their ceremony. And that was wonderful to be able to share and felt special when, later that night, all their guests came around for the big party reception.

    So, totally doable. Good luck with your family’s reactions. Just stick to it, show them it’s best for you, and they’ll come around, even if it takes a while. =)

  • bts

    So, do whatever you want. You don’t owe anyone a wedding. Be polite but firm when people express their disappointment or dismay. Be compassionate when some people feel hurt and excluded. Accept that the ceremony is a hugely important part of attending a wedding for many people, even if the party trumps it for some folks. Understand that people are going to be curious about your ceremony and about your reasons for keeping it private. They might want to see pictures of that grin or those tears or whatever it is you and your partner are feeling at that moment (so either bring a photographer or have one of those witnesses bring a camera and snap some for you). People will want to feel part of it. So figure out what parts of it you feel comfortable sharing.

    (But also….

    Decisions have consequences. And, uh, weddings have consequences. And, boy howdy, do I know that. As someone who had a wedding with some religious complications, I know that navigating that terrain is treacherous. But it’s also something you’re going to have to continue to navigate as long as you and your partner have parents, and since this is an interfaith marriage, it’ll be an ongoing negotiation between you and your partner and possibly kids if they’re going to be part of your life. So, have your private ceremony if you want, but don’t do it to avoid dealing with religion and your families. You don’t have to deal with it in the form of a ceremony, but you do have to deal with it.)


    • meg

      That’s a very good point. While I don’t like it when private ceremonies are stigmatized (because they can be lovely, wonderful, etc.) We should have made the point that you will ALWAYS have to deal with interfaith issues. Make sure it’s as ironed out as it can be with your beloved and with family before you walk down the aisle… wherever you walk down the aisle. Because let me not mince words: that stuff can destroy a marriage, so you need to deal with it, early and often.

  • Tegan

    Thank you so much everyone! It’s funny how the obvious things are some of the first things to be missed. Alyssa, your comment of showing the united front really hit me hard, as I know that I sometimes explain away unhappy things to my fam by saying that it was all HIS idea… (bad, bad, I know)

    And I like the idea of maybe a quick lunch/brunch with close family immediately following the ceremony — that makes it a little more inclusive, and might smooth over some hurt feelings.

    Frankly, this is just SUPER HELPFUL and I can’t even pick out the mot useful parts to specifically comment — it’s just all really comforting to know that we’re not the only ones in this kind of boat.

    • meg

      Awwww! Yay!

  • LPC

    As a mom, this would break my heart in two. But, then, that’s because I would be so surprised, and because if my daughter did that it would mean she was terribly angry at me for something. So I can only assume that in your relationship with your parents, hearts have already been broken, or hearts won’t be broken, or these hearts can’t been considered, due to so many circumstances. In that case, I like the way Christina McPants handled it. And if even that is too much ceremony at a reception, then, as Alyssa said, stick to your guns, put your head down, and go get married. Congratulations.

    • meg

      I think, because private ceremonies are so stigmatized, it’s easy to assume that it’s the same for everyone. But there are many families and situations where this is an ok (or even a necessary) thing to do. Maybe given the people involved, or maybe just given the situation. So just because our hearts would be broken… doesn’t make it wrong for everyone (just for us).

    • Lisa

      I was taught never to assume anything. I chose to have a private ceremony and my relationship with my parents had absolutely nothing to do with that decision. I adore my parents and am beyond thankful for how much they have provided me with what little they have. Thank goodness I have parents who were thrilled to celebrate the fact that I had finally found someone to share my life with. Perhaps its the 40+ years they have spent together that makes them believe seeing my relationship with my husband flourish is far more important than any wedding day will ever be. So thanks mom and dad!

  • You can do it! Its ok! I did, and it all worked out splendidly! My most important piece of advice is to take pictures and document the moment. Our photos captured our happiness and most of our people understood once we shared them. We used our elopement photos for our announcement and reception invite. They are actually more meaningful to me than our reception photos.

    As far as telling your family, discuss the issues with them and let them know why you are doing it, what it means/doesn’t mean to you, and try to help them understand your point of view. We got “permission to elope” from our families and then told the rest of the world after the fact. I call it “semi-eloping”. They felt like they were a part of our decision making process and that we cared about their feelings. A family dinner afterwards sounds like a great idea! Logistically it was impossible for us but would have been very nice.

    I’m working on my grad post. I have part 1 done (“a very short engagement”) but still have part 2 to complete (the party). Your quandry has inspired me to finish and submit to APW asap :)

    Follow your heart and do what is right for you! Good luck and congrats!

    • meg

      Hurrah on all fronts!!

  • Anna

    In approaching all tough conversations I find old-fashion, face-to-face, honest communication is best.

    You know your mama. Plan an afternoon with her and explain why it is important to you and fiancé. Like Alyssa said be compassionate but firm and let her experience her reaction honestly. Try and remember some things need time…
    And really- for the first (and maybe future) conversations about it… face-to-face

    xx … wishing you all the best

    Ps. Alyssa- how’d you get to be so daaaym smart?

  • My in-laws went to City Hall privately. They had not-great relationships with their families and knew their parents would try to make a wedding All About Them, with guilt-trips, drunken tantrums, people not speaking to each other. My father-in-law’s mother already resented my mother-in-law for “stealing” her son, who she felt was supposed to stay at home and take care of her forever. They basically couldn’t trust their families to be involved in any way without making the whole event toxic.

    Their wedding was very much about declaring the independence of their new baby family from the unhealthy relationships of the families they were raised in. So a private ceremony, just them and two witnesses, was just right.

    On the other hand, two friends of mine were married at City Hall with both sets of parents in attendance. They had no interest in throwing a big party, just wanted to be married quietly and simply with their closest family there. That was also exactly right for them.

    Sometimes, involving a lot of other people in your wedding is just not the right thing, for whatever reason. If that’s the case, a private ceremony might be awesome for you. It’s all about what’s right for you.

  • Michele

    I have a related issue that I’ve been wanting to address here on APW. We are having the ceremony and big party in less than 5 months. Almost all the guests are coming from out of town. In fact, they are coming from coast to coast, and the guest list keeps growing because both of our families are partiers and hate leaving anyone out (not to mention that we live in New Orleans and they will use any excuse to come to this city).

    Naturally, with all of these people coming, the reception is the main focus and the ceremony has almost become an afterthought (also due to the fact that talk of our secular ceremony causes major blow-ups with his mother). With recent job changes and a need for shared health insurance, we are considering doing a secret city-hall ceremony. To complicate things, we have already asked a family friend who is a judge to do our ceremony in October. I don’t know how he would feel if it wasn’t official.

    So I guess my version of the question is How do you tell your officiant that you are already married?

    Ps. Meg, if you want to delete this longwinded comment and have me submit to Alyssa i won’t be offended:)

    • meg

      Personally? I think you can’t un-ring that bell. You get married when you get married. So don’t trick yourself by thinking “this won’t really count” and then end up shocked by the fact that it did count, and you didn’t give it the weight it deserved.

      If you get hitched at the courthouse, y’all got HITCHED. That’s rad. Invite your parents, have a dinner, celebrate it. And if you choose to have a different ceremony later, be honest about that to everyone… the officant (particularly if he’s a judge), your guests, but mostly to yourselves. It is special in that it’s a public ceremony, but it’s not the first time you said your vows (and don’t’ kid yourself, that holds serious serious weight).

      But if you just want to put the focus on your ceremony, slow down, back up, take the focus off your reception and focus on your ceremony. That may be the most straightforward plan.

    • Manya

      You say: We already signed papers and did the civil part of our marriage. But there is a ceremonial part and a bearing witness to our love and commitment in front of our community that is also Real and Important. Hope you’re cool with that. And Meg is right. It counts.

      It’ all counts. Our “purely administrative” secret city hall signing of papers was surprisingly special and meaningful and we celebrated it very fully. The vows were really not special at all, and the judge was downright cranky, but we were euphoric, and it is our special just-between-us thing.

      My mom found out about it by accident, and I was worried she would feel like the ceremony was somehow less. She didn’t feel that way at all, and was happy to be in on the secret. We aren’t wearing our rings yet, and I can’t wait for our ceremony to pledge, in public, and with our children, special and specific things that go way beyond the legal declaration.

    • Vmed

      Just say what you said- that insurance issues necessitated a legal wedding, but you’d still be honored if they would officiate your public ceremony and vows before the big bash.

    • Hypothetical Sarah

      Just tell him.

      When the boy and I were talking to our cantor last week, I led with “So, umm, there’s something you should know” and then explained how we were already legally married and why (immigration reasons, in our case). He paused for a second, clarified that all the legal stuff was taken care of, and then carried on talking about the ceremony we were planning with him. When you sign the papers doesn’t change the core of what you’ve asked your officiant to do.

  • Hypothetical Sarah

    I didn’t think I had anything to add until Alyssa called it an “unattended ceremony” at the end. Right. That.

    We eloped in Hawaii for immigration reasons and didn’t let anyone come. For us, it was about drawing distinctions — we’re still planning our “real” wedding. We could have had a small civil ceremony close to home. But we had trouble drawing the line on who to invite, and then what we wanted to be just a legal thing was getting too “real”. Getting married surrounded by family and friends was really important to me and we couldn’t pull that together that quickly.

    There’s been lots of talk about mothers today… it was my father who had the hardest time with not being there. My father, who has a hard-and-fast rule about spending a day on the ground for every hour of flight time, was absolutely ready to drop everything and fly to Hawaii for the weekend. He kept asking for permission to come. I’m a daddy’s girl. I wavered. I cried. When I said that it would be just the two of us, he asked for clarification about whether he was just not-invited, or if he was explicitly forbidden from coming. If it would be ok if he just happened to be on the right beach at the right time. In the end, we had a good talk about family and he understood. But it wasn’t easy for me to do.

    • Jo

      Oh my god that breaks my heart for both of you. Sounds like you handled it amazingly well and totally did the right thing. But from one daddy’s girl to another, WAAAAA that must have been hard!!!

  • emily rose

    Crazy day and no time to read the presumably brilliant comments, but just wanted to throw this out:

    I really appreciate that APW is here to de-stigmatize and de-shame situations like this. I very much wanted a tiny ceremony and large party/reception, but didn’t end up going for it. The wedding we had was totally perfect for us… but I can’t help but wonder if I might have held more tightly to that original vision if I’d read posts like this during that time. I’m glad it’s out here now for others.

  • Jo

    I had some very dear friends who did a private ceremony and then celebrated with those nearby. It was great for those nearby, but very hard on me as I would have absolutely been there if I’d been given the chance. As I began planning my wedding I understood their decision and that helped, but it was painful at the time.
    More recently, some of my partner’s dear friends told everyone they were engaged, planned their private wedding, and carried it off without hurting their families or friends because they were clear that this was what they both wanted and it totally fit them, so no one was surprised. Everyone was simply really excited for them doing what they wanted.

    When we considered a private ceremony I felt there were two options: 1) be upfront from the beginning so everything can calm down and people will just take it as is. This works if that’s normal for you. 2) Spring it on ’em and expect that everyone will be well behaved enough to simply be happy for you and deal with their emotions themselves.

    Best of luck!

  • Davy

    This is completely off topic…..BUT, what do you do when cousins who did not receive a PLUS ONE announce they are bringing a PLUS ONE? Unless they are engaged I don’t think a PLUS ONE is appropriate.

    Great post, btw :)

    • wasabi

      Ahhh! Why do people do this!!! I can totally empathize. I think the only thing to do is talk to the invitee and explain the space concerns/money issues/intimate feeling you want etc. and ask that they not bring someone. We ended up caving and letting this go because two friends that are very close to each other both did this. One of them had a serious girlfriend, and we would have invited her if we knew how serious it had recently become. Given that, we didn’t want to tell the other friend he didn’t get to bring someone out of a sense of fairness and keeping the peace. Also, take a deep breath and remind yourself that their rudeness is probably due to ignorance and not malice. But yes this sucks! Read the envelope people! If you’re not sure, politely ask the couple BEFORE you return the RSVP.

    • LaurenF

      We had this happen even though we had put a line on our response cards that said ____ seats have been reserved in your honor. My fiance’s parents’ neighbors called his mom and asked if they could bring their 27-year-old daughter (whom we do not know) because she will be in town that weekend. I was absolutely stunned and furious, and I would have said no; however, his mom was too afraid of seeming rude, and caved. I however, would have had no problem explaining the situation to this rude neighbor, had I been given the chance.

      That said, this is what I would do in your situation. Call the cousin and tell them that you are so very sorry and would love to be able to include the guest, but that it just isn’t possible due to budget/space/some other reason. I think that being direct and honest yet understanding and polite is the best thing here. You shouldn’t have to be afraid of coming across as rude; inviting people to someone else’s wedding is rude! Another option (which I actually did with my cousin, who did not straight-up tell me she was bringing a plus-one but who hinted about her brand-new boyfriend) would be to tell her that there just isn’t enough space/budget/etc. for the guest to come to the ceremony/dinner but that they are welcome to come for the dancing portion of the evening. No idea if that would work for you, but I’d think that would soften the blow a bit.

  • wasabi

    We started out wanting a small ceremony and a big party later. After ironing it all out and negotiating a bit, we opted for a small civil ceremony (the legal part of our lesbian wedding) and a big religious ceremony and party the next day. My aunt in law found out the civil ceremony “wasn’t just parents” because, yes we included my brother and sister in laws, and felt like she should have been invited too. Some people will always bring the crazy, and apparently not everyone knows the definition of immediate family. This is just to say, even when you compromise on your vision, you aren’t going to please everyone. There is no one wedding ceremony option that makes everyone happy. Just make sure what you decide makes you two happy.

  • I hear you girl. I got secret married about two months ago. My fiance and I had been engaged for a little under a year, and long story short, my parent’s divorce kind of made my mom go wedding-rogue and she’d been ordering everybody around since before I had the ring on my finger. I’d even tried sending her a four page document, describing the ceremony I’d like. She countered with an 11 page script with revisions in red (wat.)

    One day I was so sick of it all, I told my guy: Let’s just act as if we’re going to get married at city hall in two weeks. We’ll book a hotel, make the appointment, go through all the motions, and if in two weeks we feel like we can live with this choice for the rest of our lives, it is the right call to make.

    So two weeks later, we felt great, and in a very low-stress, “well duh” call, decided to do it. We took one friend, gave her my camera, bought her a nice lunch, and stayed the night in a B&B. It was beautiful. It was romantic. The beach, one stupid piece of paper, and so much delicious food I could die. Celebrating my love privately does not in anyway dictate how much I love my crazy, wonderful, also a little f@cked up family.

    I had told my mom before I was planning on taking care of legal paperwork beforehand, to which she said, “I don’t want to know what happens, so if people ask me, I don’t have to disappoint them.” Your situation is a little different I think, but for me, this was key: Do not tell anyone, don’t put them in the position they have to keep *your* secret. I think if you’re eloping for any other reason than you feel a burning need to commit to your partner immediately, it will probably not go so smooth. Spite and marriage aren’t a good fit. Also, another key part of our plan is having an ordained friend in on the secret, i.e. covering our asses about the paperwork filing.

    But who knows, we’re got another year (hep me, Rhonda) before our wedding. I’ve read so much “gift grabber/liar” commentary on the interwebz, but I think anyone who tells you a marriage happens in one day is a big fat liar too. Our marriage will happen over time. We will be wed next year, when our community helps us start our lives. Are we lying? Well, yeah. But one of the reasons we went through with this spiderweb of a plan in the first place was so I could let it go and plan a ceremony that my family would feel honored at. The only reason it will have less meaning is if I decide so and don’t treat my family and friends as if they are a part of our marriage, which will continue to develop until we croak. It’s a *ceremony* after all. It’s ceremonial no matter what. No one flips a switch in your body that makes it physically official.

    Even if you don’t say a vow at your reception, your community will help seal a bond that just ain’t a signature on a piece of paper. So I think while they might be put off, you might just try including one ritual or tribute at your reception. I think your family will be surprised at how much meaning they get in coming together for an event that expresses who you and your partner are.

    • Hypothetical Sarah

      Just Exactly!-ing your comment wasn’t enough.

      If you’re looking for some camaraderie in a long secret-marriage, I’m right there with you. Legally, we got married six months (!) ago. Religiously and publicly, we’re getting married in eleven months. We’ve told the few people we couldn’t imagine NOT telling and, so far, our secret has held. I would go on and say things about marriage and weddings and community… but it looks like you’ve got that all pretty well covered!

  • charm city vixen

    I have the opposite problem — my parents really want us to elope (and use any sort of wedding/celebration money for more “fiscally responsible” things), and my FH and I really want a wedding.

    I would say that in either case, whether you have a private ceremony and it isn’t what the parents want, or a ceremony/reception and it isn’t what the parents want, you need to stick firm to your decisions.

    Ultimately, it’s a union of you and your partner, and at the end of the day, it is all about what feels right for your baby family.

    Spot-on advice as usual, Alyssa!

  • Bessa

    We did a slight variation if this plan, with a small ceremony (about 25 ppl) followed by a giant shindig of a reception, and even that caused some strain on my family, and I think you should prepare for some difficult conversations with yours.

    All I can do is echo the advice of other commenters to to say stick to your guns–once you’ve made a decision that feels right with your gut, honor it. Find a phrase that helps you articulate the choice in a non-confrontational manner and repeat it as often as you have to to maintain sanity. (“This is what is right for us” was mine–“I understand you want all forty-seven of my cousins present, but this small ceremony is what is right for us.”) Also, do what we didn’t do, and explain it to your family. We presented the small ceremony as something of an ultimatum when we announce our engagement, and it hurt my parents to think that their families, which are so so important to them, wouldn’t see our vows. I was so busy making sure that the small ceremony happened that I didn’t explain the logic and emotion behind it, and that made it harder for everyone. If it’s a reasonable thing to do with your parents, try to sit down and explain why this is your choice. They may not agree, but at least they’ll know where you’re coming from.

    And here’s the small slice of hope I have to offer: My mother, who was more hurt than anyone by our small ceremony and kept trying to negotiate new terms for it–what if we just invited the people who had traveled more than 100 miles? what if it was just her sisters? etc–wrote me a letter afterward telling me how touching and poignant the ceremony was and how fitting for Partner-in-Crime and I. She told me that even though she’d fought it initially, looking back she couldn’t imagine us getting married any other way. And that’s something I can always treasure.

    Best of luck!

    • Jo

      I truly hope, CAT, that you don’t have to deal with a lot of backlash, but it’s probably better that you consider the possibility than be unprepared if it should happen. I also want to add on to the good things Bessa is saying.

      If you’re going to have to explain to your family that you want a non-religious wedding, and that difference between your baby family and your family of origin is NOT already a welcome and accepted fact, I presume that will be the main challenge you’re facing. How to tell them that you need majorly different things in terms of religion/major life rituals/etc. And my suggestion is that when you sit down with your families, you describe what you DO want from your wedding, not what you don’t want. As in, “we really want to feel like it’s just us making this important promise to each other in a quiet simple atmosphere and then include everyone later once we’ve had a chance to absorb it to celebrate the night away”… or hopefully something a little better than that.

      Nonetheless, I say that because we had a somewhat similar situation (interfaith and religion phobia all mixed together with more strictly religious family members looking on), took a slightly different approach to the ceremony (we had one, but no jesus or communion or whatevs), but it seemed to help avoid major backlash that we didn’t try to explain every bit of what was missing but instead just focused on how great it was going to be and how we wanted it that way. So if (lots of ifs now, but just in case this is relevant to you) you can come up with a good statement of why you’re doing what you’re doing, in a way that doesn’t lead your family with a ton of questions about the deeper reasons, hopefully you can get folks to focus on the fun that comes later and get over it.

      Whatever the case may it all end in joy. Good luck!

  • Steph & B

    Ahh once again so perfect. I really really really needed this post and this advice as I sit with eyes completely bleary and tired from hours HOURS of crying.

    We did a small civil service (not quite at the courthouse because VA courthouses don’t marry you any more? or at least the ones in our city don’t). But we are having a wedding bash complete with another more religious and spiritual ceremony (he’s loosely Presbyterian and I’m just more about community, spirituality and support…so we are doing some fusion things). I’m working on my wedding grad post in support of having both an elopement and a wedding right now.

    And while it’s started out as all hopeful, “Why can’t we have both….it’s our decision, etc. etc. etc.” The tone is now rapidly changing after listening to my dad tell me that our wedding is completely pointless since we are already legally married. But we didn’t have our families or our communities, so it just doesn’t feel complete to us. But at this point. I’m despairing. And now I’m just not so sure anymore. Not that I have much of a choice. The wedding is in three weeks.

    I wish I had some advice to give. The only thing I can say at this point, is make your intentions clear from the beginning. Be firm. And most importantly be prepared for the backlash and have a support system. Be prepared for the fact that people won’t be happy or supportive (and that those people may be very important people in your life). Have a bottle of wine, sweets, and lots of shoulders to cry on when things hit the fan. And don’t let the people who are giving you a hard time see you cry. They will mistake it for weakness and uncertainty rather than frustration and genuine sadness.

    And now I’m off to go eat five chocolate croissants. I probably won’t fit in my dress afterwards, but at this point I don’t give a flying whit.

    • Hypothetical Sarah

      I’m another “half-grad”. Tell your dad that a wedding is really about celebrating with those who love you — about giving the community a way to share in your joy, and feeling that much more joy because they have shared in it. It’s not JUST about winding up legally married. Have the wedding you want to have, and don’t let anyone make you feel shame for wanting it.

      Good luck to you! I’d give you a hug if I could :)

  • R.

    One of my very best friends is planning to get married in a few months in a private religious ceremony with only their parents. The reason is that her fiance and his family are very religious, she and her family are not at all. She wants to “give” him a religious ceremony, even though it’s not her thing, but she doesn’t want her community there, because it’s not really a reflection of her.

    It is absolutely her prerogative to have a private ceremony and I would never dream of telling her otherwise. Months later, I will fly across the country to attend her big wedding party, 3 weeks before my own wedding. (Mine was planned first. But I actually don’t care about that.) And I will celebrate her with all my heart.

    BUT. Will I feel a tiny bit resentful that I’m traveling such a long distance to just go to a party? I will try not to, but maybe.

    More importantly, I feel sad for what she is giving up – the opportunity to enlist her community in supporting the union she’s entering. The ceremonies that I’ve attended and participated in, I feel more invested in that couple’s success because I took part in the ritual that bound them together and I promised to support their commitment. I want to see the love and dedication on my friend’s future husband’s face when he promises to honor and cherish her forever, so that when the going gets tough I can reassure her that he adores her, I saw it with my own eyes, and I know they will be okay.

    This is not to say that a private ceremony is wrong – it may be right for her, and it sounds like its been the right move for a lot of people in the APW community. But as people have mentioned, it can be hard for your loved ones, and I just wanted to share that perspective.

    • Sarabeth

      I feel this too – about two close friends who had a family-only ceremony. As it happened, the private ceremony/larger reception was scheduled for when I was committed to be on another continent. I probably would have tried to change that commitment if I had been invited to the ceremony. But to me, a reception-only invitation isn’t the same thing. I won’t rearrange my life to go to a party, no matter how awesome, the way I would to go to a wedding.

      I’ve never voiced this to my friend, because there’s no point. But I think part of the deal in choosing this kind of option is accepting that you may be making people sad. And they are not out of line for having emotions related to this choice. They ARE out of line if they actively pressure you to change your mind. But there aren’t magic words to make your parents/close friends/whomever not sad that they aren’t invited to your wedding ceremony. I think accepting that from the start–and acknowledging people’s emotions if they do voice them to you–will actually make navigating the process easier. Most people are likely to take “I understand that this causes you pain, and I respect that, but we feel strongly about our choice” better than “this is what we’re doing and don’t you dare criticize our plan in any way.”

      Oh, and just to be clear where I’m coming from: For a variety of reasons, I had a parents-only city hall wedding followed by multiple receptions at later dates. So I’m not saying don’t do it. But I was, frankly, shocked at how much more my fifteen-minute city hall ceremony felt like “the wedding” than any of the later, and much fancier receptions.

  • We decided early on to have a civil ceremony in advance of our actual wedding, both to simplify our officiant situation (we’re having a non-ordained friend preside) and because we feel strongly about being married in DC – where gay marriage is legal – but don’t have the cash to have a reception there. My original vision was a ceremony just for the two of us, no family witnesses or anything, just so that in the midst of all the planning for and negotiating with all the folks we love, we can have something wedding-related that’s really JUST about our love. It’s probably worth noting that my fiance is not the most romantically demonstrative person on the planet, (not for a lack of love on his part, mind you), so I knew that one way or another we would have to consciously build in any direct lovey-dovey stuff, and (ironically?) the civil ceremony seemed like a good time for that.

    When I put feelers out about this plan, I found that my mother was NOT on board – she didn’t throw a fit or anything, but she made it clear in just a few words that she would be sad not to be there. I thought about it and decided to invite immediate family members (and one persistent aunt) plus wedding party members, since I was invited to one of their civil ceremonies & it seemed only fair. The total group will be around 10, which is still pretty intimate, and the mix of folks there will make for enjoyable and lively conversation at the post-ceremony lunch. (TACOS!)

    To preserve some semblance of my original vision, the soon-to-be-hubby (next week!) and I have decided to have some time alone in the morning before the ceremony, privately acknowledging our bond and perhaps exchanging some personal vows (our ceremony vows are very generic, to keep the nerves and the waterworks to a minimum). I’m not saying that the poster (or anyone else) needs to rethink their choice, but if anyone is on the fence, it’s one compromise that might work.

  • Sarah

    While in general I agree with the advice, I think that it definitely lacked on the end of “is this really the best option?” I just find it hard to believe that if a couple is on good terms with their families and are planning a reception anyway, why spending 10-15 minutes saying vows of some sort in front of their loved ones is such a huge burden and something to be avoided at all costs… I mean, why?! Is 15 minutes of telling your partner you’ll stick with them through thick and thin in front of friends and family really that horrible if the alternative is to deeply hurt your family by not doing so?

    I can see why it would be important for a couple to have their first, legal wedding ceremony be at city hall with only two witnesses, and I can understand the couples that don’t want to have receptions at all, but if you’re already having the big party, what the harm in spending a few minutes saying vows or something like them (perhaps in the form of toasts to each other? just anything)? This is mostly if it is important to immediate family members to witness your vows though (friends and extended family’s opinions matter less, but then they probably care less than your own mothers do anyway), but really the why-not-just-do-it I think applies to any time a couple, for whatever reason, has their big party separate from the original wedding ceremony. People like to see the actual wedding, and even if it’s important for you to have your legal wedding ceremony be more private, why is it such a big deal to say those vows again later?

  • Lynn

    My future in-laws are still dealing with the fall-out from the FI’s brother’s decision to get married with no one present. It might be the way the couple handled it, but it has been an incredibly hurtful thing, even almost three years later. They were going to have a small wedding on the beach. Had rented the house, made plans to invite just the family. Reservations were made, clothing purchased, time taken off work. FI was asked to be the best man. He agreed to wear pink because that’s what his SIL wanted, and he’s not at all a pink kinda guy. When the couple got to the beach, they called everyone and said, don’t come…we don’t want anyone here. As the JP was getting ready to marry them, FI’s brother called their mother and said, hey, wanna hear me get married?

    It was and continues to be a what-the-hell-happened-here-and-why experience. His mother still cries about it; his SIL continues to shut them out of their lives; FI isn’t sure he’s going to ask his brother to be his best man because he wonders why he should ask his brother to be so integral to one of the most important moments of his life when his brother shut him out of that experience.

    When I say that this family I’m marrying in to is incredibly close, I mean they are incredibly close. FI lives with his grandmother, and their home is about 100 yds from his parents’. It’s not unusual for them to talk to each other on the phone five or six times a day. They go to church together on Sunday and dinner is often a shared event. While it may sound stifling, I have never felt so loved and supported.

    Every once in awhile, his mother will turn to me and say, “Please. It doesn’t have to be big, and wherever you want to do it is fine; we’ll travel and pay whatever it takes. I just want to be there when my son get married.” And I ache for her.

    • KEA1

      Oh, man–I ache for your fiance’s mom and family, and I don’t even know them! That sounds awful!

  • Yes. You can have the reception without the ceremony! Initially, I was going to have a wedding for about 60ish people. I also made the mistake of telling people that. Then, my fiance and I sat down and reviewed the cost of having the wedding and we decided there are other things in life we wanted more (e.g., buying a home, saving for a retirement, etc.)

    So, we scaled it down and now we’re inviting 15 people only. It’s going to be family + 1 mutual friend. We are renting a big house in Sonoma and everyone is going to hang out, relax, eat good food for 3 days. What matters the most to us is 1) time with family, 2) good food, and 3) good photos. We also moved the wedding WAY up to July so we can just tell everyone – “we just decided to have a quick wedding with family only.”

    Your wedding will be different from EVERYONE else’s! So, do your thing and try not to stress too much. It’s tough stuff – trying to plan the perfect day.

  • I didn’t have an unattended ceremony, however I had a friend who did – she and her husband had a courthouse wedding in the town they went to college in (where they met) with just immediate family present – mom, dad, siblings – and their two best friends as witnesses. This was in April. Because at the time she was in grad school and he was a teacher, they waited until the summer to throw a big bbq bash to celebrate. They had it catered by a local bbq joint, her brother’s band played music, and they set up tents, picnic tables, a volleyball net, etc. Everyone wore shorts and flip-flops and drank wine and beer out of plastic cups (you could also BYO, if the mood struck you). I remember how blissful and happy she was that day – glowing just like every other bride I know glowed.

    She dealt with some pushback from her family on the ceremony. They wanted to “open up” the ceremony invite list to more extended family, but she held firm on what she wanted. This was important to them, and she wasn’t budging.

    I had a more traditional wedding/reception – though I, too, did not have a church wedding – but her resolve was an inspiration to me in standing my ground when planning.

    Having said that, I was expecting some pushback for choosing not to have a Catholic ceremony. Both my husband and I grew up Catholic, but for a laundry list of thoughtful reasons, we have chosen to break ties with the church. I didn’t think my mother-in-law would have an issue with our choice, as the two of us had often discussed what our respective issues were with the Church (we agreed on most of them, hah!), but I thought my mother was going to be really upset, as she had said in the past that she really wanted me to get married in the Church. However, she gave me pushback on a LOT of wedding things, but surprisingly to me that was not one of them. I do think she was disappointed, but she respected my decision and was supportive. I think it helped that my childhood friend’s dad is a judge, and HE married us. It was really nice to have someone I’ve known since I was in patent leather marry my husband and I. :)

  • Paige

    Hmm, so our wedding wasn’t completely “unattended” as the original questioner is planning, but maybe our experience will be relevant anyway. We were married in a small town in Denmark with only our immediate families and two super close friends present — including us, that meant a total of 9 people. And we’re planning to have a massive reception back in California this fall, without any re-staged vows of any kind. For me, that was important: I felt like I needed to have one moment that actually counted as “our wedding,” not two, or three.

    I’ve thought about some things we could do at the big reception to “incorporate” the guests there into the wedding, and so far I haven’t hit on anything I’m really excited about… but the brainstorming has included:

    1- Some sort of “vow supplement” where rather than us re-hashing our promises to each other, we make some (short) speech to the guests at the reception explaining how our marriage grows with each additional layer of support we receive, and we invite them to make some statement about that. It could symbolic (stones in a jar), verbal (they say in chorus, “we’re in!”), or written….

    2- Along those lines, I’m making a point of incorporating photos of our wedding day into the reception. Right now I’m making a wedding photo book, which I’m hoping will also serve as our portable “guest book” — since we’re also having a much smaller lunch reception with my husband’s family who live in Europe next month. I want to somehow symbolically unite all the friends and family that weren’t there are our wedding.

    I guess what I’m saying is that what’s important to ME is to find a way to include people in the wedding ceremony who weren’t there WITHOUT replaying it. For me, an important part of that is clarifying exactly what the event is: we’re being very careful to invite people to a “wedding reception” for a “wedding that took place on XX” rather than to a “wedding.” (That said, my mom still refers to it as “the wedding,” but I’ve learned to let that slide. It seems to make her happier to think of the event which her mom and siblings will come as the main event.)

    As far as explaining why we arranged our wedding the way we did, we were lucky: we had fairly limited time (for residency-related reasons) and Denmark turned out to be the most practical answer. It was also nice to pick a place that was “neutral” territory. Both our families had to travel — although his much less than mine.

  • Sarah

    Okay, so this isn’t related directly to your current dilemma. But, I just saw this “we already got married please come to our reception” invite that I thought had nice wording, and that at some future point might be helpful.

  • RJ

    I’ve had the experience recently when a friend invited me to her wedding dance party, without making it clear that the wedding happened the day before (with family and closer friends). I was very excited to see the ceremony, and so disappointed to be told when I arrived by others that I’d missed it and hadn’t been invited. Having driven 2 hours, present in hand, it was a bad time to learn I hadn’t been invited to the wedding proper (which had been a spectacular affair, dinner, big dress etc)

    So my plea: if you are going to do this – please let your guests know in advance that they aren’t invited to the wedding ceremony but the reception in celebration of your marriage.

    In fact, I’d be interested if anyone has done the opposite – which would be my preference – of allcomers invited to the ceremony, a small family lunch after, then everyone invited back at the end for a dance party. That was often the pattern here when I was in my teens.

  • Lisa

    My fiancee and I have been together for 13 years nd have been engaged for 4. We finally decided that we just need to make it official and decided to go to Las Vegas to get married and have a reception a few weeks after returning. After telling our parents, they agreed to go out there with us for the ceremony but it was made known to me by my parents that this would greatly upset my grandparents and the asked us if we would be willing to have a private ceremony in our hometown with parents, grandparents and siblings. After discussing this we agreed and decided to have those people along with some close friends as our attendants. We’ve decided to do the private ceremony at home, followed by a lunch reception at a venue close to our home to include extended family and friends, to which now, my mother is upset that we will not be including aunts and uncles in the ceremony.Between the two of us, this would add 30 people (not including any young cousins that may come with). My fiancee has anxiety issues and the idea of a large crowd staring him as he is saying his vows gives him a knot in his stomach. This is our day and I want him to be comfortable and enjoy the day too. Invites need to go out in the next two weeks and my mother is not talking to me. I’m at a loss of what to do.

    • Evie

      I’d be interested to see what happened for you. My fiance and I would like to have a wedding in July. We both come from places far away than our current city. The problem? Both of us have anxiety issues, and he will only have 3-5 people at the ceremony and would prefer it to be small and to not feel embarrassed to have so few family and friends there.
      I would like to do this, in theory, but my mom has seven siblings, plus their spouses. Her mother died a year ago, and she wants to have a reunion of sorts. Including just family (parents, aunts, uncles) brings the number above 30, without including any friends at all. She’d like to invite cousins, but I’m pushing back on that.

      I’d like to have a big reception for friends, but it looks like my options for the ceremony are:
      1) invite just immediate family and have everyone at the reception (which would anger aunts, uncles, mom, etc)
      2) just invite family (aunts, uncles, etc) and not any out-of-town friends.
      3) invite the big guest list and make the fiance uncomfortable.

      Any ideas?

      • Lisa

        We ended up doing the private ceremony in our back yard with immediate family (parents, grandparents and siblings) plus a few close friends. I think total we had 22 people there. The same afternoon we had the lunch reception where we had over 100 people. Yes there were some hurt feelings but overall, everyone was happy and supportive that we finally got married! My husband was very happy with how the day went as was I. We really ended up having the perfect day for us! My suggestion is do what works for you guys. It’s your day so do what you’re comfortable with.

  • Kathy

    I am very hopeful I can get some much needed advice here. My daughter and her partner are getting married next month in a private ceremony with only 2 witnesses – myself and her partner’s brother. I have no problem with the private ceremony, but I am feeling very sad that my daughter’s only sister and brother are excluded as well as my boyfriend. I have been silent about my feelings since my daughter first told me that no one else could be there. I know that my daughter would have included them, if she could. Her partner has insisted on the 2 witnesses rule, so my daughter agreed. While I want to respect their wishes, I am concerned that this decision will have longlasting effects. So my question is this. I have thought about asking if we could include her sister, brother and my boyfriend in a pre-wedding dinner the night before, or a dinner just after the ceremony. Or, since they are getting married on a sailboat, perhaps having them standing at the dock to celebrate when they return. I have always respected my daughter’s wishes and our family is very close partly due to the loss of her father years ago after a long illness. I should mention that they are having a casual party the week after the ceremony. Her sister is also planning a bachelorette party for her, and has been shopping with her for an appropriate wedding dress. This almost makes it worse, because she is involved in supporting her sister in every way – but cannot be present at the actual wedding. I am not a meddling mom, but I am losing sleep over whether or not I should at least tell her my concerns for how she is beginning her new life – by excluding part of the family.

    • Tyler

      Didn’t you read the article? Sheesh!