Laura & Matt

You guys know me. If there is anything I like, it’s Devil’s Advocate arguments. (I was an all star parliamentary debater in High School. I know you’re not surprised.) So when we decided to explore the “Why wedding?” question, you knew we were going to talk about not having a wedding (because you’re waiting). Which means that today we had to explore deciding not to wait any longer. Today’s post is about deciding to sign the paperwork at city hall and having that quickly turn into a lovely little wedding (with the big wedding yet to come). So I’m thrilled to bring you Laura, showing us how simple is sometimes exactly what we need.

*Laura, Stay-at-Home Mom & Matt, Merchandising*

It wasn’t supposed to be a wedding. We had decided on a quick, casual elopement at city hall to be followed six months later by a real wedding. That was the plan. But here in Oregon you have to wait three days after you get the marriage license before you can actually get married. Also, you have to have at least two adult witnesses. So we called a couple friends, and the whole thing snowballed into a quick, casual, lovely and meaningful wedding.

Let me back up a little; I spent years in the pre-engaged state. During this time I browsed around, found APW (thanks Meg!), bookmarked things I liked, and made lists. Oh so many lists. I thought I was totally prepared for the whole wedding thing. But my guy just wasn’t ready. He was afraid something would go wrong. He was waiting for his ducks to line up in a neat little row. But we all know how wily ducks can be, and I got tired of waiting. After many difficult, emotional conversations (more tears than laughter, but some of each) we agreed that in fact we had already made the commitment we thought marriage symbolized. We just hadn’t made it official.

Once we acknowledged that our life together had already begun (seriously, our daughter just turned eight), there were no more reasons to wait. We knew we wanted a wedding. A celebration with family and friends, yummy food, a pretty dress for me, all that jazz. But that takes time to plan, and we wanted to get the taxes and health insurance and other totally practical stuff sorted out now. So we went down to the county office of records and got a marriage license.

Then I called my best friend, D—she would be home from grad school in a couple days so could we wait until she could be there as a witness? Sure. And it turned out that her mom is a non-denominational wedding celebrant. She was available and offered to officiate for free. Yes please! We called a couple more friends, who just happened to have the day off (on a Wednesday), did we want them to join us? Totally!

We told a total of about ten people about the elopement, and to each one we said the same thing; “It’s not a real wedding, we’re just getting the paperwork out of the way. You don’t have to come, but we would totally like to see you.” They all wanted to be there, and they seemed more excited than we were. What’s so exciting about paperwork?

Then I started talking to Tami, our celebrant, about what we would say. She doesn’t have a stock ceremony that she uses, and we didn’t want to do the traditional “have and hold” thing. It just doesn’t speak to us. But we had to say something. So we went back and forth with ideas and editing; she suggested we include our daughter, I mentioned that I liked the idea of hand-fasting… and instead of just paperwork we ended up with an actual ceremony. One that represented our values and commitment.

So on Wednesday, December 21st, we met Tami, D, my dad and couple of our other friends at a local park—because our apartment is too small. We stood in a clearing surrounded by trees and some of our dearest loved ones and made our promises to each other with words that I had written. “With love and respect I entrust myself to you, body and soul, hearth and home, today and all the days of my life.” Then our daughter tied the hand-fasting knot. And then we were married! I cried, in a good way, we all hugged and then we went out for burgers and beer. And it was perfect.

A month later I am still surprised and thrilled by how great that day was. But now I am in this weird wedding limbo, planning a wedding while already married. People keep asking me why. Why have a wedding if you’re already married? Usually I say it’s so we can have a big party where I can wear a killer dress. But it’s more than that. As wonderful as our elopement was, it wasn’t the rite of passage that a wedding traditionally is. We were surprised by how excited and involved our friends wanted to be, but we shouldn’t have been. In a strange and wonderful way our elopement helped us figure out what we want our wedding to be, and much of what our marriage already is. And it takes away the pressure to have one perfect day. Because we already had one when we least expected it.

At our upcoming wedding we want to celebrate the commitment we’ve made with our community. We want to welcome their involvement and share our excitement. We want them to acknowledge and support our baby family. That’s the real meat of the wedding. The pretty dress and the big party is just gravy.

Photos by: family friends

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  • Laura, you wrote the half graduate post I was hoping to write! (I’ll have to think of something more now!) We had our summer wedding in July (in Oregon, near but not at Multnomah falls) where we also did a handfasting style service, and we just had our big, community celebration in December. And I can unequivocally say that you should have the big wedding!

    Only some folks know about both weddings (parents, handful of friends). The summer thing was only attended by our parents and my photographer friend. After the big wedding, the in-the-know friends asked me about the differences. To me, the summer wedding felt like our private commitment to each other. But our winter wedding? That was the community commitment, complete with our community reciting vows to support us in our marriage. I was shocked and overwhelmed by how much love and excitement I felt from everyone. It was wonderful, and both of us repeatedly exclaimed how awesome the day felt. We could not be happier that we still went ahead with the planned winter wedding despite having to get married quickly in the summer. I hope that you and Matt have the same results.

    Also, funny side note: my guy is also named Matt. What a small world with crazy similarities.

  • We also had a private “lets-get-the-tax-benefits-as-quickly-as-possible” wedding, about 5 months before our “actual” wedding. It was over the year mark, and we wanted to get health insurance, file taxes as married, type stuff. And so we went to the sheriff (yes! the sheriff!) one friday morning, and he performed a quick ceremony, a ceremony that his father (who had also been the wedding sheriff in his time) had written, and it was done. Just the two of us. It was surprisingly touching and meaningful to have that little, quiet, private moment as couple, since for us, the wedding was really about making a committment as part of a community. But it was glorious to have that special one-on-one. Then, we went to the drugstore and had milkshakes. Then did all the insurance card/social security card/namechange/add me to the bank account jazz..

    We had an Ah-mazing “real” wedding 5 months later, with friends and family and homebrew and a roast pig and all the trimmings. And that feels like our “real” anniversary. But when we told folks a few days after the Big Official Wedding that we had already been married for half a year in the eyes of the law (literally! HA!), they asked us when we’d celebrate our anniversary. We hadn’t even thought of that question! Well, we celebrate it on the big official, second date, but this year, to commemorate our little private sherriff led ceremony: we celebrated Milkshake Day. Which is just what it sounds like.

    • Nichole

      Oh thank god. I thought we were the only ones to do something like this.

      A small handful of friends know we went to the courthouse (the Big Wedding THING is still 10 more months away). Now, every time I talk about my fiancé, I’m corrected and told he’s my husband. It’s making me crazy. YES. I am well aware of the fact that we are legally married. I was there when it happened. However, our families/many of our friends largely don’t know what we did. So far as I’m concerned, I’ve signed the legal contract but not the social one. He’s not my husband until I say so darn it!

      • Hypothetical Sarah

        As far as the Boy was concerned, as soon as we signed the legal paperwork, we were Married. I thought we were “married” or (married). It’s at my insistence that the news and pictures have been embargoed until our wedding (17 months after our elopement). For the first month, every time he joyfully whispered “we’re married!”, I’d react physically and insist that we’re not, not really, not yet. In retrospect, that probably wasn’t the right reaction! Over the past year, though, I’ve grown into the role. My semantic games were no match for the reality of our life together. Now, privately, we’re giddily married. Publicly, we’re excited to be getting married in May. It’s ok to embrace the dichotomy.

        Our wedding is still important for all those reasons Laura mentioned. But our marriage, we’re living now.

      • sb

        We registered a domestic partnership, got engaged a week later, and are now planning a wedding–you’re not alone!

        I have to say, now with all the stress of wedding-planning (aka mom-wrangling) it is really nice to have had that sweet, simple day of visiting the Department of Vital Records, walking around taking pictures, and going out for a nice dinner.

    • We call it the legalversary :-) Our summer date is for something fun and travely, and the winter date (from the community celebration) is for something big.

    • Kris

      Oh my gosh, this whole post and comment thread is making my heart so. happy. because we did the same thing. I was in school all last year and not working, so we made a quick courthouse trip with some friends on Dec 28 in order to be able to file together this year and get some serious bucks on his return (he was unemployed for a pretty good amount of time after we moved to NC, so this is going to help a huge amount on getting that credit card debt paid off). We got married in an amazingly messy magistrate’s office with two of my best friends there as witnesses, and I swore during the ceremony because I started crying, and I don’t even care, because it was just for us, not for anyone else. I don’t *think* it’s bad luck to use your four-letter vocabulary during your wedding, at least.

      We’re still Getting Married though, this October, because as special and intimate and meaningful as the first (ha!) wedding was, it’s not going to feel real until our whole community is in on it, too. I refer to the courthouse wedding as our “trial run.” :) I wholeheartedly agree with the OP that already being legally married really helps you figure out what the important parts are. After all, the day will be a success no matter what – you’re definitely, no matter what, going to be married at the end of it…!

      It’s really been wonderful being “secretly married” the last month and a half. He wears his wedding band at night (seriously, I just about melted the first night I hopped in bed, grabbed his hand, and realized he’d put it on to sleep in), we constantly call each other “husband” and “wife,” and it hasn’t been difficult at all to keep it on the down low. To be honest, it takes a huge amount of pressure off of the Big Official Wedding. We’re married and used to it! It’s time to celebrate!

  • your vows are lovely.

    • Lturtle

      Thank you!
      – Laura

  • I think that, like ducks, weddings are also wily and come in all sorts of clever disguises. Just when you think you’ve outsmarted the wedding, it sneak attacks you like the butler from the old Pink Panther movies.

    Congratulations, Laura! I’m so glad you had a meaningful paperwork day. :)

  • Hypothetical Sarah

    A Half Grad post! These posts have a special place in my heart. Laura, congrats to you and Matt on your marriage. Have fun with your wedding! You totally hit the reasons to have a wedding; those are true regardless of whether you’ve handled the legal stuff or not.

    We’ve spent an inordinately long period of time in limbo between legal marriage and wedding. What was supposed to be a long engagement turned into secret marriage when immigration issues arose — we eloped, just the two of us, far from family and friends. What was supposed to be just a paperwork thing turned into a meaningful private ceremony with pretty pictures. And my original insistance that I wouldn’t feel Married until our religious wedding in front of the people we love… well, that has fallen away over the past 13 months.

    Keeping the big wedding we were originally planning was definitely the right choice for us. While strange, having a year and a half of secret marriage before our wedding (only our immediate families and a few friends know. privately, we’re married; publicly, we’re still “just engaged”) has been an unexpected blessing. I wouldn’t have planned things this way but, now, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    For anyone who got legally married beforehand and waited until at/after your wedding to tell people, how did you handle it? How did people react? I worry about that…

  • I’ve always supported people I know who decided to get legally married before their actual weddings. I’m practically minded enough (ha!) to understand the tax breaks, insurance, and legal protections that might drive someone to do so but was always a bit of a romantic in that I would not even think of getting married before my wedding day.

    BUT. Now? Eight months removed from our wedding? I get it. I really get it. Laura and Matt, that looks like a most beautiful way to continue to lay the foundation for your marriage. I’m glad the paperwork turned out to be meaningful and wish you the best as you prepare for your wedding.

  • I’m 8 months away from my wedding, and posts like this (and the comments; more comments, please!) are really helpful to me right now. Thank you.

    We are having a friend officiate our secular ceremony, which is something I’ve always wanted. However, I was misinformed about some of our state’s laws, and as I delve further into my research, it looks like the state of Minnesota may not allow my friend to marry us legally. Which means. A paperwork ceremony.

    I do not, do not, DO NOT want to get married on any day other than my “wedding day.” I want the moment that we stand up in front of all of our loved ones to be the moment that our marriage becomes legal. While I haven’t given up on this dream, it’s looking more and more like that just might not be the reality for us (if you’ve made this happen in Minnesota, please tell me how!).

    So. I am trying to come to terms with the idea that we may be getting legally married before our wedding, and that’s been difficult for me. And extremely emotional.

    BUT. This post has given me so much hope! I’m so glad that your paperwork day was moving and meaningful for you. If I end up having one of my own, I really hope my experience is like yours; unexpectedly beautiful.

    • KW

      My friends are marrying in May in Minnesota through a friend ordained through Universal Life (the online system that is quite famous). Correct me if I’m wrong (so I can tell them!) but I think it’s legit here.

    • Hypothetical Sarah

      I’m stalking the comments today more than usual because I know how reassuring and helpful APW was to me when we eloped.

      Knowing absolutely nothing about the laws in Minnesota, is it legal if your friend gets ordained online through the Universal Life Church ( That’s what I’ve seen most often for people who have friends officiate. Or maybe you could hire someone to co-officiate with your friend and make it legal? There must be other creative workarounds.

      If those fail and you’re opposed to getting legally married before your wedding, how having a paperwork ceremony on the Monday after your wedding? That way you can have a ceremony, celebrate with the ones you love, and then grab a few as witnesses to sign the papers in your post-wedding high.

      • KW

        Connecticut does not recognize Universal Life marriages, along with 5 other states.

      • We went the co-officiating route (but not in Minnesota) out of legal necessity. Our legal officiant was my husband’s brother (who got approved to do it for the day by the provincial government) and one of my good girl friends was our pastor-officiant (who was legally unable to officiate since we got married in a country where she is not a citizen.) But the two officiant thing worked well for us because my girl friend did most of the ceremony, and then our legal officiant did all the legal parts within a part of the ceremony.

    • Caroline

      Is there any reason you can’t have the legal wedding in the morning and the real wedding in the afternoon? Have a justice of the peace or judge come rotor venue and legally marry you right before?

    • Lturtle

      My brother wanted a friend to officiate his wedding, but that person didn’t have the legal whatever to do so. He managed to find a legal officiant who was willing to let the friend perform the ceremony. As long as the officiant witnessed the ceremony he felt comfortable signing the paperwork to make it legal. Perhaps you can find a similarly flexible person in your area?

      • This is what I was going to say. Do you have any minister/judge friends and/or family who’d be willing to sign the paperwork for you? The state doesn’t care who did your secular ceremony as long as the legal stuff is in order. Even if you can’t go to the JOP on your wedding day, you could likely find someone who would do paperwork for you the morning of. I recommend a really liberal minister, like Unitarian or UCC — just ask them to sign paperwork in the am before your service and offer a small honorarium. My dad is a minister and would do it, but he’s not in Minnesota much.

  • YAY – My husby and I did this too, and I’m so glad to see people writing about it. I searched for so much “validation” and comfort in this decision when we were going through it…and didn’t find much. It is a day I remember VERY fondly (I mean, our big wedding was awesome, too! :)) and I’m so glad we did it. And yes, I know how extremely strange it is to be married but not while still planning your big wedding – but then again, it puts things in to perspective and makes it not as stressful, I think. Congrats!

  • Beautiful post. One of the ones that remind me WHY humans go through all this nonsense any way and how truly invested we are in the lives of the people we care for… And how important that is, how much meaning traditions have in our lives, and how wonderful it is to be held up by the people who love us.

  • Lauren

    >>>We had decided on a quick, casual elopement at city hall to be followed six months later by a real wedding. <<<

    I'd love to hear thoughts from the community about a marriage at city hall followed by a "real wedding." I very much considered a city hall marriage as my wedding. I thought about doing it with just fiance and I, and also possibly having 20 people with us. I guess when I read this post it made it sound like city hall is not a real wedding.

    I assume it's just word choice, but would love to hear thoughts on this.

    • PA

      I wrote out this big comment, but then I erased if, because it was getting wall-of-text-y. In short, I think that each person’s idea of a wedding boils down to the root concept of “witness.” WHO do you want to witness your commitment, and WHEN is that step going to happen? It may happen in stages or all at once, but often the legal aspect is separated from the “community witness” aspect.

      Just my thoughts!

    • My feeling is that if you think it’s your wedding, it is. Some people can’t or don’t want to do the paperwork and the ceremony together. For other people, the paperwork is the meaningful part. No one should tell you your City Hall wedding wasn’t real. (Corollary: if people want to treat the City Hall part as just paperwork, don’t insist that they’re already Really Married and their wedding is now a vow renewal. And don’t tell queer people that their illegal weddings are actually ‘just’ commitment ceremonies.)

    • Jo

      This is an interesting question –

      We’re looking at doing a small casual thing, but we’re including our immediate families. I’d like to have celebrations for extended family and friends later. My parents, however, are a little hung up on the idea that “you only get married once”, so they think that whichever moment comes first is the “real” wedding. Personally, I don’t want there to be one moment that marks a change in our lives, so I’m not preoccupied with choosing one “real” moment over another.

      Anyway, thanks APW for helping me think things through the past few days! I’m feeling much more comfortable with our decision now.

    • ElisabethJoanne

      Lauren, outside the US, it’s very common to have a civil (“city hall”) ceremony followed by a religious ceremony. The US is weird in the way it basically deputizes religious ministers to officiate at this hugely important legal event. Get a few people to call you “pastor” for a few weeks, and you’ve got more legal authority than a notary, who has to pass a background check and take classes and an exam. Other governments don’t want to give that kind of authority to clergymen, and churches outside the US don’t like their clergymen routinely signing government documents.

      My Roman Catholic friends had a city hall wedding in Arizona months before their wedding at a cathedral in Austria, to meet the requirements of the Roman Catholic Church in Austria.

      Personally, I don’t understand how the American system keeps working. I don’t think the “deputizing” is constitutional, and I don’t see why churches put up with it. And so we considered doing what we think the law should be: city hall wedding (shortly) followed by a full Solemn High (Anglican Catholic) Nuptial Mass. We still could, but I don’t want to complicate the week of my wedding too much. The sacramental marriage in church would be our “real” wedding, and the stuff at city hall would be just paperwork, like picking up the license, which everyone has to do, even when a Priest signs it.

      • Lauren

        Interesting. My brother got ordained and will marry us. There will be nothing religious mentioned, though. I’d rather if Illinois would have let him marry us without being “ordained” (you can do this in CA through the government I think rather than a “religious” thing) but it’ll work for us.

  • you got married on the solstice — when the light begins to grow again. perfect! also, on mt tabor! i’m getting married there, maybe in that same clearing, in june. :)

  • Not quite a Ms. Not Quite a Mrs.

    “We told a total of about ten people about the elopement, and to each one we said the same thing; “It’s not a real wedding, we’re just getting the paperwork out of the way. You don’t have to come, but we would totally like to see you.” They all wanted to be there, and they seemed more excited than we were. What’s so exciting about paperwork?”

    *Also, I didn’t use my real name, ’cause I don’t know who reads this site, and not everyone knows what I’m about to say*

    YES! Totes how my fusband (fiance/husband :) ) and I did it. Except we literally just had two witness (that were sworn to secrecy) and a courthouse. We did it for purely practical reasons like health insurance (which became moot when life threw us a curveball) and because we couldn’t really afford two rents and we didn’t want to live together without being married (Which was important for us).

    And both friends were SO excited about this courthouse thing. And we didn’t get it. I mean, we did this on a Monday and promptly went back to work that afternoon. What was the big deal?

    But like you, I’m glad they were so excited. I’m glad they insisted on bring borrowed blue post it notes, and taking a million pictures and giggling all day long. Because it made it fun and magical. It was a moment just for us. And in the craziness that is wedding planning, that was important to me.

    Way to make your own rules about commitment and do what works for you. :)

    Read more:

    • meg


      Feminist procedural note, though: you know you’re always and forever a Ms., right? That’s the whole point of the title. That just like men, our title shouldn’t change with our relationship status.

      the proud Ms. Keene

      • Not quite a Ms. Not Quite a Mrs.

        Yup. I just want to be a Mrs. :)
        Besides, it’s darn likely that I’ll keep the maiden for my professional, and the Mrs. for personal. :)

      • Sarah

        When I got married I decided to take my husband’s surname and to become Mrs, and I think that’s just as feminist as staying Miss or Ms. I say that because I thought about it and I made the decision that that’s what I wanted. Surely feminism is about each of us having the right to determine what is right for ourselves, rather than having to do something because we’re told it’s the right thing.

  • I really enjoyed reading this. Queer couples have to deal with the same issue all the time, since often we can’t be legally married where we live. For my parents, the legal wedding is the ‘real’ wedding (no surprise, given my family’s courthouse culture). I sometimes have a hard time with that, especially since I don’t really know that getting legally married would be very useful, but I think for them it comes out of their own understanding of their marriage as something private and legal, whereas my understanding of my own (future) marriage is about my status within a community of people who are known to me. That in turn reflects different priorities and ideas about our lives.

    • Jessica

      I also come from a “courthouse culture” family, and as such my struggle with my family has been the opposite of most I know. My parents and family don’t understand the value of weddings, and I feel immense pressure to elope at the courthouse like generations before me. Sometimes it’s hard because I want a wedding with my friends and family there. Thank you for posts like these which help me better articulate why I want a wedding, because I want to be married in front of my community.

  • Lturtle

    Laura here; I am overwhelmed by the positive response to this! I had thought I was alone in choosing to do things this way. But I knew if there were like minded ladies anywhere, it would be here on APW. I just want to say, because I didn’t include it in the post, that my friend D was really the instigator for the elopement becoming more special and meaningful than it might otherwise have been. With less than a week’s notice, while finishing her term at grad school, she handmade me a headpiece and dress to wear. But we didn’t have time to put the zipper in the dress, so I didn’t wear them. I am saving them to wear in summer, but her effort and enthusiasm were infectious.

  • Eeee, I love this! We did the legal now/big thing is saved for later route as well, and I think there’s just something terribly romantic about the simplicity of a civil ceremony, or at least one that involves just the basics.


  • We also had a courthouse ceremony, two months before our wedding, and it was the right thing for us. He went to school, and I went to work right after. His mom couldn’t understand why we weren’t taking the day off, but we didn’t have time for such things! The first anniversary passed a little while ago, and we high-fived… first “real” anniversary was just a couple weekends ago and we went out for tea and loveliness.

  • Moz

    How amazing is this? This sounds brilliant. Congrats on your marriage!

    • Lturtle


  • Don’t burn me. I’m playing the Devil’s Advocate, because I’ve heard this rhetoric before… and I’d like to here the “awesome alternative girl’s club” response. :)

    There are some people that seem to get really bent out of shape about situations like this. They feel “duped” when they are invited to a wedding and discover/know that the couple is already married. As if, once you are married, you can’t have the big party, because it’s a “farce.”

    Have you run into any of these comments? If so, how have you responded? Anyone else have an opinion?

    • suzanna

      I went to a “wedding” once that ended up actually being a post-wedding reception. They had already been legally married, and this was their big public celebration. For me, I was kind of surprised because I thought there was going to be a ceremony (it seemed like it from the invitation), but whatevs. I was there to celebrate with them! (Though I have to admit that it wasn’t as meaningful–we didn’t witness a ceremony, so it was just kind of a cocktail party.) However, there were some family members who did not travel for the party because it wasn’t a “real wedding”.

      I think this probably fits in the same category as so many other wedding/marriage/life choices: you need to know how to treat your community. Do you need to be honest from the get-go and tell everyone what all this means to you, so that they’re in the loop and there are no surprises? Or do you need to make sure to keep your marriage very, very secret so that nobody is offended? Or do you say screw it all, if they don’t get it, they can’t be very close to us? It’s different for everyone.

    • Lturtle

      Just to be clear on our situation; we only told about ten people before the elopement but afterwards we announced it to everyone. Well, family first and then everyone. So they know that we are legally married, but that we also intend to have a ceremony at our wedding this summer and we hope they’ll all be there. As I said in the post, we wanted to get the practical stuff taken care of right away but we also feel strongly about our community being part of our commitment. Some people were hurt to be left out, but once we assured them that the upcoming wedding is really a wedding and not just a party most seemed ok with it. And also really happy for us.
      It would not go over well with our family and friends if we kept them in the dark and announced we were already married at the upcoming wedding. If nothing else, that just feels dishonest to me, and dismissive of the love and support we get from them all.

    • Not quite a Ms. Not Quite a Mrs.

      And that’s pretty much why we haven’t told about 3/4 of the people coming to the wedding. Because we DON’T want them to feel like they ‘missed’ something.
      To us, for us, our wedding day is this spring. That’s the day we will celebrate, that’s the day (in our minds) we will become husband and wife.
      And a big part of that is probably religious (we’re saving sex until after the big day).

      On the flip side:
      My rule is this: If you visit our home, or we see you all the time, you’re going to know. It’s important to me that people know that we got legally married before moving in together, and I don’t want to lie to anybody. But I also just don’t see the need to hurt people’s feelings when we feel like our wedding day is still coming up.

      Just another perspective.

  • What a beautiful vow!

    • Lturtle

      Thank you!