Why Your Wedding Day Won’t (And Shouldn’t) Be The Happiest Day Of Your Life

Your wedding is not a measure of your worth or of how successful you’ll be as a couple. It’s just a party. You can cry if you want to.

The other night I was sitting around having a drink with two other women. One of them is married; the other was recently a maid of honor. We were trading wedding horror stories. This is perhaps the best way of bonding with people you don’t know very well—at least, it’s the best one I’ve found so far. Every human being over the age of 22 has at least one wedding horror story. Ask a married person, especially a woman, “What’s the worst thing that happened when you were planning your wedding?” and prepare for her to pull out an entire scrapbook of nightmares.

Everyone tacitly acknowledges that getting married, at least within the Western wedding industrial complex, is a nightmare wrapped in a clusterfuck. People planning weddings are often greeted with the same sympathetic “How are you holding up?” as someone whose grandmother just died. But while we all know that putting on a wedding for 50 or 125 or 300 of your closest friends and family is so stressful it should probably be handed down as a sentence for drunk driving, we somehow expect that after all those months of work, arguments, crises, and panic, the event itself will be nothing but pure joy. It’s supposed to be the happiest day of your life, after all.

The pressure to have a perfect wedding especially targets women, turning many of the coolest, most nonconformist babes I’ve known (including me) into wannabe Disney princesses, obsessed with perfecting the makeup we never wear in real life, learning to waltz when we’ve only ever danced in mosh pits, faking close relationships with family members we loathe, and generally portraying a picture-perfect ideal of femininity that doesn’t reflect our actual selves or values.

It’s not just that we want our friends and families to have a great time at our weddings—if that was all we cared about, we’d order 30 pizzas, put on our Beyonce Pandora station, set out a few bottles of tequila, and call it a day. But today, weddings are all about posterity; every detail needs to look perfect for the photo albums 50 years down the road.

And make no mistake: This is a competitive sport. As much as I hate it, I find myself succumbing to the wedding competition urge all the time—looking at this friend or that friend’s wedding photos and inwardly grumbling “Dammit, her dress is prettier than mine was” or “She might have amazing flowers but at least I had better shoes.” I know this is meaningless but I can’t seem to help myself.

Weddings carry enormous societal pressure to fit into a certain mold, to celebrate a life event—committing yourself to a partner—the way you’re expected to. It’s the most nearly mandatory milestone in Western culture; if you choose to spend your life with one romantic partner, you pretty much have to either have a wedding or spend the rest of your life explaining why you didn’t. (There’s no longer a loophole for being queer, either!) Although people do buck tradition in everything from attire to ceremony structure to decorations, there is an outline we’re all familiar with, and every step of the way you’re being evaluated on how well you’ve carried off the traditions while also expressing your uniqueness as individuals and as a couple—like adding your own flair to a work uniform. A uniform that can easily cost $20,000 or more and that can only be worn once. No wonder it makes us crazy.

Fortunate are they who can hand a wedding planner a blank check, say “Our favorite colors are gray and pink,” and not think about it again for a year. For most of us, though, wedding planning is an exhausting labyrinth of spreadsheets and budgets and caring more deeply than you ever thought it was possible to care about what font your programs should be in (of COURSE you have to have programs). It’s just too much pressure, and we all know it’s too much pressure but we don’t know what to do about it, so the stress just builds and builds until you find yourself awake at 3am sobbing and tying ribbons onto tiny bottles of bubbles. With all this pent-up emotion surrounding weddings, telling us that this is the best day we’re ever going to have so it had better be perfect, no wonder we lose our minds if anything goes wrong.

There are ways to circumvent the madness, of course. Despite all the things that went wrong at my wedding, I still remember it as one of the most fun parties I’ve ever attended (in large part because, alongside all the work we did on crafts and details that no one noticed for more than an instant, I also spent days painstakingly curating a dance playlist that people are still complimenting me on three years later). In fact, when I told my partner I wanted to write an essay about wedding horror stories, he said, “But we don’t have any wedding horror stories. Our wedding was awesome.”

I reminded him of a few details, like the fact that my custom-made dress was delivered so late and so ill-fitting that the bodice had to be completely remade three days before the wedding; the wedding crashers; the rain; the couple that broke up in the middle of the reception; and my maid of honor locking her keys in her car and almost missing the ceremony. “Well, yeah, but I wouldn’t call any of that a horror story,” says my partner. “It just kept things interesting.”

Which is exactly the attitude we need to cultivate if people are going to survive their own weddings (and those of their closest friends) with their psyches and relationships intact. I think we need a whole lot of chilling out and letting go of the idea that weddings are—or should be—the happiest day of your life.

Something will always go wrong. Someone won’t show up, something won’t turn out the way you planned it, you will look weird in at least a few of your pictures, someone will cry in the bathroom or have sex in the bathroom or both. It’s fine. It’s all part of the ride.

It would be great if we could somehow uncouple weddings from self-worth and extricate ourselves from the wedding industrial complex, and maybe that will happen in the next couple of generations as the contemporary redefinition of marriage continues, but for now the best thing to do is acknowledge that it’s going to suck sometimes. Your wedding is not a measure of your worth or of how successful you’ll be as a couple. It’s just a party. You can cry if you want to.

Your wedding is not going to be the happiest day of your life. The morning after your wedding, you’re going to wake up beside the person you’ve promised to share your life with, and you are going to look deeply into their eyes and say, “Thank God that’s over with,” and the joy you know in that moment will be like nothing you’ve ever felt before.

Lindsay King-Miller is a queer writer who lives in Denver with her partner, an ever-growing collection of books, and a very spoiled cat. Her first book will be published by Plume in early 2016.

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