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Weddings Are Wasted on the Young

On New Year’s Day, I went to a wedding of two people who had both been married once before. I’ve known the groom, Aaron, since my freshman year of college, and I’d been at his first wedding 12 years ago. At the second wedding, he and his bride walked down the aisle together — they skipped the tradition of having her dad handle that honor — to the sound of a mutual friend playing an acoustic-guitar version of “Bless the Broken Road,” a Rascal Flatts song that had deep significance for them.

Here are the opening lyrics:

I set out on a narrow way many years ago
Hoping I would find true love along the broken road
But I got lost a time or two
Wiped my brow and kept pushing through
I couldn’t see how every sign pointed straight to you

Every long lost dream led me to where you are
Others who broke my heart they were like Northern stars
Pointing me on my way into your loving arms
This much I know is true
That God blessed the broken road
That led me straight to you

I think about the years I spent just passing through
I’d like to have the time I lost and give it back to you
But you just smile and take my hand
You’ve been there you understand
It’s all part of a grander plan that is coming true

“We’ve been listening to that song on the radio for years,” Aaron tells me later. “It was sort of my wife’s theme song for a while. It [became] our theme song coming out of our two failed marriages. To have that song play you down the aisle, it was just too perfect. We couldn’t not.”

I’ve been to plenty of weddings — and I’ve been happily married for almost 11 years now — but I found Aaron’s to be among the most moving and romantic I’ve ever attended. It reminded me of another wedding I attended recently, that of a different college friend, Bryan, which took place this past summer. He and his wife had never been married before — although they both had previously been in long-term relationships — and were now in their 40s. I’m a pretty easy wedding-crier, but the sweetness and simplicity of their ceremony really got to me.

That’s not to shit on the other weddings I’d been to — especially those of people in their 20s. There’s definitely something fresh and exciting about those ceremonies: The couple’s whole life stretches out in front of them, and they’re still young enough to be largely untouched by romantic disappointment. It’s the stuff of romcoms — magical, storybook and what we imagine as the prototypical “happy wedding.”

But clearly that’s not the only wedding archetype, even if it had been the only one I’d been exposed to previously. Because why else would Aaron and Bryan’s weddings be among the most joyous I’d ever attended? At both, the people getting married seemed more relaxed and casual, and the ceremonies’ unhurried vibe made them feel more like intimate parties than heavily orchestrated events. No one was trying to sell us on how “perfect” the couple was. No one was trying to outdo every wedding that had ever come before. Neither was in a church — Bryan and his wife chose a vineyard, Aaron and his wife picked a funky multi-use spot in L.A.

Both of them eschewed certain wedding traditions, like the throwing of the bouquet. The evenings felt handmade but in an unpretentious way. The dress code was more relaxed; the vows more sincere and heartfelt. My friends and their brides talked about the importance they placed in finding each other — and wanting to be mindful of appreciating the commitment and work that went into a marriage. They celebrated the challenge and the rewards that come with long-term relationships. Nor did any of these acknowledgements make the ceremonies seem unromantic — if anything, it made them feel more so.

I found the weddings moving, in part, because they spoke to my own experience. I was 31 when I got married. And to be honest, I figured I mostly had a lifetime of bachelorhood in front of me. I liked the idea of finding a soulmate, but past heartbreaks made me wonder if it was ever going to work out. My wife, who’s older than me, felt similarly, which probably explains our attitude toward our wedding: We loved it, but we didn’t have any illusions about it being the greatest day of our lives. It was just one day on a longer journey together and a public way of showing our gratitude for one another — and to recognize that our love wasn’t something to take for granted.

We’ve seen the statistics. In 2012, 20 percent of American adults 25 or older had never married, while in 1960 it was only 9 percent. According to the Pew Research Center, “The median age at first marriage is now 27 for women and 29 for men, up from 20 for women and 23 for men in 1960.” And in 2013, Pew found that 40 percent of marriages involved “at least one partner who had been married before, and two-in-ten new marriages were between people who had both previously stepped down the aisle.”

“I’ve found that those marrying for the second time tend to be much more laid back than first-time brides and grooms,” says Kristie Lorette McCauley, a copywriter and former wedding planner. “They care more about the meaning of the ceremony and reception and less about the frills. That’s not to say they don’t pay attention to some of the details that go into most first weddings, but it’s not a priority for second-marriage weddings.”

That was definitely the case for Aaron. “I feel like traditional weddings are this show — you get on stage and have to perform and be on display,” he tells me. “I hated that feeling. I [adopted] the mindset of being intentional about the damn [wedding] that you want.”

For instance, he balked at the preset music program that the DJ had laid out for him when they first met. “The company had this form that you’re supposed to fill out,” Aaron recalls, still annoyed. “It has blanks and sections for all of the traditional stuff that you would expect at a wedding: the processional, the recessional, the bridesmaids, the groomsmen, the entrance song, the grand entrance, the first dance. If you’re painting by numbers, that’s what you would do. I was like, ‘No, I’m not using this form. I refuse.’”

The DJ form might not seem like a big deal, but for Aaron, it cut too close to the less-thoughtful approach he took with his first wedding. “I can tell you in 2005 [when he last got married], I wasn’t being as intentional as I would have liked about what went into the wedding. It just makes it so much more enjoyable when you say, ‘These are things I want.’”

“[Young couples] put so much emphasis on the wedding and not the marriage that they’re not appreciating what they’re going through emotionally,” warns Kristeen LaBrot, an L.A.-based wedding planner. “It’s all about, ‘What’s it going to look like?’ People in their second weddings, they’ve gone through the whole dog-and-pony show. They’re not so concerned — usually because they’re a little older — about pleasing everyone. They want to do what makes them happy. They don’t worry about, ‘What little, crappy favor am I going to put out on the table for my guests to leave behind anyway?’”

At Bryan’s wedding, before the ceremony began, he and his bride asked that the guests put away their phones. Rather than having people take a bunch of photos that would inevitably go up on Instagram and Facebook, they just wanted us to share the moment with them. That mindfulness extended to how he and his fiancée decided on the people they invited.

“Because we were older, we had much more life represented at the wedding,” he says. “It wasn’t just high school friends or college friends. For me, it was three different careers’ worth of friends and life phases. Our wedding was representative of us at this later part in life and bringing all these things together. All that shared experience became [important] to us. We didn’t have a big wedding, so it became ‘What’s the criteria? Who comes? Who do we have a strong history with?’ But we also wanted to invite people that we wanted to be part of our life moving forward. The wedding was about merging our two lives but also setting the stage for our future life together.”

I’d gone to school with a more impetuous, immature Bryan — it was college, we were all that way — but at his wedding, I was seated next to people who knew different Bryans than me. What we all had in common was that we loved the guy, even if our entry points into his life were different. Also — and this was true of both weddings — I felt honored to be invited because the guest list was more selective. Attending their weddings meant that I mattered to them, and that the friendship had transcended the era when we first met.

Obviously, the common thread to everything above is that Aaron’s and Bryan’s path to their wedding days didn’t necessarily go smoothly. At Bryan’s wedding, there was even an acknowledgement during the ceremony that the bride and groom weren’t looking for someone when they first met — and, that they actually weren’t each other’s “type.” Plus, they met on Tinder, and were initially embarrassed about telling people once their relationship got serious.

At Aaron’s wedding, the tone of the vows was of being prepared for the long road ahead rather than treating the ceremony as the happy ending. Their meet-cute was as unlikely as Bryan and his wife’s: Both of them lawyers, they served as co-counsel on the same case, meeting at a deposition. I still remember, years ago, having dinner with Aaron as he was raving about this woman he had just met. “You should have seen her,” he gushed. “The way she tore through a witness was just so damn sexy.”

That roll-up-your-sleeves attitude squares with the experience of Allen Wagner, a marriage and family therapist who provides premarital counseling. “People in their 20s, I think there’s just this feeling that love will conquer all. But people who’ve been through a previous marriage — or even just having long-term relationships — they walk into a marriage with a much better understanding of what can go wrong.”

Ah, pragmatism — not exactly the sexiest quality. But Wagner believes that’s the wrong way to look at it, especially when taking into account premarital counseling, which he says the clientele for, at least in his own practice, skews toward people in the mid-30s or 40s. “Look, for people to do premarital counseling at all, they have to have that skepticism,” he says. “If you just believed a 100-percent unquestionably that it’s gonna work out [because] you love each other, then you’d see no value in doing premarital counseling. I think it’s [for] when people have doubts: ‘I love this person. We have all of these great things in common. We have a connection. We’re best friends. But there are issues we have that tend to cause conflict.’”

When people own up to those anxious feelings in advance, the wedding can be about celebrating a plan for the future as opposed to mourning or responding to the past. “We’ve all been hurt in different times of our life, whether it’s in a relationship, a friendship or our professional life,” Wagner says. That’s why he suggests people write down the reasons why a relationship didn’t work out while it’s fresh in their mind. “If you’re walking out of a relationship because you really understand why, then you understand the problems that existed — it’s not that the person was a bad person, but they were incompatible with you and that wasn’t gonna change. I want people to be able to look at those things, remember those things and understand those things. Not only will it help them in the next relationship target what they want more — but it also will stop them from continuing a cycle.”

Bryan and his wife went through premarital counseling. And he fully admits that they see their relationship as something that blossomed in part because of the mistakes they’d made in previous relationships.

“Both of us had a situation where our previous [long-term] relationship had been formative and had prepped us for each other,” he says. When his last relationship ended, “I didn’t flip out for the first time, I was just like, ‘Okay, I’m just gonna be chill, and let’s see what happens.’ That process was incredibly instructive. When I first started dating [my wife], she was [nervous]: ‘I don’t know if I really want to date because I’m still getting over my last thing, and that was messy and I’m gun-shy!’ Me, five or 10 years ago, would’ve been like, ‘Meltdown!’ But instead, I was like, ‘It’ll either work out or it won’t, and that’s cool.’ We were both in situations where we were primed to work better with each other because of our previous relationships. Now, I think, ‘Thank god I didn’t get married in my 20s. That would’ve been a disaster — I was an idiot in my 20s.’”

Aaron told me something similar, pondering what he calls his “failed marriage” before offering, “It’s easy to be in love with a person on a wedding day, right? It’s all positive. Things are all great that day. You have to be honest with yourself about whether you want to be with this person on a normal day, too. That’s the most important part.”

He says he didn’t feel like he and his new wife intentionally did things to differentiate this wedding from their previous ones. But Aaron does admit, “We gave the DJ a list of do-not-play songs. We wanted to make sure that the key songs from our practice weddings didn’t make their way into this one.”

The wedding planners I talked to said that older couples tend to dispense with certain wedding traditions — the cutting of the cake, the garter toss — because they don’t hold much significance to grownups, who find them tacky. Or impossible to repeat with the same emotion. “My wife originally was like, ‘We should break a glass’ because we’re Jewish,” says Aaron. “I responded, ‘I don’t think so.’ It just felt improper and disingenuous. The whole symbolism of the glass is representative of you breaking something that can never be put back together — once you’re married, your life will never be the same. I just felt that you only get to break the glass once. And I fucked that up [with my first wedding]. So I vetoed breaking the glass.

“After having had the failed marriage, I just feel like symbolism is bullshit. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just part of the [perfect wedding] fairy tale — ‘Oh, I’m supposed to do this thing.’ But the breaking of the glass … I just didn’t feel like you get to do that twice.”

For Bryan, the tradition of the bachelor party presented an interesting challenge. With a self-deprecating laugh, he explains, “In my 20s, I drank and was a total douchebag — I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to do something that felt memorable. I wanted to feel like I had checked that box in terms of life. I didn’t want to go crazy — but, you know, I wanted to say, ‘Hey, I had a bachelor party.’”

I didn’t go to Bryan’s bachelor party, so I was curious what he ended up doing. “I kinda subverted the [idea of the] bachelor party,” he responds, still laughing. “We went to Vegas to go see Lionel Richie. We were like, ‘It’s going to be ridiculous.’ I don’t even think I drank the entire time. It was having fun with friends, but also acknowledging that we’re old and we’re not [going to go crazy]. It’s like, ‘We could [go crazy], but really, we’re going to bed at 11.’”

No part of him, however, wishes he’d gotten married earlier. With a bit of wonder he says, “When you’re 40, you feel like, ‘Wow, this is amazing that I found this person. That’s fucking crazy!’ But it’s also tempered because you have all that context and you go into it with open eyes. You appreciate it for what it is.”