Try a little wedding de-planning

Someone I know once worked at Michael’s craft supply store. It wasn’t a very challenging job, so she took it upon herself to add a new duty: Wedding De-Planner.

When feverish brides-to-be (or their mothers) would approach the counter with armloads of what could only be described as frilly garbage, she would try her best to talk them out of buying it. Put some of it back, let some of it go. Snap out of it! Nobody needs this stuff. (No, she did not work on commission.)

It’s not just that they were buying tasteless decor that would look ridiculous in six months, when the current hot trend had cooled. It was that they were openly making themselves miserable trying to pursue some ephemeral aesthetic ideal, and spending gobs and gobs of money, trying to create something that . . . wasn’t really anything. They were letting themselves be bullied (by Instagram, by magazines, by the wedding industry and the culture in general) into loading themselves down with a bunch of stuff that won’t and can’t make anyone happy.

I can’t claim any credit for not having fallen prey to this impulse myself, when I was planning my own wedding. The only reason I didn’t is because I didn’t have the time or the money. We had something like two months and maybe $1500, and we ended up with what looked on paper like a bare bones wedding and reception, but which I remember as being loud, colorful, and joyful. There was singing and dancing and laughing, and everyone had plenty to eat and drink, and if anyone was dissatisfied, I either missed it at the time, or I’ve forgotten it by now.

We got away with such simplicity because we were young, only the second couple in our group of friends to get married; so the standard wasn’t very high yet. Also, the overall emotion of the day was rejoicing (and more than a little bit of relief on the part of my parents), which goes a long way to making a good day. I’ve been to weddings that are extremely elegant and tasteful, but are bogged down with an invisible fog of hostility and tension, so that’s mainly what the guests feel.

Looking back, there are very few details I would have changed, and none of them have to do with spending more money.

I don’t remember what the organist played, but it was something appropriate for Mass, so no harm done. I don’t remember which readings we chose. I don’t remember our wedding vows! But we’ve spent the last 25 years figuring out how to live together, which I imagine we also would have to do even if we had painstakingly crafted some personal and meaningful vows and memorized them.

There was a Mass. We got married at it. The ceremony was done the way it was always done at that parish, which included an ultra-tacky Unity Candle that has a little story attached to it and the priest repeatedly saying my name wrong; but we definitely got married.

My husband’s brother took a bunch of pictures, and some of them turned out good. I had asked my bridesmaids to choose their own dress, as long as it was dark green. Everyone had a few flowers to hold (I do wish I had spent more on their flowers and on flowers for the church, and less on my own bouquet). We had bought wedding rings at a kiosk at the mall, and we still have them, and they are still ring-shaped, so that worked out.

The reception was in the church basement. My plan was to decorate with freshly-picked wildflowers, but it turns out there aren’t any in late October; so we had baskets of polished apples and bottles of wine on the tables, instead, which turned out to be both festive and practical. I borrowed a stack of CDs from the library, and a friend volunteered to play them for dancing. We bought lots of cheap wine and good bread and ordered some plates of meat and cheese from the deli, my sister made a giant bowl of pasta salad, and my father made a giant pot of French onion soup.

My mother was going to bake my wedding cake, but she got sick, so I baked it myself, but completely forgot to plan any decorations, so a friend strewed some bridesmaid flowers and ferns around it. Voila, a decorated cake. There were balloons and bubbles and lots of little kids at the reception, and . . . we were happy. It was a happy day, and off we went.

I remember being annoyed that one of the groomsmen wore a tan sweater instead of a dress jacket; I remember being annoyed that the best man gave a speech that was basically a lament over losing his best friend to some random chick (me). I remember getting over it, dancing with my new husband, and leaving early, because we couldn’t wait to be alone together.

I wish I had thought harder about thanking everyone for pitching in so much. I dropped the ball with that. Something else that would have made the day better: An opportunity for confession and adoration before the wedding. I’ve heard of couples doing this and vastly altering the atmosphere of the entire day, for the couple and for everyone in attendance. But still and all, even a wedding day is just one day. We’ve had plenty of confession and adoration since then, and we plan to keep that up.

Like every other married couple, we’ve accumulated some regrets. We’ve been married for nearly 25 years, and it’s not hard to look back and find some things we wish we could have changed. But I will tell you, not a single one has to do with something I wish I had bought at Michael’s, or anywhere else. There’s nothing I wish I had gone into debt over, to make the day more special.

So if you’re planning your wedding and feeling the tug to add more things to your cart, and make it more elaborate, more loaded down, more fancy, more expensive, may I encourage you to resist? Or if you need some encouragement, I know a wedding de-planner who can help.

I’m really not joking! I know there are a lot of cultural and circumstantial pressures that go into weddings. But when you’re planning the day, do think most of all about how you’re going to spend your life together. Think about how to make that joyful. Believe me, believe me. The details may seem important now, but eventually, very little else will matter besides everything else.


A version of this essay was first published at The Catholic Weekly on July 25, 2022.
Image: Tom Harpel from Seattle, Washington, United States, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The painful, grace-filled and (potentially) healing process of seeking an annulment

Four weddings, but only one sacramental marriage. That was the tally by the time Rob and Shannon made their vows to each other 18 years ago.

Rob and Shannon are not their real names. The couple is not ashamed of their story, but they do not like to dwell on it, either; and it is complex enough that they have not told their own children all the details. It is a story about mistakes, pride, fear and hope, growth and grace, and love and canon law. It is a story, in short, about what makes a valid marriage in the eyes of the church, and how church leaders and structures respond when a marriage is not valid.

For such a theologically dense topic, annulments are a perennially popular topic of discussion and debate among Catholics. They are also perennially misunderstood. Many Americans speak of “getting an annulment” as if it were just the Catholic version of divorce, and many Catholics leave the church when they discover that there is more to it than that. There are persistent stories of rich or famous Catholics who supposedly bought their way out of undesirable marriages; and armchair theologians are quick to offer their pronouncement on whether or not a stranger’s marriage is valid based on a few online comments.

But the problems surrounding petitioning for decrees of nullity go deeper than rumors and misunderstandings. In 2015, Pope Francis made some reforms, aimed at lowering the costs and expediting the process. He opined in January 2021 that these efforts were being stymied by the desire for money.

But some canon lawyers believe a different kind of reform is necessary, anyway—the kind that takes place on a more personal level, where couples begin their lives together with a better understanding of what the church means by marriage, and are supported during inevitable times of struggle.

What does the church really teach about this widely misunderstood process, and how does it play out in the lives of ordinary Catholics? What does it do to their emotional and spiritual lives to encounter a doctrine that works in the space where law meets love?

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Image via Pixabay (Creative Commons)


It’s not too late to cancel your wedding

Jennifer’s wedding dress hangs in the closet of her guest bedroom. It’s never been worn. Jennifer (not her real name) called off her wedding two months before the date, and she says it was the hardest thing she’s ever done. Her friends were shocked; her parents were distraught. Her maid of honor stopped speaking to her. Jennifer had made non-refundable deposits, was was surrounded by gifts from her bridal shower when she announced the wedding was off. 

It was very late in the game to change her mind. But it wasn’t too late.  

“I think the hardest part was being honest with myself,” Jennifer said. 

She and her fiancé had been together for six years, engaged for nine months; but it wasn’t until the last minute that she finally acknowledged their relationship just wasn’t healthy. 

She’s not alone. By some estimate, 15 percent or more of engagements don’t end in marriage. But a couples who’s been together for a long time — or a couple who’s blundered quickly toward marriage, without taking time to discern the wisdom of their plans — can feel like they’re locked in one they’ve announced their plans to wed. 

“It’s a difficult situation when there’s the romantic delusion that somehow this marriage is going to beat the odds,” said Father Joe Tonos, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in Oxford, Miss. 

“It’s like the Percy Sledge principle: ‘When a man loves a woman, she can do no wrong,’ or vice versa,”  he said. And so they forge ahead, despite all the warning signs. 

Or sometimes, as in the case of Melissa (not her real name), they know very well that something is wrong, but they don’t know how to extricate themselves from what feels like a trap. 

Melissa broke of her engagement to her abusive fiancé well after their wedding plans were underway. 

“If you’ve announced the engagement, the pressure is on to live up to the expectations by following through with the marriage. But the people who might be surprised by the news of the broken engagement do not have to live with a broken relationship, or suffer through a future divorce,” Melissa said. 

With the help of a counselor, she found the courage to call the wedding off, and she was amazed to discover how supportive and gracious her friends and family were. 

Nevertheless, Melissa said her experience was humiliating. “I felt like a failure,” she said. 

“It was also empowering, though, in an odd way. I knew the decision was the right one, and despite the pain of it all, I felt a great deal more peace once I’d called the engagement off than I did while we were still planning to marry,” she said. 

For a Catholic marriage to be valid, the spouses must be free to marry; they must freely consent to the marriage; they must intend to marry for life, to be faithful, and to be open to children; and they must (with some exceptions) marry in front of two witnesses and a priest. 

But this is the bare minimum. A couple looking forward to their wedding day should also be joyfully looking forward to spending a life together. They should experience some peace together. They shouldn’t be working hard to ignore red flag about each other or about their relationship. 

Most of all, they should never feel obligated or trapped by the wedding plans themselves, no matter how much money and time have been poured into crafting the perfect celebration. A wedding is just one day, and it’s possible to recover from cancelling it. It’s much harder to recover from a wedding that goes off perfectly, but which is the first day of years of misery and disaster. 

Father Tonos recalls counseling a friend to break up with his girlfriend who constantly made him unhappy. The friend protested: “What? And throw away the past two years?”

“Don’t count the past investment,” Father Tonos said. Instead, think of the future, and of how it will be to spend the rest of your life with this person. 

Melissa wishes she could tell her former self, “I know that right now, it feels like you’re trapped, like you can’t live without your partner in your life, but you also can’t imagine living with them. Marriage will not make those feelings of doubt and pain go away. By continuing a relationship that is mutually exclusive with your happiness, you might also miss other connections and opportunities that are where you’re meant to be, and who you’re meant to be with.” 

Melissa has since become engaged to another man, and she has “zero doubts.”

“Taking control of my life after this broken engagement was very hard, but it empowered me to really get to know what I needed to be happy in a relationship that would last,” she said.

Jennifer, too, is grateful for her experience, agonizing though it was. 

“I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned that wedding bells do not define my worth. My vocation is no less because I didn’t go through with this,” she said. 

Jennifer and her ex-fiancé are still friends. He even thanked her, shortly after the cancelled wedding, for being strong enough to do what needed to be done. 

“Running to escape my problems would never have worked,” she said. “Facing them head on has done wonders for my life. I believed in ‘us,’ but now I get to believe in myself. I also know now that the Lord will never abandon me.” 




This article was originally published in Parable magazine in spring of 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

Photo by Marko Milivojevic on Pixnio