"Why would you get married after all this time?" asked a friend. My partner Peter and I had been together for 10 years and were only now deciding to get married, so it was an understandable question. As we spoke with our friend it became clear there were really two questions in one. First, why would you wait so long to get married? And, second, why would you get married, anyway?
It’s not so uncommon for couples these days to delay getting married. Many live together for years, with finances and children sometimes being the determining factors in their decision. Admittedly, 10 years is a long time to wait.
Timing: why wait?
Over the years, we had discovered our relationship had a life of its own. It had phases and seasons that we could not determine but could only participate in to the best of our ability. There was the in-love stage. This was heady and adventurous. There were various stages of healing and development as character issues arose and had to be sorted through. These were chaotic and challenging. There were times when we questioned whether we should even stay together. There were other times of blossoming when new qualities of generosity, respect and tolerance arose. Then it simply seemed time to undertake some sort of ritual to honour the relationship.
Why get married?
So why get married, anyway? Peter and I had made a commitment when we first got together. We had gone away for a weekend and performed a commitment ritual involving just the two of us. This had lasted us through 10 years. We had respect for the power of ritual because if it’s done well it can open up a transformative space. We thought marriage could be one of those rituals. In contrast with our original ritual, marriage is conducted in public. We would now share the process with others.
The idea of celebration was also really important. We were quite good at sharing our challenging times with friends but not so good at sharing the joy. We wanted a celebration of love. Ten years of conscious relating is no small thing these days — it was well worth celebrating. I heard somewhere that marriage has traditionally been about the anticipation of what is to come, but it can also be a celebration of where you have already been.
There is, however, a bit of reverse snobbery around these days regarding marriage. It’s viewed by some as an archaic institution, too last-century perhaps, and flouncing down an aisle in white might seem uncool or irrelevant. With divorce so common, why would you bother with the whole thing, anyway? I could understand such questions. Again, there are two parts: there’s the marriage and then there’s the wedding. The marriage is the commitment and the wedding is the ritual that signifies and celebrates this commitment.
So what are you committing to and what is a commitment, anyway? A commitment is when you have a strong intention and promise to follow that intention. The marriage intention used to be about staying with someone until death. A lot of its focus was on joint finances and child rearing. In later times, people came to believe it was about staying in love with a person forever, so when the feeling of love seemed to disappear people assumed it meant the marriage was over.
More recently, the marriage commitment has come to mean different things to different people. A couple will often work out together what their unique slant on the commitment will be. They then write their vows accordingly instead of following the "till death us do part" formula.
Peter and I had a spiritual intention as the foundation of our relationship and our marriage. Basically, spirituality for us is about unconditional love and the related capacities that arise from this state, such as contribution, generosity, acceptance, forgiveness … the list goes on. We believe we have a lot of blocks that prevent us from being unconditionally loving but that a committed relationship offers a place where we can practise dissolving these blocks. In getting married we would be re-committing to this process together. Commitment means staying to work on this process even when the going gets tough. In doing so, we can move through blocks we would otherwise run away from because they hurt too much or become too hard to deal with. Paradoxically, though, it didn’t mean staying together for the rest of our lives. It might mean this and we hoped it would, but we also had to be open to the possibility that at some time the relationship might reach a point where our work together was done and we needed to move on.
Allowing for this possibility keeps the relationship alive and active instead of it sinking into a secure and passive comfort zone. This means we have to hold two seemingly opposite things together in consciousness. We have to maintain our strong intention to stay together while at the same time following the wisdom of the relationship even if this means we might not stay together forever. Not that we would stop loving each other. It’s just that the love might need to take another form, such as spiritual friendship instead of partnership.
We also felt that when two people make a commitment together in love it adds an extra energy to the union. It meant there was Peter and there was me, but there was also what we called "the spirit of the relationship". This spirit is the love and wisdom that just wants to be. It’s the basis of many spiritual teachings.
In aligning our relationship with this already existing spirit we felt we could trust in a greater wisdom than our sometimes small and selfish selves would have access to. A marriage ritual would be a ‘re-inviting’ of this energy into our relationship. We thought we could use all the help we could get! As a friend quoted at our wedding: "For one human being to love another, that is perhaps the most difficult of our tasks: the ultimate, the last test in proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation." (Rainer Marie Rilke) What better project to work on than love? In case this is sounding heavy, while some of it is hard work it also uncovers a font of sweetness and joy, fun and inspiration we would otherwise not discover. That is certainly worth committing to.
What do you do if you don’t want to wear white and walk down the aisle of a church? What would it actually look like? What would you do? What would you say? How do you create something real and meaningful outside the mainstream tradition? There were four important keys to our ability to create our own ceremony:
- The vision: to uncover what the essence of marriage was for us
- The ritual: to dream up ways to symbolise this essence
- The intention: to maintain a strong intention to create this vision throughout the lead-up process
- The support: to get the support of others during the lead-up and the actual ceremony
- Love — surrendering and opening to this power.
- Union — of two different personalities, of man and woman.
- Joy — celebration, affection, warmth, laughter.
- Freedom — uniting yet still allowing the individual soul’s freedom.
- Relationship as growth — honesty, forgiveness, generosity, contribution.
- Commitment — courage, will, strength.
In getting clear about what the essence of marriage was, Peter and I first got together with some friends to brainstorm the whole thing. This helped us to clarify what some of the main themes were for us. It helped to have others asking questions and offering ideas. Some of our themes were as follows:
As Peter and I continued to refine our vision of marriage we went through various processes: dwelling on the topic on our own, dialoguing together, talking to individual friends, reading other people’s ideas, having a friend take us through a more non-verbal drawing exercise, and working out what our vows would be and what we would actually promise each other.
Dreaming up the ritual
So when you make up your own ceremony what are you in for? If you take out the traditional method, as performed by a priest or marriage celebrant, you’re left with a daunting process. It does bring a lot of freedom but that can actually be overwhelming. Where on earth do you start? I had heard of a few alternative weddings but they weren’t our style.
The challenge was to create a ceremony that would match our own individual approach to marriage. The trick was to make it personal. Together and with our support group, we came up with ideas about how to symbolise our vision of marriage. Over the weeks and months some ideas would arise and disappear while some just seemed a good match for what we wanted. We took those on board. This process takes time. Like any creative process, it needs incubation time.
At the beginning of the dreaming-up process we were keen to have the men and women in two separate groups. After staying separate overnight they would then come together in the ceremony. The site of the wedding actually has a bridge so we decided to have each man meet a woman on the bridge and escort her across. We were also keen on the idea of marriage as a source of flow between the couple and the community. A couple both give to and receive from the community. So we had the wedding party give out candles and flowers to the guests early in the ceremony. Later on, the guests then brought these gifts forward to create a circle in which Peter and I stood to make our vows.
We had doves to symbolise freedom and a goblet of wine to symbolise the sharing of life and love together. One of the most important things was having each of our friends lead a part of the ceremony. We felt surrounded by a warm and loving community that gave us the support to be completely open-hearted during the ceremony.
The creation of the ceremony takes time and during this process there will be phases and issues to go through. It’s important to hold onto your vision so you’re not swayed off course through all the ups and downs of the preparation process. There are both emotional and practical difficulties to deal with along the way, but these are part of the whole thing and it all contributes to the depth of the final ceremony.
One issue for Peter and me was how to contend with the different expectations guests would have. We were having a non-traditional wedding with a spiritual focus. We were therefore concerned about offending the older people who might expect a traditional Christian ceremony. We also didn’t want to alienate other friends who were "not spiritual". We had to work on creating a balanced ritual that wasn’t too much of a departure yet would still express our unique intention.
Another big component of the preparation was dealing with the fear. It felt quite challenging to express our heart and soul so openly in front of people who would not be familiar with our approach to relationship. They might think we were too soppy, too spiritual, too crazy … too whatever. We were also going to speak about why we loved each other, something you don’t usually do in front of other people. To cap it all off, we were going to sing a song to each other. A nice idea perhaps, except I don’t sing and had never sung in public in my life. It was a terrifying thought and took courage and support to get me through.
Throughout the process it was important to have our friends supporting us. We couldn’t have done it without them. There was much laughter, some tears, a few frayed tempers and many shared meals. The support we received was on many levels: emotional, imaginative and practical. The emotional support involved a lot of affirmation from our friends that it was worthwhile attempting to dream up our own ceremony. They encouraged us to be vulnerable and open-hearted on the day.
The imaginative support meant our friends assisted us to plan ways to bring our vision alive, to work our what we would actually do, what the ceremony would look like. We also spent hours reading over what we had written, with the group acting as sounding board and editors. Too corny … too intellectual … too much detail … they could give us reliable feedback. We learnt to keep it as simple and heartfelt as possible.
Then there was the invaluable practical support. Some gave us massages, some went searching for rose petals. There were singing rehearsals and encouraging phone calls when fear came up. They made sure that on the day Peter and I could just focus on staying present and enjoy the event while they worked behind the scenes to make it happen. The gift of their generosity and affirmation was invaluable. Not that it was a one-way process, though. Everyone valued the opportunity to participate in an event centred on love. Also, each of them had to have the courage to step up and contribute openheartedly in the ceremony, too. By contributing they each gained from the warmth and love created in the ritual.
An emotional roller coaster," said some guests. "Spiritually awesome," said my father. "Moving", "different", "heartfelt", "beautiful", said others. There seemed to be lots of heart and warmth generated by the ceremony. We had the courage to open our hearts publicly and we had the complete support of our group backing us up, and it seemed to work. People were touched, even though the form and flavour might have been foreign to them.
All the preparation paid off in lots of tears and tissues, laughter and roses and the contribution of so many people. It was so moving to see our vision for the ceremony come to fruition. There was so much love, so much generosity and so much depth of feeling from Peter and me, from our support group in their talks and from the guests in response. It was absolutely worth the effort of making our own ceremony to see it fulfilled like this. I recommend it!
Immediately after, it was like Peter and I were inside a beautiful bliss bubble. There was so much love and joy. However, Peter had his family from overseas to attend to, so he had to go off to be with them. This parting felt like a horrible wrench. I now understand why people go on a honeymoon: you want to make the most of that bliss bubble. Don’t burst it — have the honeymoon! @BC2:In the weeks and months after the ceremony there was even more love between us. It’s like one of those late-night ads on television … "but wait there’s more". It seemed that in going through the ritual we had opened a space for even more love to come through. It reaffirmed our belief in the power of ritual. It isn’t just a fanciful ceremony. It makes a difference. All the effort and intention and collaboration create an energy that brings a power to what you do in the ritual. This in turn creates a new flowering within the relationship. Not that we expect it to be a bed of roses from now on! It is, however, a lovely watershed time we can look back on in later years. It will be a source of inspiration and joy as we face our future together.
Cynthia is a psychologist working in private practice in Melbourne. T: 0417 103 018, W: www.users.bigpond.com/cynthia1/.