What a "Wedding Merchants" Convention Taught Me about Marriage

I’ve always suspected, to paraphrase an adage from evolutionary science, that the marriage replicates the wedding. The wedding’s style is a germinal expression of the marriage to come, its strengths, vulnerabilities, and dreams.

Looking back, many of my marriage’s resources and weaknesses were reflected in the design of my wedding and how we went about planning it. Although naturally I didn’t notice that at the time, worried as I was about votive candles and cake.

To learn more I attended an annual gathering of wedding merchants in Arizona, when I was working on my book about marriage. This was at the start of the recession in 2008. The dire economics for wedding vendors (people who sell any kind of wedding service, from music to flowers) in a fiercely competitive, $40 billion a year business seemed to haunt the “Academy,” as they named it. Several speakers and participants gravitated toward lethal metaphors of hunting and being hunted. They talked about nimbly stalking potential bride-customers in what insiders call the “engagement zone” ("being 27 and in love puts you in The Zone,” explained one speaker); finding ways to “capture the bride that YOU want;” and gleaning that inscrutable and “elusive species”: the modern, wired bride.

One of the speakers at the conference was Jennifer Fallon, the founder and CEO of Kate Aspen Favors. Fallon started her professional life selling medical software to physicians. She shifted over to wedding favors and other "life events" products after she got engaged in 2001. "I'm not a package kind of girl," she explained, and "I couldn't find anything unique," the "perfect venue" for her wedding.

When she finally found that exceptional venue, she financed its use by agreeing to market it for the owner to other brides for a year, and she managed to book every single weekend. Fallon roved from there to "unique and different" wedding favors. They were all "blah and predictable," so she sensed opportunity. After all, over 100,000 brides were typing in "wedding favors" on Google in a single month, searching restlessly for something no one had seen before.

So Fallon designed a topiary place-card holder for wedding reception tables and set up a Yahoo store in January 2004, at first taking orders only by fax. The business skyrocketed.

She built it from nothing to $1.2 million in one year, because she understood the core paradox of weddings today:  Fallon mass-marketed items to create a unique, personalized and singular wedding.

It’s a dramatic shift in weddings from fifty years ago, this quest for individuality. No more the conformity of my parents’ generation, which married in obedience to orthodoxy and script. They gave out tulle-wrapped Jordan almonds as favors, and wore white veils. Weddings proudly displayed conformity, a bride and groom's willingness to get submerged in a social role. The wedding ceremony required only (not that it was a small task) the bride's mastery of seating arrangement and napkin-folding etiquette. She didn't have to invent or write a wedding script. She just had to perform one successfully.

There wasn’t a wedding contingency that the Vogue etiquette guide hadn’t covered for her. It’s a formidably—or, seen another way, a reassuringly—thick volume.

Vogue advised that if a “girl hopes that a beau will become a fiancé,” she must “refuse and return as tactfully as possible” any major gifts and, “definitely, any underclothes” offered by him as gifts. Meanwhile the fiancé can bring “wine or small delicacies” if invited to his fiancee’s apartment, and “within reason, replenish her liquor supply, as a gesture of appreciation.” At the ceremony, if the bride is wearing gloves, “the seams of the ring finger should be slit so she need not take off the entire glove” to receive her wedding ring. It’s all spelled out for you. 

Today, in contrast, a wedding is treated almost as a unique branding moment for our lives.

Often in my conversations I’d hear the phrase the "wedding industry," or the wedding-industrial complex, by engaged couples understandably beleaguered by the cannonade of manipulative, pre-nuptial consumerism. But it's not strictly speaking an industry at all. An industry mass produces the same homogeneous mass product according to the same assembly-line, homogeneously mechanical processes.

Weddings today aspire to the opposite. They display our customized views and taste. The more unique and reflective of the spouses’ personalities they are, the better. A successful wedding consultant at the conference reported from the frontlines that brides are "jumping out of the box. They want to make the wedding their own, they want to make it different." Myself, I’ve been to everything from pig roasts, luaus, formal Catholic masses, and football-themed weddings.

At the Academy, a wedding consultant elaborated that she thought of herself as a "wedding author." She writes the bride's story in the living performance art of a reception. Another merchant commented that brides today are "personalized" (although it's hard to imagine that they were ever anything but personalized, to themselves at least). They conceive of themselves as in the "service business, not the product business." As vendors see it, they aren't selling things. They're "selling emotion. We're selling how the guest feels when they walk in, how the guest feels when they get a key chain" as a favor. More boldly, a wedding planner in the audience proposed, "you must find out where the bride is emotionally and where she wants to end up emotionally." Because ultimately, it’s about "making the bride feel comfortable with herself… She's buying herself" in the wedding, she pondered aloud.

It’s an odd business, to sell a bride her dream identity of herself to herself.  But this did seem to be their mission.

I left the “Academy” feeling as if weddings are as eclectically improvised as ideas of marriage are becoming. The marriage replicates the wedding.  For my parents the challenge was that they had almost no meaningful lifestyle choices. Most all were going to get married and, within marriage, the majority would follow the established gender roles, and achieve the same benchmarks. Today we have choices galore. One wedding consultant tried to group all these personalized brides into categories of “modern,” “vintage,” or “edgy” (and another added the “eco-bride” to the roster). It struck me that the main “types” of wifehood in the U.S. today could loosely be described in similar terms.

Every marriage era has its trade-offs, its upsides and downsides. Still, if I had to pick, I’d go for the unique over the ambivalent consolations of conformity in the tulle-wrapped Jordan almond favor-giving day of yore. It makes for a more self-realized marriage (and wedding). But it’s not always easy, or better than what came before. 

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.