One of the more surprising things about the scientific literature on dating and marriage is that there are very few studies of the events that signify the “beginning” of dating and marriage relationships. For example, we still know fairly little (on the scientific front) about how relationships form in the real world. We can look at processes in the lab, and even simulate events (e.g., speed dating studies) that should, presumably, lead to relationship formation. But, for all our efforts, capturing real relationships as they develop has proven a formidable challenge.1
The situation doesn’t get much better when we consider the event that kicks off marriage for a large majority of individuals: The Wedding Ceremony. As a relationship scientist, I continue to find this fact shocking. The typical bride and groom (or their families) spend well over $10,000 on the celebration surrounding their nuptials, and the wedding industry rakes in billions of dollars a year. Given all that is involved in planning and "running" a wedding, the event should present an opportunity ripe for investigation by relationship researchers (and not just reality TV). Yet, as of this posting, a search for scientific research on “Wedding” and “Marriage” yielded a list of 28 articles; only a few of those actually provide insight into the function of wedding ceremonies in Western society.
The little work that is out there does, however, contain some interesting tidbits of information. Some of my favorite findings are from Holland, where the researchers analyzed survey data from over 500 individuals who got hitched between 1950 and 1994.2 The survey included questions about people’s transition to marriage, including the size of their wedding parties (in this case “party” refers to the actual party that occurs after the ceremony, not the people who stand up with the about-to-be-newlyweds), whether they had a traditional “church wedding” (vs. other locale), their ages, and living situation prior to the wedding (e.g., living at home, cohabiting, living alone). Additionally, the researchers also assessed the extent to which individuals’ friends and family viewed marriage ceremonies as an important part of the transition from singlehood to marriage.
The research team was interested in how uncertainty about the future led individuals to have more versus less traditional and elaborate wedding ceremonies. Specifically, when marriage poses a larger shock to individuals given their pre-marriage lifestyles, do those individuals put more into their weddings by marring in a church and having a larger party? As a matter of fact, they do:
- Older brides and grooms had less elaborate ceremonies (i.e., they invited fewer guests to the post-ceremony party).
- Individuals have larger wedding parties if they lived with their parents prior to marriage, followed by those who lived alone, followed by those who cohabited prior to marrying.
- If individuals’ friends tended to get married right after leaving their own parents’ homes, those individuals were more likely to marry in a church and have a large wedding party.
- People are more likely to marry in a church and throw a larger party if their friends and family place a lot of value on the institution of marriage.
What does all this mean? The authors make a compelling argument that people use traditional locations for wedding ceremonies (church vs. not) and the post-nuptial party (large vs. small) to help ease into and cope with the transition to marriage. As a result, if you have less experience living away from home (or with a partner) then the wedding becomes an important transition-point for you -- such that you go the more traditional church wedding route and throw a bigger party to help firmly plant yourself in the new role of being a spouse. As people age, they’re better able to keep things in perspective, and have had more experience living away from their parents, so they’re less likely to need a big and traditional wedding to feel comfortable shifting to the role of spouse. And, finally, what your friends think matters (see more on this topic here); if they think it’s a big deal, then you’re more likely to oblige them with a traditional, large wedding. Of course, if parents are paying, then what say do you really have anyway?
Although this research involved a Dutch sample, there are lots of parallels between the Dutch and much of the rest of the Western world; these results likely apply to weddings in North America as well. But, there’s certainly room for a lot more research. For example, this inquiring mind wants to know if wedding size predicts marital outcomes? If the size of the wedding party tells us something about how novel the transition to marriage is, then it stands to reason that individuals who have larger or more traditional weddings may face more challenges during the newlywed years. That said, it’s also possible that drumming up community support for the transition to marriage (by embracing tradition and getting them all sloppy drunk) serves as a buffer to some of those early challenges. Only time, and (hopefully) research, will tell.
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1Sprecher, S., Wenzel, A., & Harvey, J. (2008). Handbook of relationship initiation. New York: Psychology Press.
2Kalmijn, M. (2004). Marriage rituals as reinforces of role transitions: An analysis of weddings in the Netherlands. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66, 582-594.
Dr. Tim Loving - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Loving's research addresses the mental and physical health impact of relationship transitions (e.g., falling in love, breaking up) and the role friends and family serve as we adapt to these transitions. He's a former Associate Editor of Personal Relationships and his research has been funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
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