Once you decide to have a wedding, there are many, many things to read: etiquette guides, Dos and Don'ts, planning checklists, vendor guides, "inspiration boards," disaster stories, angry bridesmaid rants ("wench made me wear PURPLE SHOES!"), even socio-political screeds about the cultural irrelevance of the whole thing. All of these are nice, and all of them are utterly useless.
If you're the one getting married -- which I am, in three months, while also attending eight other weddings in as many months due to a hyper-marital zeitgeist (that as of July 24th includes NY gays! Welcome to the madness!) -- a mysterious stupor befalls you. The tales of "bridal nervous breakdowns" have become ingrained in pop culture, "ingrained" meaning "anything that gets its own reality show." Such breakdowns do happen, and they're hardly gender-specific, but these displays of emotional gangrene fail to get at the heart of the nuptial plight.
So where does one go to find a guide to the true sources of wedding-angst? One resource is the wedding industry, that fondant tower of chintzy madness that exists to suck your wallet and self-esteem out through multiple orifices. The industry gets plenty of flack, mostly for its organza-wrapped obfuscation of anything important. But all this hating is silly. Yes, the wedding industry will crack open your skull and pour in gallons of raspberry-hazelnut ganache, and then send you a bill for $15,000. But that's its job. It's absurd to expect people in the industry to tell you the truth about weddings. They're there for one purpose: to sell you s**t. Calling them manipulative capitalist a**hole* (ahem, Rebecca Mead) isn't solving the problem; it's simply blaming the addiction on the dealer.
The truth about weddings was once something we all figured out for ourselves as we made our way through the glurpy pit of the engagement tar fields. Until now! Here is your look into the things no one ever tells you about weddings (but are nonetheless true).
1. WEDDINGS ARE EMOTIONAL RECKONINGS.
Have you dealt with your issues? I'm not talking about a few months in therapy and the occasional Xanax on a bad day -- I'm talking about really digging in, sitting under the Bodhi tree, and dealing with all the nasty icky hurts and fears and angers that have burned your face and clamped your guts since you were 5. If you have never once taken a hard look at what really triggers you emotionally, and figured out a way to release that trigger, you're in for a shock. Because ALL of your submerged emotions will rear their Gorgon heads during the process of planning a wedding. Prepare to be confronted.
First, there's your family. Ahh, family. The one group with perma-instant access to every emotional trigger in your psyche ("Of course your mother knows how to push all your buttons!" a matriarch once told me. "She created them!"). Do you still resent your mom for that "Honey, your thighs don't need that ice cream!" comment in 8th grade? Clinging to the last vestiges of anger at your dad for never kissing you goodnight or reading your term papers? Secretly seethe at your brother for moving far away and leaving you to deal with the full brunt of your parents' needs? Lucky you! You're going to experience all of it again, since each of these people will be intimately involved in your Big Megaspecial Day (whether you invite them or not). If you do not give up any and all familial anger, it will seize you in its talons and tear out your liver at least once a day, Prometheus style. You will find yourself shrieking over the fact that your mom disapproves of your choice of chair covers ("You never liked my clothes in junior high! Wail Sob!") or that your dad suggested "Psychokiller" as a father-daughter dance ("You spent my childhood in the office and now this!"). Any unresolved issue, annoyance or pin in the side that you've had since, well, birth will now be a part of your daily life. And we haven't even gotten to the fact that you may be asking them for money!
Then there's the invite list, which is basically a socially condoned form of friendship slaughter. Every minor dig and insult will rise from the depths of your consciousness when it comes time for the guest-list-culling. Who will be invited to the biggest public transition of your life? Are you really going to invite that wench who texted your ex for six months after you broke up? Or that a**clown who hasn't picked up a bar tab since, oh, college? If you're someone who holds grudges, your invite list will dwindle like an oak tree showered in acid. The girl who said your engagement ring was "cute"? DEATH. The guy who ruined the ending of "Game of Thrones" on purpose just to f*ck with you? OFF THE LIST.
Plus you have everyone's OPINIONS -- those are some of the biggest hurdles to navigate. Every friend will have views and needs to lob your way: this one doesn't like the bachelor party date since it conflicts with his annual fishing trip, that one thinks it's outrageous that your bridal shower is in another town, and don't even get them started on the hotel you chose for the bridal party. And then when they attend your actual wedding, it is a fundamental law that they will comment on how they would have done it differently "had it been MY wedding." Well, yes, a**hole, but it is not your wedding, and you have not subsisted on cabbage and rice for months so you could pay for that open bar you're currently guzzling. (See? There's that anger again! Damn.)
But before you begin your process of wreaking vengeance, remember just one thing: your wedding is not an opportunity to dole out justice to everyone who's ticked you off in the last decade. In fact, that's the furthest thing from its purpose. If you wield your wedding like a samurai sword, it's pretty much guaranteed that you'll do the same with other big events in your life. And die alone.
2. THIS EMOTIONAL RECKONING INCLUDES YOUR SIGNIFICANT OTHER.
Everything you don't absolutely adore about this magical human you've pledged yourself to is going to now manifest itself in wild screechy detail. You will fight about things you didn't even register during those blissful days of moonlit walks and Sunday afternoon sex. Eventually, you will have to face a stunning reality: The person you are marrying is exactly who she/he is, and will never be anyone else. Not now, and not once you're married. Whether that's a beatific thing or a source of night terrors all depends on you. (Note that I didn't say it depends on your partner. If you don't like what you're marrying, then it's on you to either get over it or call it off. Sorry!)
All your interactions will be weighed with a new gravity. When you do fight, it's fighting as a COUPLE THAT WILL BE MARRIED. Those things that were mere annoyances are now albatrosses draping your shoulders for eternity. (Seriously, it's no coincidence that Coleridge's Mariner ranted to a wedding guest).
The good news: Your incentive to get over these fights is sky high, since you've committed to this person and put down a venue deposit and changed your Facebook status and introduced him/her to your grandmother. So after a while, it can all fade into "Well, it's all part of the package -- and I guess his videogame habit is better than hookers n' blow!"
3. IT ALSO INCLUDES YOURSELF.
Your head can become a scary place in the months before your wedding. Any insecurity that has made its home nestled in your gray matter? You will come face to face with it now. Am I pretty enough to be getting married? Why is everyone in every wedding picture so much prettier? Will all the people I care about judge me as I walk down the aisle? Am I rich enough to be marrying this person? Am I rich enough to be marrying at ALL? Aren't I supposed to have paid off my student loans by now? What if I can't be the provider I want to be? Will it shred my masculinity like a 2010 Super Bowl ad? Will my partner start to resent me not pulling my weight? Can we afford this wedding? What if I get fired, and can't make the next catering payment? What if no one says yes to our invitations, since they all secretly hate us? What if too many people say yes, and we have to pay for them all? What if I lose sleep over our wedding budget and start to look haggard and my betrothed starts having second thoughts like, "Why am I binding myself to this haggard-looking worrywart anyway" and what if he/she leaves me and then I'm out of a catering deposit and out of a job and I'll have to return all these presents and my grandmother will pity me and everyone will mention my name in hushed tones at parties and I'll shut myself away until I die of infected bedsores and WHAT IF WHAT IF WHAT IF AAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
And then you have a drink.
4. YOUR WEDDING WILL MAKE YOU FACE EXACTLY WHO YOU ARE, EVEN IF THAT'S A PERSON YOU PREFER TO HIDE MOST OF THE TIME.
Wedding planning will give you a funny little window into who you really are in life. Not who you think you are, not who you say you are, but who you are.
"But I'm so down-to-earth!" you say. "I'm the furthest thing from psycho about these things! I don't even subscribe to any of that antiquated bourgeois nonsense!" Maybe so -- but maybe not. Get a few months into the planning process and see. Are you obsessive and controlling about every last detail? Overwhelmed by the whole thing? Laissez-faire to the point of doing nothing (and waiting for someone to bail you out)? Projecting false calm whilst mortgaging your organs to pay for the surf-and-turf entrée and Herrera gown? The ways in which you navigate these choices -- not what you tell yourself about them -- are some of the clearest indications you'll ever get of what's going on in the personal universe you call life.
And I don't mean the choice between peacock blue centerpieces and turquoise (although even those small choices will eventually come to mean something to you too, but more on that later). No, I'm talking the laborious internal decisions that govern the big picture. When it comes down to it, how big a deal is this wedding -- not the marriage, the wedding -- in your personal narrative? How much of your identity and self-esteem are you basing on this one event? How much are you focused, either consciously or unconsciously, on being someone who adores/despises being the center of attention? (Hint: they're basically the same thing.) What portion of your emotional needs are you expecting this wedding to fulfill?
We're smart people. We all know what the answers to these questions SHOULD be. But trafficking in "should be"'s won't do you much good when you're dissolving into sobs, supposedly over a turquoise bouquet that you REALLY THOUGHT should have been peacock.
5. THE REAL STRESS OF WEDDING PLANNING IS THINKING EVERYTHING MEANS SOMETHING.
We humans are remarkably good at ascribing meaning. If he doesn't call you back after a fantastic date, then it must mean that you're a complete dud of humanity who is destined to grow old alone. If you don't get that new job, it must mean that you're a mentally inferior troglodyte with nothing to offer the world.
Nowhere does the Mental Meaning Machine work as much overtime as during wedding preparations. It starts from the initial proposal: if the ring is not expensive enough to buy six orphans on the Siberian black-market, then it means you are stuck with a cheap bastard and your life is inferior to that of every rock-sporting wife. (Gays, please, renounce this practice.) From then on, every choice you make about your wedding, from cummerbund colors to china patterns, somehow brims over with alleged meaning about things like "who you are as a couple" and "what kind of life you'll have."
Ultimately, we all know this is foolish: Does it mean something if you pick the New Testament reading over the Yeats poem? Does it mean something if you serve the halibut instead of the chicken roulade? Of course not. But try telling that to the stream of brides pouring into the Plaza Ballroom for this year's Wedding Mega-Expo.
And alas, ascribing all this meaning is exhausting and, inevitably, disappointing. Getting your write-up in the Times wedding announcements doesn't mean that your marriage will be perfect, and having the latest Vera Wang hardly means your wedding will be the most blissful day on Earth. Rather, it simply means that you won't be able to eat. Seriously, Elizabethan corsets much?
6. IT IS EASY TO DEVELOP VERY BAD FINANCIAL HABITS WHILE PLANNING A WEDDING (OR VERY GOOD ONES).
Even if you opt for the most frugal of wedding receptions, the cash issue will come up. Paying for a wedding can be like wearing a hair shirt -- after a while, writing a four-figure check (or five-figure, or six-, all depending on your level of insanity) stops feeling like flesh-scouring pain.
The fact is that money (or rather, its scarcity) is a reality for everyone, and that reality shifts once you have to weigh the large, emotion-laden purchases that accompany weddings. Unless you're a hedge fund manager, in which case screw you, and go get a job that's useful to society (but invite me to your wedding! I like Dom Perignon fountains as much as the next gal!).
Still, for those who make it through the dark tunnel of wedding spending, you can look forward to one bright, beautiful moment: The day after your wedding. On that day, you get to choose if you ever lay another cent of your hard-earned (or inherited -- no judgments) cash on damask tablecloths or Waterford goblets. And all those Excel-spreadsheeting skills you've acquired can be used to budget your future finances. Or not. But at least it's up to you, and not your mother-in-law with her 80-person guest list.
Just promise me this: For the love of all that is remotely holy in this world, do NOT go into major debt to pay for your wedding. Which is what I say about law school, but no one ever listens to me.
7. YOU WILL LEARN A NEW LANGUAGE THAT WILL NEVER REALLY BE USEFUL AGAIN (EXCEPT WHEN DISCUSSING OTHER PEOPLE'S WEDDINGS).
We know a lot of words -- we sit on the Internet all day, we can't help but live in a word-driven world. But exotic, bizarre words like "chivari" and "shantung" and "Asscher" have never been in my vocabulary before now. These days, I spend more time swimming in them than I'd ever admit to my therapist. Don't fight the small battles: Embrace the wedding-speak and fold it into your lexicon, at least until the last gift check has been cashed. And know that when everyone nods after a wedding planner announces, "We'll just highlight the centerpieces with pinspots and up-lighting!" no one else knows what the hell she's talking about either.
8. THE THINGS NO ONE SAYS ARE IMPORTANT ARE IN FACT THE MOST IMPORTANT.
Two words: Premarital counseling. It is perhaps the most vital thing you can do before marching down the aisle. It doesn't matter if your love is so all-powerful it can superglue glaciers, you need to talk about the changes that are about to envelop your day-to-day lives. As a couple, you must sit down in a room not filled with cakes and hors d'oeuvres samplers and ask the squirmy, uncomfortable questions that no one ever really wants to ask: Who's going to pay the ConEd bill? Who's going to unload the dishwasher 99% of the time? Who's going to initiate sex when we're both bone-tired and haven't done it in a week? How strongly do we each feel about fidelity? What religion (if any) do we want to impart to our children? And how can we set ourselves up with the ability to keep discussing these things in the future? Because they will come up.
This crap -- these thorny, excruciating conversations -- is THE crap. It is the only reality. The ribbon-clad roses and monogrammed key chains and signature cocktails are not. Messy conversations are what you are signing up for, and what you will bump up against regularly for the remainder of your lives together. They are the gateway to a fulfilling and joyous relationship. And I can absolutely 100,000% guarantee you that not a single tux tailor or band singer or wedding planner or overbearing third cousin will ever tell you this. But your divorce lawyer certainly will.
One last final note: If you think I exempt myself from these rules, I assure you I do not. I have fallen into each and every sinkhole described here. Just ask my saintly fiancé, who somehow still wants to marry me.
This piece originally appeared on The Awl.
Follow Melissa Lafsky on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Lafsky