Getting Married Without a Wedding

Kate Sitarz

By Kate Sitarz
Kate Sitarz is a freelance writer living in Germany. Her work has been featured on Yahoo Travel!, The Huffington Post, and USAToday, among other outlets.
Posted on 06/07/2017

Wedding planning is draining business—even more so if you're doing it from afar.

Chris and I were living in Washington when we got engaged. At the time, Chris (who is in the military) had a six-month course in Arizona scheduled three months later, and we'd be moving immediately after that to an unknown destination.

It made picking a date easy: July 4th weekend, the time right in between the stay in Arizona and who-knows-where. It made everything else a bit of a logistical nightmare, particularly obtaining the marriage license.

With all the unknowns surrounding our future move and Chris's future schedule—plus, the potential of being stationed overseas—we decided to get married in Washington, months before our “actual” ceremony and reception.

With the paperwork in hand, I turned to Chris. “If all we have to do is sign these papers, we should at least do it someplace cool,” I said.

We each asked a friend, along with our officiant—a friend ordained with somewhat dubious online credentials—to accompany us one Saturday in November to Mount Rainier. The plan was to hike up a few miles and find a good spot for a celebratory picnic. Luckily, western Washington, notorious for its rainy season, gave us a rare day of sunshine, keeping Chris's suit and my white skirt (aka my dress) relatively clean.

All five of us kept the day fairly hush-hush so as not to spoil the more traditional wedding for everyone else. While some family and friends understood our situation, we knew many might feel hurt, like we pulled a fast one on them.

Our ceremony and reception over the holiday weekend, held in New England where the majority of our family and friends live, went off with only a few hiccups.

But the the actual day, like most, was the culmination of nearly a year's worth of planning, compressed into just a few short hours. After months of visualizing everything, coordinating among several vendors, and answering seemingly daily questions about the minutest details, I found it all a bit anticlimactic.

It wasn't just the money that we poured into our special day, but the time and energy that it took to realize an event of this scale. Until we got into the thick of planning—long past the no-turning-back point—we didn't realize we'd often have to justify every decision to our friends and family, and how negatively these decisions would affect some relationships.

Why can't we bring our newborn? Why isn't so-and-so invited?

“This is our special day, right?” we'd constantly ask ourselves, genuinely wondering if we were doing something wrong.

Every time I think back on the day, my face is like a cartoon character, mouth gaping, eyes bulging, drool coming out of my mouth. “What a whirlwind,” is my main reaction. From what you see and hear in society, your special day day is supposed to be “the best day ever” and “a day you'll cherish forever and never forget!”

Sure, we'll never forget the day, but not because it was all sunshine and peonies. Everything after the ceremony was like being dragged behind a bullet train. Giving in to the momentum until it deposited us hours later, a little worse for the mental wear, seemed like the only option.

It's not that we didn't want to celebrate our marriage, but as someone who likes to talk to people one-on-one, our 70-person ceremony/reception and even our 18-person rehearsal dinner felt overwhelming. I inevitably neglected some guests more than others—seeing very little of my parents, the two people most deserving of appreciation.

Because getting married and having a reception is treated like one of life's rites of passage, it's easy to feel like you may regret it if you opt out. How do you know what you don't know? Each one of our guests played a role—however large or small—in getting us where we are today. But a having a ceremony and a reception wasn't the best means of showing our gratitude. Looking back, we should have started with our goal in mind and brainstormed alternative ways to achieve it, versus hoping a little personalization would make the default option fit.

It may be why I feel more affection for the day on Rainier.

Our friend had asked us at our mountain picnic spot, “Do you want to say anything? Vows?” I'd responded with “No, no, this isn't the real thing.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Chris tearing up.

That was the real thing. If we did it again, we both may have approached the day with more reverence. It was more than just paperwork. It just wasn't a production.

Chris, for his part, is glad we had a wedding if only to avoid explaining to his parents our logic behind not having a grand to-do. For me, it took having both versions of our wedding to realize that a traditional ceremony and reception isn't a necessary component of getting married. In fact, despite what the script says, a marriage and a wedding are separate ideas. Instead, we could have celebrated with small groups of friends as our time and physical proximity allowed: a happy hour with friends in Boston, dinner with each of our families, kayaking with friends out in Seattle a year later—whatever.

Or we could have picked our favorite elements of a typical wedding—writing our own vows, cake, Champagne toasts, friends—and added them to an atypical format.

Basically, our hike on Rainier.