Why Weddings Matter


We know why marriage matters -- whether it is the federal government reminding us that marriages make stronger a nation, or the AMA telling us that being married correlates with longer life, better health and faster recovery from illness, or just our own hearts whispering fiercely that THIS person makes our world go ‘round and life worth living – we know that marriage matters. But, does a wedding matter? In this day and age, at least in the U.S. it is de rigeur for couples to move in together and get about the business of life, often without a marriage license, and no one gasps in disapproval. Weddings are expensive to pay for, time-consuming to plan and emotionally draining to implement.

So, why weddings?

The deep answer lies in the much maligned and misunderstood realm of mythology. Joseph Campbell, the great expositor of myth in this generation, says: “Myth is the collective dream; dream is the personal myth.” When we are in the dreamy state called “being in love” we are in more than a heightened emotional state. We are “in” a collective myth that sets the parameters and possibilities of that state and defines both the promises and the problems of that particular adventure. When we enter into marriage, we enter – knowingly or unknowingly – into a territory that has already been explored, claimed, conquered and colonized for centuries by our ancestors. We become tax-paying citizens of that mythic realm the minute we put the ring on our finger!

I have been creating and officiating weddings for more than twenty years and whenever I hear a new couple tell me, “Oh, we don’t expect our relationship to change just because we’re getting married; after all, we’ve been living together for years,” I smile and shake my head and relate the following anecdote about Joseph Campbell.

Several years ago I had the privilege of escorting Mrs. Joseph Campbell – Jean Erdman Campbell – to Santa Barbara, California, where she was giving a lecture. After the event, we retired to our hotel where she regaled me with stories of her life with Joe. Speaking with the lilt and laughter of the young woman she’d been in 1939 when she and Joe married, she recalled how it had been he who wept profusely forthe duration of the wedding ceremony. He had insisted on getting married on the 5th hour of the 5th day of the 5th month of the year, for five was the symbolic number of the great Norse god, Thor, whose thunderbolt is the harbinger of transformation. Campbell, realizing the profound shift that was imminent, wanted that symbol to accompany him to the altar for, as he remarked, “I will not be thesame man when I return from that walk!” Campbell understood the true significance of the wedding ceremony and his emotional response is eloquent testimony to just how well he did understand!

The wedding ceremony itself may be likened to the opening paragraph of a great story, as the Nobel award-winning author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, notes:

“The effort in writing a story is intense… where everything must be defined in the first paragraph: structure, tone, style, rhythm. length, and sometimes even the personality of a character.” (from the Prologue to Strange Pilgrims; Penguin Books, 1993)

The wedding matters because it is the symbolic event that shapes the marriage journey itself: the pattern from which the fabric of the relationship is cut; the template from which each day of the marriage is fashioned; the opening chord which heralds the tune, tempo and key of the symphony of love; the cornerstone around which the edifice of a shared life will be built. Use whatever metaphor works for you. The wedding is the initiating ritual which forever divides the before from the after and, as such, it matters.


“Ritual, as I understand it, gives form to human life;
not in mere surface arrangement, but in depth,”
wrote Joseph Campbell.


Like Campbell, I was raised Catholic and left the church during my twenties in search of something else. But, also, like Campbell, I never forgot the enduring importance of ritual in human life. When I began doing weddings as part of my Unitarian ministry, I was quickly brought to a standstill in front of amajor dilemma: on the one hand, I did not believe in much of what the old rituals of weddings were doing -- in fact, I thought they were downright unhealthy for most modern couples! – but to denouncethe wedding was clearly to throw the baby out with the bath water. How could I, in good conscience, ask people to mouth old platitudes and promises that did not spring from their own hearts and their own beliefs?

I set out to explore the origins of ritual and found my first clues, ironically, in the expressive, impulsive, cathartic gestures made by individuals who were in the process of getting divorced. I asked them what they had done with their wedding rings! In story after story what emerged was a pattern of mostly unpremeditated intelligence that provided a very individualized way to heal the hurt, guilt and anger, and find a way towards forgiveness, gratitude and release. I had discovered “spontaneous ritual” – a facet of human behavior that I now recognize as a basic human instinct. 

From the broken pieces of life humans build psychological bridges, based on metaphoric truths, to take them back to wholeness. I took this insight to the couples who came to me for help in making their wedding ceremonies and I asked them to talk about the deep, connecting images that made their love visible and articulable. In listening to more than five hundred couples since 1990, I realized that every couple has a “centering metaphor” for the relationship that often comes out between the lines of our conversation. Once that metaphor is found, the rest of the ritual naturally gathers around it like metal shavings to a magnet, giving the ceremony a coherence and aesthetic integrity – not to mention psychological depth – that is palpable.

When the wedding ceremony itself – the ritual that transforms two humans individuals into “beloved companions for life” – corresponds in every feature to the deep centering metaphor of the relationship, then it becomes much more than simply the short, obligatory skit before the big party! Instead, it becomes a renewing spring for the duration of the marriage. This metaphor fits the image I like to use to explain the significance of the wedding ritual to prospective couples, that of words as the water of life.

“If you spend the time to dig this well of love deep enough now,” I tell them, “lining it carefully with well-chosen words, gestures and symbolic objects, then this wedding with its vows will be for you an endless source of renewal for as long as you live. You may return to it during the dry and desperate days that every marriage must go through and draw once again from its depths the same life-giving sweetness that you tasted on that day so long ago when you stood before each other, hand in hand, and promised your life into each other’s keeping.”

Yes, this ritual is important. Yes, weddings matter!


~ Rev. Rebecca Armstrong


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Rebecca ArmstrongComment