You’ve probably seen the proposal video making the rounds this week—a gent in Portland organized about 60 friends and family members into a lip-synched song and dance number to the tune of Bruno Mars’s “I Think I Wanna Marry You” in order to pop the question to his adorable pixie-haircut-sporting lady love. There are the couple’s parents sauntering along, and their best friends twirling and dipping, and neighbors dressed as dancing Orthodox Jews in what I can only assume is a nod to Fiddler on the Roof‘s big engagement number, To Life, To Life, L’Chaim. And I get all choked, I love it all—right up until the groom drops on one knee and opens his mouth. And that’s when I have to look away, I’m so embarrassed for both of them. And, not least of all, for myself.
See, part of the thrill of being a voyeur, a parasite who feeds off of others’ intimate moments, is that you get to decide when and what you’re going to watch (thank you, Say Yes to the Dress, and the Real Housewives of Everywhere). And when this man says, “You’ve given me a lifetime of happiness. Will you let me spend the rest of my life trying to do the same for you,” I feel like I’m seeing something I shouldn’t, like I stumbled across this couple naked. And at the same time, I feel a little faked out, like they’re going to turn to the camera and say, “Psych!” and I’ll realize that none of this is real, it’s all staged. I find the moment both too close for comfort and too performative to be genuine.
I bring this up because it’s June, which is officially wedding season, and this musical interlude reminded me of how much I squirm in my pew, chivari chair, or wedge sandals in an open field when people recite vows they’ve written themselves. (Not you, Dear Reader, never you; if I attended your wedding and you spoke your own vows they were note-perfect and lovely and you are the exceptions that prove the rule. It’s everyone else I had to close my eyes for, and not because I was so moved.)
I know this point of view makes me the Grinch who stole nondenominational weddings. And I could not love a wedding more. I’ve worked at wedding magazines and found it a joy to go into the office. I would gladly page through a stranger’s wedding album. I read wedding announcements not to find people I know but just for sheer delight. But there are a few things that make me cringe about bride-and-groom-penned vows.
1.) The web of lies. I love hearing the story of how you met and fell in love. But I’ve been to enough weddings to know that it’s a story. We all tell ourselves these tales, and I think it’s great and healthy and romantic, to look back and pick out signs that show we’re destined to be together–it may even keep couples going through tough times. But too often when I hear original vows, I know the non-romantic backstory of what really happened the night the couple met, before we knew they were each others’ beshert. “I went to that party hoping to see you again,” says the bride, and I think “No you didn’t, you went to stalk that cute guy from the office. And he showed up with his boyfriend, and then you started to talking to your future husband and it all worked out great, but don’t pretend you were already in love by the time he asked you out.”
2.) The obligatory joke. Maybe it’s the fact that marriage is such a big move, a serious step, that makes people feel they have to crack a weak joke as comic relief, to make the “audience” laugh. And so we end up with vows like Brad Pitt’s and Jennifer Aniston, in which he promised to “split the difference on the thermostat,” and she to “always make your favorite banana milkshake.” I get it, you’re trying to be adorkable, hah-hah. But marriage is serious, and if banana milkshakes are what yours is based on, how can it survive when a sultry brunette swoops in with her cherubic children and legs for miles? I’d love to hear your jokes—and the trumped-up stories of how you met—but at the rehearsal dinner when I’m already a little drunk and everyone’s in the mood to share, not when I’m witnessing a major, life-changing rite, and it’s being reduced to thermostat differences and banana milkshakes.
3.) The hard sell. And then the non-jokesters go in the other direction, trying way too hard to convince us that this is serious, that they just love each other so, so much that none of the rest of us could possibly understand, and nothing in the history of the universe has ever been so right as this marriage. Listen, I believe that you guys love each other; it’s why you’ve decided to spend your lives together in the first place. You don’t need to sell me. This is marriage, not Mad Men.
4.) The overshare. I think it’s great that you thought about why you love each other. I also think it’s fabulous that you wrote that down. My husband and I did that at our pre-cana class and I carry his note around in my passport in case I have to travel without him. But I’m not about to show it to you. See, when the performing and the milkshake shtick is done and the vows get real, I sometimes feel like I’m hearing more about the couple than I want to know. The bride says something like “You make me feel safe,” and I can’t help but wonder what made her feel unsafe in the first place? I’d love to hear these revelations one on one, at dinner maybe, when you’re telling me why you’re so glad you met your husband. But when you start flashing your psyche in front of 25 to 350 of your closest friends, I can’t help but get all armchair-Freud on you.
5.) The doctrine of exceptionalism. Hey, Brad, guess what? All couples fight about the AC. And most people like banana milkshakes. Which is another problem I have with the “we’re so special, no cookie-cutter vows will do”; the declarations sometime seem to be trying to show us all how different this love is, how unlike any other. When really, what makes love special is not how exceptional it is, but how universal. I love a wedding that makes me imagine and honor all the couples that went before this one, and dream of all those who will come after to take this brave, beautiful step. I get all teary when a pair walks around a sacred fire, does the dance of Isaiah, has the wedding lassos thrown around their shoulders.
And what if you don’t come from a religious tradition that does the above, or don’t adhere to any religious tradition at all? Then great, make up your own ceremony. But instead of the jokes and intimate revelations, maybe you want to call on the words of other people who have some experience with love? Read a poem or have a song sung while you look at each other and take in the enormity of the moment? Or let your loved ones, or the person marrying you do the talking; they won’t be as nervous, but they will be sharing in your joy, expanding it.
Sure, maybe you feel that Shakespeare, e.e. cummings, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Sappho are all hacks and you could say it better yourselves. In which case, go for it. Your wedding’s not about me after all. It’s actually not about anyone listening. It’s about the two of you connecting to each other and the world. Really, you should celebrate that any way you want to. But if you are planning to propose, or write your own vows, maybe turn off the video camera, or share your deepest thoughts in a private moment. Whatever it takes to forget about everyone watching and remember that, in the end, you’re playing to an audience of one.