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Harry Benson: Big weddings make happy couples

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Advocates of marriage – like me – frequently point out that our appalling epidemic of family breakdown is all about the trend away from marriage. Very few couples who don’t get married stay together in the long-term. And the biggest reason couples give for not getting married is the cost of the wedding.

So if cost is the main barrier, rather than just an excuse for not committing, then big weddings would seem to be an anathema. We should be pushing for quiet celebrations that allow couples to make their commitment in front of friends and family, but without all the expensive and unnecessary fanfare of bland tasting three course meals and inexplicable little packets of sugared almonds.

In any case, the most flamboyant and over the top weddings tend to be held by celebs. And it’s not as if they provide a shining example of domestic bliss. The divorce rate amongst celebs is twice that of the rest of us. Apparently that’s OK now that we can pretend divorce can be blissful too if only we do something called “conscious uncoupling”.

But preliminary new findings from one of the world’s top relationship research teams at the University of Denver suggest we might want to think again. The team have been following a large sample of couples from early in their dating all the way through into getting married. Their full report comes out in June as part of the US National Marriage Project. But in a recent presentation to Marriage Foundation, Professor Galena Rhoades let us in on one particular new finding that may come as something of a surprise.

The bigger the wedding, the happier the marriage – at least during the first few years. My first reaction was to ask her if this finding merely reflects wealth. Richer people tend to have bigger parties, fewer domestic concerns, and therefore happier marriages.

But, no. The effect holds true even when taking income – and education, religion and ethnicity – into account. Regardless of wealth, the more people come to your wedding, the happier you tend to be. Of course this could also reflect some other characteristic that makes people have both big parties and happy marriages. But there are two reasons why having lots of guests could plausibly help make early marriage happier.

At a time when more couples are delaying marriage, and many are even avoiding it altogether, couples need reassurance that they are doing the right thing. Everyone has some level of anxiety before they get married. So when one hundred and fifty friends and family gaze lovingly on as they tie the knot, the answer is definitely yes. This is what Professor Scott Stanley, one of the study authors, calls ‘consistency’. Lots of wedding guests affirm that getting married is the right thing to do.

The other reason why lots of guests might make a difference is ‘social support’. Whether or not you need to call on your friends for help, advice and support in the crucial early years – when divorce rates are highest – merely knowing that they are on your side can be a confidence boost. Those guests will want you to fight for your marriage and not give up too easily. So you’re bound to try just that little bit harder.

Is there an ideal number of wedding guests? Galena isn’t sure. But the average size amongst the 400-plus weddings in their study was 118 guests.

When I got married in the mid-1980s, our wedding was deemed extravagant. Yet we had just a glass of fizz, some small eats – which had run out by the time we got to them – and a wedding cake. In recent years, wedding expectations have spiralled out of control. This is definitely bad news. But if you can keep your costs down, then big weddings are good news!

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Harry Benson
Harry Benson
Harry Benson is research director for Marriage Foundation and author of Commit or Quit: The Two Year Rule and Other Rules for Romance.

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