Last year I attended four beautiful weddings. In the next six months, I'll go to five. This morning, I was invited to my first wedding of 2015... in Australia. There is a very specific joy and hell of being a frequent wedding guest -- especially as a single woman -- which is why when I read Jen Doll's memoir, Save The Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest, I felt an instant kinship with her.
Doll has never been married herself, but she has watched 30 couples take the trip down the aisle. She wrote about these experiences for The Hairpin in April 2012, with the hope of turning it all into a book. The result is a witty, easily-devoured memoir, simultaneously personal and universal.
"Weddings are weird. I’ve been thinking about them for a lot longer than I expected."
In Doll's world, the story of the wedding guest reigns supreme.
"When I go to a wedding, I do want it to be about the love of the couple, but I also want it to be about how much I love the couple, and how much the couple loves me and wants me there," she told me over lunch. "I think that gets lost in modern depictions of weddings where it’s all about the bride and groom and having a 'perfect' day."
We talked about the weddings we've been to as well as the ones we have yet to attend, the frustrating parts of being a wedding guest -- and the magic of the events themselves. "Weddings are weird," Doll said. "I’ve been thinking about them for a lot longer than I expected."
After being a frequent wedding guest and never a bride into your 30s, you learn a thing or many about romantic relationships (and platonic ones), being single and what the commercial insanity of our wedding culture really means.
Being a wedding guest will probably make you start thinking about the state of your own love life. "It’s like going to prom, but as a grownup," Doll told me. "Weddings are bigger than everyday life. At a wedding, you’re forced to look at yourself against other people’s milestones."
Doll, who is currently single, is refreshingly honest about her uncertainty that she will ever be a bride. We discussed the romantic energy implicit in any wedding celebration, and the way you inevitably start reflecting on your own romantic desires, whether or not they include a white dress. "Going to weddings makes you think, 'I kinda want this thing' -- the love thing -- even if you don’t want the wedding thing," she said.
Doll (right) at a childhood wedding.
It's really easy to "be an a**hole" at a wedding. One of the best parts of Doll's memoir is that she turns a discerning eye on her past behavior, both good and bad. And some of what she describes isn't pretty. (She recounts a wedding after-party at which she drunkenly threw her expensive footwear into the street in front of the bride's mother.)
"Going to weddings makes you think, 'I kinda want this thing' -- the love thing -- even if you don’t want the wedding thing."
"There’s the venn diagram of appropriateness for a guest and appropriateness for a bride, and in that crossover area there’s both of them behaving kind of badly," Doll said. "And so you want to exist in the outer part of that chart, but often neither person does."
There's a reason that it's so tempting to find romance (even if it's temporary) at a wedding."Blame it on romantic comedies," Doll said, when I asked her about the appeal of a wedding meet cute. "There’s a kind of romantic fantasy aspect where we’re all making up narratives in our head all the time. And weddings all form their own narratives." And really, what makes a better story: Having a late-night rendezvous at a destination wedding with your old debate team arch-nemesis (yes, this actually happened to Doll), or going on a Tinder date?
"Whether it's someone from your past or the idea of meeting someone new, a wedding has all this extra stuff propping it up and making it a good story," said Doll. "And we love a good story."
A wedding tells you relatively little about a couple's actual love story. Save The Date chronicles Doll's attendance at 17 weddings, at which she has varying degrees of fun and varying degrees of closeness with the couples getting married. "Looking back at all of [the weddings I’ve been to], I think that love is a really individualistic thing," Doll said. "Relationships work in many different ways. And when we try to judge them on some kind of wedding scale, everything ends up screwed up."
The author as a bridesmaid.
The wedding guest experience changes significantly between your 20s and 30s. Today, going to weddings over the course of two decades is par for the course. And that means that as your wedding-going lifespan grows, so do the number of life stages that coincide with said weddings. In Doll's experience, being a wedding guest in your 20s, especially before you've "established yourself as a real person," comes with a large dose of idealism and a lack of practicality. "In my 20s, I never thought to say no to a wedding, because, you don’t put a price on your friendships and love," she said. "That sounds really corny and romantic, but I thought: 'This is what a credit card is for.'"
"A wedding has all this extra stuff propping it up and making it a good story. And we love a good story."
As you enter your 30s, not only do you start really valuing the convenience of local nuptials and become a little less "starry-eyed" in general, but the wedding circus becomes less of a focus. "I think the later weddings are really moving in a different way," Doll said. "There’s a little less parental involvement; the wedding is less important and the couple is more important. Of course that’s a generalization, but I think when you see a couple that is older and they’ve finally found each other, that’s really special."
At the core of any celebration of love is a celebration of friendship. "We think about weddings as something between the couple, but it’s really so much about the friendships and the community involved," said Doll. There's a reason that a couple invites friends and family to celebrate their love and puts on a giant party for all of the guests. It's a celebration of connection, both romantic and otherwise.
That's also why Doll is so put off by wedding traditions like the bouquet toss. "Maybe I hate it so much because of romantic comedies that make it seem like women all want this so badly," Doll said. "And that goes against the idea that there is friendship at the heart of weddings -- not just a race to be the bride. The bouquet toss assumes we all want this thing, that we all want it from you and that we’re gonna undermine our own dignity to get it."
Weddings remind us that it's OK to look for love. There are a litany of well-documented reasons why certain wedding customs are difficult for many modern women to square with. Yet there is something about a wedding that can make even the most socially critical among us fall back on (some) tradition. And tradition, when you are choosing it thoughtfully and making it your own, can be a beautiful thing.
"How do you be an independent, proud, feminist woman, and also want to be in love with someone and have them take care of you (and you take care of them, too)?" asked Doll. "I think we disdain women who go through life saying, 'I just want a boyfriend.' But in the reaction against that behavior, we deny that there is something human about wanting to be loved, and love and have a grand celebration of that love."
"There is something human about wanting to be loved, and love and have a grand celebration of that love."
Ultimately, we love weddings, because we "want to believe." Despite the wedding-industrial complex, the frustratingly retro traditions and the borderline absurd costs that come along with being a wedding guest or the bride or groom, we keep going to weddings because we love love. We put aside our misgivings and our cynical natures for 24 hours, and we believe in the cliché.
"We want to believe that our friends can fall in love," Doll told me. "We want to believe that we can fall in love. We want to believe that we all get a beautiful special moment with the people we care about around us, to praise and celebrate us and our entry into a new stage of life."