My title here has a double meaning. One, I mean to represent the experience many single people have at weddings. Two, I call this piece “a single voice” because it’s a perspective you rarely hear in an authentic way. So much of what I have to say so many people have experienced, but it is taboo to voice it in a way that questions “tradition.”
Before I begin, let me say that most of the single people I know are incredibly gracious and sacrificial in their attendance, support of, and participation in weddings. Some do so in spite of their reservations; some do so because they agree with the way things are typically done in our era and in our culture.
Please hear me when I say I know these issues are not of life-or-death consequence, and there are other, much more significant problems in the world. At the same time, please remember that these issues are genuinely frustrating, if not at times excluding and demeaning. Also, please take the time to truly think about what I am saying. There are so many customs ingrained within us that we don’t question them. Try to use your imagination a bit to think about how things could be different (and even better).
What follows are three aspects of engagements and wedding that many singles question.
#1: The response of “Congratulations!” Usually, when we say congratulations, we mean, “Great job!” or, “Hey, you did it!” It seems strange to say it when someone has made a decision, answered a question, or recited a vow.
Yes, if you look up the definitions and etymologies, you will find the word “congratulations” can also sometimes be used to express good wishes. But, all the usages are all one word. “Congratulations” is the same word we use when someone graduates, when someone earns a reward, when someone retires, when someone works hard to be able to buy a house.
To someone who is single, it feels dissonant to hear someone else congratulated for something that is an important decision, yes, but not an accomplishment (I believe viewing marriage as an accomplishment demeans marriage and one’s spouse—see this piece for more). As single people, we pursue ambitions. We make an impact. Take care of apartments and houses. Navigate a social world. Of course, married people do these things, too, but we do it all on our own, and all on one income. It’s really, really, really hard. We don’t need acclamation or to be congratulated, but reality feels so skewed when others are congratulated while we continue life on our own.
(If you want a laugh and aren’t sensitive to the more commonly used “d” word, this MFAM gif regarding “congratulations” cracks me up).
You might ask, “But congratulations is just what we say when someone gets engaged or married—if we don’t say congratulations, what else would we say?”
Well, some other languages have greetings like, “Best wishes!” Or we could say, “I’m really happy for you,” or “How exciting!” Most of all, my idea is that you think about the person you’re saying it to. What can you say that is truthful and shows your care for them? A sincere, “Grace and peace to you” will stand out in a meaningful way. (Listen to this beautiful song by Fernando Ortega for a sense of what I’m saying here: Prayer for Home).
A dear, dear friend of mine recently got engaged, and I decided to try this out. I didn’t say “Congratulations.” I thought of other things to say, things that were meaningful to me, to her, to our relationship, and to her relationship with the man she is going to marry. Not only did it avoid a word I find difficult to say, not defaulting to the typical phrase meant I had to put more though and effort into what I said. I can’t speak for her, but I hope it meant more to her, too.
#2: The tradition of wedding and shower gifts. There was a time that getting married meant you were leaving home for the first time, so people gave gifts to help you establish your first home.
That’s not the way things are anymore. Some people still get married at an age that they are just leaving home, but the needs there are no different than a single person starting their own home. Similarly, when a person who has been single already has an array of household items get married, they’re given brand-new linens and appliance, but the single person continues with what they’ve always had.
When singles attend weddings, it’s hard not to think about the dollars we’ve stretched and how difficult it was starting out on our own. We get really excited when we upgrade from dollar store eating utensils.
Don’t get me wrong, I have fond memories of snuggling in my twice-handed-down chair to eat my dinner of plain oatmeal in my first apartment, working weeks before I received my first paycheck. I am not being sarcastic, I really mean that I remember that time with fondness. I also love my hand-me-downs and the people who have helped me considerably along the way. I’m not asking for anything else—I don’t need it. But the gifts showered upon people who decide to marry feels like one more affirmation to those who are fulfilling a traditional norm (regardless of the reason)–and a slight to those who are not (regardless of the reason).
(As an aside, if you are looking for a way to divert well-meant wedding gifts towards a charitable cause, One Day’s Wages can help you set up a fund).
#3: The amount of money and resources spent on weddings. The wedding-related industry is unbelievably expensive (see I do… cost a lot). Even the diamond engagement ring started as a money-making scheme hardly a hundred years old (see Why Engagement Rings … ).
I’m not sure why weddings became such an incredible expense, nor do I know how or why the expense became extended to people who are part of or who attend the wedding. Often, the same people paying are the single people with their stretched single income. There’s travel (airfare/gas, car rental, hotel), bachelor/bachelorette party expenses, dress/tuxedo and shoes, alterations, etc. … and then the above-mentioned gifts. When it’s all said and done, we’re pretty familiar with using credit card rewards to buy ourselves cereal and toilet paper (here’s another MFAM gif for you). It’s hard not to feel taken advantage of. And I don’t think, “Well, they’ll pay me back when I get married,” is a helpful solution.
I realize I suggested an alternative for the first issue, one idea for the second, and nothing for the third. I’m not sure how we can begin to approach the second and third issues. Completely abandoning these practices would be feel too radical for most people, and I doubt they’re ready for that. Instead, I would suggest that the same principle in the first issue applies to the second or third: Whatever part you play in a wedding situation (married, single, to-be-married, etc.), consider what is truthful and caring towards others, and act on it.