For days, the story of Jennifer Willbanks, the so-called "runaway bride," has been big news in American newspapers and tabloids. The young woman faked her own disappearance, shortly before she was to be married, only to reappear several days later, tearful and contrite.
Ms. Wilbanks' motivations are still unclear. But her saga has drawn attention to what many say are the extraordinary psychological and emotional stresses of getting married in America today.
Getting married is one of the few enduring rites of passage in American life. It's a ritual most choose willingly. For many women, it's also a ritual over which they exercise almost total control - from the style of their gown and veil to the color of the invitations to the matching manicures on the bridesmaids.
Laurie Sue Brockway is an interdenominational minister and the author of "Wedding Goddess: A Divine Guide To Transforming Wedding Stress into Wedding Bliss." She says one problem with weddings these days is that "marriage American style" is a growing multi-billion dollar a year industry.
"It used to be you would choose a priest, a rabbi or whatever, a house of worship, and you'd have your ceremony," she says. "Then you'd have dinner. And it would really be on a smaller scale. But nowadays, we've gotten into a way of celebrating weddings similar to the way royalty and the rich used to celebrate."
Reverend Brockway says that the sheer number of decisions a bride must make as she contemplates her wedding day can create both confusion and stress: "Where? When? What time of year? Indoor? Outdoor? Who do we invite?" That final question, she notes, can be the most difficult to resolve: "Do we invite our friends from work? Do we just invite the family? Do we invite extended relatives? Where do we cut the guest list off? How many people does my mother get to invite?"
Reverend Brockway notes that there is a lot of pressure on brides and grooms to create the perfect wedding. With that in mind, they spend a lot of time making decisions that cost of lot money for this one big event in their lives.
While all of this planning is going on, she says, there are powerful internal adjustments to be made. "They are making a major life change where they are switching from being single people to being married people," she says, "with new sorts of responsibilities and major lifestyle changes and the beginning of families. And I think that what happens along the way is that we lose sight of the sacred."
Many traditional cultures continue to view marriage primarily as a social or economic contract between bride and groom and their families or clans… but not here, Reverend Brockway says. "Most Americans tend to look at marriage as a love contract and their relationship is sacred to them," she says. "They have to be sure they safeguard their relationship when planning a wedding ceremony that empowers that and creates a foundation for that. I mean, it's not about the dress! It's about what is going to give the marriage the best start. The minute you lose sight of why you are doing this, the wedding becomes "entertainment' and you are really on the 'stress express' to the wedding altar."
Reverend Brockway recommends that brides seek out emotional support during the wedding preparation process - which can sometimes last a year or more. Here again, one has many options: There are numerous Internet chat rooms for brides, for example, or the bride-to-be can meet regularly with other brides in the community to talk informally about the challenge of getting married. Ms. Brockway and a colleague host a free weekly meeting in New York, where they discuss some of the tips in her new book.
"And the first thing I suggest to brides is to do some 'spring cleaning' for your heart and soul," she says. "Just sort of clear the decks, get rid of old relationship memorabilia and let go of things that may stand in the way of your having a happy marriage. And then you have to make sure you really take care of yourself. And really put things in your life that help you relax throughout the wedding experience. You should be taking time for yourself. Take a walk. Exercise. Take a bath. Address self-care. The runaway bride may not have taken time for herself and just sort of fell apart at the end."
Minister Laurie Sue Brockway adds that in addition to taking care of oneself during the wedding process, new spouses must also deepen their connection with each other - and in ways that reaffirm the unique personal adventure they begin together when they say 'I do.'