Louder than words: The potent “hidden” messages your wedding ceremony can send

Wedding Ceremony Meaning

What will your wedding tell your guests about you? Your (Brilliant) Style. Your (Excellent) Taste. Your (Perfect) Day. This is why you are spending months and months planning The. Best. Day. Ever. 

As the saying goes, the little things are the big things. In weddings, subtle messages sent by both actions and words speak volumes about your relationship. Whether accurate or inaccurate, subtle “hidden” messages can influence the way your relationship is perceived and the marriage itself.

A wise person once said that the subconscious can’t take a joke. Messages we aren’t aware of do influence our expectations. And nowhere more true than when it comes to perception of who we can be and what we can expect to have in life, and in marriage. Traditional marriage ceremonies send powerful messages about power differences between the couple.

In everyday life, gender role stereotypes have been reinforced forever by messages that are subtle and hidden, until we become aware of them. We often fail to notice them. But when we do, Pow! It changes everything.

In a traditional wedding the messages are clear. It’s the bride’s day, but it is the husband’s marriage. However equal your relationship. However modern you are as a couple. That is the subtle message your guests will be getting, sometimes through body language and choreography, sometimes through the words your celebrant uses, sometimes through the words you use.

It doesn’t need to be that way. Without making any radical changes that will be obvious, you can send a very different message.

Disclaimer and Disclosure

This blog post is addressed to brides and focused on heterosexual ceremonies for one simple reason. Traditional wedding ceremonies reinforce husband-wife role stereotypes that were the way of the world way back in mediaeval times. Granted, in response to pressure from feminists, some churches have stopped making the bride promise to obey, virtually nothing else has changed. 

Whether you are two brides, two grooms, or a bride and groom, what follows is relevant. Even the choreography of the traditional ceremony is loaded.

Let me put that in context. Remember when you picked that a couple was on together before they’ve made anything public? You picked up subtle clues from the way they interact, perhaps the way they look at one another, or the way they talk to or about one another. You couldn’t put your finger on it. Your conscious brain didn’t process it. But you just knew. 

Your wedding ceremony sets the scene for your marriage.  It also sends subtle messages and cues about your relationship to your guests.  So let’s look at the various parts of a traditional ceremony and the simple changes that send instead, a message of equality.

Expressing your values in your processional

Your father walks you down the aisle, your hand lovingly tucked into the crook of his arm. You get to the top of the aisle, your groom steps forward, and shakes your father’s hand. And then your father takes your hand and puts it into your groom’s hand. Celebrants often refer to this as the handover. A transaction has just taken place. A clear message has been sent. She’s your property now.

Equality wedding ceremonies
I come to this marriage of my own free will.  Image: Daisy & The Duke

Rewind: Your mother and father walk you down the aisle. You get to the top of the aisle. You kiss both of them and then walk towards your groom, who has stepped forward to meet you. Together, walking as equals, you move into place to join your wedding party and your celebrant so that the ceremony can begin. The subliminal message is quite different.  Both of my parents support my choice. I come to this marriage of my own free will as an independent modern woman. Our marriage will be a marriage of equals.

Expressing your values in your parents affirmation of your marriage

The celebrant asks, Who gives this woman to be married to this man? And your father answers, I do. Implying property rights 

Rewind:The celebrant addresses both sets of parents by name, asking whether you come to be married with their blessing and support. This sends a clear message.

Expressing your values in your choice of music

Music plays a significant role in weddings. It sets the tone for the ceremony from the first note announcing the start of the processional. You only have to hear the first few notes of Here Comes the Bride (Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin by Richard Wagner to a) recognise it and b) sit up that little straighter for the entrance of the bride. Not that many couples choose it now. And that’s terrific. It has been done to death, so it sends the message that a predictable ceremony is about to follow. Heads-up to the guests to zone out! Given its popularity, as an instrumental piece you wouldn’t expect a hidden, negative message about marriage. But it is there in the words. In the opera it is sung to celebrate a very short-lived doomed marriage.

On the other hand, when the music is more contemporary, every now and then I stand up the front trying to keep a straight face. Just because it’s a favourite song doesn’t mean to say it’s a good choice. Please, please, please, listen to all of the lyrics and think about the message they will be sending about your relationship.

“It's a beautiful night, we're looking for something dumb to do … Who cares if we're trashed”. (Marry You – Bruno Mars) gets my top vote for unfortunate choice.

And then there is what I call the Stalker’s Anthem – Every breath you take (I’ll be watching you).

Expressing your values in your choice of readings

In a Christian marriage ceremony three readings are mandatory. All from the Bible. You must choose from a small number of preselected passages from the Old Testament, New Testament, and Epistles. Not difficult, but tricky if you’re a modern couple because you could be tripped up by embedded gender role stereotypes about wives being subservient. 

In a civil ceremony you decide whether you want to include any readings in your ceremony. You are free to choose from literally millions of poems and passages of poetic prose. You are not limited to popular readings, many of which are not great choices because they come across as a lecture about how to run your relationship or can reinforce outmoded ideas about marriage. 

What you choose speaks volumes about who you are as a couple, what your values are, and what you expect for and from your marriage. Your celebrant should be able to help you find the perfect reading with a contemporary take on marriage.

Expressing your values in your vows

Wedding Ceremony Vows
Image: Evernew Studio at High Church, Brisbane 

Most “guides” about writing vows stress that they should be funny and romantic and suggest that you write individual vows (and possibly keep them secret) but miss the point that your vows are your (agreed) performance targets for your marriage.

You read your vows. Groom first. His are short. He says a couple of romantic things and promises to take care of you and let you follow your dreams. Yours follow the guidelines you’ve read. You recount how you met, what attracted you, how he makes you feel. You promise. To always make him his favourite chocolate cake. To barrack for his team. And so on.

Rewind: As with everything else you’ve spent a great deal of time negotiating your relationship and what you both want for your marriage. So you’ve worked hard on creating a shared vow that expresses your commitment to one another and lays out your agreed blueprint for your marriage. Having each said the legal words that are required to create your marriage, in unison you make your promises. 

Expressing your values in your kiss

And now comes the high-point, the climax of the ceremony. 

The celebrant declares that you are married, turns to your groom, and says, You may kiss your (beautiful) bride. And he does. Of course, the subtext to that is never spoken. Whether she wants you to or not. A powerful message of power and ownership, has been sent, unchanged from the days when brides were traded for strategic advantage.

Rewind: Your celebrant declares that you are married and invites you both to seal your vows and celebrate your marriage with your first kiss as a married couple. You move towards one another to do so, sending a message about your equal relationship.

Expressing your values in the recessional

Wedding Ceremony Personal
The wedding ceremony recessional.  Image: Nak Photography

You’ve kissed, signed, and now you’re ready to make your way back up the aisle. Off you go at a brisk pace, followed by your bridesmaids and groomsmen. The guests follow, leaving your parents to exit last. It is quite a while before they can get close enough to congratulate you.

Rewind: You’ve kissed, signed, and start to make your way back up the aisle. You move first to greet your parents. Hugs, kisses, thank yous. You invite them to walk out immediately behind you. Your mother escorted by his father. Your father escorted by his mother. Bridesmaids and groomsmen behind them. You start down the aisle. You amble. You hug, kiss, high-five guests along the way. You pause in the middle of the aisle to share another kiss. The photographs capture you surrounded by happy guests with your parents visible behind you.

The Payoff

Once you are aware of the possibility, it is easy to identify where the messages your ceremony may send could be at odds with the reality of your relationship and your intentions for your marriage. They jump out at you. Making sure they are positive will make a world of difference.

This article was written by Brisbane based celebrant Jennifer Cram.  Cover image: Nak Photography

Jennifer Cram