Surprise Weddings are Nonconsensual and Icky

Okay, I promise I’ll actually write something for this blog soon, but for now I have another Daily Dot piece, this time about “surprise weddings.” (It’s as icky as it sounds.) Here’s an excerpt:

It’s incredibly ironic that an event meant to celebrate the joining of two people in marriage would be so one-sided, and that consent would be deemed so irrelevant. Relationships aren’t—or shouldn’t be—about one person deciding and creating things for another. They should be about two people building a life together.

In case my reference to “consent” doesn’t make sense, consider this: expressing a desire to have sex with someone doesn’t mean they get to decide unilaterally when and where and how the sex will happen. Agreeing to marry someone doesn’t mean they get to decide unilaterally when and where and how you’ll get married and who the guests will be and what music you’ll have and what types of hors d’oevres will be served. Unless, of course, you tell your partner that you don’t really care about these details and they’re free to do whatever they want with the wedding planning.

Weddings, like the marriages they are meant to celebrate, should be collaborative. That collaboration can mean “We make all the decisions together,” or it can mean “I don’t care, it’s all up to you!”, or it can mean anything in between. Personally, if someone sprung a wedding on me like that, I’d have to have a serious conversation with them about why they don’t think my own wedding preferences matter enough to be taken into account.

You can read the rest here.

One thing I didn’t really have space to get into in the article was the romanticization of surprise itself, and why it is that people find surprises so romantic. I think part of it is just how many people find it fun to be surprised, so it’s nice when a partner surprises them. It also implies a certain amount of effort; secrecy can be hard, and doing things without your partner’s suggestions can be especially hard (such as planning a birthday party they’d like with the friends they’d want to see or buying them a gift they’ll love without asking them what they want).

On the other hand, surprising your partner also means–you guessed it–not having to communicate with them about their desires and preferences. It means being let off the hook if they don’t like it so much because, well, how were you supposed to know! Communication can be fun and exciting, but it can also be difficult and not very exciting. Especially communication about wedding planning.

Surprise Weddings are Nonconsensual and Icky

15 thoughts on “Surprise Weddings are Nonconsensual and Icky

  1. 1

    It seems like the key here is the communication of desires and preferences or lack thereof. I assume you’d see nothing wrong with a couple deciding that one of them should plan a surprise wedding.

  2. 2

    Wow, and here I though public proposals were bad due to the inherent coercion. Turns out there was still something to top it.

    An awful lot of what gets culturally constructed as “romantic” is actually all about denying someone (mostly women in heterosexual relationship) agency in sexual/romantic relationships. It’s so bad that I’m now immediately suspicious any time someone describes something as romantic.

  3. 3

    I always thought the romantic part of a surprise was the fact that you know the person well enough to anticipate what they want (including that they’d want to be surprised in the first place). The surprise wedding is a new one to me and it certainly sounds like a swing-for-the-fences, high-risk move. Hey, if that’s what your SO would like, than go for it. But, you damn well better be right. Because if she’s been planning her wedding since she was a little girl and has a very specific idea of what it’s going to be like, she’s gonna be pissed when you take that away from her.

  4. 4

    Personally, if someone sprung a wedding on me like that, I’d have to have a serious conversation with them about why they don’t think my own wedding preferences matter enough to be taken into account.

    There’s your problem. You take your own feelings about something and then extrapolate from that no one should be doing something that you don’t like. Obviously it’s not for everyone, but why is that an argument against it when there are those who would appreciate it?

    1. 4.1

      From the article:

      From the sound of it, the surprised fiancées were happy with the weddings they got. That’s great. I’m not here to tell them not to be happy.

      However, a news article with the headline “Local bride disappointed at groom’s surprise wedding, wishes her desires had actually been taken into account” isn’t going to get published anywhere anytime soon. Why? Because it doesn’t fit our narrative of what weddings are and what they mean—and because many women in this situation would probably keep their discomfort to themselves. From childhood, we’re taught that when a guy does something so special for us, especially when it involves spending lots of money, we should be grateful and appreciative.

      Methodically quoting parts of my own article to refute comments on that article is boring and annoying, but I’ll do it if it’s really that necessary.

      1. You call these weddings icky and non-consensual. Now that’s not explicitly saying that no one should do it, but that’s clearly the gist of your article. You don’t call something icky and non-consensual and then say that it’s an OK thing to do.

        Icky is just your opinion and a pretty dickish thing to say about someone’s wedding.

        Non-consensual is possibly true in some cases, but you don’t really have any such case to point to.

        You seem to be suffering from the same kind of judgmentalism as right wing Christians who condemn anything they don’t personally like.

        1. You seem to be suffering from the same kind of judgmentalism as right wing Christians who condemn anything they don’t personally like.

          Alternatively, she could be someone offering her personal opinion on her personal blog about how she personally feels about something.

          Good heavens, you’d think that was akin to kicking puppies, the way some people act.

        2. Something on my blog is just my opinion? You don’t say…

          You seem to be suffering from the same kind of judgmentalism as right wing Christians who condemn anything they don’t personally like.

          The “compare person you don’t like to right-wing Christians” play is severely overused. Be more original.

  5. 5

    Good article, Miri. The first thought I had was very similar. I’ve been appalled by the “let’s top the last one” mentality that has led to so many public marriage proposals. In my opinion very coercive and unromantic, despite the presence of family & “friends”, the applause and the feel-good news articles they seem to engender–all of which are instruments of intimidation that apply very real pressure to the targeted individual to simply assent. I hadn’t realized there was something in even more appallingly bad taste afoot. To be clear, if any such events (public proposals or surprise weddings) are discussed and agreed to by both parties, fine, but if not I would just love to see the target say “No” or at least “Let me think about it–I’ll let you know in a day or two.” Enough do that and maybe the trend would fizzle out as (again IMO) it should.

  6. 6

    I’m a person who hates surprises; maybe I’m extra enthusiastic about informed consent, and I place a really high value on open, direct, explicit communication. I really can’t understand the whole surprise thing for something so big; it seems more built around a desire to cause a huge scene.

  7. 7

    Question — do you think it’s possible that this “trend” might be “three people the lifestyle writer at People could track own who’d actually done it?” Who by definition will likely be people who like this sort of thing.

    As a reporter who has fallen into this trap a few times in his career — (or been subjected to it by editors) it happens; the editor says “Hey, is this a thing? I think it might be” and since you have to write something RIGHT NOW because it appeared on a morning talk show… you later discover that there were like, a couple of people and it never became very widespread at all.

    (Remember the “opt out generation?” story a few years back? Where did that go? Oh, right — a group of a few white Princeton and Yale grads who married 100K+ earners is totally representative of professional women! Not.)

    Here’s what makes the whole “surprise wedding” thing not pass the smell test as a “trend” — largely based on how realistic it is to do at all — and I say this after looking at Miri’s links and reading the pieces.

    First, logistics. One of those stories says the boyfriend got his surprise-fiancee to actually buy a dress. Let’s assume she isn’t brain-damaged for a moment, you really think she knew nothing? (Even unconsciously). Also, getting the whole clan to shut up? Right, that will happen. I don’t buy it. The only way to keep a secret like that would be to not tell the guests either. (And I don’t even mean someone spilling the beans necessarily, there’s just too many lines of evidence you’d leave around — “hey, why are all my friends mysteriously busy on the 19th of April?”).

    Second, the way normal people operate. I surprise my wife occasionally with stuff, but it’s stuff I am damned sure she will like, insofar as that’s possible. I know that ahead of time how? Because I know her, I didn’t just meet her yesterday.

    To be more clear, any of these guys pulling a surprise wedding has, I would bet, a good idea that the woman involved will dig it. It’s too big a bet to make and too much of a relationship-ender if she doesn’t — at least, I know no woman who would sign on the line of the marriage license if she was really upset about a surprise wedding. Social pressure or no, women do have some agency here and I’ve met few who wouldn’t slap the prospective groom silly if they really had no idea what was happening. Leaving aside the consent issue, there’s “Holy hell this guy just spent $5000 on this and didn’t tell me a thing? I can trust him with what, exactly?”

    So I kind of doubt that this is some huge fad of people being really surprised, as in “I never knew this was happening” surprised. There’s all sorts of things about it that make me think “quickie pseudo-trend story put together on the fly.”

    Which by the way gets into the selection bias Miri mentioned. Anybody who wouldn’t like such a wedding, who is really against it, isn’t going to have one from the get-go. It’s like if I did a story about bungee-jumping at weddings. I am sure I could track down a few people that did it and a bungee jumping outfit that said they saw a few more than last year (the surprise wedding stories don’t even have that). But that doesn’t mean its this trend that is sweeping the nation, you know? It just means I found people who like it.

    I don’t disagree that in principle there’s a lot of problems with surprise weddings, but it’s one of those things that seems to me, while strictly, ideologically speaking not so good, might not be quite the “thing” the folks at People magazine would have us think, and I rather doubt that thousands of unsuspecting women are getting sprung on like this — certainly a vast majority, I would bet, wouldn’t end up married.

    1. 7.1

      That’s entirely possible. Personally, I don’t care so much how common it is; I’m more interested in using the example of surprise weddings to discuss consent, gender dynamics, and relationships more broadly. That’s a useful discussion to have whether there have been three or three thousand of these.

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