Ellen McCarthy has been to more weddings than any one person should have to endure. She writes about her life as a wedding reporter for the Washington Post in the new book The Real Thing: Lessons on Love and Life From a Wedding Reporter’s Notebook. She talks to Life Reimagined about midlife marriage, and how she’d reinvent second, third and fourth weddings.
How are midlife weddings different from the first time around—or are they?
In comparison with the first timers, people going at this again were much more clear-eyed, had learned some hard lessons and were almost always just so determined not to repeat them. I think their expectations of what marriage would be like were very different. I learned a lot from people who had learned the hard way in relationships that didn’t work out, and yet were still betting on this thing that we all seek. They were still willing to put themselves in a place to love again, to do it better and be better at it. That always stayed with me.
You describe wacky yet memorable weddings—a death-themed one, for example. If you could reinvent the wedding game, what would you do?
When we talk about weddings and reinventing, let’s just blow the whole thing up. We are so trapped by the boxes we have put weddings into. It seems to me that it’s really constraining and puts an awful burden on couples and everyone else in their lives. There are no rules anymore: if you want to get married on the bank of a river and have a pig roast with your friends, then do it. That’s a true story. Another wedding I attended was on an absolutely freezing January day. There was the couple, the photographer, the officiant, one relative and me, and it was spectacular, this amazing magical scene; it was so real you could hear the ice forming on the river. A wedding was so beside the point; they just wanted to say these vows out loud to each other.
On the other hand I’ve covered gigantic, very expensive weddings that were wonderful too. Often, people who are going at marriage a second time have gone through something very hard in life. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fully celebrate. Your wedding does mark a new chapter, one that’s really worth rejoicing. Make it personal and about what you want. Don’t worry about what’s appropriate or what not. No one cares. Do what will make you happy.
What’s the biggest mistake you see people make when they plan their wedding?
Everybody lets weddings become bigger than they need to be. I would say to a second timer, keep [the engagement and planning process] short so you don’t let it take over your life. People who’ve gone down that road are much more conscious of the energy it takes to visit 18 dress shops to find the perfect one.
Bridezillas are fairly common with first-time marriages. Are they less common in second weddings?
I saw dramatically fewer in repeat marriages because people had their eye on the ball, and the ball was the marriage, it wasn’t the wedding. But there are exceptions. Maybe they didn’t get their dream wedding the first time, were determined to create it and didn’t care what or who lay in their path. It’s still a lurking danger. By the way, Groomzillas are very real as well. It’s an equal opportunity thing. But overall, I see a higher level of sanity to second weddings.
If you could toss any aspect of midlife weddings out the window, what would go first?
Everything! Somehow the wedding has become our one big chance to show the world who we are. It’s almost like our coming out party: “Here’s my chance to stand before the crowd and say I’m a vegan-unicycle-riding-Tar-heels-fan,” as if it’s the only day you have to show the world who you are when in fact you have that opportunity every day.
So toss everything. Toss the idea of the wedding, of having to involve a dress, of there needing to be flowers, toss the formal invitations, or inviting everyone you know, or having to have a certain family in a certain way. You don’t need to hew to any tradition. What is going to be meaningful to you? Instead of spending $50K on a giant party, why not spend $20K for a beach house and put your friends up for a week to spend some quality time together. Whatever is going to be resonant and enjoyable and memorable for you, do that, and everything else should go away.
And if all this wedding talk has got you pining for a partner, take Life Reimagined’s three-day relationship booster.
Photo Credit E+/Getty