While weddings have already begun their long-awaited return, it’s notable that the associated celebrations haven't, on average, bounced back to their pre-pandemic size and scope. A 2021 survey of 1,000 people planning weddings conducted by Brides and Investopedia found that 35 percent of respondents plan to invite fewer people than they previously might have, and only 49 percent plan to have a wedding party or reception. And based on data from registry site Zola, weddings with fewer than 100 guests are up roughly 11 percent now, compared to 2019—a shift that likely reflects the concurrent elopement trend taking off on social media and gaining traction with celebs. (Just take Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker’s recent impromptu, if non-legally-binding, wedding in Las Vegas, for starters.)
Some of that shift certainly has to do with lingering pandemic concerns, according to therapist Landis Bejar, LMHC, founder and director of AisleTalk, a boutique therapy practice specializing in wedding stress. “A small wedding allows for more control,” she says, referencing the potential for COVID surges to affect planning, even today. “A more intimate group means you have fewer variables to contend with when it comes to exposures and transmissions, and holding guests accountable to your safety measures,” she says.
“Doing things your own way is much more socially acceptable than it used to be, which I think is a wonderful thing.” —Jocelyn Charnas, PhD, clinical psychologist
But beyond these pandemic precautions, Bejar says the rise in low-key weddings is also the result of a pandemic-prompted shift in wedding culture. One effect of COVID-19 is that it made people “a lot more flexible in their way of thinking and in their way of conceptualizing a wedding party or celebration, initially out of necessity,” says clinical psychologist Jocelyn Charnas, PhD, whose practice focuses on relationship- and wedding-related stress management. “Now, doing things your own way—whether that means going smaller in size or doing something nontraditional—is much more socially acceptable than it used to be, which I think is a wonderful thing.”
Why low-key weddings continue to be a thing, even without pandemic restrictions in place
In more ways than one, the pandemic helped reframe what constitutes a “normal” wedding. “It showed us that there’s no shortage of ways we can celebrate love,” says Bejar. “We can do it online. We can reschedule three times. We can send ‘uninvites’ and ‘re-save the dates.’ We can have bachelorette parties after a wedding or have tiny ceremonies, and give them cute names like wifelorettes and minimonies.” Over time, as we were all forced to understand how little is within our control, couples and their loved ones, too, became more willing to celebrate weddings in whatever form they took.
“More people are making decisions about their weddings based on themselves and what they and their partners want, rather than on the expectations of others.” —Dr. Charnas
This shift in our societal perceptions of a wedding has also relieved pressure many folks might've otherwise felt to have a certain kind of event—and allowed them to focus on how they'd really like to fête their love. “One of the consequences of the pandemic, and perhaps we could even call it a silver lining, is that it’s forced us to spend more time looking inward as opposed to outward, and reflecting on ourselves and our relationships more intently,” says Dr. Charnas. “As a result, more people are making decisions about their weddings based on themselves and what they and their partners want, rather than on the expectations of others.” For instance, some might just be less motivated now to include the key elements of a big, traditional wedding—from the large guest count to the sit-down meal and fancy decorations—if they simply don't want to.
It’s that desire and freedom to personalize that Kim Olsen, founder of elopement platform The Art of Eloping and author of Your Wedding Your Way, suspects will give the low-key wedding trend real staying power, particularly because it was picking up steam even before the pandemic. In 2019, Pinterest cited a 441 percent surge in searches for “back garden wedding,” a 94 percent rise for “small outdoor wedding ceremony,” and a 511 percent increase for “small beach weddings”—all of which lean low-key in nature, falling outside the traditional wedding mold.
Also in that year, Instagram was seeing a similar uptick in out-of-the-box destination elopements with about 2.2 million collective posts related to #elopement, #elopementwedding, and #elopementphotographer, according to Olsen. (That number surpasses 5 million as of today.) “People are seeing these photos of couples looking pretty damn happy getting married by themselves on a mountaintop or at city hall, and they’re thinking, ‘I want that, too,’” she says.
How having a low-key wedding can support your mental well-being
It may be less stressful to plan and execute
Planning a wedding that’s smaller in size or scope may push you to consider what truly matters to you and your partner. And that’s something that therapist Allison Moir-Smith, founder of wedding-based therapy practice Emotionally Engaged, recommends all of her clients do. “I advise each partner to…think about weddings that you’ve loved in the past, and pick three things that you feel like your wedding must have,” she says. While she certainly works with folks who choose a large guest list as one of those three things, the practice of narrowing your focus, in any case, tends to make wedding-planning far less stressful. “You’re able to stop doing things because you feel like you ‘should’ do them, and start focusing on the things that feel right,” she says.
Streamlining in this way also makes the planning process something that you’re more likely to enjoy doing together with your partner—rather than something you'd prefer to pass off or delegate in bits and pieces, says Olsen: “With an intimate wedding or elopement, you’re typically just planning a special trip or a fun party on your own terms, without any strings attached.”
In doing so, you’ll likely also find that many of the most common wedding stressors naturally fall off. For example, you may not need to worry about a seating chart if there aren't enough people to warrant one; and you don't need to stress about offending that one friend who isn't in the formal wedding party if you aren't having one. “A smaller wedding means it’s really only your nearest and dearest in attendance,” says Bejar. “So, you might also feel less pressure or judgment about having to make any last-minute changes, or about any other decisions you make concerning the big day.”
You can opt out of certain expenses (and the money conflicts that can follow)
Just by definition, low-key weddings often don't include a number of the expenses of traditional weddings. Whether you're cutting out the overflowing floral arrangements you would’ve had at each table, the Jordan almonds in the gift bags, the oyster-shell escort cards, or otherwise, eliminating the superlatives will save you cash. Not to mention, simply downsizing the number of guests is, of course, an easy way to stay on budget, says Brittney Castro, in-house certified financial planner at Mint. After all, fewer people means fewer mouths to feed and the opportunity to use a smaller venue or space.
All of the above means you’re less likely to take on debt while planning a low-key wedding, which Castro says is a common financial mistake. In fact, one in five couples in the aforementioned Brides survey reported using loans or investments to help pay for their wedding, while 41 percent said they plan to use credit cards (with only 13 percent of those folks reporting plans to pay off those credit-card bills right away).
“Accruing wedding debt can not only affect your credit score, but can also serve as a point of stress in your relationship,” says Castro. “By contrast, spending less on your wedding allows you to dedicate more money toward your long-term financial goals, like, say, buying a house, traveling together, or starting a family.”
You can ensure the final event feels like ‘you’
Paring down your wedding and removing all the excess fluff can help you get back to the essence of who you are as a couple—which is what a wedding is really about, anyway. “In this context, you’re free to decide what feels true to both of you and create a day that’s reflective of your relationship,” says Olsen. “To know that you did things your way can be a great start to a healthy marriage.”
That’s particularly poignant now, given the ways in which the pandemic has readjusted many of our perspectives and priorities. “To pretend that everything is, in any way, the same as it was two years ago is not a reflection of reality,” says Dr. Charnas. “I think being able to understand and acknowledge what has changed for you and your relationship, and then make use of those changes to adjust your marriage celebration is a really great thing. And I’ve done a lot of work encouraging clients to be proud of doing just that.”
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