Marriage isn’t written in the wedding

Dana’s having a June wedding, and it’s going to be perfect. All the invitations went out like clockwork. The musicians are already meeting and rehearsing. The site the couple selected is beautiful. All the participants know their roles in the ceremony, and we are all eager and prepared to perform them.
My friendship with Dana is 20 years old; we’ve known each other since we were in pre-school, so I get to be in the wedding. But I’m not an easy fit. His groomsmen are all family members, so I’m not in that group. Most of our mutual friends from high school became music majors in college, so I don’t get to sing. And Dana just laughed when I volunteered to park cars.
I get to do a reading, but I’m struggling with my role. Dana and his bride are avoiding religious texts, and most of the other readings I’ve encountered are either nauseatingly clichÇd or speak of marriage as a sort of dehumanization ceremony for women. After a protracted search, I’ve failed to find anything suitable.
Not a problem. Dana had a better idea — “Why don’t you write something on marriage and read that?”
“Good idea,” I thought. I put my thoughts on paper for a living. Certainly I could come up with something suitable for my friend’s wedding. Some of Dana’s restrictions (“No references to the Apocalypse, no calls to ban land mines … “) were inhibiting. But after knowing him for so long, and after attending numerous weddings for other friends, coming up with a simple essay to read shouldn’t have been too difficult.
But it has been, Dana, and I’m sorry. I’ve found it impossible to match an essay on marriage with the tone of a wedding, especially your perfectly planned one. I’m sure there’s a writer out there who’s done it, and I’ll keep looking. I just can’t pull this one off.
Weddings are dubious propositions. People expend tremendous amounts of money and energy to promote the concept of a lifelong bond between two people who pledge to always love one another. A noble idea, except that, statistically, it would probably be wiser to put all the money on a sure-thing race horse.
About half of the couples who vow to stay together “as long as they both shall live” part long before death — and if the truth were known, half of the couples that do stay together spend the rest of their lives wanting to kill each other. Sure, a wedding day has its place as a great, planned affair when, for just a few hours, everyone does what the happy couple wants and everything goes according to the happy couple’s plans. But after the gifts are unwrapped and the guests amble home, all that’s left are a wife, a husband, a ton of wrapping paper and the realization that the headaches they feel are the beginnings of hangovers that will last for the rest of their lives.
A good wedding-day reading should say these things. But that would be like dumping battery acid through a cloud. All it would do is dampen the festivities, and it wouldn’t change anything. Everyone would think it was just rain — until it sank in.
Marriage is everything weddings are not. They’re controlled by the unexpected. No one fits into the roles you want them to fit. Gifts are still plentiful, but none of them comes from the list you left at Dayton’s. You still have to work and prod and prepare, but in marriages no one outside the walls of your home can always care enough to be around.
It’s not surprising that most marriages fail to achieve the hopes so greatly felt on wedding days. Forever is a really long time, and people are always changing. We’re told that our duty is to maximize our individual potential. We’re told that we shouldn’t sell ourselves short. We’re told we can’t give up our dreams, and we’re somehow weak if we include another person in them.
In a world that puts individual fulfillment over everything else, it becomes very easy to look at the person at the other end of the dinner table and see only a barrier to happiness. When that happens, the marriage will begin to die a slow death. Then will you part.
I realize I’m straying into homily territory here, but you can’t trust ministers to tell you what you need to hear, Dana. Besides, I know you better than your officiant does, and as your friend I can’t stand to see you get married without properly terrifying you first.
You wanted me to write something about marriage, and the topic is much too important to be drowned out by the syrupy morass known as a wedding day. Weddings would be much more honest, and more successful in promoting their goal of being a springboard to a lasting commitment, if they were more like marriages. You should consider some suggestions.
Cut out as many expenses as possible. You’re going to be scrimping for years anyway, so go ahead and start now. Forget about gift registries. Have people bring whatever they think you might need, preferably second-hand. If you get eight sets of used Ginsu knives, well, that’s life. You might as well practice smiling at ridiculous circumstances. You just committed yourself to one.
It might be healthy to inject a little voluntary pain into the proceedings, too, so you can practice the all-important skill of grinning and bearing it. For special music, you should let me play the saxophone. Every time I’ve blown into a saxophone it sounds like a wounded sheep, but get used to it — your daughter will sound the same way when she starts taking lessons.
While you’re at it, you should change your vows. Here are some possibilities: “Do you, Dana, take this woman, who will never again look as good as she does today, whose annoying habits will only get worse, who will eternally look at you askance when you speak excitedly of the Minnesota Timberwolves, and who will be a factor in every decision regarding your career, finances and hairstyle, to be your wedded wife, as long as you both shall live?”
“And do you, Michelle, take this man, who plays too much Nintendo, whose breath will only grow worse as he ages, who will always want to hang out with his really aggravating friends, and who will be a factor in every decision regarding your career, finances and hairstyle, to be your wedded husband, as long as you both shall live?”
Answer by saying, “I do.” I dare you.
And of course, you will. I’ll be very happy when you do. This is what you want, and you’ve been much smarter in preparing for this marriage than many people I’ve seen. You’ve decided how to make your career paths mesh, together. You’ve already purchased a house, together. You’ve decided where you’re going to live, together. And you’ve been together for almost three years — you’ve already seen the best and worst each has to offer.
The best will get better through this commitment, you hope. I know you have big plans for your life together, and if you work on them like you have so far, good things will come to you. But it is certain that the worst will become even worse. After you’ve made your vows, all sorts of new, difficult questions arise, and you never know what life might throw at the two of you.
But you’ve talked things over, and you’ve made your plans, and you’ll always have friends and family to fall back on. With luck, intelligence and pure, blind faith, you might just beat the odds. Weddings don’t count for much in gauging the success of a marriage, but if your planning for this event is any indication, you’ll do OK.

Alan Bjerga’s column appears Wednesdays in the Daily. Correspondence, including suggested wedding readings, can be sent via e-mail to [email protected]