Newlyweds Then and Now: “We’re Like You” to “We’re Special”

Advice columnist Carolyn Hax heard from a reader who was upset because his wife invited her sister to come along on a trip celebrating their anniversary. To our contemporary sensibilities, this sounds bizarre. We would no more expect a couple to invite someone else along on an anniversary trip than on a honeymoon.

What seems obvious to us now, though, wasn’t always so. Newlyweds, for example, once had an entirely different relationship to the people in their lives than they do now, both at their weddings and afterwards.

Here’s what I said about that in Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After:

Histories of courtship and marriage often highlight the differences in the relationship between the two people who are marrying. Was the pairing arranged or freely chosen? How well did the two know each other before the wedding? What was the nature of their courtship? Did they marry within or across the lines of class, religion, or race? And now, of course, we ask whether a wedding ceremony marks only the coming together of a man and a woman or whether two men, or two women, can marry too.

            An equally important change, I think, is the relationship between the couple and their friends, family, and community. Before the nineteenth century, the ceremonies marking a marriage were more likely to underscore the links between the couple and the other people in their lives than the specialness of the couple apart from everyone else.

            That the newlyweds were part of a social network and a community, rather than above it, was evident even from their attire. The newlyweds did dress up for their wedding, but often no more so than their guests.

            The customs of gift-giving were even more telling. People in the community contributed what they could afford so the new couple – especially if they were of modest means – could have what they needed to start a new household and thereby take their place within the community. Historian John Gillis noted that in Wales, “each gift would be noted and paid back in due time.” At first, it was only among the wealthy that wedding presents took the form of glittering luxury items with little practical value. The china, the crystal, and the silver tea sets would be set on display atop a white woven tablecloth in a special room. The baubles spoke for the couple. “We do not need the community to help us,” they said. Most newlyweds, though, did need the help of the people in the community who were in a position to offer it.

            The honeymoon, too, was once a time for underscoring the reciprocal ties between the couple and the important people in their lives. It was commonplace for the couple to the visit friends and family who lived some distance away and who were not expected to make a special trip to attend the wedding. The couple’s closest companions often joined them in these travels. The trip was not a time for the couple to be alone.

            Once the couple arrived back in town, they would take their place among their neighbors. It did take a village to maintain the village, structurally and interpersonally, and couples, singles, and children were all part of it.

In the next couple of pages, I spelled out ways that today’s newlyweds (well, some of them) position themselves as special rather than as ordinary members of their community. But you can probably write that part of the book yourself.


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