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Page last updated at 09:02 GMT, Thursday, 5 August 2010 10:02 UK
A marriage made in hell?

By Tom Colls
Today programme

A couple exchanging wedding vows in 1955

Has "an atmosphere of narcissism and self-promotion" worked its way into the idea of the modern wedding celebration?

Perhaps the thought won't be in the forefront of the minds of the thousands of people wending their way to churches, town halls and marquees around the country this weekend.

But as wedding guests shake confetti from their clothes or tie ties around heads on the dance floor, they might reflect on the purpose of the big day.

The criticism was levelled by Rev Dr Giles Fraser, Canon Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral, rippling the usually placid waters of the Today programme's Thought for the Day with concerns that "too many modern weddings have just lost their way".

Bride-to-be Nicole Christos holds a rack of a wedding gowns during Filene's Basement's annual sale in Bethesda, Maryland
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"I'd even say that they've become a threat to marriage itself," he added, arguing that the idea of self-sacrifice is lost when the ceremony is "specifically designed to be all about 'me', about being a 'princess for a day'".

"Most clergy I know prefer taking funerals to taking weddings," he revealed, explaining that they often have a dignity and moral seriousness that is "quite absent from many of the weddings that we get to take".

Big day

Is Dr Fraser just being grumpy after one too many dull Saturday afternoons, or have weddings really lost their seriousness?

"Actually most people see it as a celebration," says Catherine Westwood, editor of Wedding magazine.

"If the celebration is throwing a big party and having that public declaration of love then I think it should be treated that way."

Marc Mezvinsky and Chelsea Clinton pose during their wedding
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She argues that the idea of a solemn wedding is as old-fashioned as a dowry.

"That stuff has just moved on. He needs to modernize a bit and be delighted that people still want to marry."

A number of recently-published surveys agree that the average cost of a wedding is around the £20,000 mark.

They can be excessively expensive, Ms Westwood admits, but this is not a modern phenomenon.

Long engagements have been the norm for centuries, allowing the betrothed time to save for the right dress, suit and honeymoon. Wedding photos from 100 years ago show brides and grooms who were just as image-conscious as today, she says.

As my mother used to say - the more pretentious the wedding, the less likely the marriage to survive.
Oliver James

Dr Fraser blames the "pervasive influence of the media" for driving people towards narcissism and lavish expenditure.

But if you want to point a finger at a group exploiting soon-to-be married couples, says Catherine Westwood, point it at the venue owners, caterers and wedding suppliers, who push up their prices as soon as the word "wedding" is mentioned.

Certainly people do get the tone of their weddings wrong, she argues, and we are perhaps shallower now than in the past, but it is still what is at the centre of the wedding that counts.

"That ultimate expression of love and wanting to be together and making that life long commitment is still at the heart of every wedding," she says.

Love gained

The idea that people get married for love does appear to have scientific support, according to the author and clinical psychologist Oliver James.

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"Women now place a higher premium on love," he says, citing a study for the Institute for American Values which found that the proportion of women who were willing to marry without love fell from 40% in 1960 to 15% in the late 1980s.

However, rather than good news, the shift in attitudes was "a tragedy" says Dr James, as the same period also saw a large rise in divorce rates.

He argues that fear and insecurity about how long a marriage will last has led people to compensate by splashing out on their nuptials.

"It gives them a feeling of safety and a feeling like there might be permanence in the relationship if they spend more money on it," he explains.

But at the end of the day, vicar, journalist and psychologist all agree that the underlying culture is now more image conscious and "shallow" than it has ever been.

It is not so much the media that is to blame, says Dr James, but the whole culture of materialism, which is obsessed by constant competition with peers - a category that now includes celebrities.

"People who are more materialistic are also more narcissistic," he adds.

"They are more prone to wanting to signify their importance to others through grand material displays. Classic keeping up with the Joneses."

Whether or not Dr Fraser is justified in trying to change the course of our culture is a big question. But Oliver James is clear where he stands on the issue.

"As my mother used to say - the more pretentious the wedding, the less likely the marriage to survive."


Do you think weddings have become taken on "an atmosphere of narcissism and self-promotion"? Should weddings be a serious occasion or a big party? Join the debate on Have Your Say , or via Twitter or Facebook

The first time I have agreed with a Christian vicar word for word for a long time. This is a sign of our modern day everyone can be a celebrity culture. Weddings now are just part of this "look at me, I'm a star" culture that is extended by Facebook and Youtube.
JB, leamington Spa

I film weddings and have seen a significant change over the years. Nothing is understated and there is too much emphasis on 'the big show' and over extravagance. Taste and class seem to have gone out of the window.
Anon, Lincoln, UK

We are currently planning our wedding which is going to far exceed the cost of the current national average. Pressures of culture and tradition dictate this. To myself and my groom it is the days, weeks and years after that day that matter most and are most exciting. And regarding the wedding, it is not just about me or him or us. The Wedding should be judged for what it is: a celebration for family and friends, and not a reflection of the couple's views about marriage.
Ruw, London, UK

Ah, weddings. The ceremony that taste forgot.
Alison B, London, England.

When we got married last year we knew from the get go that the most important part of the day wasn't the venue, the food, the dress or any of that stuff - but the words we said and the people we said them in front of....oh, and we want a big party after too! Nevertheless, it is very easy to get drawn up into it all but I wouldn't change a thing about it.
Amy Hopkins, Alloa

Often, there's too much focus on the wedding and not enough on the marriage.
Gerald Haigh (@geraldhaigh1 on Twitter)

The Vicar is spot on, I work for a hotel and many of the OTT weddings are over within a couple of years. Some seem to get married for the wrong reasons ie spend loads of money and have a big day with no thought of the life long commitment. Sad but true.
Elaine, lancaster

I think one of the biggest problems facing marriage is not the shallowness of the ceremony but confusing love with lust. It doesn't matter how much money you spend on a ceremony, if the right foundations aren't laid then the whole relationship will crumble.
Val, London

I am get married in three weeks in a CofE church and I see our day as a celebration of love. Yes, i want all eyes on us, but i don't think its from a vanity point of view, I think its because I want to show everyone (and God) how much I love my partner and the commitment I'm making. It drives me mad that all that we hear in the media is how marriage is dying out - is there any wonder when there are people with such stuff old fashioned beliefs around?!
Gemma Russell, Sheffield, UK

Some are definitely overblown and dictated by parents, not bride and groom. Some are not. Know a couple engaged one week, married next.
Adam Leadbetter (@AdamLeadbetter on Twitter)

For Christian Church weddings, often! Other religions use different means of expression. What purpose does a wedding serve society?
Helen Fisher (@HelenJFisher on Twitter)




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