Yikes! Guests Spit & Couples Vow to Be Awful to Each Other at ‘Shadow Weddings’
Picture this: You’re just a few weeks away from your wedding. You have butterflies, you’re feeling excited, and you’re ready to say your vows. But instead of finalizing last-minute details and tracking down MIA guests, you pull on your grungiest sweat pants, head out to the woods with your soon-to-be-spouse, and vow to be your very worst, forever and ever, till death do you part.
Sounds crazy, right? Well, that’s the basic idea behind the latest wedding phenomenon making the rounds online: the “shadow wedding.” It’s an event that takes place about a week before a “light” wedding (the type of wedding we’re all familiar with); during the shadow wedding, couples reveal the dark, hurtful, and often complex baggage that they bring to the relationship. The hope is that by spilling their guts, both partners enter into the marriage with clear eyes and a strong foundation of trust and honesty.
According to Jessica Wolk, the California therapist who co-created this alternative wedding concept in 2010 with her husband, Jim Benson, the shadow wedding presents an opportunity to realize that “[your future spouse] kind of sucks in some ways,” she said. “He’s not my golden man on a white horse who’s going to save me from all suffering.”
A typical shadow wedding unfolds something like this: About one week before their “light” wedding, an engaged couple tramps out to the woods at night with a few friends. They create a “ritual space” by talking through the reasons they’re having a shadow wedding, i.e. “This is done in the spirit of the greatest good, done in the spirit of healing. Anything that happens here is held in a bigger context,” explains Wolk. Then, the couple exchanges their “vows.” According to Nerve, those promises can be anything from “I vow to take terrible care of my body and eat poorly and not exercise and then blame you for not encouraging me,” to “I vow to be controlling and always think that I know what is best for you.”
This goes on for about 20 minutes. All the while guests are invited to react in a visceral way, such as by growling or spitting. Then couples share an “I-choose-you” moment: “There’s a moment of saying, ‘I see you with all your hypocrisy and neuroses. I choose you,'” Wolk says. The couple exchanges rings made from garbage (yes, you read that right –rings made from trash) and the ceremony is complete, all in the name of building a stronger relationship by seeing your partner for who they really are.
Experts have mixed thoughts on how effective a shadow wedding can really be.
Christopher Oliphant, co-creator of Radical Acceptance, an intensive form of therapy that helps participants to embrace who they really are without judging any of their traits as good or bad, says that while acknowledging the true and complex nature of your future spouse can help to create a solid foundation for marriage, a shadow wedding won’t help a couple when their relationship faces a major challenge.
“The most effective way to really see your partner is to live together and stay together,” Oliphant told us. “To stay when this person has hurt, betrayed and angered you. To see that each time you felt hurt, betrayed or angered by the other, that those feelings are a reflection of you and your history — not the other person.”
Since their 2010 wedding, Wolk and Benson have guided other couples through the shadow wedding process, including Andrew and Joui Hinman. Andrew says his shadow wedding helped him to see clearly the “fine print” on the marriage contract.
“There really can’t be a sense of, ‘Oh, I didn’t know about this. This wasn’t part of the agreement.’ No! We really had it all out there,” he says.
The Hinmans kicked off their shadow wedding by slapping each other across the face and wrestling “so that we had all our systems going,” Andrew told Nerve. “That definitely made things feel pretty real.”
Wolk and Benson wrestled before exchanging their garbage rings, and then guests threw mulch at them from the forest floor.
For Oliphant, including acts of violence in a shadow wedding crosses a line. “I am not a big fan of starting a relationship with physical violence,” he says.
Instead, Oliphant recommends that marrying partners “undergo extensive therapy to aid them in coming to know and accept their shadow side. Only in accepting my shadow can I accept my partner’s shadow. Until then, a shadow wedding doesn’t have the depth to make it real.”
We’re totally on board with pre-marital counseling (and therapy throughout your relationship if it serves you!) but we’re not sold on the whole getting-back-to-your-inner-animal thing that seems to be at the root of the shadow wedding. Slapping, growling, spitting, throwing mulch, and saying sometimes-cruel things to your partner seems like an easy way out of the hard work of a relationship: A shadow wedding could offer an opportunity to indirectly say, “I’ll never change, so get over it” instead of starting a sensitive, mutually beneficial dialogue about the challenges that will inevitably arise in a long-term relationship. Five or ten years into a marriage, for example, when you’re confronting a difficult issue, is your partner allowed to say, “I told you I’d always try to control you at our shadow wedding, so you’re not allowed to be mad”? Doesn’t sound like the healthiest way to communicate, in our opinion. Being frank about your shortcomings shouldn’t haunt your partner eternally — and we’re not sure we’d sleep soundly with some of these “vows” ringing in our ears.
What do you think of the “shadow wedding”? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!