Brides Are Suffocating Under the Weight of Tradition
A feeling of trauma is overwhelming some modern brides, even as they try to rebel against the cookie-cutter wedding spectacle.In DepthIn Depth
Illustration: Rebecca Fassola
A good bride is prepared for disaster. The wedding is supposed to be the happiest of days, but it won’t go perfectly, so a good bride keeps a doomsday grab bag close by. Self-tanner drops to remedy a sweat streak down a spray-tanned leg; a bleach pen for when alcoholic auntie swings her glass of merlot; and, sometimes, a pin box stuffed with a cocktail of Klonopin, Xanax, and benzos. For panic attacks, of course.
When Janely Martinez got married in Utah in 2017, their sedative of choice was an edible, because alcohol was out of the question at their Mormon wedding, but also so they could reach the dissociative state required to take on the roles of event planner, family drama mediator, and modelesque fixture of guests’ attention. “I couldn’t even get myself ready. I was having mental breakdown after mental breakdown,” Martinez remembered. “Do I care how the cake cutting knife gets to the venue? No, I don’t!”
Martinez and their spouse did what they could to test the boundaries of their religious community, crafting a day that felt more “them.” Martinez, who came out as nonbinary afterward, fulfilled the bride role and gender-swapped their bridal party to have groomsmen (some of whom were gay, which the Mormon Church once taught was curable). Before they set foot in the temple, Martinez was required to meet with a bishop weekly for six months to certify they were a “good person”—a process that involved being asked in not so many words, “Are you gay?”—but chose not to reveal they’d recently taken their close friend to get an abortion. After years of following the church’s “dumb rules,” the least it could do was provide a pretty venue at no cost.
As heightened activism squares off against tradwifery, brides like Martinez find themselves grappling with wedding traditions coded as non-negotiable rituals—the idea of being “given away,” responsibility shuffled from father to husband, the virginal white dress. Forward-looking brides remain in the minority: According to a 2022 Zola survey, just 15 percent of couples found bridalcore traditions outdated, while a third of couples said they felt pressure about incorporating them. But as this contingent of progressive brides divorce themselves from the choreography—ditching the term “bridesmaids,” refusing to toss a bouquet, keeping their last names—some told Jezebel they have experienced what can be described as “bridal trauma,” or severe anxieties as they join the wedding-planning circus.
Theirs is an entirely valid experience said Laura Anderson, a licensed marriage and family therapist with a focus on trauma. Trauma language is all but baked into the commodified marriage extravaganza: Martha Stewart Weddings details “10 Common Wedding-Stress Triggers,” while an advice column from the Knot offers pointers on how to deal with “planxiety.” But Anderson defines trauma as the “way that our body responds to the thing,” not just as the “thing that happens to us.” Atop the nuisances of guest cancellations, pimple freak-outs, and chipped nails, she believes the stress of appealing to the expectations of family and friends could be overwhelming these brides’ nervous systems.
Looking back, Martinez found getting married to be mentally and emotionally exhausting to a degree no edible could fix. “There’s something about a wedding with all eyes on you where you can’t help but have this initial, huge emotional hangover, because you’ve been under a microscope for like six hours the whole entire day…and six months before that,” Martinez said. Despite their little rebellions, masquerading as a Mormon bride—as someone else entirely, really—depleted them. “Being seen up close…isn’t that fun. For the sake of tradition and for the sake of our families, we put ourselves through it. But did we really want to be so exposed? There isn’t actually an amount of money that can make that feel good.”
The Pitfalls of Bucking Tradition
Flouting wedding tradition is, in some cases, more of a shallow aesthetic than a crucial evolution within one of America’s most conspicuous celebrations. Take the black wedding gown: “If a bride wants an edgy look, yet still be super chic and glamorous, a black dress ticks all those boxes,” a recent Guardian piece gloated, listing Selling Sunset villain Christine Quinn as a gothic bride exemplar. But the brides Jezebel spoke to weren’t attempting to fit into an “edgy” trend. They were deeply invested in challenging sexist, racist, and fussy bridal norms, whether by denouncing religions that make saints out of chauvinists or refusing to inhabit a docile, beta-wife role when they are everything but.
Danielle Isbell, a 28-year-old bride from a conservative Christian upbringing, said she was “diametrically opposed” to her religion’s willful neglect of matriarchal power. Her former clergy members preached the idea that God designed men and women for distinct roles—namely leaders and providers for the former, and homemakers and caregivers for the latter. In hopes of reflecting a relationship founded on constant evolution, Isbell proposed back to her fiancé, got married by a woman pastor involved in anti-racism teachings, nixed nuptial language that referred to a masculine God, and met her husband halfway down the aisle so they could approach the altar as equals.
There was tension, Isbell found, in respectfully negotiating with their community without letting its expectations control their day. On top of her biblical-womanhood hangups, nagging anxieties also crept up on her in the form of event-planning details—ones she never cared about to begin with, like an infuriating number of emails about ribbon.
Stressors and insecurities inevitably result in the “bridezilla” trope, said licensed social worker Sarah Normandin. Though mocked for being “too much,” brides’ coping behaviors—like a pillbox of downers or an outburst of tears—are often anxiety manifested from a performance of values that brides believe will placate their guests, Normandin added.
“It’s overwhelming, and I can totally understand why [wedding planning] is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Isbell said. “I actually made a joke to my bridesmaids that I wanted to be a bride-chilla, not a bridezilla! Oh my God, all of it is so cringy.”
Despite the many ways in which marriage was constructed to compound the wealth of men, the execution of modern weddings appears distinctly important to women. Amanda Miller, a sociology professor at the University of Indianapolis, traces this idea back to Victorian-era weddings: If a young woman was to marry into an upper-class family, she needed to prove she was both exquisite hostess and charming socialite—a skillset put to the test during wedding planning.
“This is Paula England’s idea of the stalled gender revolution, which is that women have made great strides in the workplace, but men haven’t kept up with them at home,” Miller said. “So if we did have a truly equal society here where men and women had true equality, we would see more grooms doing wedding planning and taking large swaths of responsibility for something other than, say, the DJ.”
you can’t help but have this initial, huge emotional hangover, because you’ve been under a microscope for like six hours the whole entire day…and six months before that.
The idea of marrying not for financially satisfying partnership but “for love” first became popular amongst genteel couples, inspired by Queen Victoria’s vocal adoration of Prince Albert. Along with it came the notion, however misguided, that women were on equal footing with their husbands. Meanwhile, women had difficulty opening credit cards without spousal consent until 1974, and historian Stephanie Coontz noted that until recently, if a man’s wife was injured or killed, he could sue whoever was responsible for depriving him of “services around the home.” The state of loving unions was worse for people of color and queer folks: Black couples couldn’t marry until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, interracial marriage was outlawed in some states until 1967, and same-sex marriage became a guaranteed freedom just seven years ago.
For some women, however unfairly, existing in a bridal role is still its own form of revolt. After settling on a venue in Tulum (a destination city that allows for same-sex marriage) and hiring a gay-friendly wedding planner, 35-year-old Allison McNamara and her wife opted for a joint bridal shower and bachelorette party, inviting all of their friends regardless of gender. “We didn’t want to leave anyone out,” McNamara said, “and we didn’t play any weird games.” As a bisexual woman who doesn’t fit into the hyper-femme bride or androgynous groom roles, McNamara chose to nix all bridal paraphernalia, including the “bride” label entirely. No “WIFEY” sashes, no tiaras, and no dick straws.
Throughout her wedding planning process, McNamara said she was assumed to be straight—a microaggression she’s accustomed to. Often, she was asked, “What’s the groom’s name?” only to answer that “her” name was Cass. But the most anxiety-inducing moment of the entire wedding was preparing for “the kiss,” as most family members had never seen the two women kiss before. McNamara weighed the decision with the care of an outsider, and ultimately opted out of a dip or sensual make-out so as not to shock any of their sheltered hetero-attendees.
Conventional Americana weddings, in fact, seem to be inconvenient for just about everyone who isn’t a white heterosexual couple with resources. For Samantha Mannis, a disabled indie content producer and writer who got married earlier this year, wedding planning meant constantly adjusting to accommodate her medical needs. She had to pick a location within driving distance in case her symptoms flared up, and prepare each vendor for scenarios that might have ruined her night (a speaker set up too close, for example, could spur a migraine). Because of the extra safety measures, Mannis dealt with judgment from acquaintances as to why she’d chosen Las Vegas—typically reserved for shotgun weddings—for an elevated day. But she said the negativity was nothing compared to considering the trauma of marriage inequality for disabled adults, who often have to choose between getting married or keeping their benefits and healthcare.
“So many are unaware of this inequality and that it too can affect them at any stage of their lives,” Mannis said. “Weddings are good and fun, but this terrible truth haunts me with every bridal photo I add to my Pinterest.”
An Opportunity to Rebel
2022 is supposed to be a massive season for the wedding industry, following a year when weddings averaged $28,000 according to the Knot. Beth Montemurro, a professor at Penn State who specializes in gender and sexuality, said this rise in culturally significant (and lavish) weddings began in the ‘80s and ‘90s as a result of the economic climate: America was emerging from war and recession, and young people were ready to flaunt their social status by throwing gaudy parties. The boom was also due in part to the proliferation of reality television—like TLC’s A Wedding Story—and social media in the early aughts: Consumers finally had a fairytale wedding standard to measure their own against, and over-the-top TV weddings became bridal gospel. “The more we have these images of what other people are doing, the more likely we are to feel like we should be doing something similar, or that we deserve something similar,” Montemurro said.
“What if people don’t have $60,000 to $100,000 to spend on a wedding?” said Carmen James, a 32-year-old teacher in Houston, Texas. “Sometimes the budgets that the Knot gives, it’s like…that’s not a real budget.”
The South in particular, according to James, prides itself on marital soirees that are equal parts spectator sport, community gathering, and debutante ball. James, who grew up in Louisiana, said she felt the pressure of rigid Southern traditions throughout her planning process, but being Black in the South automatically put her at odds with the region’s belles.
“Southern bridal magazines usually had a white woman on the cover, so that’s what a lot of people think of: They think of the old South and family generational wealth and all of this history that goes along with this family,” she said. “They’d be in a country club in town that was well known for not accepting Black members or at an all-white church, and I was just like, ‘Man, this is really frustrating for me, as a bride who wants to get ideas and see how other people are celebrating, to see no one who looks like me.’”
I wanted to be sensitive and I didn’t want to be disrespectful to a significant tradition on their side, but it’s not my culture, and I literally felt the ancestral trauma.
James and her husband proudly got married in Baton Rouge in a stunning museum near the state capitol, one her ancestors might never have been allowed to step foot inside. But after her mini-moon, the post-wedding blues hit her hard, as she was haunted by lingering doubts—“you should’ve done this” and “you didn’t do this.” For every tradition reclaimed, she found herself revisiting and questioning the traditions abandoned on the cutting room floor.
DeYandré Thaxton Reniguntala, too, had to navigate the anxieties of balancing her roots with what was expected of her. Her husband is Indian, and for his family the mangalsutra is a sacred tradition in which a golden pendant is draped on a string and tied around the bride’s neck with three knots. The thought of knots around her neck didn’t sit right. “I had a visceral reaction,” 35-year-old Thaxton Reniguntala, who is Black, said. “I wanted to be sensitive and I didn’t want to be disrespectful to a significant tradition on their side, but it’s not my culture, and I literally felt the ancestral trauma. I just couldn’t do it.”
Rather than appeasing her in-laws or regurgitating tradition for tradition’s sake, the couple came to a respectful compromise: They’d braid three turmeric-dyed strings together and secure them with a clasp. The integrity of the gesture remained, but with a spin that recognized the significance of braids in Black culture. The couple then partook in the varmala ceremony by placing garlands on one another to symbolize an equal partnership, dispelling any overtones of ownership or male superiority. To celebrate her own family history, Thaxton Reniguntala included jumping the broom, a tradition enslaved people had used when they could not legally wed. “Regardless of the sadness around the tradition, I found pride and beauty in it,” she said. “I love the idea of jumping the broom together and stepping into this next chapter of matrimony.”
As a little girl, Thaxton Reniguntala had learned to question the purpose of uniformity, and her wedding was no different: She had envisioned a boldly colorful garden theme with swatches of saffron orange, but the vendor who printed her invites laughed when she settled on her saffron envelopes. Bold colors, of course, have long been part of wedding traditions in India, Ghana, Nigeria, and China, but the Anglo-Saxon default is bland. “It was such a white patriarchal reaction to not choosing something acceptable…like pale blue.” Thaxton Reniguntala likewise chose a wedding dress speckled with color. It suited her, but she’d also spent her 20s and 30s unpacking whiteness. “Even up until that day, I had to really sit with it and make sure that I wouldn’t regret not wearing white, because it’s such a prevalent symbol for marriage,” she said. “But it’s a trend for a queen. It is rooted in whiteness. It became something else to rebel against.”
Though each decision was taxing—she’d come to revisit them over and over again—in hindsight, Thaxton Reniguntala knows she and her husband created a magical backdrop, revolutionary in its own way, upon which they shared their love. As she walked down the aisle arm-in-arm with her mother, setting a joyous, matriarchal tone for unions to come, she was reminded that weddings are “a blank slate” always open to further rebellion: “People should really just fuck it up.”
The Good Bride’s Choice
As the brides we spoke to know well, to be a bride today is to be confronted head-on with a choice: Uphold the institution and a narrow view of womanhood, or begin the slow, painful process of hacking away at it. Walking down the aisle alone means understanding that your mothers and grandmothers were seen by the government as the property of their husbands. Not tossing a bouquet means recognizing that brides pressured into marrying young tossed that same pressure directly into the hands of their friends or cousins or sisters. Bucking tradition means processing the cruelties of the past. But for all the trauma these brides wedding-planned through, they agree it was done with hope.
The faking and bowing down and ring kissing is hard for Martinez to relive. Still, they look back upon their wedding day with empathy. It forced them to come to terms with who they really were—a Diet Coke-loving, Killers-obsessed, nonbinary Mormon—and there’s nothing they would change.
“Traditions are really stupid, but sometimes they are the only thing that makes you feel closer to the last three generations of your family,” they said. “I would do it again, because that’s just where I was at in my life. I can’t blame myself for that. I still wanted those tokens of affection and those last benchmarks…that you have to do for your parents. This was it.”
A good bride knows that it was never just stationary weight and chrysanthemum arrangements traumatizing them.