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Introducing Shadow Weddings, the New, Dark, and Brutally Honest Wedding Ritual

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Jessica Wolk and Jim Benson, two California therapists, wanted their wedding ceremony to set a foundation for a long and successful marriage. So when the big day arrived, they donned their schlumpiest sweatpants and tromped out in the woods to say terrible things to each other while their friends spat and growled. Then they wrestled each other and exchanged pieces of trash before their wedding guests threw mulch on them. 

Their special day unfolded just as they had planned, and now they’re helping other loving couples to plan wedding ceremonies that are just as special. 

Jessica and Jim call their invention a “shadow wedding.” That’s in contrast to a “light wedding,” which you and I might call a “regular, normal wedding.”

Jessica and Jim had one of those, too, a week after their shadow wedding. She wore a white dress and he a handsome suit. They said loving things to each other in the sunshine as their families clapped and cheered. They kissed and exchanged gold wedding bands, not pieces of garbage.

Like many people, Jessica and Jim have a complicated relationship, and they decided that one marriage ceremony just wasn’t going to cut it. 

They needed to promise to love and cherish each other in the daylight, and they also needed to stand in the dark so Jess could promise to always be anxious about money and Jim could vow to be socially disengaged and always force her to pick up the conversational slack at parties.

As they see it, a “light wedding” is for celebrating the beautiful happy parts of a relationship between two people, while a “shadow wedding” acknowledges all the crap they’ll bring to the marriage — all the anxieties and neuroses and weird hang-ups that form the problematic underbelly of any union. 

The point, Jessica said, is not to celebrate the darkness, but to recognize that it’s there, that it’s part of the deal, whether you want it or not. Jessica said her shadow wedding was a way to look at her husband-to-be and know that “he kind of sucks in some ways. He’s not my golden man on a white horse who’s going to save me from all suffering.” It’s a reality check that Jessica and Jim think can make marriages better and stronger.

Since their own shadow wedding in 2010, Jessica and Jim have been helping other couples formally recognize that their chosen partners kind of suck in some ways, too. For a fee, they’ll help you plan your very own shadow wedding. They could advise you, for instance, on just the right way to tell your future spouse that you swear you will always flirt with the waiter and ogle women who walk by.

Shockingly, not everyone thinks it’s such a good idea to promise to be a terrible partner to the person you’re hoping to spend the rest of your life with. I spoke with a few psychotherapists who said that while it’s important for the affianced to face any difficulties in their relationship, if you do it by promising to disappoint each other, you might just keep your promise.

Here’s how a shadow wedding works:

The ceremony is an intimate affair, usually held at night, the obviously appropriate time. You’ll want to invite “a few friends who can really bear down on this with you,” Jessica said. She recommends having your shadow wedding about a week before the regular wedding. 

The couple should pick some clothes that represent the way they look when they’re not at the height of their cuteness. Save the $5,000 wedding dress for the light wedding. Jessica said she and Jim went for “schlumpy”: Jessica picked out her outfit by asking Jim, “which sweatpants make my butt look worst?”

Other couples Jim and Jessica have worked with have elected to “dress up their shadow.” One bride wore a black veil and a hat with a spider on it. Her groom wore a hat with a chicken on it, as a “symbol of his supreme dorkiness,” Jessica said.

At the chosen hour, the shadow wedding begins with the creation of “a ritual space.” At their wedding, Jessica said, “Jim and I offered some words to just set the tone: 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.”

This kind of what-happens-in-Vegas pep talk is important because the bride and groom — or groom and groom, etc. — then begin saying some pretty disturbing things, statements that would bring any normal conversation to a screeching halt. “We’re playing with fire,” Jessica said.

Andrew and Joui Hinman, a couple that Jim and Jessica helped with their shadow wedding, set the tone for the evening right off the bat, by slapping each other across the face and then wrestling, “so that we had all our systems going,” Andrew said. “That definitely made things feel pretty real.”

The happy shadow couple then takes turns exchanging vows like, “I vow to take terrible care of my body and eat poorly and not exercise and then blame you for not encouraging me.” Or: “I vow to pretend to take care of you when really what I need is for you to need me.” Or maybe: “I vow to be controlling and always think that I know what is best for you.”

“I vow to take terrible care of my body and eat poorly and not exercise and then blame you for not encouraging me.”

“We had plans for what we were going to say,” recalled Andrew. “But once we got into it, we kind of just improvised as we were going. It got really dark.” Andrew and his fiancee both vowed to be tempted by other men and women, forever. “We vowed essentially to lie and cheat and betray and disappoint,” Andrew said.

You might notice that shadow wedding vows are exclusively self-directed: You’re not pointing out your shadow fiancé’s flaws. Jessica said they decided that would be “too psychologically wounding.”

Second, and more significantly, you’ll notice that the vows entail a kind of aggressive irony — promising to forever act out deplorable character flaws that any reasonable person would try to fix, or hide, or just stop doing.

The shadow bride or groom doesn’t say, for instance, “I know that I have this weird insecurity about my weight and I promise to talk to my therapist about it and have a better self-image.” That would be a cop out, Jessica said.

Jessica said she was shaking and her heart was pounding as she said her vows. Meanwhile, her friends were hissing and moaning.

“We ask witnesses not to give verbal feedback, but to make sounds and participate in a visceral way,” she said. “They can spit, they can growl.”

Shadow wedding vows last about 20 minutes, a length Jessica and Jim settled on after one couple’s vows went on for an hour, which must have been simply excruciating. “Twenty minutes is about as much as you want anyone to handle,” she said. 

Then comes the “I-choose-you” moment where the shadow couple exchanges rings of garbage as a symbol of their problematic pairing. Jessica and Jim exchanged a twist-tie and a loop of tinfoil. Andrew gave Joui a ring he’d made out of pages of his old books about how to seduce women. 

“There’s a moment of saying, ‘I see you with all your hypocrisy and neuroses. I choose you,'” Jessica said. Then their friends showered them with mulch from the forest floor.  

That’s a shadow wedding. 

Why would anyone put themselves through this?

It’s a way of making a couple’s relationship stronger, by embracing the relationship’s full dynamic range, Jessica said. “We want to provide another perspective on marriage.” Jessica said. 

Getting married is no longer a happily-ever-after pairing of 25-year-olds, if it ever was. People are tying the knot less often, and later in life. Getting married is no longer a social necessity to become a “respectable” person, but another choice among many in one’s life. Jessica said shadow weddings are a response to that reality, a way to “provide a space” for the marriage decision to be nuanced and complete.

“The power of ritual and ceremony is so strong,” said Andrew. You and your betrothed can go through counseling and talk about your problems, but a shadow wedding allows you to work on those problems out in a more direct, visceral way. “It’s a controlled burn,” he said. 

Andrew said his shadow wedding helped him finally come to terms with monogamy. “It was a major, major unwinding of my unreasonable and maybe juvenile expectations around sexuality,” he said. “It was just frightening for me to contemplate really limiting my access to the world of women… Just acknowledging that there was this part of me that wants to chase other women, having that stuff come out, was the start of allowing me to work with it.”

His shadow wedding didn’t solve the problems in Andrew’s relationship. And for a couple of days afterward, he felt a little shell-shocked. But it helped him put his occasional lust into a new, workable context. “This is just our stuff that comes up now and then,” he said. “What maybe is more important is just setting the frame and saying, ‘Okay these things are here sometimes, we have to talk about them. We’re not running away from that.'”

A couple of years ago, Jessica said, she went through a tough time with Jim, where she was really frustrated with his ambivalence about having a kid. “I went on a walk and I was really upset and I remembered, shit, I knew this about him!” she said. The ambivalence had come up in the shadow wedding. “I vowed to accept knowing this about him!”

“I really, in some ways, strengthened myself by remembering that I was not led into this unaware,” she said. “I was going to stick by my marriage because I chose him.” Shadow and all.

Andrew said that for him and Joui, a shadow wedding was a good way for them to examine up all the “fine print” of the decision to get married, the part where it says that it will be a struggle because both people are far from perfect. “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.”

Fine. But facing up to your problems doesn’t mean you have to shout them from the rooftops. In fact, shouting them out might make them much worse. That’s the argument couples New York psychotherapist and wedding officiant Annie Block Pearl made about shadow weddings when I spoke with her. 

First, she said that she likes the general concept. Exploring “shadow material” is “hugely, hugely important because so much of our culture is about the gloss of the wedding and the magic, and being the perfect bride and having the perfect day. And as we all know, nothing is perfect.”

But, Pearl said, two aspects of the shadow wedding ceremony “trouble” her. 

“One is the public aspect of it,” she said. “I think there are things that should be private.” 

A shadow wedding was a good way for them to examine up all the “fine print” of the decision to get married, the part where it says that it will be a struggle because both people are far from perfect.

Pearl said couples should talk about difficult things, but they don’t need to bring a crew of spectators into a public performance of them. They should be kept between the two of them, like other private parts of a relationship. “They’re not going to consummate their wedding in front of the whole crew!”

Pearl also took issue with the form that shadow wedding vows take: participants promising to do just what would be worst for the marriage. It’s dangerous to put “energy and intention” behind statements like “I want to go out and cheat on my spouse,” she said. “If you put that out there, somehow or other it gains energy… from an energetic stand point, you don’t want to celebrate it. You don’t need to give it extra force.”

Pearl said she advises couples to undergo individual counseling to “clarify” and “define” whatever problems each person is dealing with. “Then we can meet together as a couple and share it with one another,” she said. “Then you’re being sensitive.”

Like Pearl, Boulder couples therapist Lynne Foote said she sees value in delving into “darkness,” but she questioned the wisdom of vowing to be a bad husband or wife. “The vows are really, really important, because the vows create the intention you’re setting for building the marriage,” she said. “I guess I’m uncomfortable with making it a vow, because a vow is a promise.”

The shadow bride and groom might think they’re expelling the shadow, when really they’re just setting the foundation for a shadowy marriage, Foote warned.

But shadow wedding vows are not really what they sound like, said Jessica. In the shadow wedding context, “‘I vow’ really means ‘I pray to release this,'” Jessica said. But you can’t actually say that, she said, because it would be just another way to wriggle away from the problem, to not “really feel the truth” of whatever darkness you harbor. 

“What Jim and I chose, and what people really resonated with, is — let’s not mince words. Let’s not pretend, ‘Oh, I’m really working on this.’ Sometimes we don’t have power over this,” she said. The point of the vows is to “let myself speak it and own it, really let it just move through me.”

Jessica acknowledged that shadow weddings are not for everybody. Andrew agreed. “This is not for the faint of heart. We did this work because we have experience working with that kind of energy,” he said. “But your mileage my vary. It’s really intense stuff.”