Gay or Straight, Modern Couples Are Choosing Similar Paths
According to author and psychotherapist Mark O’Connell, marriage equality didn’t just liberate LGBTQ folks, but was a much-needed savior to all weddings. His new book, Modern Brides & Modern Grooms: A Guide to Planning Straight, Gay, and Other Nontraditional Twenty-First-Century Weddings is his exploration of how couples can choose an equitable and meaningful wedding, regardless of sexual orientation.
GayWeddings: What was the impetus behind the writing of this book?
Mark O’Connell: My straight women friends. Several of them were ambivalent about having weddings due to all the lingering rituals related to women as property. But then they attended my (illegal) same-sex wedding in 2006. My husband and I modeled for them a way to celebrate their relationships equitably, creatively and on their own terms. There are no wedding traditions for same-sex couples, so we had to create our own from the ground up. Which was not only liberating but it made for a highly personal, specific and meaningful event. All of our guests responded to that. So I wanted to write a book for the various people out there—gay and straight—who think of each other as equals and who want to celebrate their unique relationships their own way.
I wanted to inspire each couple to reveal who they are, rather than to veil, so to speak, their individuality behind tired social norms. And I wanted the true stories of the many diverse people I interviewed, as well as my own, to help readers navigate their wedding planning and also to prepare them for their marriages in the longterm. A lot of my advice in the book comes from my years of experience as a psychotherapist.
Furthermore, I wanted a book to exist for any DIY wedding planner, male or female, gay or straight. Most wedding planning books, even those that are progressive and cutting edge, are written only for brides (and straight brides at that). Men (even straight men) are more interested in helping to plan their own weddings than ever before, especially when they think deeply about the real purpose of the event. It’s the couples’ day, as a team, not just the bride’s (if there even is a bride).
And, of course, as a trained professional actor I wanted to share my insights to help each unique couple co-produce their own personal piece of theater, that will movingly and memorably integrate your families with your tribes.
GayWeddings: Were there big questions about modern weddings that you wanted to answer with the book?
Mark O’Connell: My big guiding question was: Why does anyone get married anymore?
Now that we all can get married in the U.S., and relationships are more gender-neutral and equitable than ever before—both gay and straight—why do so many of us still choose to get married and to have weddings?
I interviewed a wide variety of couples—of all ages, races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, and religious backgrounds—whose wedding planning journeys were each unique and distinct. But at the same time, at the core they were all after the very same thing: to prepare for a life together. Not just for a perfect day with a fluffy princess in white and a frilly cake at the center. And I use those very personal, idiosyncratic journeys to show the reader a multiplicity of answers rather than tell them what to do.
I was also interested in the question of How do you express yourself authentically—in a wedding and in a marriage—and stay connected to other people at the same time, including your partner, your family, and your friends?
As a therapist, an actor and a once-closeted gay man, I have been trained, if not forced, to face that dilemma in every moment of my life. Drawing from those perspectives, I show you how to collaborate, negotiate and survive conflict with your partner effectively and creatively. Not only on deciding what color napkins you use or the DJ, but more significantly on how to recognize each other’s emotional needs. How to make complex decisions involving your family and friends. How to include them in the wedding, and in your lives, in a meaningful way that works for everyone. This process of communication and reflection is great preparation for every other major crossroads couples face throughout their lives—from family planning, to the question of where to live, how to host holidays together, how to negotiate sexual needs, and how to support each other in professional and creative endeavors.
GayWeddings: How do you define a “21st century wedding?”
Mark O’Connell: Twenty-first century weddings celebrate who we are and whom we love on our own terms. Traditional weddings, on the other hand, celebrate everyone else’s expectations for what your marriage “should” be.
A wedding party featuring a “groomsmaid.” Photo by Matthew David Studio.
GayWeddings: What changes have you seen in how all couples navigate wedding planning in the post-marriage equality world?
Mark O’Connell: The very first line of my book is “Marriage equality has arrived, and it’s not just for the gays!” Everyone has been liberated by the entire marriage equality movement and that influences wedding planning in a number of ways.
Many couples are figuring out that the celebration can be for them first, and for their family and friends second. That does not necessarily mean that religious and other rituals are not included. It means that each couple incorporates whatever rituals (traditional or otherwise) in their own unique and personal ways. Some people certainly find it challenging to navigate what they want for their weddings with their parents’ expectations—especially if their parents are paying for some or all of it, or if there are significant cultural elements that are deeply important to the family. But more and more couples are willing to risk having these conversations with their parents. And, again, communicating through conflict prepares you to negotiate all major relational impasses throughout your adult life. Uncomfortable as it may be at first, it makes for more resilient connections with all of your loved ones to survive conflict. In the past most couples would tend to avoid such conflicts, and just turn off their brains and go along with what other people wanted their weddings to be.
Now we are also seeing gender roles evolve in weddings in a variety of ways. For example, the now common presence of bridesmen and groomsgals, who are opposite-gender friends or family of a bride or groom, and who are included in the wedding parties based on which of the spouses-to-be they are close to, not based on gender. (I was a bridesman for several of my close female friends.)
GayWeddings: How have the roles of brides and grooms changed? What sort of traditions and rituals have remained constant, and which ones have changed or are falling out of favor for modern couples?
Mark O’Connell: Like I said earlier, grooms are very involved in the planning now—and should be represented more in the wedding book shelf than they are. The responsibilities and the spotlight and the focus of who the day is about is more equitable between couples, including opposite-sex couples, than ever before. Men in general are more interested in showing off their relationships, as opposed to their “prize” bride (or groom), than in years past.
Also, rather than women being “given away” by one man to another man who waits for her at an altar, many times both partners—gay or straight—opt to enter and be presented by both parents, or some other close relations, similar to how brides and grooms have traditionally been walked to the chuppah in Jewish weddings.
There are also a lot of fun ways that pre wedding events, like getting engaged and sending save the dates, have evolved and become more creative, as well as post wedding events, like mini-moons and honeymoons, but you’ll have to read the book to find out more.
GayWeddings: What did you learn about wedding planning as you planned your own wedding?
Mark O’Connell: The most crucial thing I learned from planning my wedding is that the way you integrate your closest friends and family is everything. It doesn’t really matter what happens on the day other than that you receive love from your people in ways that are meaningful and memorable. Your outfit can be wrinkled, your first dance can be a hot mess (ours was), the photographer can drop out at the last minute (ours did, which inspired my chapter called, “Contracts: Never Having to Say, “Oh, Shit!”). But what really matters is that you give all the people who matter to you the chance to show themselves off in your honor. And don’t leave that to chance.
My background in theater helped me to prepare everyone involved, as I would for a play. I envisioned appropriate roles for everyone–from playing the piano, to singing, to emceeing, to reading prose and poetry that we chose, and of course to assigning folks to give toasts to each of us. I also made sure to give them each everything they needed in advance, including music and text, and an idea of what we wanted, and plenty of time to rehearse.
To this day, it is their “performances” I remember and cherish the most. I have a chapter in the book on how the wedding can be a chance to create your own personal heaven, one that nourishes your mind and heart for many years to come. And there is nothing more heavenly than your nearest and dearest using their voices and talents to recognize who you are and whom you love.
Mark O’Connell, LCSW, is a New York City-based psychotherapist in private practice, author and public speaker on issues related to gender, identity and relationship conflicts. As an expert on modern relationships and marriage, he is frequently interviewed by Brides magazine, The Knot and Inside Weddings, and he is an official expert on Marriage.com. He writes for The Huffington Post, Psychology Today, Truthdig.com, among other popular sources, and his clinical writing has been published by The Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association. His website is www.markoconnelltherapist.com.