Jen Doll wore a ruffled lavender dress to the first wedding she can remember, for some people named Susan and Carl, when she was 8. She was wowed by the bride's "poufy" gown, envious of the flower girl enlisted to make a mess with petals, and pleased with her new ability to make grownups kiss by clanging a fork against a glass. As a first-time wedding guest, Doll was enthralled by "the big party all of us would eventually get to have."
The sparkle starts to fade after the 30th time. In her new book Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest, Doll details the travails of being a perennial invitee. With more couples delaying marriage into their 30s and after, combined with starter marriages followed by divorce and remarriage, we're now attending the weddings of our social circles for longer than ever before. Doll's memoir examines how bearing witness multiple times a year for well over a decade can drastically alter our perception of weddings, marriage and of our own relationships, the plus-ones we cart along over the years.
"A wedding is about everyone," writes Doll, a former senior writer at The Atlantic Wire. "Through it we see what we want, what we don't want, what we think we want, and sometimes, dangerously, that we have no idea what we want."
As perpetual guests, there are now distinct arcs to our beliefs and values as we attend through our 20s, 30s and beyond. In the beginning, it can be about dressing up, taking part in a fantasy, and guzzling comped Grey Goose. But as guests age and rack up their invites, it becomes less and less about elaborate, Pinterest-inspired parties, which can seem somewhat disingenuous, if not downright quaint, to guests who've been exposed to what marriage is really like.
"You're going to have a lot of different feelings about weddings based on the stages of your own life, career, relationships and friendships," Doll said in an interview from Brooklyn.
Doll, currently single at 38, saw a "big boom" in wedding invitations in her late 20s. Back then, she felt a duty to go and be supportive – or be "checked off the list of friendship." Today she goes out of a love for her friends. In her book, she rattles off a few more sentiments guests experience over the years: hope, guilt, jealousy, as well as "self-torture" and "desire for free food and drink."
In 2008, according to Statistics Canada, the average man was 31 when he first married; the average woman was 29. Compare that with the early 1970s, when women married at 22, men at 25.
Today, most Canadian women marry between age 25 and 29, although 30-to-34-year-olds are making gains on the 20-to-24-year-old set. In other words, weddings are taking place over a longer span of our lives.
The invitations are starting to feel like Groundhog Day, writes Doll, with perennial guests offered seemingly endless opportunities to re-examine what they want out of their own relationships, whether they're wedded or not.
Maddie Eisenhart, managing editor at A Practical Wedding, an Oakland, Calif.-based website that "supports laid-back, feminist weddings," describes the internal shift that happens as wedding guests get older, "from it being a party with your friends to a deeper understanding of the commitment that's being made."
Eisenhart, 27, has already seen two waves of celebrations, the first for friends of her husband, and the second for her own college friends. As a photographer, she's also attended 60 more. "Having been married for five years now myself, when I go to weddings, I understand what lies ahead."
Beyond the gimlet-eyed guest, there is the tired guest. "There's a great deal of wedding fatigue that does tend to set in," says Karina Lemke, a Toronto wedding planner who generally prefers creating events to attending others' parties. Lemke, 44, points out that as guests mature, certain features become less of a draw, such as an open bar. Ambitious celebrations spanning both a Saturday and a Sunday also grow irksome: "It becomes a very expensive social obligation. It also zaps the weekend."
Lately, Lemke favours the weddings of couples who may be at it a second time around. She says these parties tend to be smaller, and the brides and grooms more "grounded," a sharp contrast to the more minutiae-obsessed duos in their twenties whose stress can unsettle guests.
"There is so much pressure. To them, it feels like it is the most important thing they will ever do," Lemke says of the younger cohort. "They haven't had grief in their life, they haven't had children yet; usually both sets of parents are still alive. They haven't had the things that life throws at us. By the time you get a couple that's 40, 45 … they don't take weddings quite so seriously. That filters through to the guest experience. It's just more joyous."
Eisenhart agrees, pointing out that guests attending a friend's second wedding have probably been in the trenches since the first. "The more time you have to develop a relationship with your friends, their friends and family, that's where the significance of weddings peaks."
For some wedding guests, meaningfulness grows with years of chronic attendance. For others, it has left them rethinking the entire institution of marriage, even when they're at the prime age for it. "The more bridal showers and bachelorettes and weddings I've attended, the more surprised I've been at how I have genuinely rejected this process for myself," says Courtney Morgan Rodriguez, a marketing co-ordinator in Ottawa. "Witnessing first dances and smashing cake in faces and garter tosses made me want to reject the entire notion."
Rodriguez, 26 and currently single, says that while she's happy for her married friends, she finds the spotlight placed on couples walking down the aisle "horrifying."
"It's a bit of a spectator sport," she says. "There's so much attention paid on the wedding day, on the dress, on this fantasy that's heavily promoted by the wedding industry. I'm wondering if a lot of us are prepared for what comes after."
The shift to highly curated bashes, and away from more solemn ceremonies that speak to the actual marriage, also unsettles Christina Philips. A food-bank co-ordinator in Mississauga, she has attended an astonishing three weddings a year for 20 years, or thereabouts. The never-ending parade has hardened Philips, 37, to insincere speeches and guests who skip the vows but come decked out for the party. "As weddings have become events, the meaning has been lost a little bit," says Philips, who is currently single.
After a decade of serial guesthood, Doll is also more ambivalent about weddings than she was as an eager child. Writing in Save the Date, she describes planning her own nuptials in Grade 3: It would be a double wedding with her best friend, their vows delivered from a trampoline, their guests served ice-cream cake and lemonade.
Today, Doll has relinquished the blueprint: "You figure out different ways to be together without necessarily following the rules that we've been so used to."