Secret wedding sans parents before the big family one?
February 8, 2016 7:24 AM   Subscribe

My partner (future mr. snacks) and I want to hold a private ceremony with our closest friends, no parents involved, before we launch willingly into chaotic 300+ people wedding events with family. Looking for ways to navigate the emotional & possibly cultural weirdness of this situation: can we pull this off respectfully? Should we even try to keep the small one a secret? Snowglobe inside.

His family is huge, Chinese, and scattered across SEA & the US, while mine is small, fragmented, and all up and down the West Coast. We are both the oldest kids in our families, and I am also the first of my generation to get married, so our pending wedding is a Big Deal to a lot of people, and that's fine with us. It will also be a destination wedding for most attendees regardless of where it's held. (We want to marry in Hawaii, which is conveniently cheaper and more fair for everyone involved.)

We both want to include our families in celebrating somehow, but we also super do not want to exchange vows in front of any of them. Our relationships with our parents are complicated, his are overbearing and belittling while mine are inconsistent, selfish, and have historically abandoned me. Both of us have instead been heavily supported emotionally & financially by our close friends.

Regardless of what happens, future mr. snacks' parents are going to hold a massive Chinese-family reception in their hometown. Cool with us! But he and I also want our own private moment in solidarity before we acquiesce to family ties and huge gobs of extended family. I mean, I like big parties and I will totally throw down on a huge shindig, but that's mainly for them. We want something meaningful for us, parents be damned. Is it sane to do a small and intimate exchange of vows before the big family-centered event on the same day? Or maybe the day before? Has anyone else done that or navigated through a similar situation?

I'm not looking for permission to skip all of the complicated family stuff and elope at the courthouse. While we are still struggling to have good adult relationships with our parents, we both really want to celebrate our bond with our close friends and also maintain healthy connections with our families, despite their faults and sometimes shitty behavior.
posted by Snacks to Human Relations (30 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
We both want to include our families in celebrating somehow, but we also super do not want to exchange vows in front of any of them.

This is totally fine - this is your event and if people don't like it they don't have to come. The only thing I think you might consider is that if people are spending money to travel far for this event, you should make sure to be clear with them that they won't be seeing the vows - depending on the culture, a lot of people will expect it and might be confused/hurt if they didn't know ahead of time. Mazel tov!
posted by ftm at 7:36 AM on February 8, 2016 [5 favorites]

I wouldn't do it the day before, because it sounds like the logistics of your big family event will be extremely complicated and stressful and that stuff always ALWAYS spills out several days ahead. So your week ahead of your family thing will already be taken up by your family thing.

Do your true wedding with friends 2-3 weeks before, and do it as logistically simply as possibly (like, courthouse followed by dinner out at restaurant or catered in at your house.) Only invite the small handful of people you trust to never, never tell, because that way lies some really unpleasant drama in the future. People get very hurt over having been "deceived" in this way.

On edit - I see you don't want to deceive them, but rather to invite the extended family to a "wedding celebration" rather than to an exchange of vows. That's totally fine and not uncommon. What you do is you send out an announcement + invitation. "We got married in a private ceremony on June 8 and we'd like to invite you to celebrate with us and our wonderful families on August 12 at the blah blah..." or something like that.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:37 AM on February 8, 2016 [11 favorites]

Just to clarify, are you planning a small wedding and a destination wedding and a Chinese wedding in his hometown, or are the Chinese wedding and the Hawaii wedding the same event?

Honestly I can't think of a way to have your "real wedding" without your parents without them getting upset. What you could do is tell them you are having a for-legal-purposes-only wedding at the courthouse before your big overseas not-valid-in-the-US blessing (or before your big not-legally-binding Chinese blessing). You would have to find some inviolable reason why your "main" wedding wasn't legally binding though. You would also need to make sure it was SMALL, and not splash pictures of the reception all over Facebook. They may still decide they want to come since it is the legal wedding.

You could also bill it as a "blessing/reception for local friends who can't make the destination wedding". They may be more ok with skipping that if they think it's not legally binding. It would be up to you whether it was binding or not, you would just have to make sure the officiant at the "main" wedding knew not to register the wedding a second time.
posted by tinkletown at 7:38 AM on February 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

Would you consider making the smaller ceremony non-binding? Then it won't interfere with the big one being the "real" event. No secrecy is needed and no one should feel cheated.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:40 AM on February 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

Totally fine, I think. I wouldn't make it secret, but I would tell your parents that you are getting married a few weeks before the party, and just do it.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:50 AM on February 8, 2016

I'd do an in-town ceremony for your friends, with a big party. This will let a lot of them off the hook for your family, destination hoo-ha.

You can have a friend 'officiate' at this Wedding-non-Wedding, and you can do your vows to each other and to your friends however you want. You can make it unofficial if it would be important to the families to see you actually wed. Or you can get married there officially, and then do it again in Hawaii. Whatever seems to make the most sense.

Do this a few weeks prior to the wedding because MAN, even if travel and 300 other people weren't involved it's going to be a stress filled nightmare!

Just so you know, you're actually already married. Once you decide to link your lives and be a family unto yourselves, THAT's the moment you marry. The rest is just governmental paperwork and a party.

posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:54 AM on February 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

I would do it well in advance of the wedding. If you can, I'd even consider doing it (exactly) a year before your big wedding celebration so that you have the same anniversary for both. But, that's a less important detail.

It sounds like your family dynamics are complicated and I don't pretend to understand them, but I would take this as an opportunity to establish yourselves as adults who are considerate of others, but make their own decisions: be upfront, honest, and don't hide it at all. Tell your families well in advance and tell them what's happening and what your plan is (small ceremony well in advance with only friends, giant family party/parties later on). I think hiding it is sub-optimal for at least a couple reasons. One, this is really the time that you and you partner are going to be starting "your family" as an independent (but, probably, closely tied) entity and boundaries are going to only become more important. And, two, someone is going to find out eventually and hiding it is worse than just being up front initially.
posted by Betelgeuse at 8:03 AM on February 8, 2016 [10 favorites]

I think there's a fairly well-understood process for getting legally married in the US that involves a local government official issuing a marriage license, a government official or religious officiant conducting a civil or religious marriage ceremony, and last, a reception. If either set of parents share that understanding, they may demand to know when you plan to get legally married if you intend to keep your wedding ceremony secret from them.

I think you are better off telling your parents some version of what you told us: that while you are grateful for the reception they are hosting, you want your actual wedding ceremony -- particularly the exchange of vows -- to be as private as possible, involving just you two, the officiant, and a few witnesses. The timing of the actual marriage ceremony can then also be, as previous posters suggest, up to you. If it makes your parents feel better, you can stage some version of the marriage ceremony (or conduct a non-legally binding, traditional Chinese marriage ceremony), at or just before the reception.
posted by hhc5 at 8:04 AM on February 8, 2016

We did this. My mom found out via phone, my husband's parents found out via a message we left in the guest book at their cabin (where we actually saw the JP and signed the license).

A few months later we had a conveniently scheduled big party for family and more friends.

If anyone had any serious feelings about our choice they were Midwestern Repressed enough to keep them to themselves.
posted by padraigin at 8:14 AM on February 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Say you have to do it early for insurance or tax purposes or something.
posted by roger ackroyd at 8:18 AM on February 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think this is completely fine - it is your marriage and you get to decide how you want to celebrate. Some things to consider in planning this:

--Do you want the earlier ceremony to be the legal ceremony? Or are you okay with the family ceremony being the legal ceremony, and/or doing the legal logistics at third time (i.e. going to the courthouse and doing the paperwork in a not-terribly-ceremonial way). I have friends who ended up with essentially 4 weddings -- two religious/cultural ceremonies that were demanded by parents from two different cultures, one friend ceremony, and then they did all the legal stuff on a fourth day with just a couple of close friends brought along as witnesses. It worked, but it was also exhausing!

--Are you okay with doing some brief standard vows at the "big" wedding? Or are you planning to do a ceremony that does not include vows (could work, but you'd have to think carefully about how to make it work without being awkward)? Or will the Hawaii wedding be a Chinese ceremony that does not have traditional Western wedding vows? Or will the big wedding just be a big party with no ceremony? I think any of these could work out, but especially if it's the last option I think you do need to be very clear with your guests about what is/isn't happening. Honestly, I would be a bit miffed if I paid to attend a destination wedding, and then it turned out just to be a party with no actual wedding ceremony. On the other hand, if you're doing a Chinese wedding ceremony that happens to not have Western-style vows, and you just want to do those vows at some other time, I think that's less of a problem -- your guests still get to feel like they are part of your wedding (not just a party). Again, I think it's fine to invite people only to the reception/party part, but you should be honest that is all they are invited to.
posted by rainbowbrite at 8:26 AM on February 8, 2016

If you want to elope before a big ceremony for a socially-justifiable reason without hurting anyone's feelings, "We have to get married right away for insurance purposes" has worked out as a pretty decent excuse for a surprising number of my friends. Obviously this works less well the longer you wait, and would work not at all if you wanted to get hitched on the same day as the reception.

I don't think it's a good idea to have the private wedding ceremony close to the reception, because you're basically telling your parents "We only want you at the reception, not at the wedding" which is the truth, I guess, but that's going to seriously wound your relationship with them.
posted by muddgirl at 8:28 AM on February 8, 2016

To clarify, we are having at least one wedding, and considering splitting it up into two: one is private with no family (and legally binding), the other is expressly for family and damn near anyone who wants to come out and join us will be invited. The Chinese reception is happening afterward, at my partner's parents' behest, like a bookend to the rest of the festivities.

Thank you for your thoughts so far!
posted by Snacks at 8:29 AM on February 8, 2016

I do not think you can have a "wedding" in front of tons of family and friends without exchanging vows or explaining why you're not exchanging vows. Unless you want that to be the primary topic of your reception. What if you do your personalized, meaningful vows in the private ceremony and the basic, textbook vows in front of family?

I seem to recall something like this happened on the Office.
posted by acidic at 8:33 AM on February 8, 2016 [6 favorites]

Should we even try to keep the small one a secret?...We both want to include our families in celebrating somehow, but we also super do not want to exchange vows in front of any of them.

Maybe I'm just missing something with the wording of the question, but if you don't exchange vows at the big wedding, I feel like that would be difficult to keep a secret, and people would definitely notice?

I have a friend who got married legally about a year before the actual wedding, and it generally worked out well, but one person who she was close to was not told about the legal wedding until much later and was pretty deeply hurt by being left out. She did get over it eventually. But I mean, imagine being Maid of Honor or something like that for a wedding you don't know isn't legally binding. That would suck to find out about later. Also, if you are inviting all your friends to the first wedding, I think you are going to have to deal with the fact that your family will find out about the first wedding. Even if they don't, your wedding will be a secret that you have to hide for the rest of your lives, which doesn't seem like a great note to start your married life on.
posted by phoenixy at 8:35 AM on February 8, 2016

To clarify, we are having at least one wedding, and considering splitting it up into two: one is private with no family (and legally binding), the other is expressly for family and damn near anyone who wants to come out and join us will be invited.

Yeah, I mean this happens all the time. It can go two ways - either the public part is just a reception, or the public part includes a ceremony that is not legally binding of course, but otherwise fulfills the expectations for a wedding ceremony. It works out fine either way. Some guests may choose not to travel long-distance for just a reception.
posted by muddgirl at 8:40 AM on February 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yes, its your wedding and I think holding a destination wedding and inviting those who you want to be there (family or not) is fine. Just hold it not too close to the reception your inlaws will be having for you. This is just to prevent travel fatigue for those friends who will be coming to both.

I come from a Chinese-american family and my husband does not and has a family who are unconventional. My family would consider the reception the bigger thing (so they can show off) and being a bit old fashioned, consider the chinese tea ceremony to be the "real" wedding symbolically. So, as long as we held a wedding tea ceremony, regardless of our legal marriage status, my family was fine.
posted by tipsyBumblebee at 8:41 AM on February 8, 2016

I wouldn't deceive people, at least not too much. Why keep secrets if you don't have to?

Tell everyone that you are getting married first. Find some boring, preferably legal reasons to do so. You're not sure if the marriage in Hawaii will register properly in your state, and you Just Want To Be Sure. Make this all about getting the paperwork in order. But, personally, I'd let the parental units know.

Then, have your party. Repeat your vows, dance and have that huge day. And don't worry about the paperwork.

I kind of wish we'd done a small civil swearing for the licence before going to the church. The church secretary made number of rather serious errors with out licence which took 5 years to figure out. This ain't not lie.
posted by bonehead at 8:43 AM on February 8, 2016

My partner and I did this. Ostensibly it was a 'legal ceremony' only, and the 'real' wedding was the big one, and the reason for doing it this way was to get the legalese out of the way, and set it up so our friends could officiate.

Here are the reasons why the small pre-wedding was great:

- We were relaxed and light-hearted. It was a couple of days before the main event and it was a nice break from planning. It was stress-free. (Do not do it the day of or the day before. Those days are chaos. Give yourself a bit more time.)

- We did not worry about who to invite and who not to invite. It all happened pretty organically. We picked from the pool of people who had shown up early and were helping out. It was nice to know that everyone was there for the right reasons.

- Speaking the vows in relative privacy was meaningful. The big wedding, though successful, was coloured by exhaustion and stress and caring for our guests. We've begun to think of the pre-wedding as the 'main one' and the big wedding as a kind of add-on. By the time of the big wedding we already felt married.

Some people knew about this arrangement and others didn't. Nobody complained about it to my face. If they are complaining about it in private it's not something I worry about. However, we did exchange vows at the big one, and it looked like a complete wedding to anyone who was watching, aside from the legalese. I am glad we did that, because publicly exchanging vows in front of our community turned out to feel important to me. Exchanging them in a small group was also important but for different reasons.

The thing to be super clear on is whether your guests are coming to a wedding, or a reception. The wedding is where the ceremony takes place, it is where you transition from one state to another (single to married). You can have two weddings with two ceremonies; that's how we did it, the first was kind of like going from single to private-married, and the second from private-married to public-married. Or, you can have one wedding with a ceremony and any number of receptions. You can't however have two weddings and only one ceremony. That would be... strange, and upsetting to the guests who think they are invited to a wedding and discover upon arrival that the 'real' wedding already happened and they weren't invited. You can do whatever you want, as long as you are crystal clear to all of your guests.
posted by PercussivePaul at 8:50 AM on February 8, 2016 [5 favorites]

We did this, about six months before the "actual "wedding, and I regret nothing. Nothing.
posted by corb at 8:57 AM on February 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

When my American friend married his wife, who was from Lesotho, in a small ceremony in the UK they made up their own vows, a nice little speech from each of them extolling the other's worth, anchored in their two cultures and what they could achieve together - it was lovely. Maybe you could use something like this in your own little ceremony and then just repeat that as a sort of public declaration in front of the bigger group at the celebration? This would link the two events together and also provide a romantic element, which can be pretty important at weddings, since this is the very few times we tend to make very public statements of our love for someone. They are in context there and so help to anchor the event as different from everyday life.
posted by biffa at 8:58 AM on February 8, 2016

My sister and her husband got (legally) married at their house a few months before their huge wedding. There were only a couple siblings and one nephew at the ceremony (but no spouses or children), plus one friend who was the photographer. It was fine. In this case, my family is the large Asian one. Here are a few things that helped - not that you should do these things, but maybe the type of concessions that were made will help you:
1) It was small - 5 people. 2) Some family was present. 3) Both sets of parents knew about it - transparency was key. 4) It took place at home, and we just went to lunch afterward. 5) The officiant was a justice of the peace and a hospital chaplain at the hospital where my sister worked - a good compromise for two families of radically different faiths. 6) The ceremony was extremely short and basically secular. 7) The big wedding still included a marriage ceremony. 8) Both my sister and BIL expressed interest in the big wedding and receiving blessings from their families and friends (so it's not like they discounted the "second" ceremony). I think this last point helped the most.

I should note that our families, while not uniformly close, are pretty loving. And everyone was trying to do the right thing by each other - and no one, least of all my sister and BIL, tried to minimize anyone's feelings. I think this feeling of respect went a long way towards making the whole wedding process much better and continues today, 4 years later.
posted by bluefly at 9:02 AM on February 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

In my big Chinese family, all my cousins did this and it's not a big deal. Have your legal civil ceremony with the small group you want, and do the bigger religious/traditional ceremonies later.

Of course different families have different cultures, but in my family this would be expected. (If you really need an excuse, just explain that the courthouse cannot accomodate more than a couple people--our courthouse had this explicitly written on the website.)
posted by tinymegalo at 9:35 AM on February 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

What if you do your personalized, meaningful vows in the private ceremony and the basic, textbook vows in front of family?

This is the thing I'd suggest as well, and it's pretty close to what my wife and I did.

But there was definitely some tension in my family over the idea that they weren't going to be present for our "real" vows. And so we ended up doing a lot of fudging and spin control to make the second set of vows look and feel "real" for the people who cared about that.

One thing you might consider: If you can arrange it this way, have the second set of vows be the legally binding one — the one for which you sign your marriage certificate or do whatever-it-is-in-your-jurisdiction that makes you legally spouses. Sensibly or not, a lot of people seem to feel like your "real" wedding is the one where the legal thing happens, and this will let your families feel like they were present for the real thing. They don't have to know that the private ceremony felt more important to you two.

We didn't do that, because we needed to be legally married at an earlier date for insurance purposes. But we ended up doing a lot of spin control in the other direction — saying "Oh, those first vows were just a legal formality. We didn't even consider ourselves married after that. It was just paperwork. The thing that will count is the real church service with the rings and the prayers and all that."

Which, like, THAT WAS A LIE. The first set of vows was totally important to us, really deeply meaningful, witnessed by friends who were honored to be part of it, etc etc etc. But it's really easy to get away with a lie about what something means to you deep in your private heart. It's much harder to get away with a lie about a visible, verifiable activity that leaves legal records behind. So claiming to our families that the first set of vows didn't happen would have been a huge mess, but claiming to them that the first set of vows was meaningless was really easy to pull off.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:46 AM on February 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

I do not think you can have a "wedding" in front of tons of family and friends without exchanging vows or explaining why you're not exchanging vows.

We did exactly this.

We got married at city hall about 6 months before our "wedding" - just my husband and I (witnesses were city hall employees, who were super nice), and then we got hot dogs from the cart outside afterwards. Then, later, we had a wedding where nobody but the officiant (a friend) said anything - we did this totally made up candle lighting thing, and the officiant said a few nice words about the flames symbolizing the joining of these two families together, and then we ate cake.

I don't think either of our families know that wasn't our legal wedding. Its simply never come up as a question, so we've never really lied about it.

I highly, HIGHLY recommend getting legally married prior to your wedding day. For some strange reason, it takes a lot of the pressure off.
posted by anastasiav at 11:11 AM on February 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Back when I got married, the pastor had us visit him the week before the wedding for our final pre marriage counseling session. He always had those last sessions the week of the wedding to help couples calm their nerves and walk through the ceremony with just him and no one else present. So we were standing in front of the church to do a rehearsal (not THE rehearsal the night before...this was actually 2 days before) and he told us "I can do your vows and marry you right now if you want" (the big shindig would have gone on as scheduled, we would just have our own little private secret). We declined, but I thought it was a really neat opportunity he gave people.

Is it possible your officiant would do the same? Either have a final meeting with him/her the day or two before the big wedding and have your private moment together, or if you and some close friends are good at planning, schedule a "first look" with just you and your betrothed and the photographer and take your vows then. We had a first look where he actually watched me walk down the aisle alone so we had that experience before the church filled up (and I wasn't NEARLY as nervous). We could have easily done our vows then too.
posted by MultiFaceted at 12:49 PM on February 8, 2016

My stepsister did something like this, she ended up have somewhere between 3-5 "weddings" (I seriously lost count). Between her and her fiance they had family in so many areas they decided to have a small, simple legal ceremony with very few guests and only family members that they were comfortable with. Then they had receptions that included many elements, dress, cakes, speeches, decorations, of a wedding in areas where their families lived. They presented it as "Look, we want to celebrate with as many people as possible, but you all live spread out and we don't want to ask everyone to travel so we will come to you!"

I don't think anyone was upset, if anything people appreciated the thoughtfulness. The one I went to had photo's from the ceremony itself presented proudly. I looked at it and was both touched they had such a sweet wedding and happy they hadn't requested I fly out to it.
posted by lepus at 1:09 PM on February 8, 2016

Absolutely do whatever feels meaningful and right for you personally, but know that you probably won't be able to do that without also getting some blowback. You say "We want something meaningful for us, parents be damned," which pretty much straight up says that having your parents there isn't meaningful. You can't expect them not to be hurt by that. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't do it your way, just that you can't expect them to be ok with it. (Maybe you'll get lucky and they won't hold it against you, but of they were that kind of family you probably wouldn't be considering this option in the first place, right?)
posted by MsMolly at 1:16 PM on February 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

I say get married whenever and however you damn well feel like it, then throw a party for your family. I had a small wedding with family only, when I would have much rather just eloped. I did not really want to exchange vows in front of family at all. Even with a TINY wedding, relatives took over parts of the ceremony to do things for themselves (these things came off as performances for their own benefit) that had nothing to do with me or my relationship. Relatives also invited people who were not intended to be invited.

In hindsight, the way to do this is to plan whatever kind of wedding you want, and tell the parents THIS IS THE WAY IT'S GOING TO BE. I, personally hate the idea of you exchanging vows a second time just to appease family. You already said you don't want to exchange vows in front of family. Plus, if you hold two weddings, and they're a couple of months apart, what will your wedding anniversary be? If your family is as overbearing as mine is they'll think every anniversary is theirs to celebrate also.
posted by Brittanie at 3:51 AM on February 9, 2016

We did this and kept the first one a secret. About six years later, I was talking to my mom about how charming I found it that my husband cried at our wedding, and "both of them!" flew out of my mouth. Mom was all, "say WHAT now?" Whoops. This is just to say that it is really easy to let the news out without even thinking about it. My mom was cool, but it would probably be easier overall for you to be open about it in the first place.
posted by thebrokedown at 11:12 AM on February 9, 2016

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