Shadow wedding ceremonies: Latest trend is for couples to dress down and confess their flaws

Anna Hart discovers whether keeping it real makes for marital bliss

In the run-up to Jim Benson and Jessica Wolk's wedding in October 2010, they realised that something was missing: a reality check. It was to be a big white-dress affair for 120 people in Northern California, and amid all the lacy dress fittings and fuss about flowers and favours, the couple – a 50-year-old life coach and 36-year-old counsellor – felt that their big day was increasingly removed from the realities of their life together.

So one night a few weeks before their wedding, they invited 10 close friends to the back garden of their home just north of San Francisco, wore their sloppiest around-the-house clothes and conducted what they called a "shadow wedding", voicing their worst neuroses, acknowledging their most irritating traits and generally being the opposite of a blushing bride and a Prince Charming. Sample shadow vow from Jessica: "I vow to compare you to the fantasy man who only exists in my mind, and tell you about how you fall short of his greatness!" And from the groom: "I vow to pretend to be committed to monogamy, when in truth, I will share sexual energy with other women."

They consummated the shadow marriage by wrestling on a foam pad bought specially for the occasion. "We wanted to have an outlet for all our fears and trepidation, before we got to the big dress part," explains Jessica, and the couple were so convinced of the benefits that they now offer a service of premarital counselling and officiating shadow wedding ceremonies, with prices varying from $2,500 (£1,450) to $7,500, depending not on how dirty your dirty laundry is, but how much counselling, travelling and planning is necessary.

Critics will say "dark" ceremonies are just another barmy, new-agey addition to a wedding industry that is currently worth $53.4bn in the US and £10bn in the UK. But many couples will completely understand the urge to bring an event that can feel like a highly anticipated, giddily heightened pantomime back down to earth. Denise Knowles, a relationship counsellor for Relate, says: "I've yet to encounter a shadow wedding, but there's a definite shift towards couples designing their own vows and speeches in a much more Humanistic manner, permitting more personality, humour and occasionally self-deprecation."

Today, the average first-time bride is 32 and most couples have lived together for years before they say "I do"; by now she knows she's not marrying Mr Perfect, and her groom doesn't expect Miss World. At my own register office wedding in 2010, my husband and I both wore outfits we'd seen each other wear before, because the idea of unveiling myself like a Disney princess seemed so alien to our life as a laidback couple who fell in love wearing jeans and parkas at music festivals, on camping trips and in Dalston dive bars.

"For us, the best bit of our shadow wedding came after we'd admitted all the ugly stuff about ourselves," explains Jessica. "To hear the words 'I know all this, and I still choose you, you are still my person' is a lot more powerful than most conventional wedding vows." She has a point. When my friends Ingo and Sharmila Bousa got married in Cornwall in 2009, it was an idyllic country fête affair complete with bunting and cupcakes – but the highlight for me was Sharmila's speech, in which she described her groom as "the grumpiest man in the world, but Ingo, I love you".

In Jungian psychology, the shadow refers to the instinctive, irrational and least desirable aspects of one's personality; your dark side, the bits you feverishly suppress. Especially on your wedding day. But do we really need a pricey ritual to prove that one's marriage isn't a collective delusion? As Denise says, "I'd hope these conversations would happen long before you decide to get married. If you haven't felt able to verbalise your concerns until now, perhaps you shouldn't be getting married."

However, Andrew Hinman, 36, from California, a scientist who had a shadow wedding courtesy of Jim and Jessica in 2011, describes the ritual as "a psychological insurance policy".

"I was able to address parts of me that were not on board with getting married," he says. "It was helpful for me to have a structure, a framework for all the back-and-forth inside me. I felt totally solid about our coming together, knowing that the negative side had now been acknowledged."

Jessica tells me that not long ago, when she and Jim hit a rocky patch and she went for a soul-searching walk on the beach, "it hit me that Jim had warned me about a particular trait, and I'd vowed to accept him and work through it", she says. "It was our shadow wedding vows that held us together – not our wedding vows."

"We're well aware shadow weddings won't be for everyone," admits Jim. "But if you're a couple of consciousness junkies, like we are, then it just might be a fit."

Whether or not you decide to add a wrestling pad to your budget, it definitely seems like weddings are finally getting real.

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
News
people
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
News
Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, right, met at Havana Golf Club in 1962 to mock the game
newsFidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Sport
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

    £32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

    £45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

    £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

    Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

    £25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

    Day In a Page

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?