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.

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