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.

News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Extras
indybest
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Travel
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
travel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Sport
football
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

    Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

    £45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

    Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

    Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

    C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

    Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

    C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

    Day In a Page

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home