When I got married earlier this month, the weekend was a happy blur—one I wish I could relive—but it also felt like a relief. For a year, I had been the primary point of contact for most vendors and juggled parental expectations with my now-husband’s opinions. Like many other women in the throes of wedding logistics, I often felt like an unpaid project manager, saddled with the burden of decision-making. I knew I would carry a greater share of the planning, but I was surprised by just how much that entailed.
“We put this expectation on women to have already spent many years thinking about and dreaming about this one day,” says Cindy Savage, a St. Louis, Missouri-based wedding planner. “The output is that we also expect them to be in charge of and do most if not all of the planning—and make most if not all of the decisions. If a couple goes to dinner with their friends shortly after they got engaged, someone’s going to ask that woman every time, ‘How’s the wedding planning going?'”
I spoke to women with similar planning experiences to my own. All of them said that going into wedding planning, their relationships felt relatively equal. They didn’t think the process would feel quite so one-sided, whether that stemmed from wedding vendors, family, or their own partners. “My husband does consider himself a feminist, and we have a very equal relationship as far as splitting up house chores and doing laundry,” says Rachel,* who got married earlier this month. “But I never expected wedding planning to be what it ended up being. I think the sheer amount of decisions and project management just completely escaped me.”
The burden of planning decisions
For women who see their relationships as generally equal partnerships, the dynamics of wedding planning can feel like an unexpected departure. For Rachel, it didn’t help that wedding planning coincided with a new job and a big move across the country. This period was so stressful, in fact, that Rachel went on anti-anxiety medication and started seeing a therapist. “I had more responsibilities than I’ve ever had in my career, but I was the one that had to take PTO days to go meet with the vendors,” she says. “If you’re looking at the numbers, maybe it makes sense—[my husband] does have fewer PTO days and he does make more money than I do. But it gets really easy to create this narrative of ‘well, you’re the one that has to wear the dress, so you have to go.'”
Like Rachel, Ashley,* who got engaged six months ago, feels like she is expected to make wedding planning more of a priority, even when she’s just as busy at work as her fiancé is. “We went into it like, ‘Oh, we’re going to do this together,'” Ashley says. But as the initial glow of their engagement faded, she found that her fiancé no longer made time for planning.
“His work is still his number-one priority,” she says. “I have a very busy job too, but I still hear from vendors in the middle of the day—or I get off work, and I have to spend more time doing all of this random research and talking to people.” Their responsibilities at home, she says, remain more equal. But planning a wedding has shifted the pendulum on the whole. “Despite how balanced the relationship really feels most of the time, in this wedding phase, it feels very old-school—maybe how things used to be,” she says.
Today’s brides aren’t necessarily consumed by thoughts of their wedding day from childhood. And yet, they’re often expected to know exactly what they want for everything from florals to napkins, as soon as they start planning a wedding. Many partners assume these are decisions they want to make—and can make—all on their own. “At the time I found it very frustrating,” says Katie,* who was surprised by how much her husband deferred to her during the planning process. “There were so many decisions to be made. Just help me make some of them—care a little about the flowers!”
Savage says some partners think not offering an opinion is the right approach. But in practice, that can be even more overwhelming for the person who is then forced to make all the decisions. “Something people forget is that indecision and not caring is a burden,” she says. “A lot of things get foisted on women because she’s the one who cares. But all that does is put the burden of making decisions and plans on her. Some people, particularly men, view that as alleviating the stress and burden by letting her have what she wants, but you’re actually not. You’re actually doing the opposite by piling all the work on her.”
It’s little surprise, then, that for many brides and couples, wedding planning can be a particularly difficult period—quite the opposite of what they might have expected. “I hate to say this,” Ashley says, “but after the initial excitement period, the engagement has been [one of] the harder moments of our relationship.”
The wedding industry’s obsession with brides
Even in 2019, the standards for an ideal bride can seem impossibly high. “It astounds me that you’re supposed to plan it all, split the costs with your partner, look really great, and lose a bunch of weight,” Rachel says. “Then, you’re supposed to enjoy this party when you’ve worried about every single logistical aspect of it—and you’re supposed to be chill and happy and glowing.” You risk being labeled a bridezilla if you show how much you care, but you’re pressured to care—by the industry, by wedding blogs, by Instagram. And the weight of those expectations inevitably falls on the bride.
While I was planning my wedding, it was especially difficult to reconcile my desire to fuss over every detail of the wedding with my role as reluctant bride. I balked at countless wedding customs and insisted on removing what I perceived to be sexist relics of the traditional Hindu wedding ceremony. I rolled my eyes when my mom said my wedding day was the most important day of her life (after her own wedding, of course). But I still cared about my wedding. It almost felt like I had to care more because I wanted the wedding to reflect who my husband and I are as a couple—and live up to my exacting tastes.
The wedding industry as a whole puts the focus squarely on the bride, making it even harder to introduce equality into the wedding-planning process. At the subreddit r/weddingplanning, you’ll find countless threads about the sexism baked into interactions with vendors. “A lot of women are surprised by how very gendered the industry is,” Savage says. “It’s a problem we talk about a lot in the LGBTQ space. Because the industry is set up this way, so many vendors target and reference only brides.”
That translates to how they communicate with couples, too. The women I spoke to said their partners were frequently left off vendor emails, for example, or vendors would insist on checking in with the bride even when they tried to delegate a piece of planning to their partner. “By the nature of our society, everyone always talked to me about [wedding planning], whether it was his mom or his stepmom or the aunts or the uncles or the vendors,” Rachel says. “Even when I would try and be like, actually [my fiancé] is taking care of that, I would always get the phone call.”
The result is a wedding industry propped up by women, on both ends: The unpaid work and emotional labor of brides fuels the paid work of wedding vendors, who are, by and large, women. “If you think about it, this is [a $72 billion] industry that essentially exists because predominantly women are working their full-time job and then staying up late to plan this—to spend their money on hiring that $3,600 photographer,” Rachel says. “We’re building this entire industry that is dependent upon women doing all of this work. But it doesn’t actually push them forward and help their career and in fact, causes them stress.”
It’s hard for women to tip this balance when planners and other vendors still direct questions to the bride or expect her to manage the relationship. Savage says that’s something she actively works against as a planner—and as a queer woman who wants to make the industry more inclusive for LGBTQ folks. “I’ve had multiple clients tell me that one of the reasons they hired me was because I made eye contact with both of them and asked them both about their plans,” she says. “I maybe overcompensate, but if I find that I’m getting all the answers from one person—especially if that person happens to be the bride—I make sure to check in with the other person, too.” Usually, Savage finds that there’s one person who is more invested in the planning process or “cares more,” even among LGBTQ couples, so she tries to make sure both parties are involved and get equal input.
People like Savage are creating incremental change, one couple at a time. But a broader shift in who carries the labor of planning may take longer, since it is rooted in the additional unpaid labor women frequently do at home and at work. “I hate that I feel like it’s inherent to the wedding-planning process,” Katie says. “But I feel like it will be until we turn a corner as a society—until gender roles are less stringently defined and this whole aspect of emotional labor starts to change.”
*These individuals have been identified by a first name or pseudonym to protect their anonymity.