In November, Alex Lynn, 26, will marry her fiancé, Alex Tignor, 27. The officiant for their wedding will be none other than their close friend, who is also named Alex. “To have someone so important to us be the person who pronounces us husband and wife will make our ceremony all the more special and meaningful,” Lynn says. This three-Alex wedding will be one of a growing number of marriage ceremonies officiated by a friend of the couple. Many couples are forgoing religious norms and traditional vows for wedding ceremonies they feel are more individualized, more intimate, and maybe even more fun.
The exact proportion of couples being married by a friend varies depending on the data you look at, but the numbers are clearly growing. The wedding site The Knot has been conducting a survey on wedding trends for the past 11 years. The site’s editor told The New York Times that friend officiants weren’t even “on the radar enough” to make the 2008 survey. The question was added in 2009, when 29 percent of survey respondents used a friend officiant, and by 2015, that number jumped to 40 percent. A different study by the Wedding Report, a data-tracking company, found that 25.7 of polled couples were wed by a friend or family member in 2017, a jump from 16.4 percent in 2010. According to Ellen Lamont, a sociologist at Appalachian State University who researches gender, dating, and family, there are multiple reasons why the best-friend-turned-officiant trend is growing, and why it might continue to.
“The expectations for marriage have shifted, and sociologists refer to this as kind of a ‘deinstitutionalization’ of marriage,” Lamont explains. “Basically meaning that the social norms that guided marriage have become more negotiable, flexible, and individualized.” A wedding has become a public statement about who you are as a couple, Lamont notes. What better way to personalize that statement than to have it made by someone who knows you both well?
That’s what Alex Lynn and her fiancé were thinking. They were friends before they started dating and loved the idea of having someone from their shared friend group officiate. “Alex B.,” she says of her officiant, “has been there through all the stages of our relationship, [since] back when we were just friends, and he even photographed our proposal back in October.”
Laura DeAngelis, 32, who got married this month, also thinks there’s significance in having someone at the helm who has known her and her fiancé both separately and as a couple. “It was a really natural decision for us,” she says. “When I think about the significance of marriage and what that means, I think about the people around us who have helped us get to this point.” She says that having Victoria, her friend and officiant, do the honors represents “our friendship, individually and together, it represents the support from our friends and family, and it represents the accountability we have to them in return.”
Victoria Flexner, 29, burst into tears when Laura and her fiancé asked her to officiate. She’s given ample thought to the ceremony, including giving the couple books to read to determine what kind of readings suited the vibe they want, and inviting each of them to dinner, separately, to “interview” them about their relationship. “I’m really happy I took this approach because I feel like I learned a lot about them as a couple, that I didn’t actually already know,” Flexner says. “I plan to weave their individual takes on how they met and fell in love together for the ceremony.”
These individualized wedding rituals come along with a collective shrugging off of certain traditions, including religious ceremonies. The number of American adults not affiliating with any religion is on the rise, and young adults are less likely to attend church than older adults (though most Americans still believe in some kind of higher power, if not in the context of a formal religion). “We were not planning to have a religious ceremony, so having a religious officiant just didn’t seem necessary,” says Caroline, 31, who was married in November of 2017 and asked to be identified by her first name to respect her family’s privacy. But choosing a nonreligious ceremony can create familial strain for some couples. Caroline says that her mother and grandmother were initially displeased that she and her husband had a friend officiate. She says that she compromised with them on things like what the invitations looked like, but “I refused to compromise on how I wanted the day to feel and how true I wanted it to be to my and my husband’s beliefs and relationship.” Though she didn’t have a religious ceremony, Caroline says that she did accommodate her grandmother’s Christian beliefs by letting her come into the bridal suite beforehand and pray for her in private.
Landis Bejar, the founder of AisleTalk, a boutique therapy practice specializing in helping individuals cope with wedding-planning stress, observes that since more Americans are getting married later in life, “they might be less financially dependent on an older, more religious-leaning generation. And if that is not something they value, they might opt for something more personal.”
“We aren’t having a church wedding, and since both of our families are predominantly practicing Catholics, they were definitely surprised and a little disappointed at first,” says Lynn. (She says the families have warmed to the idea and are now supportive.) She and her fiancé consider themselves nondenominationally religious. Attending other weddings where the couple were married by a friend, and seeing the “personal and intimate feel” up close, she says, inspired her and her fiancé to do the same.
Sarah Goesling and Jamie Ekeberg, both 31, who were married in September 2015, also felt like getting married in a church setting didn’t suit them. “We started the conversation because I was raised Jewish and Jamie was raised Presbyterian, and, well, we’re a queer couple,” says Sarah of their decision to have Jamie’s brother officiate. “We both knew that we wanted to take the step into marriage with someone we had a very close relationship with.”
Cultural shifts around marriage play a role, too. Mark O’Connell, a psychotherapist and the author of Modern Brides & Modern Grooms, says that this trend owes a lot to the rise of same-sex weddings. “Every same-sex wedding throughout history has had to be a highly personal act of creative imagination,” he explains, since until very recently in the U.S., same-sex couples were not given legal access to marriage, and even still, many wedding traditions assume heterosexuality. (Take the bouquet/garter-toss dichotomy, for instance.) “Straight couples are catching on to the benefits of not being beholden to tradition, and realizing that they too can actually make specific, meaningful choices about every aspect of their weddings.”
This seems to be especially true for Millennial couples, in Lamont’s observation. She says she has seen young couples eschewing tradition not just in their choice of officiant, but with other aspects of their wedding as well. Couples might choose to forgo having the bride’s father give her away, or decide not to change their last names. Bejar says that many young adults likely get ideas from the regular stream of wedding albums on their Facebook and Instagram feeds. Seeing their friends’ creative wedding ideas might make people more inclined to make their own day personalized and unique. “More and more, Millennials are identifying the things in their life that are ‘generic’ and finding a way to make them meaningful, personalized, and special,” she says.
Having a friend officiate is more than just a way of making a wedding more personal—it’s also a way of recognizing the significance of friendship for modern couples, offering a sort of subtheme of platonic love to a day centered around romantic love.
O’Connell says he has yet to hear of a case where the act of choosing one friend as an officiate offended other friends. He even points out that sometimes the wedding officiant isn’t necessarily the closest of the couple’s friends. It could be a friend who has a special connection to the couples’ origin story or someone who has previous experience in an officiant position. That was the case for Caroline: The friend who officiated her and her husband’s wedding had officiated the wedding of another good friend. “We met up with him for drinks so he could get to know us as a couple,” she explains. “And we had a lovely time.”
Miriam Kirmayer, a therapist and a friendship researcher, points out that when compared with our romantic relationships, which get honored frequently with ceremonies and anniversaries, friendship histories don’t have many formally recognized opportunities for celebration. “So involving our friends in other major life experiences, such as including them in weddings as bridesmaids, groomsmen, ushers, or officiants, is one way to express our gratitude and recognize the important role they have played in our lives,” she says.
Kirmayer says that although friends have long been incorporated into wedding festivities in meaningful ways, it is possible that friend officiants reflect changes in how people view their friendships. “Increasingly, we are learning just how much of an impact our friendships can have on key areas of our lives,” she says, explaining that the company we keep influences our physical health, emotional well-being, and even professional success. There’s also something to be said for the fact that friends have likely been along for the romantic ride, whether they’ve gone out to get the Ben & Jerry’s following previous breakups, watched the current relationship unfold, or, in some cases, even set the couple up. “Including friends in our wedding is one way to honor the extent to which they have helped us to arrive at that point,” Kirmayer says.
For many young people, lines are blurring between the way they treat their friends and the way they treat their family—take the growth of “Friendsgiving” celebrations, for example. “Many of us today feel that the people in our lives are there because we have chosen them,” says O’Connell, observing that in his psychotherapy practice he’s seeing more and more people choose to be discerning about who they spend time with, whether that means their “family of origin or friends they consider to be family.” Because Millennials are delaying milestones such as marriage and starting families, they might focus more on self-created friend-families than previous generations. And when they do get married, they might want the focus of a wedding to be more of a celebration of the couple’s life together, including friends.
Having a friend officiate your wedding—be it a way of shattering traditions, of personalizing the ceremony, or simply because it makes the most logistical sense—is a wedding trend that feels more authentic than cocktails named after the couple. The wedding industry is full of gimmicks, but this is a trend that is less about aesthetics and more about what, and who, hits closest to the heart.