Welcome to Wedding Sprawl

Proposal parties. Extended bachelor and bachelorette weekends. Multiple honeymoons. Modern marriage celebrations can feel endless.

display with a wedding cake
Millennium Images / Gallery Stock

This article was featured in One Story to Read Today, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a single must-read from The Atlantic, Monday through Friday. Sign up for it here.      

Forget the “Big Day”; many modern weddings are more like a “Big Year.” First there’s the proposal, sometimes accompanied by a “proposal party.” Next comes the engagement bash, the bridal shower, and the bachelor or bachelorette weekend—the latter of which is getting longer. Then it’s time for the ceremony and the reception, which may be bookended by extra events such as welcome drinks, a rehearsal dinner, and a morning-after brunch. Finally, the newlyweds make plans for their honeymoon—or, for many U.S. couples, their honeymoons, plural. Rather than going on just one big trip, lots of people are also taking either a short mini-moon right after the festivities end or an early-moon before they begin. All of this means more dates saved, more friends involved, more vendors tapped, and more money exuberantly (or reluctantly) spent. The celebrations can feel endless. Welcome to wedding sprawl.

This might seem like a lot of work, but it starts to make more sense when you look at who’s partaking in these extra events. Today, people getting married for the first time are typically about seven years older than newlyweds were 50 years ago. That’s nearly a decade more for anticipation to build and for savings to potentially accumulate (though factors such as student debt and inflation can make that second part difficult). Yet, for a lot of people, weddings remain the primary opportunity in adult life to have a big blowout. “It’s the granddaddy of celebrations,” Cele Otnes, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois who studies rituals and consumer culture, told me. “We’re celebrating our social structure. We’re celebrating the family, aesthetics, all of that.” For the many couples who see a wedding as a capstone event in their adulthood, it makes sense to extend the festivities and cram more into them, if they have the resources to do so. And, of course, the expansion is fueled when it is broadcast on social media, inspiring others to follow suit.

This is the tension of wedding sprawl: In some ways, it acknowledges that a rich life is made up of many more relationships than just a romantic one. Some of these supplementary events are explicitly a way to spend more time celebrating with friends and family. But at the same time, the additions are still in service of a ceremony that cements one lifelong partnership.

Whereas weddings that span several days have long been common in some areas of the world, such as South Asia, the practice is newer in the United States. The expansion of modern American wedding culture began almost a half-century ago. Simple receptions were fairly typical in the 1960s and ’70s, but by the early ’80s large, lavish affairs had come into favor, driven, The New York Times argues, by a booming economy, a cultural shift toward conservatism, and Princess Diana’s glamorous, widely viewed ceremony. During that period, brides-to-be began adopting the originally male ritual of bachelor parties, and by the early 2000s, bachelorette parties were becoming popular; from 2007 to 2017, the percentage of people who traveled out of state to attend a bachelor or bachelorette party quadrupled, according to a WeddingWire survey. The survey found that average spending on weddings jumped by 81 percent in that same time frame, and the average length of engagement grew from eight to 13 months—more time to plan and hold extra events. Traveling in order to attend all of these gatherings became common too. Although the coronavirus pandemic temporarily paused many in-person weddings, sprawling nuptials have returned with a fervor.

As wedding season has expanded, friends have taken on a larger role in the festivities. Proposal and engagement parties bring others into the fold early on. Bridal showers, which have been practiced in the U.S. since the late 19th century, keep a bride-to-be surrounded with loved ones. Bachelor and bachelorette weekends make a point of honoring friendships. Plus, extra fanfare around the ceremony itself means more time to spend with guests: One reception doesn’t leave much time to mingle, but a weekend of drinks and brunches gives couples more opportunities to catch up with everyone in attendance. An extended wedding can effectively serve as a reunion for friend groups and families.

At their best, these events can strengthen bonds and imbue a major life transition with even more meaning. But the costs of wedding sprawl (literal and psychological) can be high. And for those planning a wedding, untangling what you actually want from what feels expected—especially when you’re scrolling through social media—can be hard. The more you’re exposed to rituals through friends or online, the more you’ll feel the need to consider having them yourself, Otnes told me. And the urge to post is strong: Among members of Gen Z polled by The Knot, 83 percent say that photo and video are the most important elements of a wedding day.

The normalization of wedding sprawl can both pressure people to spend money and give them permission to indulge in ways that they otherwise wouldn’t. When I got married a few years ago, we took a local, two-night mini-moon, followed by a bigger honeymoon more than a year later. Having a socially sanctioned reason for the big trip helped ease my guilt about the price—I was only getting married once, I reasoned (even if I was taking two honeymoons). Still, I didn’t publicly call the second trip a honeymoon, partly because I felt a bit embarrassed about propagating the idea that anyone needs to have two, or that a short, local one wouldn’t be enough on its own. I wonder, if there weren’t so much hype around the tradition, would I have been just as happy with a more low-key excursion? Or, conversely, would I have let myself splurge on a vacation for its own sake without using marriage as an excuse?

Couples don’t usually cover wedding bills alone. According to The Knot, parents pay just over half of a nuptial’s costs on average. Guests might contribute to honeymoon funds, and it’s typical to expect people to pay their own way on bachelor or bachelorette parties—but a $10,000 girls’ weekend only works if 10 of your girlfriends have $1,000 each to burn. Even just attending the ceremony can be hard to afford; it might involve buying a new dress or suit, traveling out of town, and shelling out for a nice gift. Of course, not everyone has an elaborate wedding. But, Otnes said, these fads “trickle down” as people of relatively modest means strive to emulate the rich (or just their friends). One survey found that 87 percent of couples delayed budgeting to buy a home, reduce debt, or reach another savings goal while planning their wedding.

Still, for all the new additions and rising prices, many marital traditions have stuck around. Diamonds are still the most popular engagement-ring type. The majority of brides still walk down the aisle in a white gown. Much of the basic structure of the central ceremony, from the procession to the vows to the applauded kiss at the end, remains intact. Even some of the newer practices, such as mini-moons, just augment older ones. And some level of adherence to tradition persists among same-sex couples as well. Newlyweds might be more likely to have a theme or to party with their friends, and young people in general may be slightly more likely to question the importance of marriage, but sprawling weddings aren’t actually changing much about the institution at the center of the festivities. More often than not, they’re reinforcing it.