Somewhere amid the chaos of wedding planning, a couple may find themselves imagining how much easier it would be to drop everything and head down to the courthouse to say “I do.”
A couple’s wedding day is supposedly all about them, but many married partners will tell you that isn’t always the case. It can be, though, if you elope.
When you elope, “you’re able to make your wedding your own and keep it your own,” said Jane Greer, a marriage and family therapist based in New York. “You’re able to sidestep everyone else’s opinions of your decisions.”
Elopement has its share of advantages: No venues to scope out, no guest lists to draft and, maybe best of all, no exorbitant checks to write. Considering that in 2014, the average wedding cost was $31,000, according to a survey from wedding website TheKnot.com, elopement can sound tempting to anyone trying to save a buck. But reasons for elopement can be more about passion, family or timing than money.
Ramani Durvasula, a clinical psychologist based in Los Angeles, says there are two general types of elopements. The “healthy elope” is pragmatic and “focused on the commitment without the costs and the circus,” she said. The couple’s motivation is to make the wedding day truly about the two of them. They may decide to have a celebration involving friends and family later on, or even to invite a few to the ceremony.
“For too many couples, it is more about the wedding than the relationship,” Durvasula said. “A healthy elopement tends to be more about the relationship.”
The “escape elopement” tends to happen when a couple is caught up in family dysfunction or is using the elopement to rebel, Durvasula said. Think Romeo and Juliet. This type of elopement — which intentionally boxes out family and friends — has the potential to breed resentment, either with other family members or between the two partners themselves.
“This elopement may be symptomatic of other and more challenging relationship patterns for a couple,” she said.
When Zoe Helene, 51, and her husband, Chris Kilham, 63, eloped in 2007, it was a mix of passion and timing. The two had known each other for two years and had dated some of the time, but she was living in Asheville, N.C., and he was in Amherst, Mass. When their relationship picked up again, Kilham asked her to go on a trip with him to South Africa.
“I said to myself, I wasn’t going on that trip unless we were married,” Helene said. Several days later, the pair went to the Amherst town hall and exchanged vows. “We went outside. There was no dress. There was no engagement ring. There was no nothing.”
The couple married under a tree while it was drizzling out, and the officiant read “a beautiful Navajo wedding vow,” Helene recalled. Afterward, they called family and friends to share the news.
The trip wasn’t the only reason they got married, but Helene realized if she was going to uproot her life for a relationship, it needed to be serious.
“After we eloped, I thought maybe we should have a wedding,” Helene said. But when she started making a list of potential guests, she realized too many people she would want to attend wouldn’t be able to. “I didn’t like the idea of some of the really important people not being able to be there.”
Very few people showed animosity toward them for eloping, she said, and those who did were people they didn’t know well. “Most people were there for us and thought it was romantic,” she said.
Helene and Kilham celebrated their eighth wedding anniversary July 23.
Susan Hawkins and her husband Jim eloped on Valentine’s Day 1984 in Savannah, Georgia, after dating seriously for about three months. She was 36, he was 26, and they were living in Atlanta. No guests attended the ceremony at the Savannah courthouse.
“We eloped because neither one of us is deep into tradition, and our religious perspectives didn’t jibe,” Hawkins said. Her parents offered them a small wedding or money. They chose the money and used it to pay for a trip to Italy about a year later.
“We haven’t regretted it for a minute,” Hawkins said.
Consider the drawbacks
The benefits of eloping are plenty, but what about the drawbacks?
In some cases, eloping can cause one partner, or even both, to dismiss the wedding as “not real,” said Sari Cooper, licensed couples therapist in New York. This can cause problems later on involving fidelity, child support or meaningful participation in the partnership.
“I encourage couples to have the people who are most important to them attend the wedding, no matter how large or small, because the act of being witnessed helps a couple feel like they have the support to weather the ups and downs of marriage over the long haul,” Cooper said.
Psychologist David Tresemer, co-author of “The Conscious Wedding Handbook: How to Create Authentic Ceremonies That Express Your Love” (Sounds True, coming out in September), said elopement misses out on community support. With a more traditional ceremony, “your love has been witnessed, and you have that backing for the rest of your lives,” he said. But Tresemer acknowledged that sometimes, the love is so intense that waiting isn’t an option.
Eloping also excludes your loved ones from sharing in the excitement and happiness of your marriage, Greer said. Parents especially, might feel offended to be excluded.
“Plan another party or event afterward that includes them,” Greer said. “That way, they’ll be a part of the celebration even if they weren’t a part of the ceremony.”
Karen Bussen, author of the “Simply Stunning” wedding series and wedding designer for Palladium Hotels and Resorts, said couples whose driving motivator for elopement is cost should research simpler wedding options closer to home and wait until they can save up to have a ceremony they really want.
“If you are considering eloping because of the expense of a wedding, reconsider,” Tresemer said.
Advice for eloping
There is a right way and a wrong way to elope. Some advice on how to make sure an elopement goes smoothly and won’t result in regret:
Don’t alienate family and friends: Some people are likely to be irked they aren’t invited to a wedding, but explaining why you two chose to go it alone may ease up any tension, Durvasula said.
Breaking the news to parents: Telling each other’s parents you either plan to elope — or already have — could be the most intimidating part of the decision. There may be pushback from parents, Tresemer warned, but explaining your decision to them in a completely honest and open way is the best approach.
“Present your thoughts from a place of empathy, and recognize that this may be hard for your parents,” Durvasula said. Some parents may still object. If this happens, “draw close as a couple, remain steadfast, try to work on a compromise, but try and avoid letting it devolve into alienation and anger,” she said.
Don’t let money fuel the decision: The price tag shouldn’t prohibit you from having a ceremony you’ll love — if that’s what you want. “A wedding can be done potluck-style, in a grove of trees with flowers picked from friends’ gardens, and a remade dress,” Tresemer said.
Work with a wedding planner for a destination elopement: This person can help answer questions about residency requirements, how to find an officiant and make sure you have all the details covered, Bussen said.
Hire a photographer: Just because others aren’t attending isn’t a reason not to take photos. “Spend the money to document your vows with professional photo and video coverage,” Bussen advised. A professional photographer from the area knows the best spots.