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How we skipped the ‘big day’ and eloped

My husband and I married on a sunny Saturday in September with only four people present – the two witnesses required by Australian law, our celebrant and our celebrant’s 90-year-old mother, who picked up her mobile phone during our vows and shouted, “Hello? I’m at a wedding!”

Words by Kate Stanton
 
The author and her husband on their wedding day, before a very small ceremony on the Mornington Peninsula.

The author and her husband on their wedding day, before a very small ceremony on the Mornington Peninsula.

Our brief ceremony took place at a one-bedroom B&B on the Mornington Peninsula. We didn’t tell the owners about our plans and in the morning we walked out to the backyard, set out some flowers and married in the shade of a gum tree. My sister watched the ceremony over Facetime – a maid-of-honour in absentia.

We snacked on cheese and champagne from an Esky and went to lunch – just the two of us – at a nearby vineyard. A touring hen’s party cheered us into the restaurant. We spent the rest of the day drinking champagne and calling our family and friends.

Our little wedding wasn’t perfect. But it was calm, it was simple and it was just for us. When I look back on that day I feel immense joy and a little relief – relief that we mustered the courage to elope.

Running away to get married is not for everyone. You may want your family and friends with you. You may want a big party. Weddings, like marriage, are a choice. But Cam and I were surprised at the number of people who told us afterward: “I wish I had done that.” 

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They said they felt pressured – often by family and friends – to have larger weddings, to invite distant relatives they hadn’t seen in years and to plan every last detail down to matching bridal party nail polish and “Save the Date” refrigerator magnets. Some even said they were happiest when their wedding was over.

Melbourne University social scientist Dr Lauren Rosewarne says 21st century couples face dramatically different circumstances than their parents.

“The nature of social media means that our lives are being performed – publicly – to an extent that didn’t exist a generation ago,” she says.

Weddings, which used to be dictated by tradition, are increasingly seen as personal affairs meant to show off the couple’s personality. She says websites like Pinterest and Etsy encourage couples to plan their weddings in “extreme detail”.

These days, engagement announcements begin on Facebook, while the planning process is often documented through a series of news feed updates and filtered Instagram images.

Caroline Higgins, the celebrant who officiated my wedding, says couples have told her they barely remember their ceremonies. They were so obsessed with every last detail that they missed most of the day.

“It’s a lot of pressure. Just having a perfect wedding,” she says. “It makes people forget the real reason they’re doing it.”

There is also the price tag.

The cost of getting hitched

The average Australian wedding costs $36,200. 

This includes:

► $18,683 on food, alcohol and venue

► $4271 on wedding clothes and accessories

► $3983 on photography

► $2896 on live music and entertainment

► $2896 on flowers and decorations

► $941 on the ceremony

► $2534 on other expenses, such as wedding invites and accomodation  Source: Australian Securities and Investments Commission

Cam and I met four years ago while I was in Melbourne on a working holiday visa from the US. We knew we eventually wanted to marry. But we finally made the decision to tie the knot after a particularly stressful meeting with an immigration lawyer. “You could get married,” she said, “and it might be a bit easier.” The cost of a marriage – or partner – visa for Australia is now nearly $7000, a price we knew we could barely afford, but one that pales in comparison to the price of the average Australian wedding.

That’s $36,200, according to figures released last year by the Australian Securities and Investment Commission. Bride to Be magazine puts the figure even higher – $65,482.

There are no official figures about the number of Australians who opt for quiet ceremonies. But Brian Richardson, the president of the Australian Federation of Civil Celebrants, says the number of couples eloping has waned.

He says trends influence weddings as much as they do fashion and he estimates that only five per cent of couples married by his celebrants this year had chosen to elope.

“Eight or nine years ago, every second couple wanted to have a sand ceremony, where you mix sand from two containers,” he says. “What’s becoming more common than elopements these days is what they call surprise weddings.” That’s when couples invite their family and friends to what they think is a 30th birthday celebration but which turns out to be a wedding.

My mother-in-law also said people used to elope “during the war”, when money, time and options were limited. She had never heard of a modern-day couple doing it.

Dr Rosewarne says that may have to do with more relaxed attitudes toward marriage in general. In previous decades, couples eloped to avoid disapproving parents or the stigma of pregnancy out of wedlock.

“Nowadays, we are largely a culture accepting of pre-marital sex, de facto arrangements and single mothers, and thus the social and cultural necessity of being married has largely waned,” she adds.

Dr Rosewarne says that most elopements are now more closely associated with a lifestyle choice – “people who just want to avoid the expense and fuss but nonetheless want to be married, [or] people who might be drawn to the romantic-escapist opportunities whereby the act seems slightly taboo and provides an entertaining story to tell.”

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Ms Higgins, my celebrant, says she often associates elopements with couples that have extenuating circumstances. They are traveling abroad together and need to be married – as with one couple on their way to Dubai – or they come from different countries and don’t want to disappoint one set of family and friends, as with me and Cam.

Eavan Murphy, 29, a freelance florist, spends much of her time putting together lavish floral decorations for weddings in Melbourne’s inner north. But her own wedding was relatively simple.

Ms Murphy, who is from Ireland, married her Greek-Australian husband at a registry office in Montreal four years ago. She says they decided not to tell any family members for months.

“I don’t have any regrets in regards to what we did at all,” she says. “I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

She and her husband come from cultures that love big weddings. But both sets of families eventually recovered.

“If you were to ask me would I want to do it all over again in the same way then I would,” she says. “We couldn’t be from further apart sides of the world. You kind of think, ‘How could we have possibly done this in any other way without upsetting any other family?’ ”

But elopements do disappoint family members and I was so nervous to tell mine that I sweated through our bed sheets the night before our wedding.

When I called my mum, however, she joked: “Well, I learned a long time ago not to tell you how to live your life.”

Other reactions ranged from being disappointed to incredulous.

“Won’t you be sad you didn’t have a big wedding?” asked Dad.

“You can’t do this to me,” said my new mother-in-law.

They have since recovered, however, and Cam’s dad has joked: “We crunched the numbers and decided you saved us a lot of money.”

Cam and I will eventually have a small party with close family and friends, but without the expectations that come with a traditional wedding.

For now, it’s just me and him. Like it should be.

► This story was also published in Sunday Lifemagazine.

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THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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