Secret Wedding Etiquette
Should we come clean on our secret wedding?
Question : I have a situation that I need advice on. Two years ago my husband and I married (eloped actually) because of a situation with the military and we never told our parents for fear of rejection. We are now planning a wedding so that we can make it appear that we are getting married. Neither of us want to tell our parents of the true situation because we have worked through so many adversities to get back in their favor. Our friends tell us that we should tell them before they pay for any part of the wedding (although we are footing most of the cost.) We are also wondering if we will be able to find a chaplain who will renew our vows without saying anything because of the delicate nature of the situation. Should we tell them? What do you think is our best course of action?
First of all, your problem is not as rare as you may imagine. In my own circle of friends, there are several couples who married in private ceremonies months before their wedding date. Reasons vary from insurance coverage to an increase in salary (as you may already know, married men in the armed forces receive substantially more take-home pay than their single counterparts; perhaps this mirrors your very situation.) In European countries, civil and religious ceremonies are always held separately, the former being a small, discreet service and the second being the full-blown wedding hoo-ha. The church’s sanction of the marriage, and the gathering and celebration that accompanies it, is regarded as separate from the legal bonding of two persons. No one thinks anything of it, and if anyone in the know asks you about the division of ceremonies, you can just tell them you did it the European way. It sure sounds a lot better than admitting you were terrified of your parents’ disapproval and had a Secret Wedding.
I talked to a couple of brides about how they approached their respective officiants. In neither case did the officiant refuse to go along with the wedding or threaten to tell the congregation. You’ll probably find that your chaplain feels the same way: that God blesses all marriages, and that marrying in the eyes of the church is just peachy whether it happens sooner or later. Vow renewals are recognized as significant in the eyes of the Christian church, although your chaplain may not use exactly the same wording at your ceremony as he would have had you not been already married. At one [not publicly acknowledged second] wedding I attended, the minister used phrases such as “We come here to celebrate a union that already exists,” when joining my two friends at the altar. Few but those privately apprised of the secret wedding noticed the subtle changes in the ceremony—those who did assumed that the “existing bond” acknowledged referred to the fact that the couple had been sharing a joint household for some time.
The question of whether or not to tell your parents is a sticky one, and one that I don’t feel altogether comfortable deciding for you. My primary bit of advice would be that if do decide to keep your first, “real” secret wedding under wraps, make sure you can keep that secret forever. (This is the basic rule for all secrets, but no one seems to know it.) If you can conceive of yourself someday getting angry enough at your father to blurt out, “You think he’s not committed to me, but we’ve really already been married for two years longer than you think! And here you paid for all the beer at my sham wedding! HA!” then you should probably save your poor dad a heart attack and just tell him now about the Secret Wedding. If you’re not the type to be plagued by the pressure of keeping mum, and your conscience hasn’t bothered you so far, you can probably keep your clandestine first secret wedding— well, clandestine.
So, my advice to you will be twofold—first, how to tell them before the wedding, if you so decide, and secondly, how to deceive, manipulate the truth, and cover your tracks, if you decide to keep your first secret wedding eyes-only until the end of time.
Plan A: Come Clean
Sit down with your parents (and your husband, if you don’t think they’ll clobber him the second they find out he ran off with you on the sly.) Think about what you want to say ahead of time. You might want to recite something along these lines:
Mom, Dad. . . I remember when Joe [substitute your husband's name for "Joe" here] and I first considered marriage years ago. Back then we knew you objected to our attachment. You frowned upon Joe for [whatever he did that made them think he was unfit]. I feel now that you understand him much better, see him for the wonderful man that I always knew he was, and bless our union. [If he's done or said anything that helped them warm up to him, mention it by name. Toot your own horn, too.] I’m glad that our relationships have come so far—my relationship with Joe, mine with you, and yours with him. It’s because of this new kinship between us that I’m no longer afraid to tell you: Joe and I are already legally married and have been for quite some time. Now we want to be married in your eyes, and our community’s eyes, as well.
This puts the ball in your parents’ court. They could say, “You were wrong, kiddo. Our relationship hasn’t come all that far, and we still can’t stand that Joe guy.” But they probably won’t, because you’ve just said how great it is that both you and they have made such progress. They can hardly start screaming at you after that heartfelt speech. If they blow up, well, chances are you sure would have had a similar falling-out eventually, because it means there are other deep-seated problems eating away at your relationship here.
Plan B: Deceive, Inveigle, Obfuscate
So, how many of your nearest and dearest know about the first secret wedding? Round them all up. Impress upon them, using thumbscrews if necessary, how it would devastate your parents to have missed the legal ceremony, and how it would devastate you to devastate them, etc. etc. The last thing you want is someone ignorant of the situation cracking wise at the reception about your initial covert wedding. The stakes get higher if anyone that your parents regularly socialize with (like, for example, your sister, if you have one) knows about the confidential civil secret wedding. This tempers the question of whether or not to cough up the facts now considerably, because it widens the scope of the “Can we keep this secret forever?” question, making the “we” a whole lot bigger than just you and your pack of friends that your parents will probably never see again. You have to trust not only yourself and your spouse, but a host of other people, some of whom may have loose lips.
You’ll have to swear your chaplain to secrecy as well. It’ll be easier if you say you considered it a necessity to get married when you did, but your parents were unable to be there (don’t mention that they were unable because you conveniently neglected to mention it) and your mother would never stop weeping if she knew she had missed your real Big Day. Of course, some people have moral qualms about lying to a man of God, but it’s not EQ’s place to make moral judgements, just to outlay your options.
Think about your marriage certificate. You’ve got one, of course, but for your purposes it’s got the wrong date on it. Many states will give you a second, blank certificate that is not legally binding but used for display purposes. I strongly suggest you acquire one and write in the date of your church wedding, and have your chaplain sign it after the ceremony just as he would sign the legal document if this had been your civil ceremony. That way your parents won’t notice anything amiss when you don’t seem to have anything resembling a marriage certificate. You wouldn’t want them dropping hints about you having forgotten something.
There are other, minor issues, like remembering to tread carefully when discussing anniversaries around your family. I’m sure you’ll notice them as they come up. Having the new ceremony on the same day as your secret wedding was, would make this issue so much easier, if possible.
Again, if you feel any doubt about your (or anyone else’s) ability to keep hush-hush about your marital status, then fess up now. It’s better to control the flow of the truth in cases where you feel that it’s going to come out anyway, rather than surprise yourself, and others, by spilling some rather important beans about a secret wedding.