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Always a Bridesmaid, Never the Bride June 15, 2009

Posted by Onely in "Against Love"...?, Food for Thought, Heteronormativity, single and happy.
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This past weekend, I was a bridesmaid for a friend’s wedding in St. Louis. This is the fourth time I’ve been a bridesmaid over the last eight years or so, and doing it made me think about the popular (American?) expression, “Always a bridesmaid, never the bride.” For those of our readers unfamiliar with it, the expression carries a highly negative connotation, suggesting that the woman (or person) in question hasn’t (or cannot/will not) fulfill her ultimate ambition in life — being a bride (for info on the origin of the expression, check out this link).

I’m sure I don’t need to explain to you, copious readers, how heteronormative and sexist the expression is, suggesting that a woman’s most impressive achievement will be her wedding day (!!). But I have started to think a lot about what it means to be a bridesmaid, especially as one of the co-writers of this blog. Of the four weddings I’ve been in, I have only felt positive/confident about the pairing once, and that was the first wedding, when I was much younger and much less critical about the value of marriage (to their credit, the bride and I have remained friends, and the couple is still together and seems very happy). Two of the other brides were once close friends, but in both cases, our lives and relationships changed considerably, and I now only rarely speak to one of them and feel frustrated by my friendship with the other (which has left me feeling sour and wondering what my presence in all those posed photos really signifies).

As for this most recent wedding, I am still not quite sure why I was invited to be a bridesmaid, since I wouldn’t count this bride among my closest friends (although I like her very much). When she asked me to be in her wedding, I said yes because I simply couldn’t imagine saying no.

But that was before Christina and I started Onely. And before one of my closest friends (one of the other brides mentioned above) began to treat me much differently (read: rudely) after her engagement to her future husband, leaving me with a bad taste in my mouth. I said “yes” to this most recent one even though I felt somewhat disingenuous agreeing to be a part of the party when I didn’t feel like we were close friends. Even though I knew it would require time, energy, and – of course – a great deal of money, I said yes.

And now that it’s over — now that I’ve done my duty and given my toast in honor of this fourth happy couple, I have decided that in the future, I will say no.

Why? Not because I am not in favor of the match (although this may be true, it is none of my business). And not because I don’t care for or support my friends’ decisions to get married.

But because I have realized — since starting Onely and pursuing my Ph.D., both of which have challenged me to think critically about those things I previously assumed were “normal” or “natural” — I have realized that it is dishonest to stand next to a couple at an alter and participate in a ceremony that I simply don’t believe in anymore.

For some reason, making this decision feels surprisingly radical to me. Like I’ve committed some kind of sacrilege…. Thoughts?

— Lisa



1. Singletude - June 16, 2009

Even though I personally do believe in marriage, I applaud you for taking a stand for what you believe in. You definitely should not participate in something that you believe is ethically wrong. Of course, any friends who ask you in the future may be hurt, and some of them may think that your moral conscience is really a mask for envy, jealousy, pettiness, stinginess, or whatever. But hopefully, if they’re really friends, they’ll understand that it would be like getting baptized if you weren’t Christian or donating money to the NRA if you were anti-gun. If I were you, I would start telling your single friends about your change of heart now so that they won’t be surprised if and when they get engaged!

I’m sorry to hear that some of your married friends went MIA after the wedding. 😦 This seems pretty common. Two friends have done it to me, although I can’t say those friendships were exceptionally close to begin with. In a sense, I don’t blame them because I find that I prefer to have single friends myself–there’s more common ground, and I feel like we’re on the same wavelength more often. I figure they feel the same about other married couples. On the other hand, it irritates me when I repeatedly ask to get together and am brushed off because my friend can’t leave her husband alone for dinner one night or can’t go shopping on a Saturday unless he already has plans with his friends. I understand that they want to spend time together, but geez! They see each other every day. Is it too much to ask to get together for a few hours once a month or so?

Alan - June 16, 2009

I’ve heard of people who ditch their single friends when they get married. So far it hasn’t happened to me.

I wonder if it depends on how the couple in question view their marriage. My sister and BIL are pretty much the same post-marriage as they were pre-marriage, but then again they were pretty casual about the whole thing, dating for years prior to the engagement, neither one particularly romantic about it. And I still see my best friend frequently post-marriage…his wife insists that he maintain his old relationships, and gives him the room to do so.

On the other hand, if a marriage represents some sort of idealized ultimate goal, then the people involved are probably less likely to make room for others.

Jenn - June 16, 2009

I agree with Alan – I have some married friends where nothing has changed since the wedding, and others (including one I was a bridesmaid for) where we have drifted apart (though even that has been more sort of benign, as much about distance as relationship status). So I don’t think it’s that there is something inherently bad about marriage so much as people’s attitudes about it.

Lisa, I’m curious whether your issue is with the institution of marriage, or the whole idea of lifelong commitment? Your post is about weddings but what if instead of a wedding, it was “just” a commitment ceremony (which is what a lot of gay couples have instead of a wedding)?

onely - June 16, 2009

Jenn — My (and Onely’s) issue is with the institution of marriage and with the way that the marriage ceremony privileges (in social, economical, and legal ways) couples over singles.

I’m not “against” marriage in the sense that I can’t understand or support the reasons why people choose marriage (to publicly announce a commitment to one another, etc.). So it’s not as though I will never attend a wedding in the future if invited — instead, I feel it’s unfair to my friends to “stand” (in both literal and symbolic ways) for their marriages if I have this kind of a critical perspective.

Alan and Singletude: I hope I didn’t sound like I was generalizing about all married people — I have many friends who are married and who are wonderful friends. It just so happens that two of my closest friends have, unfortunately, changed and/or hurt me after I “stood” for them as a bridesmaid — and based on the fact that a lot of these changes occurred after they entered relationship mode, I can’t help but attribute some of that to the relationships themselves.

— Lisa

Singletude - June 22, 2009

Lisa: No worries. Speaking for myself, it was definitely clear that you were just referring to a few specific people.

2. trauma queen - June 16, 2009

THANK YOU for writing this! I was watching the movie with the same title and it got me thinking of the very same thing and I felt so sick!

but coming to your post -I support you. I mean why participate in anything that feels wrong? You don’t have to explain yourself to others as to WHY you feel this way..and I think you’re being brave (and very “normal”) for standing by something you believe in.

Btw I am curious – does the bridesmaid have to be unmarried? If married women could be bridesmaids..then the saying “always the bridesmaid…” would become defunct right?

onely - June 16, 2009

TQ — great question. But if a bridesmaid is NEVER the bride, that means that the bridesmaid hasn’t been married. Some bridesmaids are married, so they have already been brides and therefore have nothing left to aspire to 😉

— L

3. Nikki Sommermorgen - June 16, 2009


I think this is a really interesting post. I actually once said no to being a bridesmaid. A really close (male) friend of mine asked me to be in his wedding. I said no because I had witnessed the ups and downs (mostly downs) of his relationship over years, I had seen him suffer in this relationship like I had never seen any guy suffer in a relationship before. I was never jealous of him and his (broken) relationship to his future wife. I said no, because I was sure this marriage would be a big mistake and a year later I still think it was. My friend got really mad at me and uninvited me to his wedding. We didn’t speak for a couple months and it definitely has taken a toll on our friendship, but things slowly started to heal and we are still in contact.
I believe my friend (the groom) knows my stance on marriage in general and his in particular. He knows why I said no and he has accepted it. The worst part in this whole scenario were our mutual friends though. Me saying no is just proof for them that I am jealous of other people getting married while I’m single. Even though I tried to explain it to some of them, I don’t think they understand how some women do not necessarily want to get married or how they can be single and happy. It is completely out of the picture for them. Heteronormativity seems to be anchored so deeply in our society…

onely - June 16, 2009

The jealousy argument is so infuriating because there’s really no response you can make to it.
In the past I have had friends who have made terrible relationship mistakes, and people always told me not to call them on it because then I’d just drive them away. But when I think back to the terrible relationship mistakes *I’ve* made when I was blinded by “love”, I *wish* one of my friends had called me on it, tried hard to wake me up. Good for you for standing up for what you believed in. I’m glad your friendship is slowly healing.

4. Lauri - June 16, 2009

One thing I’ve notice about being a bridesmaid, rather than an ordinary guest at a wedding, is that I am much less able to avoid those aspects of weddings that I really don’t agree with in principle. I am not “against” marriage per se, but I am, of course, against singlism, “matrimania,” and above all, sexism. As a bridesmaid, I actually have to embrace these things in a way. For example, one of the first things that really bothered me about weddings, back when I started noticing in my early 20s, was showers. I think they are sexist, singlist,and wasteful. As an ordinary wedding guest, I can maybe go to a shower and perhaps bring a gift that I don’t think is useless, wasteful, expensive, or sexist (though it’s hard!) or I can actually just not attend. But, when you are the bridesmaid, you actually have to HOST this giant disgrace. You also can’t back out of going to a wedding if something really offends you mid-bridesmaidom.

I’m currently a bridesmaid for the first time in several years, and much of the position is making me feel very uncomfortable, like a hypocrite. I have made the mistake of thinking that it would be ok because friends of mine wouldn’t include the worst aspects of weddings, but it seems like EVERYONE does!

I think the problem with being “always a bridesmaid and never a bride” (besides all the horribleness of the saying) is that OTHER bridesmaids, who have been or plan to be a bride, make much better bridesmaids. They figure, they’ll get back what they put in. But there’s no benefit of being a bridesmaid when you’re never a bride. It’s funny that it’s supposed to be some position of honor, yet also involves a level of servitude. It’s kind of funny I think, that the word “maid” can take on a double meaning here.

Trauma queen- I think once upon a time bridesmaids were supposed to be unmarried, but now anything goes. Some people take it literally and name the married bridesmaids “matrons” but usually only if they are the “matron of honor.” The saying isn’t meant to imply that all bridesmaids are never brides, but rather that very pathetic, depressing, failures of women- i.e. SINGLE women- are always a bridesmaid and never a bride, and that there’s some sort of problem with that…

5. Singlutionary - June 16, 2009

weddings make me want to barf in general. I am cool with people getting married. I am even cool with ritual and tradition. But weddings usually make me want to barf barf barf all over the taffeta and calla lilies.

So yeah. Saying “no” to being a bridesmaid is simply saying no to something you don’t want to do. Its supposed to be this big fun honor and you get to wear a pretty dress and stand up there next to the bride. Its like being close to a famous person or something. But the reality of it is that its a giant pain in the ass and an expensive on and all the energy required could be put towards restoring a car or saving the rainforest or learning ancient greek.

I don’t have any close female friends anymore so I don’t think I’d be asked. I’ve actually never been a bridesmaid since my two best friends during that era were mormon (they have a secret temple ceremony so bridesmaids are a moot point) or got married in lake tahoe (not a super well planned out ceremony).

6. trauma queen - June 17, 2009

“It’s funny that it’s supposed to be some position of honor, yet also involves a level of servitude.” I find this very interesting…and I think MOST bridesmaids feel this way.

My best friend was recently asked to be a bridesmaid at a common Christian friend’s wedding. She was very upset with having to spend a bomb on the dress and other little nitty grities. but she was told it was ‘part of the custom’ so she grinned and bore with it. There is no concept of a bridesmaid in Hindu weddings, so the whole idea is a bit hazy to non-Christians in India.

I have seen enough number of hollywood movies and american sitcoms to get a fair idea, but I had no idea ‘matrimania’ was as rampant in Occidental cultures as it is in Oriental ones.

7. autonomous - June 17, 2009

I feel your bridesmaid pain Onely- I have a hard time mustering enthusiasm to go to weddings that I know are just a pre-party to the divorce.

Since I’m pretty much the last of my friends to remain single-never-married, and those friends who are currently single are recently divorced- I’m pretty sure that any subsequent marriages will be quieter than the first go around. The last wedding I went to is already divorced. The one before that- Australia, so I didn’t mind the bridesmaid dress, or the cost.

I personally always entertained the idea of marrying in front of a J.P., then inviting friends/family to a lunch. Wedding and baby showers give me the heebiejeebies and I avoid them as far as possible without giving offense. I would never ever want one. At this point, it’s all basically mute anyway.

8. Cara - July 7, 2009

That’s an interesting stand you’re taking. I am a believer in marriage and personally I think I would act the same as you if I wasn’t in favor of the match I don’t think I’d be a bridesmaid. It would feel wrong to stand next to a couple that I personally felt indifferent about. Regardless of that, I love weddings when the match is good and I am happy to be a part of those weddings even with that saying floating around in my head. Pretty soon, another one of my friends is getting married and I am just enjoying helping her out and being there for her. My favorite part about helping her is doing some research in finding some Chicago Wedding Bands to play at her reception. We get to have fun little listening parties, and it’s a great way to bond with the other girls. I have fun with it and I think that should definatly be a part of weddings, helping celebrate a friends chapter in life where they find that person they will spend the rest of their life with.

onely - July 9, 2009

At one wedding I was not a bridesmaid, I was the cake cutter. I got to choose my own dress and give extra frosting roses to my favorite people. Best job ever. Choosing music or dj-ing would be fun too, but more work.

9. courtney shoecraft - July 8, 2009

help me convince my bf I’m good enough to be a wife!!!

10. Lisa Chang - July 16, 2009

Sounds like the author of this is just jealous ’cause she never got married herself. So she has decided she doesn’t believe in marriage. That’s like the famous Aesop’s fable about the fox and the sour grapes. “I can’t have it, so its no good anyway”.

No wonder that this woman is still single. Bitterness is such an unattractive quality in a woman.

11. Ehmkt - October 2, 2009

THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU! Oh Ehm Gee I just found Onely today and it couldn’t have come at a better time. I am fresh off an (almost) year of hell financially because of two weddings I was ‘asked’ to be a bridesmaid for. They were in June and September, and when I was asked I actually lived in the same state. I was recently transferred out of state and the amount of money I spent this year on other people was truly ridiculous. I didn’t buy one new article of clothing for myself this year except two bridesmaid dresses totalling $500, shoes for each and undergarments to allow me to fit into the most unflattering of dress choices ever picked for someone shaped like me. (Pear shaped in a mermaid style dress anyone?) I took two trips ‘home’ for airline travel costing another $500, not to mention the added expense of gifts for 6 showers (including the bachelorette parties).

I am now too broke and out of vacation time to get my own ‘honeymoon’ for the year. To top it all off, I was not allowed to bring a guest to either wedding – not that I had one to bring – but I’d like the option. And what if I moved out of state only to stumble upon someone I liked well enough to bring home to friends and family?

Lisa Chang just highlights the view of people who use marriage as a status symbol in our society. You must be bitter, unmarriable, or have given up the idea that you ‘deserve it’ only to be shunning something that secretly you want. I’m not secretive about it. I want it. I just don’t see it as the next logical thing to do after graduating college. When it happens it happens. Until it happens, I will happily leave my crap strewn from one end of the hall to the next, watch what I want on TV, listen to whatever music I feel like listening to as loud as I want, and decide which of MY friends I will be hanging out with during my precious time outside of work.

Onely - October 2, 2009

Here’s to pear shapes! I can’t believe you weren’t allowed to bring a guest to the weddings when you were actually *part* of the wedding. That is the ultimate B.S. And even though you said “not that I had one to bring”, surely you deserved the option of bringing a friend even if they weren’t a sig other. Crazy!! Condolences. I’m glad you’re appreciating your own time. And speaking of which, time for my NAP. = ) Christina

12. Lisa Chang - October 29, 2009

I think when one is critical of weddings and not happy for their friends getting married, then yes – they are bitter and jealous. If one is TRULY happy being single, then they are happy for their friends when they get married.

The author of this piece disses marriage and weddings in general. If you don’t “get” that, then you need better reading comprehension skills.

Onely - October 29, 2009

Actually, what I believe Lisa is saying (in only one sentence from the entire post) is that she will not be a bridesmaid anymore because she personally is not comfortable with the institution of marriage as it currently stands, and to participate would feel hypocritical to her, because by extension she’d feel that she was disrespecting both herself and her friends–who, she acknowledges in a separate paragraph, have a right to participate in the ceremony if it *does* mean something to them.

But just because according to current culture it is “normal” for someone to say “Yes!” when asked to participate in a wedding ceremony, doesn’t mean that it’s required, or necessarily even right for all the parties involved. I would argue that there’s a big difference between being “bitter and jealous” and noting that in a couple circumstances she’s been (privately) worried that the couple doesn’t seem happy and won’t make it. I don’t believe she let her worry show to the couples, and in her post she acknowledges their right to choose each other. Whether you are a happy single or an unhappy single should have no innate bearing on whether you are happy for a friend getting married. Is he marrying someone cool? Ok, then, you’re happy. Is he marrying a dink? Ok, then, you’re not. To say that “truly happy single people” are always happy when their friends get married is to say that marriage is always inherently a good thing. All Lisa is saying is that it’s not, or not always.

This is my interpretation of Lisa’s post, and as her co-blogger for over a year I’d have to say that my interpretive skills are probably pretty good. However, I also realize that this is *my* interpretation and that other people with different experiences, and with different cultural and political backgrounds, and with different SAT reading comp scores from me, can have different understandings of the text. Isn’t that the great thing about the blogging culture?

What’s not great about the blogging culture, and what Onely doesn’t sanction, is the tendency to name-call or provide an over-generalized dismissal of other people’s opinions. What one person “gets” out of a piece is never necessarily the same as what other people “get” out of it. Everyone is equipped with different awarenesses that allow them to interpret a text. It’s a good idea to be careful when making a strong statement about other readers’ opinions, because their particular skillsets might be supporting their comprehension and making it stronger.

singlutionary - October 30, 2009

here. here. well done Christina.

Onely - October 31, 2009

Thanks Singlutionary!

13. Lisa Chang - November 25, 2009

Ehmkt, nobody forced you to participate in these weddings. It is your own fault that spent all that money to buy your bridesmaids dresses and pay your travel fees.Grow up and accept responsibility for your own actions. Again, no one forced you to spend that money.

Onely - November 26, 2009

Lisa Chang,
If you read Ehmkt’s comment with careful comprehension, you will notice please that she was not allowed to bring guests to the weddings for which she spent so much money, whereas the other invitees were (we must assume) allowed to bring spouses. This discrepancy highlights the artificial structure of our current materialistic (and government-sanctioned) Western wedding tradition, where certain couples are favored over other couples and over singles. Moreover, this tradition is so strongly ingrained in our culture that when someone is asked to participate, they in effect *cannot* say no without, at the best, receiving raised eyebrows, and, at the worst, being told that they are “bitter”. This is what Ekmkt is railing against, as opposed to the money specifically.

Interestingly, we notice that you are following this thread with great passion and seem bent on tearing down other commenters who disagree with you. If I were to follow your own line of argument, at this point I would say that “you sound very bitter, probably because you really secretly want to be able to be a happy single. Bitterness is a very unattractive quality in anyone, so you should grow up and accept that there are more responsible (and convincing!) ways to make your points other than cheap rhetorical name-calling.”

But I won’t say that, because Onely strives to remain professional and promote productive discussions. To that end, we request that you only comment on this site if you can present your points in a respectful and non-defensive manner. Any other sorts of comments will be removed.

Thank you,

Onely - November 26, 2009

Here’s an example of how to articulate Lisa Chang’s most recent comment in a thoughtful, respectful, and diplomatic way:

“Ehkmt, while I understand your dismay at having to spend so much money for those weddings, I do have to ask whether you could have said ‘no’ to participating in them. Surely you had a degree of choice in the matter?”

As the old saying goes, “Matrimaniacs catch more flies with honey than with vinegar!”

14. Lisa Chang - November 26, 2009

Um, I think its pretty obvious she could have said “no” to participating in these weddings.That’s a big “duh”.

And people do, all the time, decline to participate in weddings, because they can’t afford it, can’t travel the distance required, or any other number of reasons.

I think its more mature to say “no thanks, I can’t participate” than to go ahead and participate, then complain about how much it your dress costs, how you supposedly were “forced” into it, how you think the couple will get divorced, how phony you think weddings are, etc. etc.

15. Singlutionary - November 27, 2009

I’m not sure that people feel that they can say “no” to participating in weddings without damaging the relationship. Sometimes people participate in weddings out of love and/or respect for the person who asked them but as the wedding plans progress, feel that they really wish that they hadn’t said yes.

I think the problem here is that there was and assumption that it wouldn’t be a problem to bring a guest and then suddenly it was. And then suddenly all the money and effort and time seemed like a huge waste because the generosity extended towards the bride wasn’t extended back.

So things didn’t start out bad but they ended that way.

And I think that culturally there is this concept that “the bride is always right” and so even if you feel wronged, you really can’t do or say anything because it isn’t really up for discussion.

I participate in weddings even though I kinda hate them out of love and respect for the person getting married. I try see it as a gift for the person getting married even though I don’t really agree or enjoy it but because it is important to them. So far, I have felt that the brides are excited about and grateful for my participation. If I were to feel that the bride was not excited about or grateful for my participation, I would be kinda annoyed.

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