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Who Knew? A Bigger Wedding Could Equal a Happier Marriage

Beth Greenfield
Senior Writer
August 20, 2014

Gif: Lyndsay Undseth Photography/Anjelika Temple

Eloping at city hall may seem like a sign of love so true and everlasting that there’s no need to muddle it with elaborate wedding plans, but new research points to another finding: that having a formal wedding — the larger the better — may lead to a happier marriage down the road.

“We know from social psychology research that people like to be consistent, so making a public declaration of commitment may help people follow through on their commitments,” Galena K. Rhoades, co-author of the study, released by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, told Yahoo Health in an email. “This finding may also reflect that couples who have stronger communities and greater social support tend to do better,” she said.  

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The study, co-authored by Rhoades and Scott M. Stanley, both University of Denver research associate professors of psychology, was based on new data from the Relationship Development Study, funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. They looked closely at 418 new marriages, analyzing the history of the relationships, prior romantic experiences, and the reported quality of the couples’ marriages.

“Most of the individuals who married over the course of our study, 89 percent in all, reported having had a formal wedding. Those who did reported higher marital quality than those who did not,” the researchers wrote.

In the study, having more guests at a wedding was associated with higher marital quality. To illustrate this association, researchers created groups of those who had weddings with 50 or fewer, 51 to 149, or 150 or more guests. Of those with 50 or fewer attendees, 31 percent had particularly high marital satisfaction; those percentages rose to 37 percent in the 51-to-149 attendees category, and 47 percent for those who had had 150 or more people at their wedding.

“Small or large, wedding ceremonies also reflect and enhance the community context of marriages. Weddings, after all, are public celebrations involving family, close friends, and often a wider network of people around a couple,” they added. “Emile Durkheim, the celebrated sociologist, is famous for arguing that community, and the rituals associated with collective life, give meaning, purpose, and stability to social life. The association between having a wedding and having a stronger, happier marriage could reflect two dynamics in this context. First, weddings may foster support for the new marriage from within a couple’s network of friends and family. Second, those who hold a formal wedding are likely to have stronger social networks in the first place.”

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A formal wedding with many guests was not the only formula for success, though. Among the other findings:

• Those who had had more romantic experiences, such as having had more sexual or cohabiting partners, were less likely to forge a high-quality marriage than those with a less complex romantic history — which might seem counterintuitive. “It is surprising,” Rhoades said. “In most parts of our lives, more experience is better, but here we found the opposite. We think that more relationship experience may give people a greater sense of what the alternatives are, which may make them more likely to compare their marriages to past relationships or experiences. More experience in relationships also means more experience breaking up, and so it might set up a mindset that future relationships are also more fragile.” 

• Spouses who had kicked off their relationship by “hooking up,” reported slightly less marital satisfaction than those who had waited a while before having sex — something that jibes with other past research, such as a 2012 study that found that women who waited a whopping 182 days before having sex with their partner reported better intimacy and social support in their relationships.

• Couples that “slid” into living together rather than talking it out and making a conscious, definitive decision about cohabiting had slightly lower marital quality later on. 

But all is not lost, Stanley noted, if you’ve already set up your present marriage to be seemingly less successful than it could have been — at least according to these findings. “No one is doomed because of their past,” he told Yahoo Health. “Anyone can start going a bit slower, and start making decisions about important aspects of relationships — especially important relationship transitions — and improve their odds of making an existing relationship better, or finding the best partner for themselves in the future.”