Is it cheating, or needlessly sneaky, to get legally married before your wedding? Not necessarily, and it’s actually more common than you think.
For generations, military couples have rushed to city hall before one of them has to serve overseas. It’s a favorite tactic of celebrity couples, most recently Michael Phelps and Nicole Johnson, who kept their marriage a secret all through the Olympics, and they’ve still never revealed why. Jim and Pam snuck away from their nutty wedding to get hitched on a Niagara Falls boat on The Office. And, BIG GILMORE GIRLS SPOILER ALERT, Luke and Lorelai made it official on the night before their wedding, banishing for good their previous bad wedding juju.
Then again, just because it’s become a pop culture standard doesn’t mean it’s always done right. Before you choose this option, here are a few guidelines to follow.
Do: Get on the same page as your partner.
There’s no right or wrong reason for getting a quickie Vegas or city hall marriage, as long as you both agree. Some are just eager to tie the knot before they can save up money for a big wedding. Some need to get immigration or insurance paperwork in order. Some want to avoid complications of foreign marriage licenses for their destination wedding. Some might just want to eliminate their bad case of nerves before doing it in front of 200 people.
Connecticut couple Kate and Matt Wimsatt got married in secret so that she could get his health insurance. “But we weren’t ready to tell our families,” Kate told Yahoo Style. The Wimsatts married secretly two years before their “real” wedding, with only Matt’s brother and girlfriend as witnesses.
If there’s some less savory reason to keep friends and family in the dark, however, that could be a bad sign of what your future holds.
Do: Invite a couple of tight-lipped witnesses.
“You should have witnesses that are trustworthy, so they can hold on to your secret until you are ready to announce it officially,” etiquette expert Elaine Swann said. This may go without saying, but keep everyone off social media until you’ve told your family.
Don’t: Keep your secret forever.
The Wimsatts managed to keep their marriage under wraps until they were in the middle of planning their wedding, when their Episcopal priest made them fess up.
“He told us it would be deceptive to not tell our families we were married at that point,” Kate said. “Otherwise we maybe would have kept it secret. … I think it was a nice secret to have, to me. I enjoyed it.”
But Swann agrees with that priest.
“What we have to think about is that marriage is a good thing and something that should be shared,” she said. “I believe it is slightly deceptive if people think you’re coming together as man and wife [at the public wedding].”
Once you’ve told close friends and family, you can ask them to spread the word for you, or you can add the fact to your “story” on your wedding website.
Don’t: Confess your marriage as an apology.
“It’s important that the couple set the tone for what their decision is and how they’re moving forward,” Swann said. “When you do start to share with family members, make sure that the way you roll it out is as if there’s not really anything up for discussion, so it doesn’t turn into this heart-wrenching thing where people are weighing in and giving their opinion. You can start by saying, ‘We’d like to share with you that we’ve got some great news.’”
When you state it as a matter of fact — and a fantastic one, at that — the people who love you don’t have much to argue with, though you shouldn’t be surprised if they feel disappointed or left out.
“When we did tell my parents, we were sitting at the kitchen table, and my mom dropped a dish and chipped it,” Wimsatt said. “Then she picked it up, and she just said, ‘Well, why didn’t you invite us?’ That was it.”
Do: Consider your bigger wedding as a special occasion anyway.
“I think it’s important for a couple to look at this as a celebration, as opposed to, ‘We did something really sneaky and now are trying to get you onboard with this thing,’” Swann said of any after-the-fact wedding reception.
Wimsatt said their invitations included the subtle phrasing “to the blessing of a marriage,” and they said “I do” instead of “I will” in their vows, but very few noticed the difference.
“Saying our vows and sharing the day with our friends and family meant the world to us and was meaningful to everyone — who cares that it was ‘legal’ before then?” wrote one bride on the WeddingBee boards. “To us, signing a piece of paper in advance didn’t take away from the significance of publicly declaring ourselves husband and wife.”
Do: Decide together which anniversary to celebrate.
Unless you’re the type who likes to make a big deal of as many dates as possible, you might want to pick just one — either your courthouse date or the day of your party — to avoid confusion later. Swann has seen more couples decide to honor their “legal” marriage date.
“We’ve kind of forgotten the date of the secret wedding,” Wimsatt said, adding that they also forget their other anniversary most of the time. “We’ve been grocery shopping and looked at each other and gone, like, ‘Oh my God! Happy Anniversary!’ We just forget every single year.”
Having just welcomed their third child, 16 years after they went to city hall, they might be doing just fine without that particular convention too.