But it’s not clear this cliche holds up in real life.
A new report from the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia uses a longitudinal survey of recently married American couples to find correlations between spouses’ histories and the quality of their marriage. (“Marriage quality” is based on responses to questions about relationship happiness, thoughts about dissolution, frequency of confiding in each other, and a general question about how well things are going between the partners.)
Perhaps surprisingly, it finds that having a formal wedding is associated with being in a happier marriage:
Of course, we don’t know the reasons behind why the 418 couples in the sample chose to have a formal wedding ceremony or just drop by city hall. The study noted that couples who already had a child together or who had a child on the way at the time of their marriage were less likely to have had a formal wedding — and that having a kid before getting married was also associated with lower marital quality.
Not only are formal weddings correlated with greater conjugal happiness, but having a bigger wedding, as measured by number of guests, was also associated with higher marital quality:
The authors, Galena K. Rhoades and Scott M. Stanley, controlled for things such as respondents’ income, race, gender and religiosity to try to weed out some variables that might skew the results. But they unfortunately couldn’t control for everything, such as wedding price or parental income, which were not recorded in the survey data. Parental income in particular could go a long way in explaining the correlation between wedding attendance and marital quality; wealthier parents might be more likely to help out not only with the cost of the wedding, but also other financial stresses that the newlyweds experience later on.
The authors also suggest some other possible explanations for the somewhat counter-cliche finding that big guest-lists mean a happier marriage:
[T]here is some reason to believe that having more witnesses at a wedding may actually strengthen marital quality. According to the work of psychologist Charles Kiesler (Kiesler, 1971), commitment is strengthened when it is publicly declared because individuals strive to maintain consistency between what they say and what they do. We try to keep our present attitudes and behaviors in line with our past conduct. The desire for consistency is likely enhanced by public expressions of intention. Social scientist Paul Rosenblatt applied this idea specifically to marriage (Rosenblatt, 1977). He theorized that, early in a marriage, marital stability and commitment would be positively associated with the ceremonial effort and public nature of a couple’s wedding. Rosenblatt specifically suggested that holding a big wedding with many witnesses would lead to a stronger desire—or even need—to follow through on the commitment. Our findings suggest that he may have been right.
In any case, remember that the sample size here is small, and that none of these respondents have been randomly assigned a city hall wedding or a big extravaganza at the Plaza. So its hard to infer anything causal at all from these correlations. I.e., don’t drive yourself deeply into debt with a gigantic wedding just because of a couple of bar charts.