The wedding boyfriend

It's a peculiar phenomenon. You hook up with someone at the rehearsal dinner and by Sunday brunch you've enacted all of the stages of courtship -- speeded up.


Curtis Sittenfeld
November 4, 2003 5:19PM (UTC)

I am, according to my friend Susanna, a wedding ho. In the last five years, I've gone to every wedding I've been invited to -- 12 in total. My so-called wedding vow started after two college classmates married each other in the summer of 1997. I decided not to go to the wedding because it was across the country, because my then-boss didn't want me to take time off, and because I had grown apart from the friends I'd once shared with the bride and groom. And since it was going to be a Mormon wedding, it wasn't even like the awkwardness could be smoothed over with booze.

But afterward, after I hadn't gone, I regretted it. Even though weddings are in many ways ridiculous -- people spend vast sums of money to act out corny and antiquated rituals in a frenzied setting -- they still mean something. They're an act of optimism, a time when people come together for happy rather than unhappy reasons. And I hadn't been there.

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Since then, repentant, I have attended weddings in Florida and Rhode Island and Oregon, in New Hampshire and South Carolina and California. I have spent dozens of hours and thousands of dollars buying gifts on the Crate and Barrel Web site -- surely, if the store had a frequent flier equivalent, by now I'd be entitled to an entire Calphalon Contemporary Nonstick Cookware Set ($299.95, oven safe to 450 degrees). And, in my faithful attendance of the weddings themselves, I have had ample opportunity both to observe and to participate in all the behaviors associated with a phenomenon known as the wedding boyfriend. (Please note: "The wedding boyfriend" exists in many permutations depending upon your own gender and sexual orientation. He also answers to the name of wedding girlfriend.)

Here's how it works: You go, dateless, to a wedding. You start hanging out with a particular guy, also a single wedding guest. You can, but don't have to, hook up with him; the only requirement is that the question of whether you'll hook up must exist, hanging there like champagne bubbles. Ideally, you meet your wedding boyfriend at the rehearsal dinner and then your relationship -- your minirelationship -- can unfold over the next 36 hours. Even if you don't meet your wedding boyfriend until the reception, the wedding boyfriend is still the person who, for you, defines the wedding. It's the unique structure of the wedding weekend that allows for these compressed relationships. "With the rehearsal dinner [and] wedding back to back, you've greased the skids for familiarity with people," says Scott, a 33-year-old law school professor in Washington. (All names have been changed to protect the single and still-looking.) "It's pretty rare, if you think about it, to go out on consecutive nights with people that you've just met. It almost never happens in other circumstances, and when it does happen [at a wedding] you're in some place where you've traveled, so you get this weird combination of vacation and familiarity."

According to Jake, a 33-year-old New York photographer who has ended up in bed with wedding girlfriends at six out of his last six weddings ("At a certain point," he says, "it approached pathology"), the Friday night before a wedding, when various friends typically gather together, "is like the first day of camp. You form your little social circles and everyone figures out who's attracted to whom and what's going on."

Then, once you've found your wedding honey, you get to enact all of the stages of courtship, speeded up: After the meeting and the initial connection comes the bliss, followed by the growing sense that it's about to end, followed by the end itself -- aka the breakup. When you're ripped apart at the conclusion of the weekend -- let's say he's flying home to Dallas, you live in Boston -- you feel disproportionately bereft; you get to luxuriate in the logistical unfairness of it, in the knowledge that surely if you lived in the same city you would start dating immediately. Hell, you'd probably end up married yourselves. Of course, the reality is, it's this very distance, and the ephemerality of the weekend -- plus, often, a lot of alcohol -- that allows people to be so open to a romantic connection in the first place. "It's more safe," says Amanda, a 30-year-old doctor in Philadelphia. "[You don't] actually have to deal after the weekend is over."

Amanda recently found wedding love with a guy who had been preselected for her. Amanda was the best friend of the bride's sister; Ben was the best friend of the groom; both had been hearing about each other for several years. When Amanda pulled into the dirt road leading to the bride's family's house on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, Ben and the bride's sister Jill "walked up to meet me and hopped in my car," remembers Amanda. "Jill's like, 'Meet Ben, your date for the weekend.' And he handed me a can of Budweiser." In other words: Ben was an arranged wedding boyfriend. Ben was cute and confident, and he was wearing a John Deere hat that Amanda liked, but she wasn't totally convinced. Then, at a bonfire that evening, "He put his hand on my butt," says Amanda. "I went up to Jill and was like, 'I think I am going to hook up with him.'" Conveniently, Amanda and Ben were not only both sleeping at the bride's family's house but they'd been assigned a bed and a trundle bed a foot apart. However, the romance of the first evening was cut short when Amanda, having had several gin and tonics and not much else for dinner, threw up in her bed. But this turn of events actually allowed Ben, in true wedding boyfriend mode, to show his helpful domestic side -- he proceeded to strip and remake the bed and bring Amanda water.

The two of them spent much of the next day together -- not Amanda's usual M.O. even after a successful overnight first date. They swam together in the lake and helped prepare for the ceremony. That night, Ben's mother was present at the wedding, and Ben introduced Amanda to her "like one would a new girlfriend," going so far as to hold Amanda's hand in front of his mother. Amanda's not sure she and Ben would hit it off in the regular world -- "He's just really gregarious and has to be the center of attention all the time," she says -- but that's the beauty of a wedding boyfriend: It doesn't matter. After all, Ben and Amanda live 3,000 miles apart.

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Although Ben and Amanda did hook up on the wedding night, a wedding boyfriend isn't the same as a wedding hookup. There's overlap, of course, but sex isn't mandatory -- it's more about intensity of feeling. Julia, now 30 and living in Washington, was 23 and about to enter a graduate writing program when she met George, a teacher in his 50s, at a wedding reception in Virginia in the summer of 1997. "I spent the entire night talking to him," she remembers. "His wife had recently died of cancer and my mom had recently had cancer and we were totally bonding. He started crying at one point and I was crying. We sat and talked for three hours."

Nothing physical happened ("There definitely was a spark," Julia says, "but my parents were there, for one thing, and he was so old"), but they decided to keep in touch. "We had this huge hug goodbye, exchanged addresses, and e-mailed every day." The e-mails, naturally, were flirtations: "I would tell him about dates I went on and he would give me advice or be like, 'He's not good enough!'" After a few months, the e-mails stopped abruptly, when both Julia and George began dating other people.

"There's an excess of sentiment" at weddings, says Scott, the law professor. But the sentiment isn't always positive, and the wedding boyfriend has an ugly inverse -- the already-existing relationship that blows up at a wedding. "I've definitely been to weddings before with guys I'm dating but not that serious about, and I think that's a bad thing to do," says Amanda. "It can almost hurt a relationship that's not there yet [in terms of seriousness] or not ever going to be there [because] it puts pressure on people." Pressure, that is, to get engaged themselves -- or at least to seem deeply and conspicuously in love.

In fact, a friend of Amanda's was at a recent wedding in Sun Valley, Idaho, in which not one but two separate girlfriends burst into tears and stormed away from their boyfriends when the bride rose to serenade her new husband with a love song. "Rather than being happy for [the couple] that they were getting married, the [girlfriends] were upset that they weren't," says Amanda. According to Jake, the New York photographer, "It can be one of two things [with women]. Either they're in a sordid jealous panic, in which case frankly they're not at all attractive and I'm not going to hook up with them. Or they can be the type that are completely on cloud nine -- they're psyched for their friends -- and when you see that, that's contagious. At [one wedding] a close friend of the bride [was] a very confident woman, very athletic, very open, and a force of nature. When I saw her, it was like, I gotta have some of that." Not only did Jake have some -- he had it at 3 o'clock the afternoon before the wedding. Blame it, or credit it to, the convenience of the beds. In the morning, "We went shopping and just ran stupid wedding errands together," he remembers. "Then we were back at the hotel and we hooked up." Jake adds, "I've never had bad sex at a wedding." About his six-for-six wedding-girlfriend streak, Jake says, "I do not go looking for them. I haven't slept with dozens of women in my life. I'm not a bar-picker-upper." But there's just something about a wedding. "Without being corny, love is in the air."

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As for me, it was only this past summer, a summer during which I attended five weddings, that I gave a name to the wedding boyfriend. Then, as with any new belief, there seemed to be evidence of it everywhere, and I could retroactively pinpoint them all: Alex, with whom I'd worked in the same office building for more than a year and almost never spoken to before we both moved away and remet at the wedding three years later (having vaguely known your wedding boyfriend in the past is actually pretty common; before, you were acquaintances, but at a wedding at which neither of you necessarily knows many other people, your relative familiarity with each other is part of what draws you together in the first place); Kit, whose lap I sat on in a crowded car after the reception; Mark, whom I started arguing with in the driveway of the bride's house, while I was wearing a bright red linen dress. There is always a wedding boyfriend, I decided. It's just a matter of identifying him.

I also decided, based on past experiences, that the wedding boyfriend shouldn't transcend the wedding. Normal life is more awkward and less giddy, and if you see the guy again, it's hard not to taint the bubbly fun you had before. E-mailing is fine because, well, e-mail is only half-real. But in-person contact should be kept, like the tulle on the bride's dress or the sugared flowers on the cake, within the confines of the wedding weekend. Yes, I know that all the time people meet at weddings and get into relationships, and sometimes even get married themselves -- for real, and not just in their heads. But when that happens, the guy in question isn't, and never was, your wedding boyfriend. Then he's just your boyfriend.

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We want to make you a part of this series. What is the state of your union? Did you find the one and never look back, or has finding lasting love been a marathon of trial and error? Did you have a fairy-tale wedding only to watch things crumble once the reception was over, or have you glided along in marital bliss since Day One? We want to hear your stories of joy, romance, heartbreak and pain. After all, partnership, as we all know, is a complex concoction of all of those things. (Please remember: Any writing submitted becomes the property of Salon if we publish it. We reserve the right to edit submissions, and cannot reply to every writer. Interested contributors should send their stories to marriage@salon.com.)


Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of the novels "Prep" and "American Wife."

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