The Family Gathering: Aka our “non-wedding”

There’s no good way to say this: But Phil and I just got committed. Well, we’d been committed to each other for a while. But we decided to recognize our ongoing commitment with our families in a ceremony called “The Family Gathering.”

People who don’t overthink these things would just call this a wedding. But overthinking things is one of our favorite sports. And, as a behavioral scientist, I’m excited to re-write the script for this celebration and add some spice that makes it more ‘behaviorally informed.’

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Not surprisingly, we ended up ditching most of the ‘status quo’ wedding traditions. We created our own version of a ceremony that was better fitted for our values, goals, and peculiarities.

Where we landed likely isn’t right for everyone, but we will freely admit — and pictures expose — that we’re proud of the output!

Here are a few highlights of the full experience:

1) There was no proposal.

In November of 2017 Phil didn’t ask Kristen for her hand. Nor was Kristen wasn’t waiting for Phil to ask for her hand. Instead, we decided — together — that the time was right to solidify our bond. It was a scheduled conversation vs. a proposal. It was still heartfelt and romantic, but we treated it like a big decision and spent the necessary time, energy and deep thoughtfulness talking it through.

2) We are doing two ceremonies — a ‘family only’ and a ‘friends only’

We couldn’t really figure out how to simultaneously solve for both friends and family, so we didn’t even try. Both groups play important but different roles in our lives and we ask for each to support our relationship in different ways.

Our goals for our family celebration: Quality time, quality time, quality time. Despite our almost 4 year relationship, our families hadn’t yet spend much time together. We wanted to use the ceremony as an opportunity to have them really get to know each other. Two design choices allowed us to do this: Keeping it intimate (25 people — first cousins or closer) and spreading events over a casual 3-day weekend rather than a single blowout night.

It didn’t take long for our families to get over the initial formality and start joking with each other like … well … family.

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Mom and Rick being Mom and Rick
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We’ll have a seriously epic Friend Ceremony and Celebration in 2019. A goal for our Friends Ceremony will be to lock in an intimate group of friends into our family and co-cement a life together.

2) At the ceremony, we did all the talking.

For the formal programming, we did something unusual and grabbed the mic for a full hour rather than handing it over to a officiant. We were a little worried our families wouldn’t be able to sit patiently for an hour (and so were they!) but it turned out this concern was misplaced — our families are actually pretty interested in what we have to say about our relationship.

What did we cover? First, we shared the story of our relationship — how a job interview became a deep friendship and then evolved into something romantic 1.5 years later. Not everyone in our families knew the finer details here.

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Kristen’s 1st question to Phil

Next, we shared thoughts on our relationship philosophy and lessons learned so far. This turned into a debate with the audience, who had far more experience in relationships (Phil’s Uncle Bobby asked “what are your KPIs for success??” which is a question we didn’t even plant!) We talked transparently about hopes and fears for the future — the possibility for children and buying a communal property for our friends. We opened the floor for questions.

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Our view on kids (ice, ice baby for now…)

3) We committed to principles not vows.

Vows tend to be a one-way street — you vow to do something for the other person. These are helpful but lack an element of co-creation. If the whole is really greater than the sum of it’s parts, we need to address how we want to live life together and what type of life we’re committing to creating. We had six principles and we will revisit them every year. Some address the high level ‘what’ (e.g., help each other to step out of our comfort zone) and some address the ‘how’ of our relationship design (e.g., 3 month check ins). We ended by telling the other person what we admire about them.

OUR PRINCIPLES:

  • Mutually Assured Non Complacency: No sitting still. Push each other to keep moving.
  • Nourish Our People — Friends and Family: A relationship doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The health of the people around us is the health of our relationship.
  • Nourish Our Relationship: Never go a week without connection. Do a “PlayDay” (our version of a thoughtful check-in) every 3 months.
  • Be Individuals, Together: We will maintain our identities. We will create space. We will avoid getting in the way of the other’s risk taking
  • Value Experiences And People — Not Things: No hedonic treadmills
  • We Won’t Take Ourselves Too Seriously
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Sharing admirations for each other
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4) It was really fun (read: dunk tank).

Kristen’s twin sister Brittany (officiant) did an amazing job of adding fun and surprises to the ceremony. The main surprise was when she handed us swimsuits and pointed us in the direction of a dunk tank. Other surprises included life size cut outs and a sing-along rendition of Lean On Me.

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Getting booted into the dunk tank by Rick

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Bonus details for people who like details:

  • Dress code was non normative for weddings: Kristen wore a yellow dress because she wanted a yellow dress more than a white dress. Men weren’t allowed to wear ties and suit coats. These things don’t tend to be that comfortable in July in DC and we wanted people to be comfortable.
  • We didn’t do rings. Rings feel a bit too possessive for us. They are a wonderful ritual and can be very meaningful, but for us we don’t want the default to be signaling to the world we’re ‘taken’.
  • We’re are ditching the anniversary. Don’t make us start from 0! It’s amazing newly married couples are willing to just ditch all the progress they have made and revert to a new countdown timer. Did the pre-marriage time not matter??? Likewise, when people ask us how long we’ve been together, we’re including the last 3.6 years of commitment prior to July 13th, 2018. This public commitment and ceremony is a continuation of our love for each other vs. the start of it.
  • A game before the ceremony: The afternoon of the ceremony we did an interactive, playful activity — a GoGame Scavenger Hunt. This competitive but fun game was a perfect way to break the ice between families.
  • Venue was Phil’s parents’ house. Inviting people into your home is more intimate than an external venue.
  • We asked for help. Attendees were asked to document their relationship advice (written and video) so we can hold onto their words of wisdom.
  • Legally we didn’t get actually married. Economically it will not be smart for us to get legally married given loan and tax implications for at least the next year. We recommend most couples look into this prior to signing the marriage docs. We did sign a lender agreement with our banker (pictured below) to lock us in, at least financially!
  • Those little hot dogs were served. Those things are delicious, why do we only eat them at weddings?
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Signing a loan document
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Taking each other as “partners in crime”
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Ahhhhh!
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Classic posed picture
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Singing “lean on me”
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Our housemates from RGB delivered 3 pizzas in the middle of the ceremony with RGB spelled out
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RGB!!
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A successful rebrand
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OK, there was one friend. Kristen’s best friend Ali came to keep it real.
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Phil’s dad taking aim at the dunk tank
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Owning it

Written by

Thinking about Irrationality. Behavioral Scientist. Co-founder of Irrational Labs and Common Cents Lab.

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