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If there’s anything the pandemic has taught us, it’s that getting married can be a magical, love-filled affair no matter where it happens or how many people attend the celebration. And with the ideas of what constitutes a wedding changing more rapidly than ever, so too are the notions of what it means to elope.
“Eloping used to be scandalous, because it was done in secrecy, or maybe you didn’t have the buy-in from your families,” says celebrant Alisa Tongg. “But I don’t think it’s like that at all anymore.”
Meet the Expert
Alisa Tongg is a Pennsylvania-based non-denominational certified life-cycle celebrant. Her private elopement and marriage ceremony site in the Pocono Mountains is called Promise Ridge.
These days, an elopement is most commonly thought of as a very small wedding ceremony that takes place away from where you currently live or your hometown. From there, the rules are yours to break! To find out if this approach is right for you, read on for the pros and cons of eloping, frequently asked questions about eloping, and, perhaps most importantly, questions to ask yourselves before you decide to take the plunge.
How many guests can attend an elopement?
There’s no hard and fast rule here. While the more traditional understanding of an elopement is that it just includes the couple and an officiant, these days, couples are also involving their children, parents, and/or small numbers of close friends and family in their elopements.
Do I need an officiant?
It depends on where you wed. Some states, such as Colorado, California, and Pennsylvania, recognize self-uniting marriages. In these instances, you do not need an officiant to preside over your elopement to make it legally binding. Be sure to research the legal requirements of your destination ahead of time.
What about witnesses?
This also varies from place to place. North Carolina, for example, requires two witnesses to sign a marriage certificate, while Virginia requires no additional witnesses. This is also something you’ll want to research ahead of time to ensure your elopement is legally recognized.
Don’t worry if you won’t have guests in attendance—your photographer and other vendors can serve as witnesses to your union. Just be sure to confirm in advance that they’re willing to sign your marriage license.
We want to elope in another country. How do we ensure our ceremony is legally recognized?
Marrying somewhere other than where you have citizenship can be tricky, but it’s certainly not impossible. The easiest route may be to legally wed at home ahead of hopping on a plane and making your destination elopement more of a spiritual celebration than a legally binding one. You can also work with a resort or wedding planner in your destination country—they’ll help guide you through the legal requirements.
Should we write our own vows?
In private elopements, Tongg strongly encourages her couples to write their own vows. “You’re having a private, intimate, powerful moment—use the opportunity to say your own thing,” she says.
Can I still wear a wedding dress?
Absolutely! Wear whatever makes you feel the most comfortable, and makes the moment feel special. Whether that’s an ivory ball gown or jeans and a t-shirt is entirely up to you.
Is a courthouse wedding an elopement?
Sometimes referred to as a civil ceremony, a courthouse wedding most often involves a couple marrying at the same government building where they obtain their marriage license. If you would like to refer to this type of ceremony as an elopement, you absolutely can.
Questions to Ask Before Eloping
Do we want to marry quickly?
If you’re not interested in a long engagement, have decided to marry as a more spur-of-the-moment thing, or need to wed quickly for legal or insurance purposes, an elopement is any easy way to make things official right when you want to. Because elopements involve fewer people and less decor, they can come together much faster.
Where do we see ourselves getting married?
When you envision your wedding day, what’s the backdrop? Are you somewhere naturally stunning and secluded, such as a tropical beach or woodsy forest? Are you saying “I do” in the shadows of the Eiffel tower, or perhaps the ruins of an ancient castle? If traveling to somewhere far-flung is an integral part of your wedding vision, you may want to consider eloping. The more hard-to-reach a destination is, the more difficult it will be to convince a large group to come along for the ride.
Is there something else we’d rather spend our money on?
“People who elope today are mature and confident. They might already live together and have started to build a life together,” says Tongg. “They’re not going to be guilted into doing something just because everyone is expecting them to.” This means: If you’d rather save for a down payment on a home, pay off credit card debt, or use the cash it requires to pull off a reception on something else entirely, do it. A wedding isn’t required to have a successful marriage—but being on the same page about shared finances is.
How religious do we want our ceremony to be?
While you can absolutely still incorporate your religious beliefs into an elopement ceremony, it may be more difficult to find a religious officiant willing to perform a ceremony outside the bounds of their house of worship. If adhering strictly to tradition is important to you, know that may come with certain limitations and/or requirements that might make more sense in a more traditional wedding structure.
Will we regret our families not being there?
That certainly doesn’t have to be the case! There are many ways to involve your favorite people in your elopement, even if they won’t be attending IRL. “Loving parents will want to be a part of enhancing any plans that their kids have,” says Tongg. Her advice? Make your plans known, and see how those closest to you can participate in events leading up to the elopement, or help you make the day of feel even more meaningful. Maybe your mom goes dress shopping with you, or your father helps collect and share well-wishes from your family via a Zoom call after the ceremony.
“If you have a close-knit family, drama comes when these big personalities—mom, dad, grandparents, etc.—feel stifled, or that they cannot express what’s important,” Tongg adds. “So ask for help, and try not to keep [your elopement] a secret. That gives everyone an opportunity to figure out how to best show their love and support.”
How important is the party?
For some, the true appeal of a wedding is gathering all of their favorite people in one place. The opportunities for moments like these can be few and far between, especially if your friends and family are spread out across the globe. If the social aspects of a wedding are important to you, the smaller scale of an elopement may not deliver on the memories you’re hoping to make.
Pros and Cons of Eloping
PRO: You can be more spontaneous.
The fewer people involved in your marriage ceremony, the less adhering to a strict timeline really matters. At a recent Promise Ridge elopement on a misty afternoon, one of Tongg’s couples—already damp from exchanging vows outdoors—made an impromptu decision to take portraits in a nearby river. With just a dinner reservation that could be easily bumped back to get to, they were able to make more in-the-moment decisions about what would make their marriage ceremony feel the most special.
CON: Eloping can further strain already fraught relationships.
“If someone doesn’t have good relationships with their family, eloping is not going to help those relationships get better,” Tongg says. While you’re by no means required to use your wedding as an olive branch, discluding those you’re already on rocky ground with may further solidify the impression that you don’t want them in your life. If that’s not the case, be sure to explain the matter upfront.
PRO: The pressure to perform is off.
“I think a lot of people dread the idea of people watching them,” says Tongg. “If you’re already not attracted to that, why would you want to spend tens of thousands of dollars on that?” With an elopement, the only eyes on you in what can be an extremely vulnerable moment will be those of your beloved. Without external pressure to behave a certain way, you’ll be free to act in and experience the ceremony as your true self.
CON: Hiring great vendors is even more crucial.
“Having a good quality photographer and, if you can afford it, a videographer is really important,” Tongg says. Especially because, if no guests will be attending your wedding, the inclination to share it after the fact may be stronger than usual. And, without errant cell phone photos and video from attendees to fall back on, your vendor’s work will be your only souvenirs from the day—so you’ll want to be doubly sure they’re trustworthy and talented.
PRO: You'll have more freedom.
Because you’re not spending on a reception, your ceremony can take place at a truly bucket list destination. And because fewer people will be involved in the day, you’ll have fewer expectations to feel the need to live up to. That means you can bend and shape traditions entirely as you see fit without worrying what anyone else will think of them.
CON: You won’t receive as many gifts.
While those closest to you may still choose to send money or gifts to celebrate your elopement, it’s definitely not an expectation. And, unless you’re planning to host a post-elopement celebration, it’s not appropriate to share a registry alongside the news of your marriage.