How to Have a Secular Wedding When Your Family Is Religious

Bride and groom holding hands

Photo by Jenny Fu

Planning a secular wedding when your family is religious can bring up a lot of emotions: fear, frustration, and awkwardness to name a few. Maybe your family members already understand that your views differ from theirs, but perhaps they still expect you to have a religious wedding ceremony because they have a hard time picturing anything else. Or maybe they don’t know that your views have changed course, and you’re trying to decide if now is the time to have that difficult conversation.

First and foremost, if you think it is possible to have this conversation with family members before your wedding without ruining your relationships, I would encourage you to do so. If, however, you know this conversation would result in piles of rubble and sadness, now is probably not the time. Whichever route you take, here are five tips for planning a wedding that feels right to you while remaining respectful of your family’s belief system.

Have a Private Ceremony

LeiLani of Atlanta explains that her husband’s father is a leader in his church, and while they wanted him to officiate their ceremony, they preferred a secular ceremony. They elected to marry at San Francisco City Hall, where religious readings are not allowed due to it being an active government building. “San Francisco City Hall eliminated the problem without me having to do it,” LeiLani says. And so her relationship with her father-in-law was preserved. Darren and Lilly of Ohio are going the same route, choosing to marry at city hall with only a few witnesses present, and then having a reception the day after. This way, they will have a ceremony that feels true and meaningful to them without offending their families.

Choose a Meaningful Venue

Stacy of Texas experienced a lot of pressure from various sides of her family regarding which church and which pastor she and her husband would select for their wedding ceremony. In order to defuse the tension, they chose to marry in a beautiful theater. Erica Greenwold Reisen of Folie à Deux Events in North Carolina runs the site Secularly Wed, and she recommends, “Choose a ceremony venue that is not a church but has a deep meaning to you and your partner. This way, when a relative presses you to explain the choice, you can tell a moving story about how important it is for you to be married at this location.” In other words, if you are making choices that your religious family members won’t understand, be sure to have a meaningful explanation for your choices rather than just dissing theirs.

Meet the Expert

Wedding planner Erica Greenwold Reisen is the owner of Folie à Deux Events in North Carolina and runs Secularly Wed, a blog about non-religious wedding planning.

Choose an Experienced Officiant

Along the same lines, Greenwold Reisen points out that it can seem flippant to your family members if you select a friend to officiate. She recommends hiring an experienced officiant who “can help you create a ceremony that reflects your views and beliefs while also incorporating traditional elements to keep your parents and grandparents happy.” Personally, I asked an older cousin of mine to officiate; she is very involved in her church but was comfortable leading a secular ceremony. This kept the family intimately involved in the ceremony without forfeiting our belief system.

Make Space in the Day for Open Interpretation

During our wedding ceremony, we asked each set of our parents and grandparents to come up and give a short blessing. This meant we had a variety of interpretations, from Catholic to Jewish to agnostic. Every blessing felt good to us because each was reflective of the families we come from. Stacy of Texas and her husband guests to pray for them during their handfasting ceremony if they felt so inclined. While Stacy and her husband chose to stand silently, the guests were able to participate through quiet reflection on what was meaningful to them.

Communicate Clearly and Neutrally

There might come a moment when you need to clearly explain your plans to your family. Try to express yourself by making firm statements about your choices without remarking on your family’s belief system. Cindy, a wedding planner in Missouri, recommends framing it this way: “This is what we’re doing. Here’s how we’d like you to be involved. How would you like to be involved?” Cindy says opening the conversation this way is much better than “We want to do this; is that okay with you?” because you are not trying to have a debate.

Explain why your choices are meaningful to you, rather than why your family’s belief system is wrong or dumb, to keep the conversation focused.

Frank of North Carolina says, “I wrote a long letter to my Catholic parents explaining my reasoning [for my secular choices], and they both accepted it, even if it’s not what they would have chosen.”

You deserve to have a wedding ceremony that is meaningful to you. You also deserve a wedding that is a celebration rather than a catalyst for hurt feelings and damaged relationships. If you think talking to your family and/or finding some creative compromises is possible, by all means, do it! If not, consider having a private ceremony, or trust that your family will put their best foot forward on your wedding day and support you regardless of your differences.

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